Saturday, December 19, 2009
I had the honor and pleasure of giving the commencement speech at St. Gregory's University this morning.
Here are remarks:
It is an honor and pleasure to be with you this morning on this important occasion in the life of each of you graduates, your parents and families, and St. Gregory’s University. For those of you who are concerned that I will talk for too long. Don’t worry! As a professor, I only talk in 50 minute increments. I ask [you] to be my time keeper, stopping me at 51 minutes. I’m joking. I’ll try to be brief so that you all can get on with your much deserved celebration.
The pleasure of speaking to you today is greater because, here, in this place, we can make a visual connection between education and the Benedictine order. In other words, we can literally see the debt the world-wide project of education owes the Benedictines. Look at the gowns you are wearing. Most of you have worn graduation gowns before – at your high school (and for you master’s students, at your college graduation). Now look at the gowns -the habits- that the monks are wearing. The two are intimately connected. Nearly 1500 years ago, in those dark ages after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, small lights of learning flickered throughout Europe as the Benedictines, founded by St. Benedict, kept the embers of civilization alive by collecting and preserving manuscripts and opening schools. No, this is not hyperbole, it is history, and you are a vital part of that continuing story. Cambridge University as well as the universities of Paris, Tours, and Lyon grew out of these monastic schools. Although Benedictines did not found Oxford, they played important roles in its development by the 13th Century. The gowns you are wearing today and that your peers at OU, OSU, Tulsa, and OBU down the street wear on such occasions stand as a silent but often forgotten testament to the contributions made by the Benedictine Order to Western Civilization generally and education in particular.
Joseph Ratzinger, in choosing the name Benedict upon his election as Pope, recognized, I think, these Benedictine contributions and their importance at this pivotal moment in history when, in Ratzinger’s words, we are threatened with” a dictatorship of relativism,” where no one and no thing is sacred. In a homily given shortly before he was named pope, Ratzinger said:
Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be "tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine", seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego.
In this short reflection, I don’t have time to develop and defend this proposition, but each of us, I would suggest, experience this relativistic influence in our lives, even those of us who attempt to seek God with our whole being. We can’t help but be influenced by these forces because they are simply part of the “cultural air that we breathe.” Outback Steakhouse’s “No rules” and Nike’s “Just do it” resonate precisely because the prevailing winds of our society uproot us from faith, family, community, and tradition, whispering to us that the goal of life is to be free of such attachments – such bonds – so that we might become “autonomous,” creating our own meaning, with the freedom to choose our own path in life.
If the Pope’s thesis is correct, our culture faces many problems and is truly in need of a new Benedict. But, more immediately a problem arises in each of our lives for which these prevailing winds provide no answer: How should I choose? By what criterion do I decide how I should live my life? Far from its promised freedom, this rootless and radical autonomy creates paralysis. Without an answer – without criteria for choosing, many, especially in your generation, are rudderless in a sea of choices. How am I to live my life? How am I to choose? And, can I be happy – truly and deep down happy however my life turns out? These questions haunt many people today, carrying, I suspect, particular weight for those wearing graduation gowns.
I spent the month of October this year on pilgrimage in Spain. During this time, I enjoyed conversations with perhaps 80 or100 young adults, mostly in their 20’s from 30 different countries, as we walked 500 miles across northern Spain on an ancient pilgrimage route called the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James). Some of these encounters were very brief – an hour or two as we walked for a short while together through vineyards on Roman Roads. Others were extended conversations spread over days or weeks, beginning perhaps while cooking a meal together in the evening and continued during a chance encounter while walking through a medieval town. If I can generalize, most of these young people had several common traits. They had recently left jobs, careers, or relationships. They were unsure of the direction to take in their lives. And, although they would call themselves spiritual rather than religious, they intuited that walking this Christian pilgrim route would bring them some clarity.
Permit me to recount one such encounter. While walking through a small farming town with its magnificent Gothic church, I ran into David (not his real name), a 26 year old Frenchmen who I had met two or three days prior. He greeted me warmly -“Michael”- and asked if I had eaten lunch. When I told him I had not, he shared his lunch – including a cookie – with me. During our conversation, he told me that he like so many others in his generation – your generation - was hesitant to make commitments – to the church, to politics, to jobs, and in relationships. He was interested in leading a good life for himself in service to the community – as reflected in offering me lunch, but this modern or post-modern paralysis of which we have spoken had overtaken him.
David sought answers by committing to walk in the footsteps of Francis of Assisi and the millions of other pilgrims who have walked the Camino over the past 1000 years. Without being fully aware of it, he had put himself within a tradition in which the answers to life’s most pressing and ultimate questions can be found. Although we are Facebook friends, I haven’t yet asked David whether he found the answers he was seeking. And, you parents in the audience can breathe easy because I am not suggesting that your sons or daughters need to spend five weeks walking across Spain in order to find themselves. What I am suggesting is that the Catholic Christian tradition within which you graduates have been studying these past few years offers answers to the questions that life presses upon young adults as they prepare to find their place in the world.
My friend J-Robert, found himself face to face with this tradition – and these questions - more than 20 years ago. At the time he was a highly successful business person, owning a large food processing company. He had faithfully attended church all his life, but I think it is fair to say that in many ways he and Christ were acquaintances or maybe casual friends rather than intimate friends. At some point this changed, and he fell deeply and madly in love with Christ. And, this created a problem for J-Robert. With Christ at the center of his life, shouldn’t he take seriously Christ’s words to the rich young man: “sell all you have, give to the poor, and come follow me.” J-Robert decided to do what any good Catholic would do, he’d ask Mother Teresa. So, he boarded a plane and flew to India, fully committed to selling all he had and giving the proceeds to the poor if that is what Mother Teresa directed him to do.
J-Robert said: "I went to see her with one question I had been carrying since birth. I am a fragile Roman Catholic born into the privilege of faith and wealth. I asked her, 'Mother, should I give everything I have?'" “Mother Teresa pondered a reply for 20 seconds and said, ‘You cannot give it: It has never been yours. It has been loaned to you. You can try to manage what has been loaned to you for God, but if you want to go further, you can try to manage what has been loaned to you, with God.'” "I was getting my answer," J-Robert said. "I knew then I had to follow God's hierarchy of love. My wife was to come first and then our four children. I realized I had my wife at number 200 in priority. Then were to come the families of the organization I was leading, and to branch out from there." His multi-million dollar company’s motto now reads “Pray so as to Manage in God.”
J-Robert is one of those rare people that you meet. Looking into his eyes, I could tell within five minutes of meeting him that he was filled with great happiness and that peace that passes understanding. That peace and happiness we all desire! I found out later that he is also, unsurprisingly, a man of deep prayer. Early on he had recognized his talents and made a commitment to use those talents for the good. Later, after meeting Mother Teresa, he decided to partner with Love himself in carrying out this vocation.
What I am suggesting is that for each of us, in the circumstances of our lives, God has offered us a unique and important way to be truly happy. It isn’t the same for each of us, but the opportunity is there. In short, each of you has the capacity for the happiness and peace experienced by my friend, J-Robert. Each of you has the ability to contribute to the good of your communities in your own unique ways. You can make a difference. I pray that each and every one of you has the wisdom to discern your talents and desires, the courage to commit them to use in service to the human community, and the faith and hope to pursue your unique vocation with great love toward everyone you meet on this pilgrim walk through life.