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Only the Lover Sings

by the Most Rev. James D. Conley, D.D., S.T.L.
Bishop of Lincoln
Commencement 2023
Thomas Aquinas College, California


First of all, I would like to thank President Paul O’Reilly for his kind invitation to deliver this year’s commencement address for the Thomas Aquinas College graduating class of 2023 and to receive the St. Thomas Medallion. I am truly humbled and honored, particularly after reading the list of recipients who have received this award in the past.

Bishop Conley

And to the graduating Class of 2023, and to your parents and family members, congratulations and salutations on this great achievement. Today is a day of great joy for you and for the Church.  

And I use the word joy intentionally. The title I have chosen for this commencement address is taken from St. Augustine, Cantare amantis est, loosely translated, “Only the Lover Sings.”  

The great German philosopher Josef Pieper wrote a little book in 1988 on the subject of “Art and Contemplation,” with the same title, “Only the Lover Sings” — so my reflections today are not entirely original, by any means!

I noticed that at least one of this year’s graduates wrote her thesis on the subject of “joy,” so I hope these thoughts will resonate with you in some small way as you celebrate the joy of your graduation day.  

I would like to begin my remarks by taking us back in history to the origins of this college, which opened its doors for the first time in the fall of 1971. This date should go down in history as a significant benchmark in the renewal of Catholic education in the modern West. What the first founders of this college envisioned when they began this bold educational project, is now bearing tremendous fruit in schools, colleges, and educational endeavors across this country and beyond.  

I first heard about Thomas Aquinas College when I was an undergraduate at the University of Kansas in the early 1970s and a student of what was then called the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program. I graduated from high school in 1973, and in a few weeks from now, I will be attending my 50-year high school reunion in the suburbs of Kansas City, where I grew up. I was not yet a Catholic when I showed up as a freshman at KU. My main interests at the time were basketball and the Grateful Dead, and KU had them both! But God had other designs.  

Providentially, I enrolled in the Integrated Humanities Program as a freshman. By the middle of my junior year, I was baptized and received into the Catholic Church. If I were to distill it down to one thing, in addition to the power of supernatural grace, what converted me to the Catholic Church was a “great books” liberal arts education.  

The IHP, as it came to be known, was taught by three remarkable professors: Dennis Quinn, Franklyn Nelick, and John Senior. It is interesting to note that the IHP also opened its doors at the University of Kansas in the fall semester of 1971 as a college within the college.  

As it turned out, the third of these three professors, John Senior, who eventually became my godfather, was a dear friend and colleague of Dr. Ronald McArthur, the founding president of Thomas Aquinas College. In the ’70s I remember Dr. Senior mentioning a new upstart college in California, a new college devoted to the renewal of the great traditions of philosophy and western liberal education.  

In preparing my remarks for this address, I was able to obtain a treasure trove of letters from the TAC archives between John Senior and Ronald McArthur, and several of the other founders of TAC — names like Mark Berquist and Jack Neumayr — dating back to 1968. In this cache of letters, one discovers the early fermentation process of what would one day become the vintage wine of Thomas Aquinas College and the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program. They are pure gold. These fellow co-conspirators were engaged in a bold project that would have a lasting impact on the renewal of the liberal arts in the West.  

The one and only visit I ever made to TAC before now was for a wedding of the daughter of one of my KU classmates in June of 2009. I believe it was the very first wedding celebrated in the new Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel. I told my buddy I would do the wedding under one condition: that he would arrange for me to meet Ronald McArthur, who at the time was 85 years old and still teaching seminars! Born within a year of each other in the mid-1920s, John Senior and Ronald McArthur were contemporaries. Senior died in 1998, and McArthur passed away in 2013.  

“What the first founders of this college envisioned, when they began this bold educational project, is now bearing tremendous fruit in schools, colleges, and educational endeavors across this country and beyond.”  

Well, my friend made good on the deal, and late in the evening, the night before his daughter’s wedding, the two of us sat down at the outdoor patio on campus with Dr. McArthur and a bottle of wine and listened to the wisdom of this giant of a man — and he was literally a giant at 6’5”. We sat up until 1:00 a.m. listening to Dr. McArthur tell us story after story about our old professor and his dear friend and colleague! Truly the stuff of legends, and I shall never forget the conversation we had that night out under the stars.  

As you might imagine, these great men and profound thinkers didn’t always see eye to eye on what is wrong with modern higher education. Dr. McArthur would argue that the problem with higher education is a “crisis of reason.” He would say that young college students don’t know how to think logically anymore. They need to be immersed in the perennial philosophy of the ages. They need to learn the wisdom of St. Thomas.

John Senior, who had great love for St. Thomas and was steeped in Thomistic philosophy, would respond, “Well, Ron, I don’t disagree with you. We are certainly living in an age that suffers from a crisis of reason. Objective truth is no longer being taught in our colleges. But more than a ‘crisis of reason,’ we are suffering from a ‘crisis of imagination.’ Young people today have lost the sense of wonder. They don’t have any poetry in their souls.”  

And, thus, the argument would go. But because they were such good friends and because they loved each other dearly, they could have these debates about serious subjects and still remain close friends. To listen to Dr. McArthur speak about his good friend and close colleague and the conversations they would have about the permanent things, with a sparkle in his eye and a smile on his face, brought us to tears not a few times that evening.  

But in the end, like all things Catholic, it’s never an “either/or” argument, but a “both/and” situation. Yes, we do have a crisis of reason today and, yes, we do have a crisis of the imagination.  

But John Senior’s strong conviction always centered on the idea that one precedes the other, that before one can begin to engage in the arduous task of philosophy, one must first be “reborn in wonder.” In fact, when the three KU professors chose a motto for the Integrated Humanities Program, they chose a Latin phrase, Nascantur in Admiratione – “Let Them Be Born in Wonder.”

In letter to Ron McArthur dated January 9, 1969, John Senior wrote these words: “Liberal education, then, begins in wonder and aims at wisdom. But music, in the ancient sense, begins in delight and ends in wonder; while gymnastic (in the Greek sense of the word) begins in the sensible experience and ends in delight. Since students entering college are in a state neither of wonder nor delight, they need ‘pre-liberal’ education.”  

The point that Senior was making was that the cultivation of the imagination, in some mysterious way, precedes the cultivation of reason.  

In that same 1969 letter, John Senior went on to write, “The discipline traditionally assigned the task of training the soul to the condition of wonder is ‘music,’ in the wide and ancient sense of those activities governed by the nine Muses — daughters of memory, without which intelligence and will have no material from which to work.”  

The IHP professors would often talk about “education by the muses.” This was why learning and memorizing poetry was so important to the Integrated Humanities Program. In a very Thomistic sense, Senior would posit that “no intellectual knowledge is possible without the prior work of the imagination, and the imagination cannot work without sensation. The muses, then, between delight and wonder, preside over the virtue of ‘acuity;’ they sharpen the imagination, so it sees things distinctly.”  

Senior went on to write in another letter to McArthur: “The seven liberal arts are a rational examination of the causes of what music presents, which is another way of saying that wonder is a condition of science.” I would add that this is what St. Augustine is getting at in his little phrase, “only the lover sings.”  

My conversion to the Catholic Church, as I recall it now, it came about primarily through the love and friendship of my classmates and our mutual love and desire for truth, goodness, and beauty through what we were studying: poetry, history, music, philosophy, theology, art, architecture, and dance. This was what the professors meant when they spoke about “education by the muses.”  

When I discovered truth, goodness, and beauty in the Great Books, “the best which has been thought and said” (in the words of Matthew Arnold), my heart began to sing for joy at this discovery. Music and poetry train the memory and they give the soul a direct experience of the joy of the thing itself. This joy is what caused my heart to sing – only the lover sings — in the words of St. Augustine.  

Actually, I was tempted to entitle my talk today: extra poesiam, nulla salus – “there is no salvation outside of poetry!” But I refrained.

“The liberal arts education you have received here at TAC will be the source of your joy and will make your heart sing for decades to come, no matter to what vocation you are called.”

The great 19th English convert to the Catholic Church, St. John Henry Newman, who was a huge influence on me and still is, wrote a lot about liberal education and how we come to know things. In a famous debate which took place through letters in the Times of London in 1849 — between Newman and a member of the British parliament, Sir Robert Peel — Newman argues that the liberal arts are necessary for a healthy and civilized culture. Peel was arguing for a hyper-utilitarian, career oriented, and science-based educational system to feed the progress of the industrial revolution. Peel argued that the liberal arts were no longer necessary in an industrial age.  

In his exchange with Sir Robert Peel, which began a series of lengthy letters known as the Tamworth Reading Room Letters, Newman posits a very startling argument. He writes:

After all, man is not a reasoning animal; he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal. He is influenced by what is direct and precise. It is very well to freshen our impressions and convictions from physics, but to create them we must go elsewhere.

Then Newman goes on to say, and this has become a famous quote:

The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.

A true experience of a liberal arts education, precisely the kind of education each one of you have received here at Thomas Aquinas College, should be like “a birth of the human spirit, an entry into a new world that excites interest because it is seen in the light of wonder. The passion of wonder itself arises from a consciousness of our ignorance before the mystery of being, and from that passion begins the lifelong pursuit of wisdom” (Dennis Quinn, “Essay on the Muses as Pedagogues of the Liberal Arts”).  

I would go further and say that the liberal arts education you have received here at TAC will be the source of your joy and will make your heart sing for decades to come, no matter to what vocation you are called.  

And ultimately, like St. Thomas discovered, this wonder and wisdom leads to contemplation. We know that at the end of his life, St. Thomas occupied his time composing poetry, which ultimately was turned into music. Again, “only the lover sings” — a lover of wisdom.

And I would go so far as to say, my dear graduates, you must hold on to this in the years and decades ahead for the sake of your own sanity and mental health.  

As some of you may know, back in 2019 and 2020, I had to take a leave of absence from my duties as bishop to tend to my own mental health as I was struggling with anxiety and depression. I fell into the trap of a kind of “ungodly self-reliance” and lost the sense of joy and wonder in my life. The burdens of leadership became overwhelming for me. Thanks be to God, I reached out to people who could help, family, friends, and professionals in the mental-health field, and now I am back healthier and happier than I have ever been. So never hesitate to reach out for help if you are struggling. There are people who love you and people who can help.  

“Keep reading and rereading the great and good books you have come to know and love here at TAC. Each day, read a few verses of poetry. And each day, listen to a little bit of good music.” 

If I can give you a bit of advice, as you graduate today and leave this college it is this: Keep reading and rereading the great and good books you have come to know and love here at TAC. Each day, read a few verses of poetry. And each day, listen to a little bit of good music. (Right now I am really into the Avett Brothers, but I love all kinds of music, even the Grateful Dead!) And each night, if you can, take the time to look up at the stars. And always remember, “only the lover sings.”

As I mentioned at the beginning of this talk, programs like the one here at TAC and the IHP at KU have started a revolution that is beginning to explode across the country. Classical academies, the homeschool movement, charter schools, Catholic diocesan schools are all part of this renewal of Catholic liberal arts education — and putting the joy back in learning and teaching!  

I am privileged to be a board member of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, which is rapidly expanding across the country and renewing the liberal arts. It was founded by two TAC graduates, Michael Van Hecke (’86) and Andrew Seeley (’87). I hope that some of you go into education and become teachers. You have so much to offer because you have received such a wonderful education here at TAC.  

Let me conclude with something I recently heard from my good friend Dale Ahlquist, the president of the G.K. Chesterton Society and founder of the Chesterton High School Academies. The 45th Chesterton Academy opened this year, and next year 15 new academies will open across the country. If you are looking for job, I would venture to say that with a TAC degree, you would be hired in a “New York minute!”

When Dale Alhquist was asked, why do we read the great and good books, he answered this way:

We read the Iliad because all of life is a battle.
We read the Odyssey because all of life is a journey.
We read the Book of Job because all of life is a riddle.
We read Canterbury Tales because all of life is a pilgrimage.
We read Don Quixote because all of life is a knight errantry.
We read Shakespeare because all the world’s a stage.
We read Dickens because all of life is a great expectation.
We read Dostoyevsky because we are all part of a family, and every soul is a battleground between heaven and hell. 
And we read Dante because all of life is a Divine Comedy. 
And we read Chesterton … because all of life is a paradox.

Dear graduates of the Class of 2023, may the song of truth, goodness, and beauty always be in your hearts and may the love, joy, and wonder of learning be ever with you.  

Congratulations and God bless you!


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