“In my end is my beginning.” So wrote Anglo-Catholic poet T.S. Eliot in “East Coker,” quoting the motto Mary Queen of Scots embroidered on her handkerchief while awaiting her execution. This famous phrase points to the paradox at the heart of temporal life in a fallen world that hurries on towards its end—which Christians believe will only be its beginning. So our graduates finish their business with us… and we call it “Commencement.” The moment which begins the march towards a vocation, toward productivity and progeny, wrinkles and middle age, senescence and the grave, and then…. Resurrection.
The ironies wrapped up in the term we use at the end of each student’s term of residency with us are heightened and resolved by a Faith that renders bitter death a bitter sweet, and finds at its core a seed that grows into something much larger than the fallen fruit. “[U]nless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) How fitting then that at Thomas More College we begin Commencement exercises with a Mass—an unbloody sacrifice, a death that feeds us Life.
On Trinity Sunday 2008 (May 18), the seniors of Thomas More College joined Fr. Alvaro De Silva and Fr. James Schall, S.J., in the celebration of Mass under the tent on the College green. The Thomas More College schola, led by Choir Director Elizabeth Black, chanted the propers for the liturgy in Latin. In the homily delivered to some 200 students, faculty, family members, and staff, Fr. Schall, explored the meaning of the Trinity in light of Aristotle’s theory of friendship—noting that God was never alone, and created us in His image not from a need for companionship, but out of abundant love. He called on all present to carry that love forth into the world, whatever their tasks in life.
After a festive lunch on the lawn, all gathered again for the academic exercises. The first to receive an honorary doctorate and speak was Prof. Peter Stanlis, professor emeritus of English at Rockford College, and a leading scholar both in the work of Edmund Burke and of New Hampshire poet Robert Frost. Prof. Stanlis explained how divergent philosophies of man lead to radically different styles of education, which shape (or mis-shape) students. Stanlis contrasted the educational theories of biologist Thomas Henry Huxley and the Oxford convert John Henry Cardinal Newman. Huxley saw religion as superstition and man as a clever primate who uses technology to make himself (in Descartes’ famous words) the “master and possessor of nature.” Education should serve this strictly utilitarian end. Most modern universities, Stanlis said, have adopted Huxley’s grimly pragmatic program. By contrast, Newman argued in The Idea of a University (1852) for a truly humane education which takes account of man’s Classical and Christian heritage, his animal and spiritual natures, and his faculties both for faith and for reason. This richer approach to education was once dominant throughout the West, but today survives only in enclaves, Stanlis lamented. Happily, he said, Thomas More College is one of them. He exhorted its graduates to carry on the task of broadening and deepening their humanity in whatever endeavors they undertook.
Next to speak was Fr. James Schall, professor of Government at Georgetown University. At once a scholar and a popular author, Fr. Schall chose this occasion to explore the role played by the study of literature in the search for “the highest good,” which Plato defined in The Laws as “to become as virtuous as possible and to continue to exist in that state as long as life lasts.” Apart from the love of beauty, the purpose of studying fictional stories is “to enable us find out things that we need to know but things that we may never have yet experienced in our own world before we need them. Literature, to which this College is devoted, allows us to live more lives than our own…. Literature and biography also prepare us to know what happens or might happen in the souls of others when they choose to pursue the various ends open to their souls.”
And what we see in those souls—or in our own—can often surprise us. Fr. Schall quoted a little-known remark of Abraham Lincoln, who once observed, “Nearly all men can handle adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Or, Fr. Schall observed, allow him to live in peace because “the activities of peace, if we do not know what they are, are much more dangerous to civilization than the activities of war.” For most of us the good life will take place in the workplace, academy, or family. There, another kind of moral courage is necessary—one that sometimes requires the rejection of pleasure and the pursuit of high and difficult tasks. Here the conscience is our only mainstay, a conscience rightly formed in a community such as a college rightly ordered. That is the deepest purpose of such a school. Fr. Schall observed, near his conclusion: “To found and attend a college named after Thomas More strikes me in our day as an act of courage.”
The final guest speaker to receive an honorary degree was William Simon, Jr., an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and former candidate for California governor. As a faithful Catholic active in public life, Mr. Simon addressed the civic foundations of our free society. “The Founders had a more all-encompassing view of virtue than we do in today’s society. Their idea of virtue embraced the importance of excellence, courage, and integrity. They also believed that virtue had to be grounded in reality and not be just a series of platitudes or clichés floating in thin air. Religion provided virtue its content and its inspiration, but also its sanctions. John Adams explained why that is true. Adams said ‘We have no government armed with powers capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, or revenge would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net.’” Simon warned of the apathy, nihilism, and emptiness that begin to prevail in a society characterized by a “naked public square,” denuded of the symbols and strictures of revealed religion. Simon called on students to be public witnesses for their Faith, in both private and civic life. “I can think of no mission more worthy for the graduating class of 2008 than helping to reinforce America’s true foundation,” he said in conclusion.
The ceremony concluded with President Nelson’s address to students, his reflections on Pope Benedict’s encyclical “On Hope,” and the pope’s recent talk to Catholic educators.