2013 Commencement Address
The following speech was given by Father Don Wolf on May 11, 2013, at St. Gregory's University's 2013 Commencement.
In the name of the whole Board of Directors of St. Gregory’s University, it is an honor to be here with you on this great day. Commencement, as you commence your lives with a degree from St. Gregory’s, is a proper day to celebrate.
We are grateful for your presence here. You graduates – it is you and your time here that is the focus of this university. All of the initiatives, all of the energy, all of the history of this place focuses on you. You are the reason for this place. And your families and friends who have joined you; they are also woven into the life of St. Gregory’s. The reason for an education, the reason for a university is to open the doors of life. When you open a door it is so that it may be walked through. As you go through it, you bring your families with you. They are part of the journey. As part of this journey, we are happy to welcome them.
And we’re happy that you have gained so much from your radical, liberal, Catholic education. At least we hope so. Your education has been radical. The word means: “at the root.” The promise of education is that what you have learned has gone to the root of yourselves to invigorate your lives in every aspect.
Your education is Liberal: we take the word from the Latin for “love” and from the word for “books.” We endeavor to bring to you the wisdom of the ages, not merely the sentiment of our times. Were we only to give you the comfortable and the contemporary we would have fallen down on our job. By linking your lives with the desire for knowledge and the pursuit of truth, you have entered into the flow of the life of the mind, a flow carried forward by books. Thus your education has been ‘liberal.’
And Catholic: the word means ‘universal’ and describes perfectly the hope of all who educate. There are no borders where true thinking takes place. In this institution founded by men from France who desired to share the richness of their faith and the depth of their learning on the frontier of the United States, the gift of education is one given to everyone.
A radical, liberal, catholic education is a hope for everyone and every part of life. We count it our dearest hope and greatest accomplishment that your lives, now touched by the power of reason and the certainty of commitment, might be forever enriched. We hope your lives might be like some of the other radical, liberal catholics like: Edith Stein, Karol Wotilwa and Richard Niehaus.
But the journey of education is not just for itself. Our university does not rise above the grasslands of Pottawatomie County just because we sustain the buildings and the faculty. It is so that the gift of education might enrich the lives of all who encounter it. The liberal arts exist as a desire to push out the boundaries of how to live and live well.
There are three elements to this gift of living. The first is financial. It is no surprise that all research indicates that a college degree is a key to greater financial security. On average the investment of time and money in a university education more than pays for itself; it is without a doubt a rich investment in the gift of well-lived life.
But there’s more to it than simply piling up credentials or the figures on a bank statement. University graduates have been taught the exotic practice of thinking. Graduates earn because they know how to learn.
It reminds me of a quote by Winston Churchill who, although a notoriously awful student, was adept at learning. His particular weakness was in languages, a handicap that set him back quite a lot in his early years. But he was not held back as far as coming to think. He said: “I learned how to construct a decent English sentence. Not a bad thing, that.”
Thinking, not a bad thing that; is the coin of the realm in our day and age. Those who know how to do such a thing are rare. The need for it has never been greater. Our hope is that such a thing be your gift to the world.
[A classmate of mine, newly minted from seminary-college with his degree in philosophy, went out into the world to find a job upon graduation. His first employer was the State Treasurer of Oklahoma, who hired him because of his credentials. He said: “I don’t want someone who works with numbers. There are plenty of those people around here. I want someone who’s been trained to think!” And so it is: thinking may be the rarest commodity in the world.]
And so, there are the dollars and cents of a good life made available by an education.
There is more, of course.
There is the fullness of life conveyed by the life of the mind. We usually imagine education to be that which touches the brain and, because it’s only that part occupied by the space in our heads, pushing it out to its limits isn’t all that attractive. But an education pushes out the boundary, not of our brains, but of our lives. And a life, your life, is valuable and important for the whole world.
Your life is like a balloon. Unless it is filled so that the edges and kinks are pushed out and unfolded, unless there is enough of the right stuff in it, it can’t carry anything of substance. And life, salted with the ideas and wisdom of generations, is a life worth living – it has a value and a purpose all its own, when it is full.
And to carry the image of bit farther: when the fabric of a balloon is boxed up and preserved, it is then it is most likely to tear and deteriorate. It is when it is pushed out, stretched and filled, pressured to its widest expanse, that it is most robust, strongest and least likely to be damaged. Oddly enough, so it is with our lives. Filled, they are the least fragile, the least likely to harm or tear.
And education is that which fills a life, and in filling it, makes it whole.
But there is one other part of the education you have received that goes to the heart of living. It is seen only by looking at just the right angle.
I hope you have a chance to visit around the campus of bit today if you haven’t seen it all. It’s not extensive but it does contain some treasures. If you do have a moment, stroll past the cemetery just south of the Abbey church. There you’ll see the world tilted at just the right angle to understand why so much passion and so much energy is expended here. Because an education is important for living, but living is a mystery framed only by the truth lying in the cemetery.
At the end of a life, as the promise of tomorrow ebbs away to the remainder of today, the content of a life matters. Not just the final, financial state, but the purpose of a life lived. And that purpose is disclosed by the life itself.
Think of it like the pioneers who first came to the tall grass country of the prairie. They rode through the stalks that came up to their shoulders as they were mounted. All was a sea of grass to the horizon. They weren’t able to spot a path forward; all they knew of their journey was the pathway left behind them. They knew where they had come from; it pointed to where they were going. It is the firmest hope of all of those who have had a hand in your education that the path you have walked points toward a promise of a life made whole.
As Fr. Richard Rohr says: It’s heaven all the way to heaven. The pathway already trod is heaven, if it points to heaven. The gift of a life is the life lived. As you walk it, filled with the gift of your education, it becomes an arrow, pointing to the final gift, pointing to heaven. At the cemetery the names of those who lie there are brief memories, pointers of the roads they walked. May your paths be a guide to everyone who sees you; may they be an arrow pointing to heaven.
St. Paul says that at the end, we will know as we are known. May it ever be so. And what we come to know, may it be a version of what we have come to know, because we have been educated.