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Commencements always make us sentimental, but somehow this unexpected convergence of the meandering of a river and the perfection of the circle struck home to me almost as an allegory for our graduates.

Last week, the 37 graduates of the Class of 2022 at Wyoming Catholic College walked across the stage at the Lander Community Center, received their diplomas, and, in the next few days, made their way into the world, no longer as students, but as well-educated men and women in what the anthropologists call the “liminal” or threshold phase between one social condition and another. They are no longer what they were, and they are not yet what they will be. Soon, they will take up their first jobs after college, and what they do after that, no one can say with certainty. If you imagine a line that goes from Commencement in 2022 to the last day at work before retirement (assuming there is such a thing) some 45 or 50 years from now, what will that line look like for each of our students? It will not be straight, that’s for sure—more like the twist and turns of a river crossing a landscape.

In terms of purposiveness, lives are like rivers. Hold that thought for a moment.

A couple of weeks before Commencement, we had a faculty meeting about the math and science track, and our discussion of the beauty of mathematics reminded me of how much I had loved the lucid proofs of geometry in high school. Imagine a straight line, for example, docking with a circle in the pure space of plane geometry, so that the line touches the circle at exactly one point on the circumference. By necessity—this was what I found so beautiful—a line from the center of the circle to that point will be perpendicular to the straight line. That’s pretty basic stuff, but it was enough for me to understand Edna St. Vincent Millay’s line, “Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare.” A recommendation online sent me to my Amazon account for books on math (which I buy whenever this strange compulsion comes over me), and within a day or two I had in hand a book by Simon Singh called Fermat’s Last Theorem, about the most intractable problem in mathematics. It is as readable as a detective novel (and it’s my first recommendation for summer reading).

A few pages into his book, Singh discusses the relation between mathematics and the actual world. “One particular number appears to guide the lengths of meandering rivers,” writes Simon Singh. He points out that an earth scientist at Cambridge University “has calculated the ratio between the actual length of rivers from source to mouth and their direct length as the crow flies.” In other words, to take my earlier analogy, this would be like the ratio between an actual life with all its twist and turns and the imaginary straight line between graduating and retiring. “Although the ratio varies from river to river,” Singh says, “the average value is slightly greater than three, that is to say that the actual length is roughly 3 times greater than the direct distance. In fact, the ratio is approximately 3.14, which is close to the value of the number π, the ratio between the circumference of a circle and its diameter.”

Commencements always make us sentimental, but somehow this unexpected convergence of the meandering of a river and the perfection of the circle struck home to me almost as an allegory for our graduates. Suppose you took the length of an actual river and straightened it out and then bent that length into a circle: the diameter of the circle would have the same relation to π (an irrational number, by the way) as the straight-line length from source to mouth to the meanderings of a river. Similarly, suppose that all the twists and turns of a life that often seem so random, seen from a divine perspective, arranged their length into the circumference of a perfect circle and its ratio (π) to the perfect straightness of the diameter.

“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,” says Hamlet, “rough hew them how we will.” As I said to the polite (but probably baffled) audience at the President’s Dinner the night before graduation, this is really a meditation on the way that, regardless of what we do, our lives approximate a circle—every point on the circumference equidistant from the center. Dante might call that spaceless center God. The final vision of the Paradiso is of three circles, the second of which is imprinted with the human image, which is itself (as I imagine it) conformed to the straight lines of the cross embedded in human history: the upright of the cross as the diameter of that holy circle.

I’m reminded of Odysseus in his travels and his long circling back to Ithaka, which our graduates read about in freshman year. In “Little Gidding,” which they read in the last semester of senior year, T.S. Eliot might be describing that homecoming:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

And at the moment of arrival, just as the circle comes whole, the straight line of the journey will be revealed in the sacrifice of Christ. Such is our hope for our graduates as they leave behind Wyoming Catholic College.

Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.

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