In my second year as a Jesuit, I was sent to work with a group of students at McQuaid Jesuit High School in Rochester, NY. 1 It wasn’t the assignment I was expecting. I had tried to plot my way into an assignment where I might work with theater students, live near friends along I-95, and escape the Upstate NY winter. I was sent to McQuaid because I had a history of tutoring. They needed a tutor.
Disappointed that my plots hadn’t worked out, I decided to suck it up and do my best. Seventh grade homework help is no one’s dream job, but it would be over soon enough. I dove headfirst into algebra homework, vocabulary tests, and almost-due assignments.
I also spent months laughing. I mostly remember the laughter. We laughed about the nicknames seventh graders make up for each other. We laughed about the way they would try to trick me to avoid homework. We laughed about the mnemonic devices we’d devise to memorize vocab words.
And then, very abruptly, I had to leave. I was needed back at the novitiate so we could begin our summer schedule. The school year wasn’t finished and exams loomed on the horizon, but my superior called me home and I had to say goodbye to the algebra and the vocabulary and the laughter.
I was distraught.
The students had come to rely on me and I had come to rely on them. What would my life look like without them? What would theirs look like without me?
My departure took place during the Rochester Lilac Festival as the city burst with flowers and fragrance and visitors. The small flowers bloom in clusters of white and rose and lilac, natch. They smell like my elegant grandmother’s perfume. Overwhelming in abundance, they also reward getting up close and inhaling with one’s nose and eyes. After school most days, I would ride my bike to the gardens and bathe in the flora. I moped and cried as I wound through the radiant flowers.
A few weeks later, I made my Vow Retreat in Guelph, Ontario, a sort of final confirmation that I wanted to profess vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as a Jesuit. Despite the gravity of the discernment, my heart remained in Rochester. I yearned to be back with the students and our jokes and routines and even the tedious vocabulary tests. I couldn’t pray through the grief. Three days in, I stumbled into a new part of the grounds.
Again I soaked in the flora.
Again I relived the joyous times with the students.
Again I mourned the fact that our experience had been cut abruptly short.
The lilacs finally brought me back to prayer. Jesus told me that my experience with those amazing students was like those lilacs. While in bloom lilacs are glorious and colorful and fill the air with sweetness. But lilacs fade, quickly. Most lilacs reach their glory for only two weeks. After that, we wait fifty more weeks for them to reemerge.
Lilac experiences punctuate my Jesuit life: a run of strikes at the bowling alley with my friends at L’Arche Syracuse; an original performance coming together at Teatro La Fragua in Honduras; a college retreat with a group of beloved students at Loyola University Chicago. I savor these moments when everything converges in a wondrous harmony. I have seen God’s glory come alive.
And then it ends. Sometimes much sooner than I’d hoped.
I think of those flowers when I reflect on the many people whose lives were crescendoing into lilac moments when care for our fellow humanity abruptly cut off those experiences. Senior years of college and high school are ending with a whimper and a Zoom graduation. High holy days were celebrated without the ritual that sustains us. Weddings have been postponed and dramatically changed.
So many things that I thought were stable were actually ephemeral. Like lilacs, they faded before their beauty had satiated me. It has been destabilizing, and often so sad.
Amidst the sadness, I remember Jesus approaching me in the lilac patches in Guelph. He held me in my sadness, mourning the time I wouldn’t spend with my students: solving for x and memorizing definitions. He promised me, though, that such relationships would bloom again just like those lilacs. He makes that promise to each of us right now as our own lilac patches have wilted too suddenly.
So consider those lilacs, and trust that though they neither sow nor reap, God brings them into glorious bloom every year. We don’t know how, but our own glorious blooms will blossom again.
Photos courtesy of the author.