Lexington, Virginia • June 3, 2009
Washington and Lee University’s graduating seniors should set their sights higher than simply “the profits and the raises and the paid vacations,” urged the Rev. Jennifer R. Strawbridge in her baccalaureate address on Wednesday, June 3.
Strawbridge, a 2001 W&L graduate who majored in religion and physics, is the associate rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Va. She made her remarks on the Front Lawn, where the university will hold its 222nd commencement exercises on Thursday, June 4.
• Text of Baccalaureate Address
Referring to a poem by Wendell Berry and citing the “fast-paced, fast-return” culture in which the students live, Strawbridge recommended planting sequoias, which may take hundreds and hundreds of years to grow to their full size. “Planting sequoias is a crazy suggestion,” she acknowledged. “We will never see them in their full grandeur. We have no idea how they will turn out; if they will make it; if they will be one of the giants. Planting sequoias asks us to think big and way outside our limited selves.”
Moreover, Strawbridge asked the graduates to consider people who had planted sequoias in their lives through lessons taught and skills cultivated that will bear fruit many years into the future. She said that the students had a duty to invest in the millennium.
Secondly, Strawbridge recommended that the students emulate the fox, who outmaneuvers bigger and faster predators and prey. “It may not always make sense at the time, but sometimes going backwards, making more tracks than necessary, has its own purpose,” she said. “Those seemingly backwards steps are, in the end, things that can most define who we are. And those seemingly backwards steps are the things, the setbacks and the intentional choices, that can make us secure in our ability to survive. We really don’t know our strengths until we face adversity, until we are challenged in what direction to go, until we can no longer leave all our options open.”
Finally, Strawbridge urged the graduates to “practice resurrection” by, among other things, opening their hearts to the pain of the world, bringing “those who are suffering back into the land of living” and cultivating relationships.
“We practice resurrection through our gratitude, when we don’t take everything for granted. We practice resurrection when we welcome guests and foreign ideas with graciousness,” Strawbridge said. “Your work for justice, freedom, equality and peace sets the stage for resurrection. When you feed the hungry and stand up for the oppressed, you practice resurrection. Every time you bring to life another’s sense of wonder and imagination, you practice resurrection.”
The graduates’ task, Strawbridge said, “is to follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before and to think not only of yourselves but those who will come after you, those whom you may never meet or know.”
Washington and Lee’s baccalaureate service arises from the university’s religious traditions, and the roots of the ceremony go back to the 18th century. The service is held each year on the day before the commencement exercises.