“I am filled with deep emotion at finding myself standing here, in this place, where were collected together the wisdom, the patriotism, and the devotion to principle, from which sprang the institutions under which we live.” Thus spoke Abraham Lincoln, at Independence Hall, in February of 1861. Lincoln spoke about the founding of one of the greatest nations on earth, the nation under which this college is blessed to live, which nation was at that time under dire threat of civil war.
We come together to celebrate a commencement ceremony for less than 100 graduates. Like all serious institutions, we at this college are engaged in the continual struggle to better understand, articulate, and give life to the principles from which we draw our existence. It is not always easy for us students to see beyond our daily assignments to the deeper beauty and meaning of what we are doing. This struggle is perhaps particularly pressing now, as we here still mourn the loss of several of the men who gave birth to this college and nourished it from its earliest days, and we must begin to look to a younger generation for leadership. But whatever minor pains we go through as a college are certainly nowhere near as dire as the threat of civil war.
On this fine spring day, then, we gather for reasons which are perhaps neither as weighty, nor as imminently critical as those which moved Abraham Lincoln to speak over 150 years ago.
Yet despite the differences in our situation, Lincoln’s words are strikingly fitting on this occasion. Our college is indeed an institution brought forth by outstanding wisdom, patriotism, devotion to principle, and — I should add here — devotion to the teaching Church. While it may fall short of the global significance of the United States, this college has formed each one of us graduates in good, deep, and lasting ways, making this occasion a truly momentous one — even if not for the whole world, at the very least for us graduates and our friends and loved ones. It is, therefore, a deeply moving honor for me to stand here before you in an effort to represent the largest class in the history of Thomas Aquinas College.
I have to say, though, that growing up as a local kid and coming to graduation ceremonies here, I was struck by the fact that the student speaker almost always remarked about how honored he was to be speaking. It always seemed to me that what he really ought to be thinking about was what a severe pickle he was in! It didn’t occur to me at the time to think too much about the possibility that I might one day find myself in the same predicament. I always thought, when I was younger, that the student speaker ought to say something simple enough to be understood even by the youngsters, but deep enough to be intriguing to the tutors, and brief enough that nobody got too hot! (So after this speech the educated people should tell me whether it was interesting, and you kids out there can come up to me and tell me if it actually made any sense. I suspect I will know myself whether it’s getting too hot.)
But even if the student speaker manages to speak clearly and briefly to everyone present, just what exactly is the speaker in my position supposed to say?
Presumably he ought to say something about the education he has received.
Perhaps he could talk about what it is, and how it is important to modern culture, giving his fellow graduates a charge to go out and conquer the world.
But I am in no way equipped to do such a thing.
I am not intimately familiar with the needs of the world. My classmates and I have spent most of the last four years nestled in these hills on this beautiful campus, staring at the pages of very old books and sitting around tables talking about them. In order to know what the world needs and how we may change it for the better, we must look to someone who is already a leader, who knows the needs of people beyond this campus, who is already at work daily preparing the harvest. Surely Cardinal DiNardo would be far ahead of me in this respect. If someone today is to call us up, to exhort us to service, and to tell us where we are needed, perhaps that may come from His Eminence, but it cannot come from me.
Perhaps the student speaker ought to limit himself to speaking about the importance of what he has learned on an academic level, stating what he has studied and how it fits into the larger context of human thought.
But here again, I fear that I am ill-prepared.
We graduates are yet beginners on the path of learning, still having little sense of the whole of human thought and experience. Any tutor here could give a far better account than I of why we have studied what we have studied, and how it relates to what we have not studied.
Perhaps, then, the student speaker ought to limit himself to speaking about something more fundamental, something that applies in any walk of life, like the importance of quiet charity and self sacrifice.
Yet any mother here could surely speak better to the importance and practice of these virtues than I am prepared to do. What I have learned of the life of charity, I have learned from the heroic example of many, many others, including my own classmates, who remain far ahead of me in this respect, and in many others.
I could say more along these lines, but the common strain is that there are many subjects which I am not the best one here to talk about, many ways in which we graduates have looked, and will continue to look, to you all and to others for leadership and wisdom.
This leads me to let my first major statement be one made in what I hope is the spirit of humility to which President McLean exhorted us just a few nights ago at dinner, and to acknowledge that we will not leave this campus as self-sufficient units of knowledge and power, but rather as members joining a larger body in which all have different roles to play. We hope, indeed, that we can contribute something significant to the great work of bringing the world to God, but we need not fear that we will be all alone in this work.
In a longstanding tradition, we will soon be given a piece of paper certifying that we have attained to a degree of knowledge. I take no issue with this tradition; a school which cannot claim to impart knowledge would surely be hard-pressed to justify its very existence. But we must always remember that the knowledge we have gained is not a complete and total understanding of all that is; nor does the knowledge which we do have mean anything if it does not lead us to greater love of God and neighbor.
Having acknowledged that we are part of something far beyond ourselves, though, we must also remember that true humility does not fail to recognize the blessings it has been given. It therefore does seem appropriate for me to speak about what we students have received in this education, not from some grand, metaphysical perspective, but rather in terms of what we have perceived here as good and beautiful, what has enabled us to live in a spirit of joy and love.
What we have been given here for the past four years is a truly wonderful life. By wonderful, I do not just mean generally pleasant and good, though it was certainly that. Rather, I mean a life deeply filled with awe and wonder, with astonishment at the workings of God. We have pondered the beauty of the stars, wondered at the straightness of light rays, and been moved by the order of fine music. We have been given the opportunity to ask the questions men long to ask, starting with questions about ourselves and the natural world around us, and culminating in questions about our Maker: What is life? What are we? Why are we here? What can we really know? How should we know it? How ought we to govern ourselves? Who made us and the world around us? These are not immediately practical questions, and very few have the time and freedom to dwell on them the way we have. For four years, we have been largely free from the drudgery of repetitive work, and have been guided through the thoughts of the greatest minds of Western Civilization by wise and dedicated tutors.
These tutors have treated us as equals in free and open discussions, and we have learned not only to hold what others have told us, but to truly think in a mature and free way.
One who did not realize that Christ had redeemed all suffering might think that a life like ours was the best life, or even the only life that was really worthwhile. We have been as separated from the passing things of this earth as it is possible to be on a natural level, thinking about eternal truths, like the demonstrations in geometry, or the things known by the ethicist, the politician, the scientist. We, for our part as Christians, know that we are called not to be served but to serve, and that the road to eternal life is often found in the lowest and most mundane of tasks.
But our freedom from the mundane here has given us a far better sense of the depth and wonder of the world, and has aided us in seeing the deeper ideas that explain ourselves and underlie many of the occurrences in human history. We hope, that by doing these things, we have begun along the path to being able to speak wisely about such things.
I would speak falsely if I gave the impression that we have not suffered at all, though. In immersing ourselves in the history of human thought — to some extent, even living it out in our own lives — we have submitted even those things held most dear to serious questioning, not in a Cartesian desire or intent to question all ruthlessly, but rather in the serious hope that we can be open to what is true. We have struggled to see the complementarity between faith and reason, and to more fully articulate not just what we hold, but why we hold it.
In this struggle together, we have become dear friends, continually looking to each other for insight, aid, and encouragement. I think there is no doubt in any of us that, even as we say our goodbyes today, the friendships we have formed here will last a lifetime.
What does all this mean? How ought we to draw it together?
As he attempted to decide what to do with Jesus Christ, Pontius Pilate asked the question, “What is truth?” Our Lord did not respond in words; instead, He submitted Himself to death for the salvation of all mankind.
Even as we have come to see the wonders of the natural world and to grow in Wisdom, we have become ever more aware of the weakness of our own intellects.
In our quest for the truth, we have come to realize that the truth is not a proposition which we can hold or demonstrate, not something we can possess. It is a person, the person of Jesus Christ.
The fact that we are not all-knowing, then, is no cause for despair. All we must do is follow Christ, Whose yoke is easy, and burden light. Surely this is the greatest blessing of all.
Looking back, what do we hope for at this commencement of our lives beyond this campus? Not a few of us, maybe, would say that we hope for some rest! But beyond this, when we look back in 5 or 10 years — when we look back on this day and try to assess how we have lived up to the dreams that we had at the completion of our college career — what will we see, what will we hope to have done?
Let us hope and pray that we can share the childlike sense of wonder that we first encountered here in the Ancient Greeks.
May we never forget the force of the question, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”
Let us always strive to live with thorough joy in Christ, to lead others with wisdom and charity.
Let us strive not to forget the times or studies we had together here, but to bring them to our lives.
And let us always have faith in the Lord, that “whether our tomorrows be filled with good or ill, we may triumph through our sorrows, and rise to greet Him still.”