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Following the Way of Goodness and living in the Life that is true Beauty is absolutely essential. The deepest contemplation of great truths and even the Truth Himself is ultimately worth nothing if it does not issue in action and love.
Congratulations, Trinity class of 2022! You are finishing something extraordinary. And when I say “finishing,” I hope that most of you have not finished your time at this school in the sense of just being done with it. Instead, I hope you have finished something more along the lines of the words of our Lord when he said on the Cross, “It is finished.”
Yes, I know, none of you have redeemed the world here at Trinity-River Ridge. But to finish something means “to complete or to accomplish” as well as simply being done with it. And you have certainly accomplished something. You have, I hope, done a rigorous course of study of classical, Christian, and even modern wisdom that is pretty unusual for this day and age. You have, I hope, engaged in group conversations about great works and great ideas that are no longer widely known—even among those whose educational credentials might suggest that they should know something about them. You have, I hope, given time to think about the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. And I hope most of all that you have given time and effort to both know about and know personally the one whose nature is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty all wrapped up into one.
If you have done any of that with any amount of attention—and the fact that you have gotten to this point indicates that you have—even if you didn’t like all of it or found it burdensome or annoying at times, you are to be congratulated and indeed honored. For those who do the work that God has put in front of them, even if they would not have chosen it for themselves, are indeed to be honored. This school honors you, your parents and family honor you, and this graduation speaker honors you.
Now, at the risk of sounding abrupt, I’d like to shift away from this congratulation phase and talk about the other half of today’s event. We call this event, after all, not only a high school graduation but also a commencement.
If you have learned anything at Trinity, I hope you have learned to look at words very carefully. Our Lord Jesus himself, the Second Person of the Trinity, is said to be the Word, logos in the Greek tongue. We pay attention to words because in all true words we may well find not only some truth, but the Truth himself, Christ who “plays in ten thousand places,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it.
So let’s pay a bit of attention to this word “commencement.” The Online Etymological Dictionary tells us that the English word is a fourteenth-century one meaning “a beginning, act or fact of coming into existence,” that comes from the Old French comencement “beginning, start.” So this commencement business is not just an ending, ever so honorable though it be. It is a beginning. But what is it beginning?
The same dictionary tells us both that the use of this term in American English for school graduation ceremonies is attested by the year 1850 and that it is an “extension” of the term from its fourteenth-century usage meaning “entrance upon the privileges of a master or doctor in a university.”
Now, while Trinity is an admirable school that has pursued a rigorous, healthy, classical, and Christian understanding of what education should be like, you shouldn’t come away from your experience here thinking that because you have engaged the greats, you are now the equivalent of the master of arts or the doctor of philosophy in the medieval university. Our use of commencement is an extension of the medieval term. To think of it as simply the equivalent would be to bring yourself a good deal of trouble that would be frankly well-deserved. If you walk around puffed up about your knowledge of philosophy or literature, you might well come to the sudden realization that you have become one of the characters whom Socrates showed up or Jane Austen wittily and eternally satirized. And you will certainly lose out on the wisdom that should indicate that your first passes through much of this material at Trinity, wonderful though they were, do not make you masters or doctors. There are youthful geniuses in math and music, but the kind of wisdom gained from philosophy and literature is something that takes time and experience.
So what are you commencing on, then? It is not to be a know-it-all, walking around, thinking and speaking as if you have been there and done that when it comes to great works of art and literature, when it comes to wisdom itself. As Dr. Jessica Hooten Wilson, a writer and teacher friend of mine likes to put it, human understanding always involves the realization that we stand under the great truths. We do not comprehend them. That is to say, we do not wrap our arms around the great truths and hold them in some sort of complete way; our grasp on those truths is a kind of holding on to them so that eventually they can have a hold on us.
So here is where we get a glimpse of what it is you are commencing on, what you are beginning. You have begun to understand some great truths. You have hopefully begun to understand the Truth who is a person. Now you are going out to increase that understanding, indeed to develop your minds and hearts such that those great truths and the one who is the Truth grasp you.
Now for many of you, the next concrete step is going to be the life of the university. And that life of the university is indeed the path to one of those degrees such as the bachelor’s, master’s, or doctor’s degree for which one commenced to take up the privileges and duties in the fourteenth century. It is something that should lead you to a kind of mastery of the knowledge that you’ve already been initiated into. For those of you who are going on to university life, I hope that you will have some understanding of what you’re doing.
You are not going to universities to simply get credentials or to meet members of the opposite sex or play sports or go to parties. All of those might well be parts, some very delightful parts, of your university experience. But they can be done without going to university.
No, if you are going to a university, you are going there to gain what St. John Henry Newman called “a connected view or grasp of things.” You are going to a university in order to develop a view of the world in which you see how all of the various truths of the world are ultimately one truth. As St. John Henry says, everything that exists forms “one large system or complex fact” that is composed of many particular facts, having “countless relations of every kind, one towards another.” “And,” he says,
as all taken together form one integral subject for contemplation, so there are no natural or real limits between part and part; one is ever running into another; all, as viewed by the mind, are combined together, and possess a correlative character one with another, from the internal mysteries of the Divine Essence down to our own sensations and consciousness, from the most solemn appointments of the Lord of all down to what may be called the accident of the hour, from the most glorious seraph down to the vilest and most noxious of reptiles.
You should be studying all your subjects—and not just the ones you particularly fancy—as a means of gaining that power of seeing that “large system or complex fact” by learning individual subjects thoroughly and constantly trying to see how they are connected together.
And to really start seeing this unity of truth, you need to take another principle to heart: namely, the complementary nature of faith and reason. In other words, to see how everything hangs together, you really need to both “follow the science” and also “follow the theology.” You really need to study the person who is Truth, the one who St. Paul tells the Colossian Christians “is before all things and in whom all things hold together” (1:17), in order to see how it is they do so wonderfully hold together. Though the point is sometimes passed over, consider the extraordinary assumption that undergirds learning, namely, that truth is in fact a unity and knowable by human reason. All of creation is of God’s making, and He has given us the gifts—especially our reason and free will—to know and appreciate His creation, including the marvelous and mystifying creatures called humans. Our study and love of God’s creation can lead us, ultimately, to know and love God Himself to some degree.
Some of you might be attending universities that have these principles at the heart of their education, places where the course of study includes religious truth, which St. John Henry Newman said is not merely a “portion” but the “condition” of true general knowledge. If so, good for you! Some of you might be attending universities that do not. That’s fine, too. But this means that for you to really get what you need from your education, you will need to figure out how to continue to study the one in whom all things hold together by yourself and with others.
For those of you who are not proceeding to university, do not think that this address is ignoring you or letting you off the hook for developing your knowledge or a view of the world. For you are human beings, and for human beings, said the Roman philosopher Cicero, knowledge is a subject “in which to excel we consider excellent, whereas to mistake, to err, to be ignorant, to be deceived, is both an evil and a disgrace.” But it is not just knowledge of a bunch of things that we value; it is that seeing the world as it is that we value. “Not to know the relative disposition of things,” St. John Henry says, “is the state of slaves or children; to have mapped out the Universe is the boast, or at least the ambition, of philosophy.” Philosophy, love of wisdom, is the natural inheritance of every human being and part of our flourishing.
Your formation and study here at Trinity have prepared you admirably for the new paths on which you are about to commence in another way worth mentioning. You have had the opportunity to learn in a community of friends, understood in an Aristotelian and hopefully a Christian sense. Human beings are social beings, rational animals who learn best (both intellectually and morally) when we learn together. You could have conceivably read every book, carried out every lab, run .every lap, and completed every assignment alone. You could have been airlifted to a deserted island and sent in all work to be graded rolled up in empty bottles, bobbing through the waves to your teachers. What would have been missing? What more have you gained through your time here with teachers, students, family, and others, conversing, debating, listening, and wrestling with what you are learning?
In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis comments on friendship. “To the Ancients,” he notes, “Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtues” (p. 57). Friends differ from Companions because their friendship is about something that binds them together: “Do you see the same truth?–Or at least, ‘Do you care about the same truth?’ The man who agrees with us that some question, little regarded by others, is of great importance can be our Friend. He need not agree with us about the answer” (66). At Trinity, you have been introduced to several levels of friends. Your classmates have been friends to you, not because all of you always agree about everything, but because you have learned to converse and argue about truths worth caring about, learned to listen to the questions and insights of others, and learned to defend and articulate your own views (and possible even deepen or revise them). Your teachers have been friends as mentors. They have cared already about the truths you study with them for years, possibly decades, and are thus proper guides to the joys and frustrations of their subjects. The figures you have studied have also been friends. You are now the intellectual friends of Plato, Aristotle, Newton, Shakespeare, St. Paul, and the list goes on. You are not friends their friends because you are their intellectual or spiritual equals quite yet, but because you share with them that bond of caring deeply about the same truths.
One further note about friends. In education as in other aspects of life, friendships in a group elevate the friendships of each set of friends within this group. Allow me to quote Lewis at length:
Lamb says somewhere that if, of three friends (A, B, and C), A should die, then B loses not only A but “A’s part in C,” while C loses not only A but “A’s part in B.” In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. . . . [T]rue Friendship is the least jealous of loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to become a real friend. They can then say, as the blessed souls say in Dante, “Here comes one who will augment our loves.” For in this love “to divide is not to take away.” Of course the scarcity of kindred souls—not to mention practical considerations . . .—set[s] limits to the enlargement of the circles; but within those limits we possess each friend not less but more as the number of those with whom we share him increases.
In each of your classmates, there is something that only you could fully bring out. Likewise, in you there is something that has been brought out by individual classmates or teachers that only they could bring out. And this overflow extends to the texts you have read and the studies you have completed. In my own experience, I recall certain students or classroom discussions, even a decade later, that illumined a passage of the Summa or Confessions. Yes, you have read some of the greats, but you have had the great blessing to read them in this time and place with these teachers and classmates. Your intellectual friendships with Plato, Augustine, and the rest bear the insights of your friendships with the people beside you, and your friendships with one another likewise bear the marks of your intellectual friendships with the greats and of your study of them together. These are gifts, particular gifts that God in His providence has given to you to form you and take with you as you commence on your next step and to the friends who will be marked in turn by the new friendships you will form. Use them as you continue to pursue the unity of truth, that “one large system or complex fact” that is composed of many particular facts, having “countless relations of every kind, one towards another” as St John Henry Newman describes. Continue to surround yourself with friends (in the flesh and in the printed word) who care about truth. You will augment each other’s loves and help each other to know and love Christ, Truth Himself, who calls us friends.
Whether you go to university, serve your country, your church, or your family, or enter into a trade, you are to commence to know the relative disposition of things; to commence to know how the truths (lower-case “t”) connect to the Truth (capital “t”); to commence to know how the most solemn appointments of our Lord are connected to the lowliest reptiles or the accidents of the hour.
And most importantly, something you will not learn from any school or program or job but must learn in every school or program or job you find yourself, knowing the Truth is absolutely important, but following the Way of Goodness and living in the Life that is true Beauty is absolutely essential. The deepest contemplation of great truths and even the Truth Himself is ultimately worth nothing if it does not issue in action and love.
OK, I said I was done with that part, but one more time I’ll say it: Congratulations, class of ’22! You’ve finished something great. Now commence to know the truth and to act on it with great love.
Co-author: Catherine Deavel
Catherine Deavel is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota). She specializes in ancient Greek philosophy and has published and presented on figures and topics including Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Jane Austen, euthanasia, evil, beauty, marriage, family, and friendship. She and her husband, David, have jointly written and presented on literature, including the Harry Potter series, and the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
This is the text of the 2022 commencement address at Trinity School at River Ridge in Minnesota. Dr. David Deavel was engaged to give the address but was delayed in his attempt to return from England, where he and Fr. Dwight Longenecker were leading a pilgrimage. Thus, he and Dr. Catherine Deavel worked together to craft this address, which she delivered on June 11.
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