President Favazza, Abbot Mark, the Benedictine community, Fr. Stewart, honorary degree recipients, members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished faculty and staff, families, friends, and my fellow members of the Class of 2022,
Good morning and thank you for the incredible honor of speaking to you today.
“What was your turning point? When did you realize the significance of your time here at Saint Anselm College?” I was recently asked these questions by one of my professors.
My turning point happened during our very first year here, in my Conversatio class, right over here in Joseph Hall.
My wise professor, Fr. Augustine, had suspected that we were not all completing our assigned Frankenstein readings. On one cold autumn morning at the beginning of class, he gave us a very surprising pop quiz on that day’s assigned passage. My heart raced with anxiety. This was highly unusual for his class.
After we handed in our quizzes, many with shamefully vague answers, or worse, blank pages, Fr. A took a moment and then said to the class very solemnly, “It is a privilege that we get to read Mary Shelley. We get to read a work of art and then come to this nice classroom, where we discuss wonderful ideas in literature and beyond. There are so many people in the world who could never even dream of getting the chance to do what we are doing.”
When he said this to us, I thought about the millions of people who, for a variety of reasons, may never be able to read the works on my syllabi. It became tremendously clear to me how irresponsible it is to skip readings for any class because this habit, over time, would squander the gift of our education. Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” and my fellow Anselmians, a Saint Anselm education is an extraordinary treasure, arming us to help bring peace to a divided and troubled world.
In a world plagued by so many injustices and immense uncertainty, it is our Catholic and Benedictine education upon which we will build our personal and professional lives in service to others. So many colleges and universities today are solely concerned with manufacturing the next generation of innovators, entrepreneurs, and ambitious professionals. While these things are not bad, by any means, let us recognize the privilege of having attended a school that explicitly emphasizes the dignity of the human person alongside the pursuit of excellence. A nursing program that stresses compassion, a business program that teaches ethics, biology and chemistry programs that express the seeking of Truth—these, along with the faith-seeking-understanding tradition found in every discipline, are what make Saint Anselm so special.
I wrote my senior English thesis on the great poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who said, among other things, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” How clear that sentiment has become to me on our magnificent Hilltop: in the dazzling sunrises and blazing sunsets, the kaleidoscopic windows of the Abbey Church at Mass, the beauty of this campus in all seasons.
Fr. Hopkins also declared: “Christ plays in ten thousand places / Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his.” I have seen this too: in the friendly cheer at our annual gingerbread contest and Christmas feast, the comradery at sporting events, the art of storytelling in our Abbey Player shows, the cordial laughter in late night c shop runs with friends, and yes, in the thrill of hitting “submit” on Canvas at 11:59 pm, after receiving so much encouragement from classmates.
As the Class of 2022, we witnessed the joyful inauguration of our 11th College president, the wonder of the ABC News Democratic debate in February of 2020, and the very next month, we got to see what Saint Anselm College looks like online, full-time!
In our triumphant return to the Hilltop that fall, in the midst of navigating burdensome, albeit successful, COVID protocols, we as upperclassmen were responsible for sharing with new Anselmians the stories of what life on the Hilltop was like before every hallway was one-way. One story that comes to mind is that of the mistakenly stolen ketchup dispenser in c-shop . . . no questions asked.
I hope we never stop sharing stories of our time here and that we go out into the world singing the praises of our alma mater because our Saint Anselm education was never meant to be kept for ourselves. With haste and with joy let us go forth on this sunny, hot day to share the light that has been given to us by our beloved professors, mentors, members of the monastic community, and friends.
On our orientation weekend, no one could have predicted that our college years would include several semesters of Zoom lectures and the ever-present threat of being quarantined in Collin’s House, on top of the usual papers, assignments, and late nights in the library. Aristotle was not joking when he said, “the roots of education are bitter,” but I believe his claim that “the fruits of it are sweet.”
Going forward, I am eager to watch our class achieve the goals that we set for ourselves during our time here. From this class, we may have doctors, lawyers, educators, nurses, businessmen and women, social workers, police officers, scientists, psychologists, journalists—you name it. Mostly, I hope and believe we will have creative and generous human beings. And as we share our talents and education with those around us, let us remember that the Rule of Saint Benedict states: “[our] way of acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else.” And I pray that if life is anything like Conversatio and ever hands us another pop quiz, we will never be unprepared.
Congratulations, Class of 2022! May God bless you all abundantly and guide you on your “Way of Life!”
Each year the Saint Anselm College Chapter of the American Association of University Professors presents the Distinguished Faculty Award. The award reads: "For excellence in teaching and scholarship, contributions to the academic community through active and positive relations with colleagues and students, and an involved concern for humanity."
Where does one begin when talking about this year's recipient? If something is happening on this college campus, this individual is sure to be involved. They are the model of mentorship, collegiality, teaching, and academic leadership. They have selflessly served in extremely demanding leadership roles that were vitally important in shaping the College and done so with a combination of compassion, justice, and honesty. Their teaching regularly earns them the unofficial award we all dream of receiving: students who excitedly describe how a class changed how they think about the world. One student shared the following: "They are one of the few essential, beautiful people in this world who hold such a vast breadth of knowledge and have the humility and courage to wield this knowledge wisely. They are an advocate both inside and outside the classroom. I hope to emulate the dedication, enthusiasm, and mentorship to the service of others that I see them demonstrate every day. They make Saint Anselm College a brighter and more equitable place, and it has been an honor to be one of their students".
This individual joined the Saint Anselm College community in 2008 after a distinguished undergraduate and graduate career at Purdue University. As a political sociologist, her research interests include media studies of social problems, wartime effects on patriotic sentiment, gender and politics, and rhetoric of ambivalence and public policy concerning the homeless. She is a widely published author of multiple articles, chapters, and books focused on her ongoing research of these topics. She is committed to undergraduate, interdisciplinary research and has presented with Saint Anselm students at many conferences. Her dedication to the College is exemplary. Year after year, she plays an integral role in ensuring the future of the College as an educator, researcher and active member of this community through her work with the Faculty Senate, many college committees and as a department chair.
This individual’s spirit and tenacity emerged at a young age. Her parents share she was an extremely bright child, sensitive, self-dependent and a natural leader. She embraced life with a gentle, but tenacious hand. Her spirit shone through daily whether it was climbing up on top of her house in Brownsburg, IN at four years old to help her father shingle the roof or winning divisional championships with her St. Malachy Shamrock kickball team. After talking to her husband, Jim, and her parents, Vicki and John, it is clear that tradition and family are of the utmost importance to this year’s recipient. Her family, who is here today, speak to how she loves Saint Anselm College and the Benedictine community and how that love is reflected in her commitment and work ethic. She thinks of this community as part of their family. Her parents also shared “God created a special soul in her. Her exuberance for life is inspirational. She motivates others to be the best of themselves”.
It's my great pleasure to present the 2022 American Association of University Professors Distinguished Faculty Award to Professor of Sociology, Dr. Tauna Starbuck Sisco.
Just three weeks ago, we had the pleasure of hosting the filmmaker and documentarian Ken Burns on our campus to support the launch of the Gregory J. Grappone ’04 Humanities Institute. Like so many in the crowd, I was struck by Ken’s deep humility, his commitment to treat everyone as an equal, and his wisdom born from reading and studying so many historical persons and events.
One specific thing that struck me was his reflection on doubt. He believes that doubt is what drives us to be more reflective, more open and more humble about our beliefs. It is a good thing, not something to be feared or avoided. Yes, sometimes doubt can make us uncomfortable and make us question everything. In these moments, we have a choice: do we stay open to it and push the limits of our knowledge to seek truth, or do we close ourselves off and retreat into the cave of our well-worn biases?
From a religious perspective, sometimes you hear that the opposite of doubt is faith. But Ken challenged us to consider another candidate as doubt’s opposite: certainty. Certainty keeps doubt away and it is very intoxicating and can even be very dangerous. It can lead us into our own solitary caves where, at best, we become totally comfortable with our view of the world, or, at worst, we actually begin to believe that our truths and insights are superior to everyone else’s. Sadly, we see this dynamic at work when a powerful political leader makes the decision to inflict destruction and death on a neighboring country or when an 18-year old makes the racially motivated decision to murder 10 innocent people in Buffalo. Solitary certainty without openness to new knowledge is very dangerous indeed.
I use the image of a cave very intentionally. Early in my teaching career, in an interdisciplinary humanities class, we read about two famous caves. The first, in Book IX of the Odyssey, is about Odysseus’ encounter in a cave with the monstrous, flesh-eating and solitary Cyclops. (If you read some or all of the Odyssey, give me an Amen!) Homer tells us that the Cyclops “have no laws nor assemblies…but live in caves…and they take no account of their neighbors.” No community, no regard for others. In fact, the Cyclops is the textbook example of an “idiotes, the Greek term for people who had no interest in politics or being a citizen. I don’t need to tell you the English word that derives from this term. All I can say that it is a word we couldn’t use in our house!
The second cave story is the famous allegory of the cave in Plato’s The Republic. Here, Plato imagines a group of prisoners chained in a cave where they only can see reflections of objects cast on a wall in front of them by a fire behind them. They believe such reflections is the sum of all reality. So what would happen if one of the prisoners breaks free and leaves the cave? A new reality is encountered and knowledge is expanded. Would the prisoner return to the cave to liberate the others? Plato reflects that if so, the other prisoners may want to kill him since they would not want to leave the certainty of their cave. (If you have read any Plato, give me an Amen!).
Two stories about caves. The first about the absence of community and citizenship, the second about the process of knowledge. So here is my point: Only through regard for others, only when we form communities, can we gain knowledge if we are humble enough to seek it, and only through knowledge can we be grow in wisdom and contribute to our communities.
If you leave this Hilltop and have absolute certainty about every issue to the point that nothing new would ever change your mind, we have failed you. If you leave this Hilltop only open to those who already agree with you on most issues, we have failed you. The point of a liberal arts education is liberation from the darkness of our solitary caves.
I remember listening to a college president of a college respond to the question: What is the purpose of college? She responded without hesitation: To make citizens for a pluralistic, multiethnic, and messy democracy. Such an answer may seem old fashioned now with our emphasis on careers and financial success, but it still rings true to me. We can never abandon our commitment to make citizens who are wise enough to know that doubt is a good thing and humble enough to seek new knowledge as a response to doubt. In a moment when it seems so many know so much about so little, we are in desperate need of such citizens.
Class of 2022, all of us here have worked as hard as we can to provide you with an extraordinary education at Saint Anselm College. You commence from us today as Anselmians and we are so, so proud of you. But never forget that what you have been given is not a private good; rather, it is to seek and to serve the common good as an active member of your community. Volunteer, vote, be a generous donor to worthy causes, read broadly, choose social media wisely, and be an activist for equality and justice. Push limits even when you are unsure and uncomfortable instead of settling for the comfortable cave of certainty.
Congratulations, Class of 2022! Stay open to doubt; it is the beginning of humility and wisdom.
President Favazza, Trustees, Members of the Monastic Community, honored guests, thank you for this opportunity. I address these remarks to the Class of 2022, whose graduation gives us the joyful occasion to gather in a place of learning and prayer.
I will lift up four themes for your consideration: Courage, Providence, Friendship, and Gratitude. As I do so, I will sometimes commit the sin of speaking about myself. I want you to be assured that anything in the way of wisdom that I share with you was hard-won. It’s not something I read in a book (or even wrote in a book). What I share with you is what has come to sustain me.
Aristotle described courage as the virtue that moderates our instincts toward recklessness on one hand and cowardice on the other. In other words, courage is not just being brave, but being wise in choosing your battles, and when they are not yours to choose, making a plan to see things through. To be where you are today has been a continual exercise of the virtue of courage.
Some of you have overcome great obstacles to arrive at this day. Others of you may have had a smoother path. But all of you have had to sweat to get here. Such sustained effort is courage in action.
Well done! But alas, you’re not finished. Your future consists of variables and unknowns, many more than for my graduating class in 1979. You will be the ones to solve the problems that face our country and our planet. I dearly hope you will succeed. To do so will require summoning every bit of the liberal arts education you have just received. I don’t mean the information that evaporates from your brain as soon as a paper is turned in or an exam finished, but the modes of thought and analysis that you have gained here. Much of life is problem solving, not necessarily in a mathematical or scientific sense, but describing the problem, gathering relevant information, and solving it. That skill is what a liberal arts education gives to those courageous enough to try it.
Now it’s time for some reassurance. You have a life path in front of you, but there is only one Being who knows what it is, and that being is not you. Jewish and Christian traditions speak of divine providence, the fancy way of saying that the jigsaw pieces of your life will ultimately form a coherent picture, but there’s no photo on the cover of the box to show you what it will be. Providence is the sidekick of courage, reminding us that there is a point to our lives, an ultimate realization of all that we are. Providence is not protection from mistakes or suffering but is assurance that our lives matter and that even our suffering and failures are written into the story.
I went to college thinking I would later go on to law school. But thanks to a teacher or two in other subjects, I realized that my heart was in the humanities. I ended up doing a kind of double major in a program that Harvard created for dilettantes like me. Lots of 19th century French literature, lots of English church history. Then I went to grad school for more. I started a doctoral program at Yale in 19th century church history, but within my first year decided what I really wanted to learn more about was the early church, especially in the Christian East. If you’re discerning a pattern in all of this, you’re smarter than me.
Along the way, I met a couple of monks from Saint John’s Abbey. I spent part of a summer at the Abbey so that I could learn enough German to pass my grad school language requirement. Within months I was in the process of applying to enter the monastery. After my solemn vows, I went to England to complete a doctorate, this time firmly in the early Christian centuries. I came back and taught the predictable courses, had the chance to take students to the Holy Land a couple of times, spent a rewarding sabbatical in Jerusalem. I was cruising on a clear path that would take me to that magic moment when the Abbot says “maybe you should think about retiring.”
And then, for reasons I won’t narrate, I was parachuted into my work at HMML, partnering with communities around the world to preserve their handwritten heritage, their manuscripts. I had never imagined working there, at least as it was when I was asked to step in. But once there, I found all of those random bits of knowledge and experience coming together in a new way. And the French? I use it almost every day to communicate with projects in the Middle East and West Africa.
The point being: I never saw it coming. But I was ready. How did that happen? Providence. And a fine Liberal Arts education like yours. Sometimes a new door suddenly appears before us: I encourage you at least to open it and peek inside, and seriously consider walking through it. It may just be part of the plan.
Friendship is life’s greatest gift. As one early monastic writer remarked, “humans are social animals: they do better in the company of others.” It also has many forms and intensities. Friendship is the heart of a good marriage.
Like marriage, friendships can have seasons and changes. You may find that the people you are closest to right now will not be among your closest friends in ten years. Life moves us on and sometimes away from our friends— joining a monastery in Minnesota in the pre-internet age wasn’t exactly the best way for me to nurture my college relationships. But you know, God provides new friends, and sometimes, providentially, those long-dormant friendships reemerge.
It is in friendship that we find perspective, the ability to see the blessings we have been given, help to know our shortcomings and needs, and the support we need to change or to heal what we must. God often speaks to us through our friends, so we should pay close attention.
One of the great blessings of my last few years has been renewed friendship with my sisters. Their kids are grown and gone, we went through the decline in health and then the death of our parents. We made a conscious decision to grow closer, to the point that every year we travel somewhere for a few days, just us sibs. Like all good friends, they’re a blessing because they know me well and love me anyway.
And finally, gratitude, the adult vegetable. All of you know the sacrifices made by your parents, other family, and supportive mentors to bring you to this day. I know you will thank them, as you well should. The virtue of gratitude is more than that. Like all virtues, it’s a muscle that you have to use and develop so that it becomes a habit, a fundamental disposition, the way that you see the world. It is no accident that the supreme act of Christian worship is the Eucharist, the giving of thanks to God for our very being and for the gift of salvation in Christ.
Gratitude is embracing the life we have rather than resigning ourselves to it. Even worse is comparing what we have to the imaginary life we think we should have because others live that way. Lack of gratitude allows room for envy, one of the most corrosive elements in the periodic table of self-sabotage. Gratitude is clear thinking, it is attuning ourselves to providence, it gives us a solid footing in life.
Living in a monastery with many personality types, I have seen the extremes of gratitude and ingratitude, and I know which makes for a happy life. My own father, always a kind and polite man, began to radiate gratitude as he aged. He was the only child of a single parent, born just before the Great Depression. Like most men of his generation, he served in World War II and then benefitted from the GI Bill that sent so many working-class veterans like him through four-year colleges. He had come far and been through much. He knew sorrows in his later life; my parents’ marriage did not end well, his business faced major challenges. But I never heard a single word of complaint. As he grew into his 80s and early 90s, he was nothing but gratitude and affection. Losing him was the most painful loss of my life. My only consolation was gratitude for the man he was, the man I began to realize was still with me, in me, pointing me toward my better instincts. If you don’t know such people, find them and learn from them, and become like them.
None of us has become who we are all by ourselves. Some of you have overcome challenge after challenge to be here and may have sometimes felt you were entirely on your own to make this work. But you weren’t on your own. You may not have had the support of parents or other family, but there was someone, probably more than one, who helped you make it. Be that person for others.
Write your parents/grandparents a letter of thanks. Handwrite it and put it in a nice envelope. And if your handwriting is atrocious, draft it on your laptop, print it out, and put it in that nice envelope. Texts are fine, calls are great, but nothing replaces the physical, material expression of an actual letter.
Every now and again, as you think of them, send your profs an email telling them how they helped you prepare for the life you are finding. Just a sentence or two can make someone’s day.
Send a donation to Saint Anselm College every year, no matter how small. Your support will make it possible for future generations to have the experience you have had. Most of you will be able to multiply that first small gift many times over in the years to come (unless, like me, you join a monastery).
And finally, don’t be boring. You may have heard about the road signs spotted in Alaska: “Choose your rut carefully: you will be in it for the next 50 miles.” Make sure that your life is not such an endless grind: stay alert and curious, thrilled to be alive in this universe filled with wonder. And may God bless you with every good gift.