A Long Time Ago at a Graduation Far, Far Away…
It seems like only yesterday, I was attending my own high school graduation. A small crowd of friends and family members had gathered for the ceremony in the auditorium of my dad’s Baptist church, which featured only two graduates–myself, and a girl who had also been homeschooled about 30 miles away. Whoever organized the event (most likely our moms) decided that each of us should make a speech. I went first and considered that, even though it was a graduating class of only two students, I had earned the fine distinction of “salutatorian”. I still remember some of my speech from that day. I said:
“Life is like a poker game. Some play good hands well and some squander them. Others play bad hands well…while still others fold.”
And I remember my dad’s flustered face at these opening words since many Baptists, at least in those days, thought that playing cards was a sin–especially poker.
My point was that I intended to make the most of what I had. My now-successful older brother was at that time in the midst of a string of bad decisions that were frustrating my poor parents–most notably, he had dropped out of college. In my speech, I wanted to make my parents understand the difference between us–I would go to college and graduate. In what could have only been a highly inappropriate graduation speech, I rambled on in great detail about how my brother and I had been dealt largely the same hand, but that I would play mine well.
But life is much longer than I could see then. My singular goal was to earn a college degree–to play that hand better than my brother–but the game is still going on, and he is now winning too.
Of Life and Death, Light and Darkness
And here we are. At the dawn of something new for each of you.
Kolbe graduates, in my opinion, have been dealt a superior hand. Your parents have essentially stacked the deck for you. More importantly, they have taught you how to play well. It takes a certain grit, sometimes even, perhaps, a bluff to survive an AP course from say Mrs. Bjorgaard or Mr. Frey. But regardless, you have made it to this moment. Something akin to birth, something not unlike death, is happening in each of your lives. The ending and the beginning all at once.
In this new stage of life, you will undergo many new challenges. As Joshua’s men said to the people of God at the Jordan River, “…you have not passed this way before.” No matter your calculated intentions, no matter the countless hours of preparation, there will soon come upon you moments of doubts, moments of darkness–unforeseen rivers that must now be crossed. I urge you, class of 2018, do not forget in the dark what you learned in the light.
And there will be moments of light, too! Some of the seeds that have been long planted and tended over the course of years will break through the surface. You will learn new things about yourself, but even the good times won’t always be easy. God forbid, some of you might even learn, as I did in college, that you can survive for days on orange peels and tap water.
Of Singularity and Time
Pray to be singular of heart. This doesn’t mean to avoid multitasking–a skill in which every Kolbe student has lots of experience–but rather to be clear about what you want. What are you doing with this one life on earth God has given you?
Seneca the Younger rightly said, “When life is scattered, it flies.” A scattered life is not a busy life but, in fact, it is just the opposite. It is a life full of doubts and hesitation. My professor in Germany–a man who wrote his doctoral dissertation in a mere three months and subsequently published at least one book every year for thirty years–once gave me the following advice, which was not only timely, but, I believe, is perennial. He said: “Go home, figure out what you want to do, and then don’t let anyone stop you.”
Or in his words, “Go zu your haus, entscheide was du wants zu tun, und dann don’t let anyvone schtop you.”
Saint Paul urged the readers of the Ephesian letter to, “redeem the time.” What is it to redeem the time, except that you make the most of it? St. Paul knew about the shortness of life. In another place, he describes his impending death as though a ship were about to be released from the harbor. His journey to a new shore was commencing. In a less drastic way, so is yours. You have not passed this way before.
Of Greatness and Transcendence
In my time at Kolbe, I have had the privilege of engaging with many brilliant students. Some of you are so gifted and diligent that I expect you to become important leaders one day. I would not be surprised at all if some of you become famous persons in this life for some special contribution to an academic field, or for great achievements in the world of business or for your artistic or musical or athletic talents. On the flip side, I would also not be surprised if some of you become saints one day. And after all, isn’t that the real goal? Isn’t that the purpose which furnishes meaning to the rest?
In the little city of Göttingen, in Germany (where I lived for the better part of the last decade), there are plaques on numerous buildings which are connected to noteworthy people who have studied or worked at the university there. You cannot walk more than a few steps without seeing the name of some scholar along with the subject in which he or she became notable. The Brothers Grimm have their places there, along with the Americans Benjamin Franklin and J.P. Morgan.
My favorite plaque is dedicated to a woman who came to study philosophy in Göttingen in 1913. This person, as talented and original a philosopher as she was, did not merely become famous for her excellent scholarly contributions. No, she gave up a promising academic career for a higher calling. As a student in Göttingen, she was not even Catholic–in fact, she was an atheist. Upon reading St. Teresa of Avila, however, this young scholar converted to the Catholic Church and subsequently became a Carmelite Nun. In the course of terrible events that later took place in Germany, she suffered martyrdom at the hands of the National Socialists (otherwise known as the Nazis) and is now canonized as one of the patron saints of Europe. I’m talking about Edith Stein, who is remembered by us as “St. Therese Benedicta of the Cross”.
Of Obedience, Even unto Death
Obedience even unto death is necessary for true greatness. In our time, we scoff at the idea of obedience. “Freedom” is still the cry of the age. But it has become all too clear that there can be no freedom from anything, unless there is a freedom for something. Freely choose to obey God rather than man. Freely choose to obey God rather than social media, media media, friends, professors, co-workers, etc., etc.
I firmly believe that our desires are directed by another. There is always someone (even subconsciously) who we are trying to be. It is a very human thing and we cannot hope to escape it. Therefore, in your goals and in your actions, ask yourself, “Who am I trying to be?” Let your goals and your actions be dictated by those who were truly the best in our world–by the Edith Steins, by the St. Thomases, by the St. Pauls. Imitate these people and those like them.
My students will remember another passage from Seneca, one of my many favorites, where he says:
“We must choose some good person and always hold him before our eyes; that we might live as if he were watching, and that we might conduct ourselves as if he were present.”
St. Paul invites us to do the same with the words, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”
Of Radical Greatness and Singleness of Heart
Always remember that the world’s freedom is not freedom, but slavery. And that is the great trick. To become free, you must become a servant first. “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it lives alone.” Do not do things the way the world tells you. The world is all too practical. The world says, “Do not fall to the ground…fight for your rights as a grain of wheat!…Become a professor of philosophy…don’t waste your talents in a convent.” Jesus says, “But if a seed dies, it produces much fruit.”
The class of 2018 is primed for radical greatness. You were born at the dawn of a new age–near the turn of the millennium. You are a group of men and women who are ready to shock the world–not by being brash and “in your face” as previous generations have tried it. But by singleness of heart, by obedience to God, by personal piety and by working harder than anyone else around you. In the coming year, likely all of your friends and everyone you engage on a daily basis will be living scattered lives. Set yourself apart. Display yourself as a firm, free and saintly personality.
You will be firm by having singleness of heart. You will be free by first becoming a slave–even St. Paul called himself a “slave of Christ”–and you will be saintly through personal piety. Pray for each of these things and they shall be yours.
I have never been more optimistic about the future than I am at this moment–finally seeing your faces and knowing that the future rests on you. I am so proud of each and every one of you! I trust that God Almighty has prepared you for the test. The generation of obedience is going into the world. In your own way, each of you is embarking on a hero’s quest. No need to shy away now.
And with that…congratulations Kolbe Class of 2018!!!