Le Fer Hall

Ring Day Reflection: Elaine Yaw ’95

Blog | 09.17.2020

Elaine Yaw ’95, associate professor of media art, spoke to Ring recipients on Sept. 12, 2020, during the Ring Day Ceremony in the Sunken Garden.

As I previewed the readings for today’s celebration, some words and phrases jumped out at me. From the journals of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin: Sublime. Still in the midst of the forest. All is being done little by little. We shall have to suffer much.

And from the scriptures: Rooted. Gentleness. Anxious. Virtue.

Now, I’m much more savvy and comfortable in the realm of discussing the journals of our foundress than I am in interpreting scripture. So, to build up my confidence, I did some Googling.

I wanted an overview of Ephesians. I found summaries along the lines of “deals with topics at the very core of what it means to be Christian.” OK. Right, probably should have known that already.

Elaine Yaw speaking
Elaine Yaw ’95, associate professor of media art, speaks to Ring recipients on Sept. 12, 2020, in the Sunken Garden outside of Le Fer Hall.

When I searched for Phillippians with more specificity, adding 4:4-9, I learned the three Christian qualities of joy, gentleness and peace are not natural qualities and require hard work in faith AND relationship with God…

Note: this is NOT scholarly in the least, and that was NOT on the application as a requirement to be the speaker today. Thought I better say that.)

Note number 2: I teach art, not religion or theology.

Back to my search: Joy, gentleness and peace are qualities that result in trust. I wondered, “trust in what?” In humanity? In the common good? Do these qualities exist only through seeking God?

For me, no. Confession: All of this can seem a bit “God-y” – not like gaudy as in showy, bright or tacky. I mean, God-centered, Christ-centered. Warning – I’m about to come out, and this may shock some of you.

I am a none.

Not a nun, like a sister or woman religious – though I did get to dress up like one of the 1840 sister companions of SMTG as a model for the mural at the Vigo County courthouse.

I mean none – N-O-N-E – as in having no religious affiliation. I believe in God, mostly. I definitely believe in something, I just don’t have a religion… And, according to a 2018 report by the Pew Research Center, I’m part of a growing share of Americans who identify as nones, which grew from 16 percent of the U.S. population to 23 percent.

Why am I telling you this? Well, the theme of this event is No Place Like the Woods. So, subtle jokes about being a nun – whether N-U-N or N-O-N-E – or a story about getting to model as a nun – wouldn’t be as funny or relevant in another place.

Kind of like if I said: There’s no other place where at an event someone might shout out “is there a Madrigal in the house” with as much urgency as “is there a doctor in the house” … if the dilemma is singing the ring song at a reception.

I’m also using this unconventional approach as a framework for what is special, to me, about the SMWC community – the college, this shared space and our shared campus with the Sisters of Providence.

One of my top five items about there’s no place like the Woods is the very reason I came out to you today as a “none” – the spirit of inclusivity embodied by this community. I mean, it’s a Catholic college, and no one has tried to convert me … yet. And, I’ve been hanging around these parts since 1991 when I started my undergrad. I haven’t been a closet “none” that whole time. I searched. I tried out a few churches. Just because I’m a none does not mean I’m not spiritual. Just ask anyone – I love to talk about spirituality.

And, this takes me to reason number two that I love this place: The general studies – you know those courses that have nothing to do with your major but you still have to take. Anyway, the general studies at SMWC are rooted in four values: spirituality, sustainability, social justice and gender equality. So right there, I’ve already filled up my Top 5 list. What other place is doing that – selecting spirituality as a core value and connecting curriculum to it? College students are asking these questions: Who am I? What do I want? What is my purpose? or what is the meaning of life? And these do not require a religion to begin the path to seeking truth or meaning. They require being part of something bigger than ourselves, doing some introspection and evolving. And, The Woods is a leader in that realm. It is a place that stays true to its roots and values, while also not being afraid to evolve to meet the needs of those seeking an education along with their spiritual path. SMWC values diversity and inclusion, no matter what is happening elsewhere in the world.

Now, I am working toward some kind of advice – I mean, that seems like the thing to do in a talk like this, though you may not want my advice after how it’s going so far.

Let me get back to those words and phrases from the readings.

From the first reading: Sublime – “it is truly sublime to be devoted to the service.” Sublime – pick a definition that speaks to you – exalted in thought, expression or manner; of outstanding spiritual, intellectual or moral worth; tending to inspire great admiration or awe.

I speak of the sublime often in my art appreciation class in terms of how some art wows us or can also make us feel small. I always envision Monk by the Sea by Caspar David Friedrich, a lone figure standing on a beach as a storm approaches. It’s misty. It’s lonely. It is beautiful. But, let’s be real, some art confuses us or elicits a not-so-good feeling. If you want to work through that, take my class, it’s offered every semester!

Sublime can be something that elevates us. And the quote, after all, mentions service. I’m having to grow my list of top things that make this place like no other because the spirit of service of SMWC must be on the list. We can be sublime through our devotion to service to others.

Still in the midst of the forest. Do you feel like this speech is still in the midst of the forest? Well, hold on. Here’s how I’m going to use this: Ring recipients – yes, you. Here you are, at this milestone, getting that hunk of onyx you’ve been drooling over for years. There it will be, on your finger. Next goal, graduation. And then all will be well, everything will come together once and for all, except there are many bumps in the road, there are curves not on the map and much more. And yes, you will be back in the middle of the forest. Lost. Then what?

Well, I also noted the phrase “all is being done little by little.” And, that “we shall have to suffer much.” I hope you didn’t think it was just those actual nuns in 1840 who had to get it done one piece at a time, little by little, while suffering! We all have to make progress, little by little. And, we all suffer in numerous ways. We need some kind of practice – even a spiritual practice – to lift us up, to get us back on track. Better to start your practice now because it’s impossible to start it when you are in the middle of the forest. To summarize life, and to basically quote the Buddha: Life is suffering. You can count on the bottom falling out of your plans at least once. So remember your time here. Remember what makes this place like no other. Hopefully we have some similar items on our lists. Get to work. Celebrate the ups, but prepare for the downs. Knowing the history and grit of this place will guide you through anything. Lean on Providence with all of your weight and all of your worry, and you will be well supported.

Think about it. Is it coincidence that the word rooted popped out to me from the scripture? Or is it Providence! Roots, as President King said, they support you. They also sustain you – food, water, and nutrients for the soul.
Suck it up, so to speak.

Gentleness. Have some toward yourself, and toward others. Compassion. Genuine gentleness. I probably should have mentioned the importance of being genuine all along. Be real. Mean it. Don’t just go through the motions of spirituality and service. The magic of this place isn’t going to help if you are not genuine and real. You may be rolling your eyes at my whole thing about spirituality. But I mean it. This place is unique because we really do look at the whole person – the whole student – the whole employee. We encourage self-care and spiritual practice no matter who or what you are. We’ve listened to those who came before. We know the path can be lovely, but it can also be dark and deep.

Anxious. This is a big one. I mean, who isn’t anxious? We are in the middle of a pandemic. Every news headline seems to be about tension on top of tension. Layer on top of that what we are trying to do in our pursuit of education, in our jobs, on our teams. It’s a lot. But again, there is strength in our community, in our past, present and future. At Foundation Day last October President King shared readings from other parts of Mother Theodore’s journal: one quote was about loving those whose inclinations oppose ours. Not an easy task! But also not impossible. Another quote was to find hope in despair and in the unknown. Hold onto that as a headline and relax – there is always hope. Open to it.

Virtue. The last word on my list from the readings. A trait or quality deemed to be morally good and valued as a foundation of principle. Our college motto is Virtue and Knowledge United. Actually, it’s in Latin. I’m sparing you by not trying to say it. Thanks to the Internet, you can find a list of most of the college mottos from around the world. Many use virtue in one way or another. But we demand virtue and knowledge be united. And that makes it like a super power. I like to twist it to mean knowledge for the greater good. The reading that mentioned virtue was “… if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.”

Maybe I’m trying to give you something to think about or some kind of wisdom. But really I’m saying “self” – and I know it’s me because I recognize my own voice – dig into your community and lean on it.
I’m telling myself to lean on Providence, whatever it means to me. Because really, it’s never failed me, and I’ve always been well supported. So will you.

Remember that the next time you are in the midst of the forest with nothing else in sight.

1 Comment

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April Manning | 09.27.2020 at 8:59pm
Beautifully expressed, Elaine