Sr. Simone Campbell’s Commencement Address May 2013

Holy Doubt

What an honor to be here. I love the color demonstrated in the faculty and the trustees’ gowns, and I love the bright eyes and enthusiasm of the graduating class. I also love the joy and the enthusiasm of all of you here. That reading we just heard from Matthew, I think it’s really fitting because, look at this: “The apostles were gathered together, and they went to the place Jesus had directed.” Now, for many of us, people of faith, isn’t that just what we have done? We have gone to the place where we’ve been directed. You have been led to be faculty and trustees. You have been led to be students and to be ready to take the next step. And, as I read this very last part of Matthew’s Gospel, when you get to the part about “Go, therefore,” I always think of the trumpets and the sound, the music and all the drama of being missioned.

But for the first time, as I was reflecting on this scripture I noticed something I had never noticed before, and that was, “But some doubted.” And I realized that Jesus sends all of them. He didn’t just say, “The ones of you that have really got it certain.” He sent the doubters as well. And that led me to think that when you look at holy faith, this holy commitment, this sense of Christ alive in our midst, the other side of that very same truth is holy doubt. And I would like to spend a little time reflecting on holy doubt because, I think, for you as you go to ministry, for faculty as you continue to engage students, holy doubt is probably a treasured, important virtue that we often want to glide over.

Because holy doubt, I think, leads to the shared virtue of deep need. I know, myself, when I’m in doubt, when I have those moments of anxiety and I’m thinking, “You’ve got to be nuts, you know, you’ve just got to be nuts” – the fact is, it drives me to reach out to others. And as I reflected on this scripture, I began to think that the virtue of holy doubt is really the doorway to community. It’s the doorway that leads me to connect with others. It’s the doorway that impels me out of my pretty self-satisfied mountaintop to connect with those around. And, I believe, that it’s Jesus who commands us to use our moment of holy doubt, our virtue of deep need. It’s that that creates the baptism, the engagement, the knowledge of the Trinitarian God who loves us beyond all imagining.

And, Walter Brueggemann refers to it as: “That what we are called to do is to touch the pain of the world as real.” I just call it, “Letting our hearts be broken open.” And so I wanted to share with you some of the nourishment that I found for my holy doubt.

Last summer in Toledo, I met these two ten-year-old identical twins, Matt and Mark. They were the cutest little kids you could ever imagine. And they were at the Padua Center in Toledo. And you know how sometimes twins divide up responsibility? Well, they had clearly divided up responsibility. Matt was a quivering bundle of every emotion. I thought if I looked at him cross-eyed, he was going to burst into tears. And his twin brother Mark moved through the world with a certainty. And when I was introduced to Mark, he stuck his hand out, and I shook the hand of this ten-year-old boy. And then I found out from Sister Virginia that the two of them had been suspended from school for fighting. But, what happened was that someone was picking on Matt so Mark slugged him. He was going to take care of business and take care of his brother. And then, the kid slugged Mark back, and to everyone’s surprise, Matt slugged the kid. But because of that they all got suspended, and they got into Sister Virginia’s program for suspended kids at the Padua Center. And then, Sister Virginia asked Mark if he wanted to show me their clubhouse where they met. And it’s in a 120-year-old rectory, up on the third floor, and luckily, I ride a bike in D. C. so I could keep up with Mark as he raced up the stairs. And, he showed me the classroom, and he pointed out the computers, but he said he couldn’t turn them on because Mr. T. wasn’t there. And I thought for a ten-year-old, that’s a lot of discipline.

And then he showed me his papers and Matt’s papers and the other kids’ papers, and then he asked me, “Do you want to see something pretty?” A ten-year-old, asked me if I wanted to see something pretty. Well, of course, I was curious. So I said, “Of course. Yes, I’d love to.” He walks over, throws open a door, flips on the light, and it was a newly refurbished bathroom. And Mark said to me, “Isn’t it beautiful?” And what it was were these white tiles with a blue pattern. And the blue fern pattern on the tile, and the light played off of it. And then Mark says to me, “You can touch them if you want.” And as he reached out with his finger and ran his finger over the tile, I thought, “For a ten-year-old who had gotten into trouble for fighting, who then the Sisters discovered was the sole caretaker of his bedridden mom who had MS and diabetes out of control, who these two kids were the only ones who cared for her, who cooked for her with microwave and tried to balance out her food—to have a ten-year-old in such stressful circumstances be able to see beauty. That nourishes my faith on the days when I think, “Oh, I just can’t keep doing this.” Matt and Mark were a holy gift to me. Out of my need to see something beautiful, I was shown it by them.

And then in Milwaukee, I met Billy and his family. Billy works for a company and his hours got cut back in the recession, and Billy and his wife are both working, but they’re only making enough money to put a roof over their kids’ heads and not food on the table. So, they use Food Stamps to pay for their food every day. And they come to St. Benedict the Moor dining room to eat in the evening. Billy said that his dream, his dream was to be able to buy his kids some brand new school clothes when they started school in September, but he’s never been able to do that. Hand-me-downs were the best they could do. And then, I looked over and saw his son, a 14-year-old gangly kid who was eyeing his dad’s roll on his plate. His eyes were boring holes into this roll. He clearly had had a growth spurt and needed a lot of food. And so, Billy finally says, “Okay, you can have it,” and the kid pounces on it.

But I thought, what Eucharist for Billy as a parent. While he couldn’t buy clothes that he wanted, he could provide food in creative ways. And then I thought, some people want to say that’s a handout to Billy, but what I realized was, Billy’s a working man. The reason he’s there is he’s making minimum wage, and minimum wage is not sufficient to both feed his family and keep a roof over their heads. And so, I realized the Food Stamps—and St. Benedict the Moor dining room—are also a handout to the employer. And then I realized it’s also a gift to the consumer, because we as a nation have made choices to keep prices lower and wages low, and our people are struggling. Billy’s need made me keenly aware that we are in this together. We cannot say we are separate from each other. We cannot claim that this is for them, and it has no impact on me.

Holy doubt leads us to know our integration as a society, and Jesus sends us to know that yes, indeed, we are baptized into this unity of oneness. This unity of oneness helps us know that we are never alone. “I am with you all days.” It is to touch the pain of the world, it releases my doubt. To touch the pain of the world allows me to journey with others whom I would never have known otherwise. To touch the pain of the world releases hope into the darkness. And so, Jesus says, “Do all that I commanded you.” Do it all, all of it. Hug the leper. Weep with the woman who bleeds. Stop them from stoning a few people. Do it all. It is doing this together, to be at the margins, is what you are called to be. It’s doing it together, knowing that holy doubt is the doorway to my connection to you. And your holy faith meets my holy doubt, and it becomes like this massive jigsaw puzzle, and this glorious vision of being together.

And so, graduates, embrace your doubt. Delight in the darkness. Know that in the intimacy of wondering, “How in God’s green earth did I ever get into this?” it is just there that the doorways open, that we make connections, that we know the deeper truth, that we, indeed, are not orphaned, and that our world is desperately hungry for what you bring.

And to end this, I would like to share with you a poem that I wrote on the last night that I was in Baghdad a few years ago before we invaded. And I have to tell you the scene because it’s about holy doubt and holy faith. And we stood outside of our hotel, there was light coming from a plate-glass window, and there was a wedding party taking place on the sidewalk. And 11 of us on this journey quite like the Gospel we were reading. We were just standing there on the edge of the wedding party, watching, and they were dancing. And they had this old screechy violin and old accordion making music. What a combination. What they did was, they drew us in to dance in the wedding party. And I was feeling so honored. I’m a poet, not a dancer, so I was trying really hard. And while we were trying to do these folk dances, this man leaned over to me and said, “How long do my niece and her new husband have to live in peace? How long until you start bombing us?” What do you say? I didn’t know. But what I knew is, in that wedding feast we were connected. In that wedding feast we were one body. And this is the poem that was given that night, and this is the poem about where you are going, what you are about to do. It’s the poem of all of us being sent, and it’s called Incarnation. It goes like this.


Let gratitude be the beat of our heart,

pounding Baghdad rhythms, circulating

memories, meaning of the journey.

Let resolve flow in our veins,

fueled by Basra’s destitution, risking

reflective action in a fifteen-second world.

Let compassion be our hands,

reaching to be with each other, all others

to touch, hold heal this fractured world.

Let wisdom be our feet,

bringing us to the crying need

to friends or foe to share this body’s blood.

Let love be our eyes,

that we might see the beauty, see the dream

lurking in the shadows of despair and dread.

Let community be our body warmth,

radiating Arab energy to welcome in the foreign

stranger—even the ones who wage this war.

Let us remember on drear distant days,

we are a promised Christmas joy

we live as one this tragic gifted life—

We are the Body of God!

Thank you so much.