FOR those of us in schools and colleges, this is a season of shadowed and ambivalent farewell. Graduations are always both joyful and elegiac occasions: a celebration of success, but the end of an intense period of life which will never be recaptured or replaced, and, for teachers and chaplains, a farewell to students whose lives we may have touched or changed, and who have moved and changed us in return
But, if that is true in any year, how much more so for graduations in absentia, for online partings, when the farewells, which should have been a last clasp before distance intervened, must now take place when distance has already devoured so much. I feel it all the more acutely, as I myself am moving on from Girton. Even as I plan an online graduation service, my head of house is emailing me with arrangements for my own virtual send-off.
It has been my custom each year, on the day when my students graduate, to invite them and their supporters into chapel, where, amid the crowded pews and the augmented choir in full dress, they would hear anthems and poems on fruitfulness and fulfilment, culminating in a reading from Deuteronomy about bringing to the Lord a basket of the first fruits of the promised land.
Then, I would take a basket up to the altar — filled, not with the fruits of the soil, but the fruits, the signs, and the symbols of their three-year cultivation of mind and imagination, and of their social life together: a book, a pen, a tablet, a smartphone, a coffee mug for the all-night essay companionship, a wine glass for the post-essay celebration, a bicycle pump for the long rides out and back to college, and a flower from the gardens for their times of ease, their little intervals of Arcadian bliss. Placing the basket on the altar, I would give thanks for all that it represented, and offer all that richness back to God.
This year, I came into the chapel alone, with just one other to film me, bearing that same basketful to the altar, but adding one more item: a printed Zoom screenshot, with its gallery of faces, each leaning out from their isolation, leaning in towards a longed-for closeness never quite realised. When I held that last item up and placed it on the altar, I let it stand for the whole strange experience of their final term and mine.
As I did so, and prayed for them in that empty chapel, I found myself recalling some lines that I had written years before about the old communion table in St Edward’s, Cambridge, and all the crises it had witnessed, all the prayer that had been poured out there:
The centuries have settled on this table,
Deepened the grain beneath a clean white cloth
Which bears afresh our changing elements.
Year after year of prayer, in hope and trouble,
Were poured out here and blessed and broken, both
In aching absence and in absent presence.
That recollection led me to say a final prayer not just for my students, but for all of us, all for whom this long crisis has been balanced between aching absence and a sense, nevertheless, of absent presence. And now I pray that, as life gradually opens up for us, these unbearable gaps will begin to close.