PORTSMOUTH — During commencement exercises Sunday, Portsmouth Abbey grads were told to put aside for a moment the intellectual pursuit that teaches them to listen with their minds.
“Instead, I ask you to ponder, to wonder: What does it mean to listen to the ear of the heart?” said The Rev. Dr. Timothy P. Flanigan, the director of infectious diseases at Miriam and Rhode Island hospitals.
Dr. Flanigan, a 1975 Abbey graduate who’s also a deacon in the Diocese of Providence, gave the commencement address to 91 graduates plus faculty, family members and underclassman. Listening with the “ear of the heart” is critical in determining who you are called to be, he said. As an example, he pointed to the Rev. John Diman, an episcopal minister who founded St. George’s School in Middletown in 1896. Fourteen years later he founded the Diman Vocational School in Fall River, for boys ages 14-16 “who were too old for grammar school and too young for the mills,” Dr. Flanigan said.
At the age of 63, Father Diman became deathly ill with pneumonia, had a long recovery and converted to Catholicism, he said. He traveled to Fort Augustus Abbey in Scotland and dug ditches with 18-year-old Benedictine novices.
“He then came back and started what would become Portsmouth Abbey School,” said Dr. Flanigan. “What would he have done if had he not listened to his ear of his heart?”
Life throws us unanticipated twists and turns that can lead to disappointment, but he urged graduates to accept those detours with an open heart.
“Listening with the ear of your heart will help you when you’re afraid and feel lost and out of place, and this is going to happen very soon. I spent most of my first year in college feeling lost,” he said.
Listening with the ear of the heart also opens you up to laughter and joy when you least expect it, he said. “I saw it in Kenya among children who did not own shoes, but laughed with delight as a white, tall American desperately tried to play soccer.”
Then Dr. Flanigan let the students in on a little secret.
“If you Google ‘listening with the ear of your heart,’ you’ll find it’s not original. It’s in the first line of The Rule of St. Benedict, upon which this Abbey was founded, written 1,400 years ago,” he said.
Dr. James DeVecchi gave his last speech to a graduating class, as he’s retiring as headmaster after spending four decades at the school. He said he’ll greatly miss the graduating students, who personified the culture of Portmouth Abbey.
“The Class of 2013 could have made things a lot easier for us had they been less benedictine … but they’ve been exactly the opposite,” he said.
John M. Regan III, chairman of the Abbey’s Board of Regents and a member of the Class of 1968, praised all the good work Dr. DeVecchi has done at the school. The headmaster brought a diverse group of students to campus and an excellent team of teachers, and was responsible for major improvements to campus buildings, a bigger endowment and more financial aid, he said.
He presented Dr. DeVecchi with a Portsmouth Abbey chair, which the headmaster sat in while a group of students sang The Beatles’ “Let it Be.”
Classmates address peers
Two graduating students were elected to give speeches for the Class of 2013. Allison Bolles pondered why some of the most memorable moments at the Abbey were so “cringe-worthy,” such as accidentally calling a professor “mommy.”
“It’s these sorts of memories that stay with us through thick and thin, never leaving our sides — much like viral infections,” she said.
Embarrassing moments humble and unite people. “And wouldn’t you know, the Abbey seemed to invite these moments every chance it got. With every recitation, we risked embarrassment. Every time you tried out for a new sport or a part in the play, you risked embarrassment,” said Miss Bolles.
Taking chances, however, makes students stronger, she said. “If the Abbey never made us put ourselves out there, we’d learn so little about ourselves,” she said. “I challenge you to continue trying new things when you leave the Abbey. At the end of the day, isn’t it better to mess up than to never try?”
Nicholas Medley of Portsmouth began his speech by paraphrasing a famous address by President Abraham Lincoln: “Since it’s been 87 years since this school was founded, I can’t help but begin my speech this way: ‘Four score and seven years ago, our monks brought forth on this continent, a new school …’”
Mr. Medley said he was grateful to the monks at the monastery, who taught him the importance of serving others, as well as the Abbey’s academic challenges.
“We have walked in the shadow of the valley of death when we came to Latin quizzes, U.S. history papers and bio tests,” he said.
He concluded by urging classmates to “celebrate each other’s weirdness” and idiosyncrasies.
“I hope that all of you go out and do what you love, having come from a place that together we loved in all its weirdness, and our own.”