Graduation reflection

Tracy Niven
Friday 19 June 2020

Good morning,

What kind of diary do you have?  Is it on paper?  Then you have items scored out, a daily reminder of what was meant to be and has now been cancelled or postponed tbc – to be confirmed, or perhaps tentatively beyond coronavirus.   But if your diary is electronic then most cancellations simply disappear, as if the events never existed even in prospect.  I have a diary like that, only it’s called a Calendar, and comes with the job.  Next Monday 22 June at 1 pm, there’s nothing there,  just a white space.  And at 2 pm, there’s nothing there, another white space.  But even though they’ve gone, I remember what used to be there.  At 1 pm, Graduation Thanksgiving Service, St Salvator’s Chapel.  At 2 pm, Graduation Ceremony A, Younger Hall, with students graduating with degrees in Science and Arts, and particularly in Philosophy, Social Anthropology, Film Studies, Physics and Astronomy.

I’d have begun the ceremony with a housekeeping announcement, detailing who would preside, introducing St Salvator’s Choir who would lead us in singing the Gaudeamus, inviting George to come on to the stage to take a photograph and inevitably (and unaccountably) get a laugh from the audience; I’d conclude by hoping that everyone present would enjoy the ceremony.  Then, following the academic procession, I’d pray in Latin, Oremus.

Omnipotens et aeterne Deus
Actiones nostras omnes aspirando praeveni
et adiuvando prosequere;
Ut cuncta nostra operatio,
Et praesertim hoc quod nunc agredimur opus,
A te incipiat
Et per te coeptum finiatur;
Quatenus sanctum nomen tuum glorificemus,
Et misericordia tua vitam aeternam
Per Jesus Christum Dominum nostrum.

(Although I know roughly what it means, last year’s graduation programmes with the approved English translation are, alas, all in my office and inaccessible.)

About 200 graduands would cross the stage, be tapped on the head with the graduation cap, receive their hoods and return to their place.  600 or so supporters would look on with pride.  The Principal would speak, the Chapel Choir would sing, an honorary degree would be given and an academic would make a witty but profound graduation address.  I’d offer a benediction:

Gratia Domini nostri Jesu Christi
Et caritas Dei
Et communicatio Spiritus Sancti
Sit cum omnibus nobis
In saecula saeculorum

(My Latin just about stretches this far:

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
And the love of God,
And the communion of the Holy Spirit
Be with us all,
Unto the ages of ages,

We’d then process out of the Younger Hall to organ music, follow the Chancellor’s Piper along North Street, turning under the tower, many graduates triumphantly treading on the PH initials of Patrick Hamilton, no need to fear any more a jinx on their studies.   Then, in St Salvator’s Quad we’d wind round and round the lawn in ever decreasing circles until all the graduates are on the grass.  Then reunions with families and friends, flowers, pictures, garden parties, dinners, and a ball.

That was all hiding behind the words, now erased, from my diary.

I was in the Quad earlier this week, filming those Latin prayers for online degree conferment videos which will be released during the week beginning Monday 27 July, and took this picture of the empty lawn, with the almost audible shrieks of the newly graduated just out of earshot:

There are losses in this pandemic which may not be of life or limb but which are significant.  And it can be good to name them, to lament them, and to long for the return of events, gatherings and rites of passage which give meaning to our human society.  We are social animals.  The essence of graduation is in touch.  Being shoulder to shoulder with fellow-graduands, walking in pairs in procession, John Arbuthnott’s breeks touching one’s head or shoulder, embracing family, friends and, with a touch of wariness perhaps, that slightly feared professor, and dancing together at the ball.

I know that many if not most people due to graduate from Monday to Friday next week hope to come to a week of 2020 graduations between 28 June and 2 July 2021.  My colleagues and I will endeavour to treat the 18th ceremony that fortnight with the same enthusiasm with which we greeted the first.  After all, there will be something particularly joyful about the delayed delight of this year’s graduands.  I look forward to sitting with you on this very bench perhaps, on your day of joy.

For the University, it is graduation which is a particular loss.  In this and other communities other things have also been missed deeply – cup finals and summer festivals, birthdays and holidays.  With all due respect to Microsoft, a Teams meeting cannot truly replicate any of these.

And yet we have learned to live without them.  I read a sentence today which the author called a platitude but which I think is a little more challenging than that: Luggage is for the journey, not the journey for the luggage.  Perhaps some of the luggage we’ve had to leave behind this year was on the heavy side.  Perhaps some of it needn’t be picked up at the carousel.  Of course I look forward to graduations returning.  But this time has taught us the difference between what we need and what we want.  And in the words of the immortal Mick Jagger, You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you get what you need…

This is the final Companionship email/blogpost which I shall write for a while.  I will be taking a period of eight weeks leave from tomorrow 20 June until 16 August.  This is a long-planned period using annual leave, following nine years as Chaplain.  I hope to spend the time resting and reading, to help prepare for uncertain times in the University and society.  I may spend some time away from St Andrews, but who can predict that with any confidence?  So if you are in St Andrews, I may continue to see you on walks and in Morrisons.

I want you to be aware that while I am off duty, the Chaplaincy remains available to support any member of staff or student, regardless of faith, culture, tradition or philosophy of life, throughout the summer vacation.  Staff members and students can talk in confidence to Chaplains from across the Chaplaincy team via Teams, facetime and phone calls, or by email – whatever the issue.  All are welcome to email the Chaplaincy at or call 01334 462866.  Further details at  The Assistant Chaplain, Revd Samantha Ferguson, will be taking the lead in the Chaplaincy supporting colleagues and students.  Her email address is

I have really enjoyed reflecting on this time of isolation and companionship in words, images and music over these past three months – the first was on 15 March.  I know from your responses that many have appreciated the contributions which other chaplains and I have made.  There will still be Companionship emails/blogposts from Sam and perhaps honorary chaplains too over the summer, and we plan to continue occasionally beyond the summer.  Perhaps a community of companionship is part of the luggage we need for the journey.  Here are some parting words for the journey, from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds:

I believe in Love
And I know that you do too
And I believe in some kind of path
That we can walk down, me and you… 

Have a good summer, whatever is and is not in the diary.  And I look forward to renewing our companionship in August.


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