I won’t soon forget my first experience with John Evans, and I sincerely doubt that it will be the last time I hear his name. In fact, we all may be hearing from the young man quite a bit in the future.
For the uninitiated, Evans received the Carty Valedictory Medal and spoke on behalf of the class of 2017 at Manhattan College’s undergraduate commencement May 19.
The English major, with a double minor in history and medieval studies, compiled a 3.94 GPA at Manhattan. He also has published numerous literary works, including two poetry collections, and has been known to perform at open mic nights with his folk rock band.
You should also know that he is visually impaired, having lost his sight except for an ability to distinguish light and shadow and, occasionally, the outlines of objects.
I wanted to note his accomplishments before his blindness, not because it isn’t significant but because John has a lot more to his story than his disability.
He was only 5 when he lost his sight. For more than a decade, he believed the cause was a rare genetic disorder, which was his official diagnosis. About two and a half years ago, he learned that his blindness was caused by a brain tumor that presses upon his optic nerves.
You might imagine that his new diagnosis raised questions of his mortality, his place in the world and the immortality of his soul. Those aren’t my words. They were the way this very devout Catholic expressed his response during our phone conversation late last week.
He can cover a lot of theological ground in a short period of time, telling how he steeped himself in the Old and New Testament and read St. Teresa of Avila’s spiritual masterpiece, “Interior Castle,” while preparing for his surgery.
He said he spent a number of post-surgery hours in total darkness before light finally began “seeping in.”
“My first thought was, will I ever see something as simple as light again?”
He knew that his goal of becoming a professor of medieval literature would be possible only if he could resume his classes amid the trials of his medical exams and testing as he endured the recovery period after surgery.
As Evans explained in his valedictory address, he was not able to accomplish the great things he did by himself. At the crux of his speech, he said, was a theological lesson based on the definition of the Greek word for church, or ecclesia.
“We are all called out to help one another, as people helped me for the past four years,” he said. “From the students who held a door for me, to students who guided me to class, they proved they were called out to greatness.”
The same could be said for Evans, who does not plan to slow down any time soon. He will pursue his master’s degree and doctorate in medieval studies at Fordham University, beginning in September.
Evans’ family, including his parents Robert and Eileen, and his brother, Brian, who just completed his freshman year at Manhattan, have played a major role in his victories.
His full name is John Casey Solanus Evans, and one of the first things he told me when we spoke was of his grandparents’ devotion to the Capuchin friar who will be beatified later this year. His family’s parish is Sacred Heart in Yonkers, where Father Solanus served for 14 years in the first part of the 20th century.
He and his family pray regularly at the friar’s shrine in their parish church, and he said that he hopes one day to be healed of his blindness through the intercession of Father Solanus.
Evans has a wisdom that is well beyond his years, and a personal faith that is inspiring on many levels. At the close of our conversation, he said his thoughts and prayers were with me that morning and that he would be grateful, no matter if I wrote a sentence, or five, about our exchange.
“My way of reaching other people has been through my story,” he said. “If God is the primary storyteller, He tells His story through our lives.”