By George Weigel
IRD emeritus board member and NRO contributor George Weigel delivered the following commencement address at the College of Saint Mary Magdalen in Warner, N.H., on May 4, 2013.
When Dr. Peter Sampo, one of the founders of this college, first introduced me to classic Catholic liberal-arts education in the Granite State some 15 years ago, the occasion was an alumni fundraising dinner and I had to confess afterwards that the cuisine was far, far better than I had expected. Dr. Sampo told me that colleges owed students two things: good teaching, and good cooking. I must say that the latter had not been my experience of higher education, as either student or faculty member, but I was delighted to experience what the other side of the mountain looked like — and tasted like. And since, as the Book of Revelation reminds us, the Kingdom of God to which we are summoned is the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, I think we may safely assume that Peter Sampo was right, and that good food and drink, and the convivium they enhance, are in fact rumors of angels: an anticipation of the joys that await us, eternally, in the Father’s House.
Then there’s good teaching. That, too, is crucial, for the arts of teaching have too often been degraded in our time into a subset of the arts of entertainment — when they’re not debased into a subset of the arts of career advancement. And as today’s graduates have learned, perhaps not without some chafing, good teaching challenges, even confronts, as good teachers invite us to learn and embrace what is true and good and beautiful, so that the true, the good, and the beautiful shape the contours of our life’s pilgrimage.
So on this day when we rightly applaud our graduates, let’s take a moment to applaud good teachers: Would those who teach here please stand for an expression of our thanks?
Our graduates are entering a world, the challenges of which could not have been imagined by you, their parents, and certainly not by the grandparents present. And by those challenges, I do not refer simply to those issues that dominate the headlines. I mean the challenges posed by the erosion of Western culture and its slackening grasp on the true, the good, and the beautiful.
How should you, the class of 2013, approach those challenges, knowing that you run the risk of at least ridicule, and at worst real persecution, if you proclaim and live the truth, the goodness, and the beauty that you have begun to make your own through your education here?
Perhaps a story from the life of Blessed John Paul II will help you think through what’s required.
In the 1990s, John Paul II got wind that a distinguished Polish actor, Jerzy Stuhr, was in Rome and invited Mr. Stuhr to dinner. After an appropriately impressed Jerzy Stuhr arrived in the papal apartment and the pope had said his usual rapid-fire Latin grace before meals, John Paul turned to his guest and said, “So, Pan Jerzy, what brings you to Rome?” The actor replied, “Your Holiness, I am playing in Forefathers’ Eve” — which for those present who are not close students of Polish literature, I’ll simply note is the most important play in the history of Polish drama. “Ah, Forefathers’ Eve!” said John Paul, who had played in it as a young man — and who then proceeded to recite large chunks of the play by memory. After a pause, the pope then said to his guest and fellow-actor, “So, Pan Jerzy, what role do you take?” “Holy Father,” Jerzy Stuhr replied, “I regret to report that I am Satan” — who is in fact a character in the play. There was a pause, as the pontifical eyebrow went up a millimeter or two. Then the 264th bishop of Rome looked over the table at his guest and said, “Well, none of us gets to choose our roles, do we?”
Now I rather expect that none of you, the class of 2013 of the College of Saint Mary Magdalen, has chosen the role that history has given you: the role of being the defenders of the truths on which the civilization of the West rests, and without which the American democratic experiment will crumble, perhaps into that ugliness that Benedict XVI used to describe as the “dictatorship of relativism.” You will likely have had other, less demanding, roles in mind for the playing-out of the drama of your lives. But that role — defensor veritatis — is the role in which history and Providence have cast you. And you may be sure that playing that role well will not be an easy or simple business.
How, in your role as citizens, will you make appeals to the natural moral law in a culture that increasingly refuses to acknowledge that there is anything properly called “human nature,” even in such elemental matters as maleness and femaleness, their complementarity and fruitfulness? How, in your marriages, will you live that first of human vocations in a society that treats marriage as a mere contract for mutual convenience? How, in your role as parents, will you instill in the next generation an understanding of, and a deep appreciation for, the fact that there are deep truths built into the world and into us? That freedom is not mere willfulness? That life is not just the pursuit of pleasure? That nobility and compassion and justice are the true measure of a life well lived? How, for those of you who choose the sacred ministry or consecrated religious life, will you live the vows of your ordination or consecration in a culture that often mocks the very idea of the divine and that tells you at every turn that fidelity is a great nonsense?
As you learn, often through hard experience, how to play the difficult role that history has set before you — the role of being the lead generation in an evangelical Catholicism that is a culture-reforming counterculture — keep in mind some of the essentials that the good teaching you have been given here have helped you make your own. Keep in mind what brave men like the Czech dissidents Václav Havel and Václav Benda taught the West during the last years of the Cold War: that it is possible, even amidst severe difficulties, to “live in the truth,” and that living in the truth is the greatest of human adventures. Keep in mind that John Paul II, when asked what he judged to be the most important word in the Holy Scriptures, immediately responded, “Truth.”
And keep in mind what the Catholic intellectual and cultural tradition in which you have been immersed here at the College of Saint Mary Magdalen has taught you about the truth: that truth is accessible; that truth is symphonic; and that truth is liberating.
Truth is accessible. I’ve often wondered what would happen if one took both a copy of John Paul II’s defense of reason — the 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio — and a tachometer to the Panthéon of Paris and placed them on Voltaire’s tomb. How fast would Voltaire be spinning in his grave if he were to learn that “the Infamy” which he had called enlightened men to “crush” had become the world’s foremost institutional defender of the prerogatives of reason to get at the truth of things? There are, as sociologist Peter Rossi used to say, many ironies in the fire.
Still, for the sake of the West and of America, you must play the perhaps unchosen role of being men and women who insist, calmly and reasonably, that there is not simply “your truth” and “my truth”: that there is, in reality, something properly called “the truth” — something which we can access, if imperfectly and incompletely, through the arts of reason. For if there is only your truth and my truth and neither one of us recognizes anything as the truth, then against what horizon of judgment, or by what standard, will we settle our differences when your truth comes into conflict with my truth? There isn’t any such horizon or standard. So either you will impose your power on me, or I will impose my power on you. Nietzsche, the mad prophet of postmodernity, saw this coming; Joseph Ratzinger prophetically labeled it the “dictatorship of relativism”; Pope Francis has described it as a world-without-peace because “everyone is his own criterion.” But the civilization of the West cannot long endure with only “your truth” and “my truth,” so it will be your role to re-teach our culture that truth is accessible.
Truth is symphonic. Fragmentation and disintegration are among the chief characteristics of our intellectual life today: Everything is in bits and pieces; nothing fits together; there is no “frame” in which the parts can be composed into a whole. Little wonder that cynicism, skepticism, and irony are prominent features in our 21st-century Western culture. In the face of all that, the Catholic intellectual tradition insists that, amidst real plurality, there is also pluralism: a symphony of truth in which the various instruments by which we apprehend what is true and good and beautiful play together melodiously, not in a cacophony of dissonance. And that which forms plurality into pluralism, individuals into community, fragments of intellectual stone into a cosmatesque mosaic of symphonic truth, is love: the love which is the basis of the unity of the Church; the ecclesial love, itself an expression of Trinitarian love, in which the world may glimpse the unity for which it yearns, but which it never finds on its own.
Truth is liberating. The unhappiness of so much of postmodern life strikes the well-taught Catholic as a true sadness, one that comes, not from the inevitable sorrows of life in this vale of tears, but from life in the sandbox of self-absorption: the sandbox in which the object of worship is the golden calf of Me, Myself, and I. As a counter-proposal, the well-taught Catholic, assuming another perhaps unexpected role, invites his or her neighbors out of the sandbox of solipsism and into the bracing, invigorating, liberating air of a life lived in conformity with those truths built into reality and into us. For all genuine human liberation is freedom in the truth of who we are and for the truth of what our eternal destiny is. All genuine human liberation flows from making our lives into the gift for others that life itself is to each of us. If you can embody that Law of the Gift in your own lives, even a jaded world will wonder, “How can you live that way?” And then you can explain: “I live that way because of the grace of God in Christ.”
“None of us gets to choose our roles, do we?” That little piece of papal wisdom is no reason, dear graduates, to avoid the challenges of vocational discernment — of discerning, through the help of grace, that unique something that God has had in mind for you from all eternity. But you can undertake that discernment through the prism of the truth, the goodness, and the beauty you have encountered here at the College of Saint Mary Magdalen. And you can do so in the calm confidence that the drama of each of our individual lives is playing within the cosmic drama of which the God of Israel and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the producer, director, scriptwriter, and protagonist.
And there is more. For because we have seen the ultimate truth of what God intends for humanity in the Resurrection we celebrate in this Eastertide, we may know, however challenging the times, that, in the end, the story is a not a cosmic tragedy, but a divine comedy, and that between now and the drama’s climax, we are called to live, not in noble stoicism, but in the pentecostal joy that comes from the fire of divine love.
Godspeed on your journey.