To begin, I’d like to thank, on behalf of the graduating Class of 2021, everyone whose sacrifices have made this experience possible for us, above all the teaching faculty and parents. I would also like to thank Bishop Paprocki and the Board of Governors for joining us today. Now, I will address my classmates.
Friends, I would like to have a word with you, here, on this very spot. Dear friends, we shall be parting soon.
It seems natural that this address should offer some reflection on our recent education, and the different ways it has profited us. Since to do this exhaustively would be an impossible task, for any speech, I will attempt in this address to weigh out just two or three of the most valuable benefits we have received from our time here, and see which of them is the greatest.
I am not hoping to say what might have been most valuable to any given one of us. I know that this place, like all sacred and sunny hollows, has produced many private experiences of inestimable value. Perhaps one among us was given in solitude an intimate moment of peace while following diligently the wanderings of a distant star; perhaps another, sitting alone before the blessed sacrament was granted the solution to a problem which had frustrated his faith, just as Rosy Dawn stained the glass windows of our beautiful chapel; I myself remember a moment of absolute adoration, inspired by the brilliant green that consumed our Cross Hill, when the grass grew back after the fire. That experience might have occurred with any other shade of green, and yet, I think it had to have been that hill — our hill, somehow intimately involved in the life we live here.
These experiences are difficult enough to translate from one’s own memory, and so, again, though each or some of us might remember some such moment dearly, and hold it as the most profitable gain of these last four years, this is not what I am aiming to describe. I am searching, in this address, to identify what might be the most valuable possession which each and every one of us holds in common as graduates of Thomas Aquinas College.
The first candidate, of course, must be the knowledge we have gained here. The best of us came to this place, because although the Truth is everywhere, here also there are those who can teach us to see it. The rest of us at least hoped and expected to walk away in some way wiser than we came. Clearly, since we came here in pursuit of the truth, if we have now caught up with it, and possess it, this must be the greatest thing we have received.
This point is clear enough; I will not draw it out: We are not yet in possession of the truth. Some of you may feel indignant at my saying this, but more likely the greater part would agree — perhaps this is even something that we all already know, but is nonetheless better said, lest anyone should think we are ignorant of it.
On some level, this should not be surprising. Aristotle says in the Ethics that because young people lack experience they cannot be good students, not only of politics, but also of natural science and metaphysics. He says that young people, concerning the first principles of these sciences, “have no conviction, but merely use the proper language.” I am inclined to think he is right. Perhaps there are a few wise old souls among us, but based on my own internal experience, I am inclined to say we are all still very young.
Again, in some way this is not surprising. It even seems as though the primary intention behind the senior year curriculum, introducing us to metaphysics and the summits of revealed theology, was to remind us, before we leave, how much still remains beyond our understanding. I think the same intention has been well-served every day of our four years by the Socratic Discussion Method. It often seems (sometimes frustratingly), that no matter how well we discuss a given topic in class, the conversation is never complete. It is not difficult for a lecturer to speak seemingly exhaustively on a subject, as though there were nothing more to be said, but this is simply not possible in the Socratic Method; class always seems to end before we can say everything that ought to be said. I see this as an unqualified advantage of our method over lecture-based methods. That is to say: It takes only a little reflection to see that we have not yet seized the truth.
Now, there is a temptation, in this reflection, to conclude therefore, that we have gained no certain knowledge beyond the Socratic truth: “I know that I know nothing.” I do not mean to espouse or encourage this position. Although we can only benefit from the humility of this ethos, to deny having gained any certain knowledge would be a gross injustice to our teachers and ourselves. If we, having drawn near to receive the nourishing truth, had gained nothing of the kind, we would not love our alma mater.
To be clear, it is my firm belief that if, after these four years, there is nothing you can point to as your own, certain, intellectual possession, nothing but your own failings can be held responsible for this. That being said, it is not too humble to say that the knowledge we are taking with us is only a beginning, or the seed of a beginning, of Wisdom.
This being the case, it seems to me entirely possible that we may have received something else more valuable than this knowledge. In the Metaphysics, Aristotle says that “it is absurd to seek at the same time knowledge, and the way of attaining knowledge,” and that “neither is easy to obtain.” Let us assume, for argument’s sake, that our teachers’ primary intention was not for us to gain knowledge, but instead the way of attaining it. If they have been successful, and we now possess the intellectual dispositions, or habits, or whatever else may be necessary to gain the experience which will one day allow us to truly know, these, then, must be our most valuable possessions.
For most of us, this is the end of our life as professional students. Beyond this point, there will be no curriculum. We will need to choose our own intellectual endeavors and investigations. We ought to take heart and hope; our universal success in this program is a sign that we are equipped to carry on our intellectual pursuit and someday reap the fruits of our labor, in the Wisdom of old age.
But how reasonable is this hope? We have been living an almost consecrated life here, protected by these fair hills from the practical cares of adult life. In a very real way, we have been living something like a second childhood. In the first, we lived for no other reason beyond our own childhood; we ate and drank, and slept, and ran around as children, and because we were children — in doing so we have become men and women. Here, in our second childhood, we read and talked — and still ran around, and ate and drank — as human beings, and precisely as an exercise of our humanity. In doing so, we became, even if only for a time, a true community.
What if, however, without the protection of this life, the greater part of us are unable to carry on the pursuit? What if we become satisfied with the pseudo-intellectualism of the world, and never again open, on a Monday, or a Thursday night, a foolish but charming leather-bound book? What if we should do something and not think about it? God forbid, but perhaps we shall do this many times, and never once think of what we’ve done. I am speaking about the worst case, about if we become bad.
But why should we become bad, friends? When what we have seen is so good? Perhaps our seeing has been more like touching, but how much more, therefore, should we be moved? What I mean to say is this: when something touches you, it is very difficult, from this sense alone, to say what that thing is. There can be no doubt, however, that something has touched you. Our meeting with the light of truth has been like this — something much greater has touched us, and though we, being so young, have trouble saying what it is, no one can say he has not felt it.
Even if one of us should want, at some later time, to deny ever having such a feeling, he will not be able to escape wondering, if he can remember how good were the times we had here and the friends we made: Why were they so good, if not because we loved something good?
Truly, there is nothing higher, or stronger, or sounder, or more useful than some beautiful and sacred memory. For most, this sacred memory takes the form of some imperfect but immaculate childhood memory, from the parental home. Perhaps this is because, for most, this is their most recent recollection of a life lived for its own sake.
We, at Thomas Aquinas College, have been given another childhood, another opportunity — this time in the bloom of our humanity — to drink, and eat, and think, and live! To live and to learn that to think is to live! If only, by some grace, we can remember how here, we all learned to love and tried to love what we could only begin to learn, why should we become bad?
Nor should it cause us to stumble, if, holding dearly these sweet memories, we should find among them something bitter, should find that at times we were mistreated, or what is worse, that we mistreated another. Instead, let us thank God that we ever did more than this, that we lived here, we truly lived, that we loved, and were loved, and so became, for a time, perhaps better than we actually are.
To conclude: If ever, someone speaks the word “heaven” and before your more educated part has a chance to correct itself, your mind flies back to this place, to the people, to that sometimes green, sometimes yellow hill with the little white cross, know that it can only be because here we experienced, even if only shallowly, and for a brief time, the life of the mind, which is eternal life.
If we can preserve within us this sacred memory, of the life we lived here, surely we ourselves will be preserved from that life which is not worth living, the unexamined life. If even only once, God should use the memory of this place to remind us that the act of thought is life itself, and so save us from acting without thinking, from doing something we are afraid to think about, surely, this will be of infinite profit to us. Thank you.