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Make a joyful sound

DECLAN O’KEEFFE :: Below is a reflection that I delivered at Morning Prayer in Clongowes last week.

When I first agreed to do this Morning Prayer I had intended to talk about mindfulness and living in the ‘now’, but when I finally sat down to write something all I could think about was speed and deadlines – partly in my own life and partly around me. In 2012 I returned to Clongowes following a one-year career break, which gradually became two, three and finally four – and how those years flew. Then I came back to a new job, hit the ground sprinting and haven’t really let up since, with deadline pursuing deadline at dizzying pace. It was ever thus. Our lives rip by and – if we’re not careful – we can miss a lot of what’s important.

The gentlemen to my left, the Rhetoric (6th Year) class of 2019, have been occupying their lofty perch for nearly nine months now and suddenly have only ten days to go before they graduate and become Old Clongownians for good or ill. I’ll bet it hasn’t seemed like nine months. Things never do. When they arrived in their first year it would have seemed like forever to when they would be undertaking their last lap, and yet – here they are coming off the last bend, with the finishing straight in sight.

Last September one of their number told me that it was the first in a series of ‘lasts’ for them – their ‘last’ September Break. He told me that, perhaps for the first time in their six years, they were keenly aware of the passing of the academic year: their last Hallowe’en Break, Christmas Concert, Cup Campaigns, Sports Day, Union Day and then – finally – their last time to travel down the main avenue and through the gates, which they had entered as first years only a short time before.

The great gift

Time is the great gift; none of us knows for sure how big our portion is, which makes it all the more important to use it while it is still ours. The ability to be aware of the passing moments as they pass, as opposed to bemoaning their passing in hindsight is a great gift. The Prayer of St Ignatius, which we rattle off regularly (and perhaps mindlessly) has always intrigued me with its talk of generosity and giving. Some parts are easy to understand. ‘To give and not to count the cost’ can be easily done by generous donations of money to charity, or by giving our time to voluntary organisations or friends or family. Any of you who has played rugby will have learned the value of team spirit and know what it means to ‘fight and not to heed the wounds’ as well as to ‘toil and not to seek for rest’ as you don’t want to let yourselves or the side down.

It’s the last bit that used to get me: ‘to labour and not to seek reward’. As a life-long trade unionist I should find that hard to get my head around. Yet it’s actually the easiest thing in the world. We do it every time we hold a door open for someone, or pick up a piece of litter when no one is around to see us do it. Or when we just smile and say ‘hello’ to someone as we pass in the corridor.

American songwriter Jackson Browne wrote his song, ‘For A Dancer’ to mourn the death of a friend. It is mournful, joyful and philosophical, especially when he writes:

Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down
Perhaps a better world is drawing near
Just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
(The world keeps turning around and around)
Go on and make a joyful sound

Be extraordinary

If your time in Clongowes is to be worth anything (and it is worth much) it should be reflected in your lives here and hereafter. There used to be a poster here in the concourse that urged you to ‘go forth and set the world on fire’, which is a grand ambition. Personally I have always settled for just being extraordinary – and I commend it to you as well. Each of you – each of us – is already extraordinary.

During your time here you are continually given opportunities to make your mark. They are not always the obvious openings such as a starring role in a play, on a cup team or in debate. But they are there. Don’t be afraid of them. Don’t be afraid to make your mark. Step up to the mark. Give it socks.

I used to be too shy to do many things for fear that people would look at me, but my mother always told me that when they were finished looking at me they would find something else to look at. She was right; people will always look at you. The trick is to give them something worth seeing.

So, don’t let the uncertainty turn you around. Go on and make a joyful sound. Make lots of them.