08 May 2010

A baccalaureate address

Last I evening I preached at the baccalaureate ceremonies for Blackburn College in Carlvinville, Illinois.

Since my words were well received I thought I would share them with you here:

Madam President,
Ladies and gentlemen of the Board of Trustees,
Distinguished members of the faculty,
Honored guests,
Graduating members of the Class of 2010,
Brothers and sisters in Christ,

May the Lord give you peace!

I am grateful to you, Doctor Pride, for your gracious invitation to address Blackburn College’s graduating Class of 2010. Your invitation to a member of the clergy each year demonstrates your dedication to the motto of this fine academic institution: Christo et humanitati, for Christ and humanity.

I am grateful to you, as well, ladies and gentlemen of the Board of Trustees and to you members of the faculty, for your warm welcome and kind hospitality, which shows so clearly that faith and reason, when exercised properly, are not enemies but friends, for each seeks the truth which always leads to Christ Jesus who said, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).

It is, admittedly, a bit unusual to invite a Catholic priest to preach the baccalaureate sermon at a Presbyterian college, yet with such a large percentage of Catholic students enrolled it also makes good sense.

Your invitation for me to join you this evening is a magnanimous gesture of welcome to those who share your faith in Jesus Christ, in him who is risen from the dead. It is this common faith that led me to accept gladly your invitation, knowing that “God has made Jesus Christ our wisdom” (I Corinthians 1:30).

I turn now to you, graduating members of the Class of 2010. I know how proud you must be, for it was only ten years ago this weekend that I graduated from Quincy University. I congratulate you warmly for your good work these past few years; tomorrow your efforts will be well rewarded. However, it remains to be seen how well you will use the reward of your labors.

This evening I ask you to reflect with me on two simple – and yet very profound – questions. The first is this: What first brought you to Blackburn College? The second is like it: What do you hope to do with what you have received here?

The first question, naturally enough, likely has a great many answers, perhaps as many as are in your class. Such answers might well include a good, solid education; to secure a well-paying job; to succeed; some, perhaps, at the insistence of parents. Even so, whatever your reason I suspect that if we had here the time to list them all and to apply to them the Socratic method, we would, in the final analysis, arrive at one and the same answer.

This common answer, I am sure, would also be the answer to the second question, if the Socratic method could again rightly be applied to your various answers.

What is it that first brought you to Blackburn? What is it that you hope to do with you have received here? Reflecting deeply and long enough on these two questions would uncover for us the answer: the happy life. You have no doubt come to Blackburn College seeking the happy life, and you, no doubt, are leaving Blackburn College hoping that what you have received here will help you attain the happy life.

Aristotle was right when he said, “All men by nature desire to know” (Metaphysics 1.1). But what is this knowledge that we all desire?

It was, of course, the great father of western philosophy who famously said the beginning of wisdom – which the medievals said was the fruit of the pursuit of knowledge - is to “know thyself.” But it was the grandfather of Joseph, the son of Sirach, who wisely said, “If you are willing to listen, you will learn; if you give heed you will be wise” (Sirach 6:33).

If we, then, listen to the desires of our hearts so as to know ourselves, what is this knowledge that we desire? Is it not the knowledge of the happy life, how it is to be attained and how it is to be kept?

Consider happiness for a moment, the happy life. Can it be described? We know that we want the happy life, but we do not know how to describe it; we can say only what it is not. And we know that it is not this life because we always desire something more, something greater, something more fulfilling.

Saint Augustine once spent a lengthy conversation with friends around this very question of the happy life. They concluded that “nobody can be happy without possessing what he desires, and that not everyone who has what he wants is happy” (The Happy Life, 10. Ludwig Schopp, trans. [St. Louis, Missouri: B. Herder Book Co., 1939), 69).

Considering this distinction between desires and wants, they found that desires are more spiritual and eternal and that wants are more earthly and temporal. This led them to say that “anybody setting out to be happy must obtain for himself that which endures and cannot be snatched away through some severe misfortune” (Ibid., 11).

If you think that your time here at Blackburn College will bring you to the happy life because of the benefits with which your education will reward you in your various occupations, I must warn you that you will be sorely disappointed. It takes but a glance around the world today to see that material blessings do not always bring happiness with them.

True and lasting happiness comes with the possession of wisdom, for as Saint Augustine and his friends found:

The measure of the soul is wisdom. But wisdom is undeniably the opposite of foolishness, and foolishness is want; fullness, however, is the opposite of want. Therefore wisdom is fullness… Therefore “to be happy” means nothing else than “not to be in want,” that is, “to be wise” (Ibid., 32-33).

Whoever, then, possesses Jesus Christ possesses happiness, for “God has made Jesus Christ our wisdom” (I Corinthians 1:30). This is why we are told in the Book of Sirach to “frequent the company of the elders; whoever is wise, be close to him,” because those who are wise possess wisdom, that is Christ himself and in finding Christ they have found the deepest satisfaction of the heart, the happy life (Sirach 6:34). For it is in finding Christ that we find that which truly endures; we find him whom even death could not contain.

Christ himself beckons to each of us: “Come to me, all who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Do we not look so forward to the weekend because it is a time for rest? Only in Christ will we find the true rest, the true Sabbath, for which we have been created, the rest that comes from knowing the meek and humble heart of Christ (cf. Matthew 11:29). This heart was pierced for us and streams of blood and water poured (cf. John 19:34). From this fount we are all able to drink and quench our thirst even as “the deer longs for streams of water (Psalm 42:1).

The heart of Christ remains open to us all, inviting us to make our abode, our dwelling, in it as the dove makes its nest in the clefts of the rock (cf. Song of Songs 2:14).

If we make our home in the heart of Christ we can call out like the lover in the Song of Songs: “Let me see you, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and you are lovely” (Song of Songs 2:14). When we seek him in this way, the Lord Jesus promises: “I will open my mouth in story, drawing lessons from of old” (Psalm 78:2).
It is the word of God for which our hearts yearn, “like a land parched, lifeless, and without water” (Psalm 63:2). It is his voice that gives us wisdom, that refreshes us and gives us the everlasting life of joy and peace. It is his voice, he himself, who gives us the happy life, if we would but “listen to him” (Matthew 17:5).

After reflecting on this yearning of the human heart Saint Augustine declared poetically and beautifully:

“You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised (Psalm 47:2)”: “great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable” (Psalm 146:5). Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being “bearing his mortality with him” (II Corinthians 4:10), carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you “resist the proud” (I Peter 5:5). Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you (Confessions, 1.1. Henry Chadwick, trans. [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998], 3).

If we are honest, quiet and reflective, each of us will find this to be true. We have not yet attained the happy life, because we do not yet rest fully in God.

I urge you, then, most sincerely, members of the Class of 2010 always to “let his commandments be your constant meditation; then he will enlighten your mind, and the wisdom you desire he will grant” (Sirach 6:37). For the commands of the Lord are not burdens imposed upon us but the signposts along the way that leads to life, to happiness.

At the end of their conversation about the happy life, Saint Augustine’s mother, Saint Monica, concluded: “Indeed this is undoubtedly the happy life, that is the perfect life which we assume to attain soon by a well-founded faith, a joyful hope, and an ardent love” (In The Happy Life, 35).

If you, dear graduates, seek to cultivate in the field of your souls the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, you will always be near to the happy life. These three virtues, infused in us by God alone, if we use them well, will always keep us on the path that leads to Jesus Christ, to him who is the happy life.

Never forget the deeds of the Lord, and true and lasting happiness you seek will be yours! Amen.

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