Fr. Winkowitsch: Advice for Incoming Freshmen
by Rev. John Winkowitsch, O.P. (’04)
Director of Vocations
Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus
Thomas Aquinas College, California
Before I arrived here on campus for the first time 23 years ago, my high school classmates had voted me the quietest kid in my class and the most likely to become a millionaire; I also wasn’t even Catholic. Now, I am in the Order of Preachers, I have made a vow of poverty, and I am a Catholic priest. So, trust me when I say, Thomas Aquinas College can radically change your life!
To get the most out of your time here, I have some advice:
Love to learn.
Ignore your grades.
Learn to love.
First, love to learn. The first time I checked my mailbox as a new freshman, I found a “Letter of St. Thomas Aquinas to Brother John.” Thought I was special, right? And one line of that letter lodged itself in my heart: “Never mind who says what, but commit to memory what is said that is true.”
In everything you read during your time here, seek the truth! Seek the truth with your mind! Seek the truth with your heart! Seek the truth with every single sentence you read, no matter who wrote it. You are reading the Great Books, so seek what makes them great. Don’t nitpick and find mistakes and complain about how crazy and wrong someone might be. Stop focusing on the errors, and get back to seeking the true, the good, and the beautiful. “Never mind who says what, but commit to memory what is said that is true.” Love to learn!
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Here’s a little nugget I found while a student here: “There are three proofs for true divinity: prophecy that reliably predicts the future, miracles that are naturally inexplicable, and extraordinary happiness.”
“You are reading the Great Books, so seek what makes them great.”
Isn’t that something, right? Listing “extraordinary happiness” alongside miracles and prophecy as proof of the divine? Wow! Who do you think wrote that? St. Augustine? St. Thomas Aquinas? Nope. This little nugget of truth — that extraordinary happiness is proof of true divinity — came from the same pen that just a couple pages later argues that we are all created equal … because everyone can kill anyone! Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan.
“Never mind who says what, but commit to memory what is said that is true.” And extraordinary happiness is proof of the divine. Love to learn! Your years here are your chance to find little nuggets of truth and share them with the world.
Second, ignore your grades. Now, this may be strange advice at the beginning of an academic year, but if there is one college in the country where grades really are irrelevant, it’s here. I’m a prime example of this fact.
My first semester here, I earned a D- in philosophy. Dr. Kelly nearly kicked me out of the school! I still remember being called into his office when I was scrubbing pots in the kitchen — that was my job. He’s holding my disastrous final exam in his hands. He says, “I’ll ask you one question. If you get it right, you get a D- and can continue. If you get it wrong, you get an F and you start packing your bags.” And I don’t even remember what he asked, but I got it right. I earned my D-. And he agreed to be my godfather, so I could be baptized that Easter, and then — see this silly hood and this silly hat I’m wearing? — earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from The Catholic University of America on a full-ride scholarship and stipend.
Ignore your grades. They’re meaningless. Let go of the stress, let go of the anxiety, let go of the pursuit of an imaginary ideal of perfection. Instead, love to learn. Love to read. Love to seek the little hidden nuggets of truth, like Easter egg hunts, and take those Easter eggs of truth back out into the world to resurrect the true, the good, and the beautiful in a world that’s desperately yearning for them.
Third, learn to love. Yes, you’re here to educate your mind, read all the Great Books, stuff your head with knowledge and arguments and proofs. But trust me when I say, if you also don’t learn to love during your years here, you will have failed.
One of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me, and one of the most painful things anyone has ever said to me, were in a single sentence. Sitting under the tree by the library right over here, a friend from my freshman section said to me, “John, you’re like my guardian angel. Whenever I’m sad, you suddenly appear and cheer me up, but this time you can’t help because I don’t think you’ve ever really loved anybody.” Ouch, right? Talk about a wake-up call. But she was right.
“Love to seek the little hidden nuggets of truth, like Easter egg hunts, and take those Easter eggs of truth back out into the world to resurrect the true, the good, and the beautiful in a world that’s desperately yearning for them.”
All the philosophy you will learn here, all the proofs for the existence of God, all the theology, all the history, the science, the props, they are all meaningless if you don’t learn to love!
And nowhere was this clearer to me than when I went home to my non-Catholic mother, who had Alzheimer’s. Every part of me yearned to share everything I had learned about my newfound Catholic faith with my mother, but she would forget everything I said because of the disease. And I wrestled with God in that moment. If the Catholic faith is as true, good, and beautiful as my studies have led me to believe, how is someone like my mom supposed to see it? She wasn’t raised Catholic; she can’t learn anymore, either. Then it came to me: by meeting a saint. That’s how someone with Alzheimer’s can see the Faith.
That’s the ultimate goal, right? Becoming a saint? The most succinct definition of holiness that I have ever heard came from St. Teresa of Calcutta, who has stood on this campus: “Holiness is only a very high degree of love.” Learn to love! Learn to love to an extraordinary degree! The end of all your time here at Thomas Aquinas College, the final cause of all your studies, is learning to love like Christ on the Cross. “Non nisi Te, Domine,” as Saint Thomas Aquinas uttered at the end of his life of learning, “Nothing but you, Lord.”
So, learn to love your classmates and the arguments in class, learn to love your tutors and sharing meals at their homes, learn to love the readings — even the crazy ones like Hobbes, because there are golden nuggets everywhere — learn to love your enemies to such an extraordinary degree that they become your friends that you’re willing to lay down your life for on a cross. Love God, love neighbor, and leave here with the capacity to love to such an extraordinary degree that even our world and culture — suffering from Alzheimer’s as it is, in cancel culture — can see the beauty of sanctity and the happiness of holiness lived out in your lives.
So: Love to learn, ignore your grades, and learn to love — and then I promise that Thomas Aquinas College will radically change your life.
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