On Saturday, May 16, 483 students were recognized for completing the necessary requirements to graduate from Saint Anselm College. Although the in-person, traditional commencement was postponed, the college celebrated the Class of 2020 with a special event streamed live from the Abbey Church.
Every morning my wife Paddy gets an email from CNN of five things you should know.
She shares them with me regardless if I want to know them or not! There is something about five that seems right. Ten is too many, three is too simple. But five, you can digest five things without feeling overwhelmed.
So today I am sharing five things that you should recall as you begin the next phase of your life journey. Notice that I said five things to recall, not to know. I say this because what I share with you today you already know. As an Anselmian, it is deep within you. But sometimes we just need to be reminded to remember.
When I was teaching full-time, I had the dubious honor each year to teach first year students Plato’s theory of the Forms. While I minored in Philosophy in college, and took a few more courses in grad school, I am not trained as a philosopher. So this was a big lift for me to teach students about Plato’s Forms. Here is Plato’s insight: the physical world is not as real or true as absolute and unchanging Forms. Such Forms are the non-physical essences of all things, of which objects and matter in the physical world, the world you can see, remind us of these unchanging Forms but do not full embody them. So, I can look around the Abbey Church and say that it is beautiful, but, according to Plato, the Abbey Church only reminds me of what beauty is and is not beauty itself. It can only point to the unchanging Form of beauty.
So why this very long introduction to Plato’s theory of Forms? (I am confident that all of the philosophy majors in this class could do a better job than me with this explanation!) Because it is the basis for Plato’s insight that all knowledge is recollection; that is, when we encounter something new, it reminds us of the Form of the idea or object already inside of us. Learning about this new thing is the process of simply reminding us that we already know it. So today, I am doing the same thing: simply reminding you about knowledge that you already possess.
So here are the five things that you know but I now remind you to remember.
Remember: Be thankful every day, even on the bad ones.
At this moment particularly, take the time to thank your parents, guardians, and family. You simply would not be at this point without their support and love. But you should be thankful not just when people do things for us or give us stuff. Why? Everything we have is a gift and, as a gift, we should give back generously and freely. Being thankful reminds us of this lesson. You will never fully know the sacrifices your parents, teachers, mentors, doctors, others, made for the sake of your well-being. You can never, ever pay them back. Just be thankful. And make sure you say it often.
Remember: You are not the center of the universe.
I have a friend who wakes up every morning and prays that God will give him the strength to live his live without the assumption that he is the center of the universe. This is a hard prayer since the easiest assumption, given the way we experience the world, is that everything revolves around us. Literally. Except that if doesn’t. But the only way we can ever know this is through reflection on our experience. This is the beginning of education and there is a close affinity to being educated and being humble. After all, wasn’t it another Greek philosopher, Socrates, who said that if he was the wisest man in the world as some claimed, it was only because he knew that he wasn’t? 99% of the world doesn’t care about you or the decisions you make. That’s OK. The challenge is: will you leave yourself behind and care about the world?
Remember: Being smart is less important than being compassionate and kind. This may sound surprising to you, having just completed final exams where being smart was important to get you to this point. But if you wish to live and work as part of a community rather than as a hermit, whether that be a family, a group of roommates, or a company, being kind and compassionate is a non-negotiable. As much as I admire really smart people, I know a few that I would prefer not to live with. Being smart does not give you a pass to treat others badly. While it might advance your career or your wealth, it will cost you your soul. Relationships are built on simple lessons you learned in kindergarten. Be kind. Help others. If someone falls down, help them up even if it means you lose the race.
Remember: The mark of every great life is failure and yes, this applies to your life.
Yes, the last couple of months have not been fun or easy. It is easy to hold a “pity me” party about what has happened to you, what you have missed, what you have lost. It would so easy to roll over and watch yet another episode of “The Office.” And now on top of everything, many of you are entering a very challenging job market. There is a lot to fear right now, not the least of which is getting sick or getting others sick. I can guarantee you that you will make mistakes and you will fail. As a result, you will feel pain and you will not be happy. What will be your response? You can hate yourself more for failing or you can realize that St. A’s made you a lifelong learner. So learn! Pick yourself up and learn.
Remember: In the end, there are but thing things that last: faith, hope and love and the greatest of these is love (I stole this from St. Paul).
This is where Plato could be right. Just because we have faith in God or a higher power doesn’t mean we fully understand what faith is. Just because we hope for the future doesn’t mean that we grasp the breadth and depth of hope. And just because we love someone or someone loves us do we understand the transformative power of love. Throughout the course of your life, you will be tempted to believe and hope for and love all sorts of things. Beware. Remember, your St. A’s experience has taught you to figure what is worth believing in, hoping for, and loving…and what is not. And no matter how much you have faith, how much you hope for, and how much you love, it will never be too much. Faith, hope and love are boundless.
So there you have it: the five things I hope you recall as you begin your life as a proud alum of Saint Anselm College. You have the knowledge: your job is to just to remember it and to allow others and new situations to assist you in recalling it. Plato would be so happy.
On a personal note, one year ago today, I received a life-changing phone call from Abbot Mark and Board Chair Ann Catino, asking me to become the 11th President of Saint Anselm College. In saying yes to this gracious invitation, who could have predicted all of the challenges of this year? First I had to learn to say “Anselmian” and then I had to learn how to be Anselmian. I am still learning, but you, Class of 2020, played an important role in reminding me about Anselmian values. Particularly these difficult last two months, I have witnessed your resilience, patience, kindness, and grace. In the face of it, I can only take my own advice and say thank you.
Though on one level, you leave the Hilltop as students in this most unusual way, at another level, you take the Hilltop with you. You have made us proud as students; you will make us proud as alums. May the Holy Spirit of love and wisdom continue to fill you each day to be a light for a weary world. As it has been for these past four years, so it will be in the future.
In the year 292, a child was born in Egypt and given the name Pachomius. Today, May 15, 2020 monasteries throughout the world including Saint Anselm Abbey, celebrate his feast-day, that of Saint Pachomius. For more than 1,500 years, monks in every part of the world have honored Pachomius as a pioneering figure, and as a vir dei, a man of God. For it was Pachomius more than any other individual, who was instrumental in encouraging solitary monks living as hermits, to live in community, to seek God together, to pursue their common desire – the love of Christ – together, to work and pray together as a single grouping of one heart and one mind. Monasteries as we know them today, share a great debt to that Egyptian of so many centuries ago. Celebrating his feast this day provides us a wonderful opportunity to focus on that one thing for which Pachomius is best known and remembered, and which also best characterizes Saint Anselm College: community.
It may seem odd that I would focus on the word community, on the theme of coming together, when it appears that our Anselmian community is somehow weaker today than it has ever been, that the vibrant and always strong 131-year-old community that is Saint Anselm, has been itself compromised by a virus which has weakened so much in our society and throughout our world. But I hope that you’ll agree that our sense of belonging to this exceptional place is, somehow, mysteriously and wonderfully, stronger, somehow more palpable and visceral now than it has ever been before. Was there ever an era more than this when we longed to be all together with one another? Has our desire for this community ever been more powerful than it is at this time? Have our hearts and minds and spirits ever been drawn closer to each other than they are at this moment? For our seniors who yearn to be here, and for those of us who today so wish you were with us in this abbey church, here, where you belong, our sense of place has never been more resilient.
Over the last four years you, our seniors, have been exposed to the idea of community in so many ways, from your icebreakers on the quad in the summer of 2016, to pondering the relationships between the individual, the community, and the divine in your Conversatio seminars; on attempting to grasp life’s questions from every perspective: theological, philosophical, historical, sociological, scientific? Our sense of belonging has been built as well on playing fields and in residence halls, in service to others, on campus and off, in discoveries made together and in making memories that will accompany you throughout your lives. You have become part of a community unlike any other. You, both as individuals and as a class have helped make Saint Anselm what it is, and helped set the direction for what it will become. Each one of you, in your own way, helped to form it, to give it its special character and you have left your unique and wonderful mark here upon your campus. This place has been forever changed because of your presence and your choice to become one of us.
The feelings of community run strong in any Benedictine institution. Community is in the lifelong, unbreakable bonds we make with the people we meet here, it is in our unique traditions, our special places, the inexpressible feeling that we belong here, with the people who are with us now, with those who came before us, and even with those of future years who we will never know by name. Though these are all wonderful aspects of our community, none of them individually or taken together, is its true foundation. So what is the ultimate basis of our communion?
What if I were to suggest that the source of our communion – and our community- is love? I don’t mean the emotion, the affection we have for each other, but that profound desire for the well-being of the other, and the most intense love imaginable: the love God has for the world of his creation and for each and every one of us. On the eve of your receiving your degree from Saint Anselm College, I ask you to consider this. Somewhere in God’s divine activity and in the unfathomable measure of His providential plan, He has guided each one of you to this particular campus. His desire for all who come here to study, to learn, and to live, is the same as His desire for every human being, …. that you might come to know His love. Those who, like you, are the recipients of the gift of a Saint Anselm education, we pray will - in love - share that gift with those future communities in which you will find yourself, however distant from this Hilltop, or however removed in time from this day. We hope and pray that you will always be a beacon of God’s love to all those whom you will encounter in the unique journey that God has designed for each one of you. The commandment that Jesus gave to his disciples from today’s gospel he gives to each one of us: “Love one another.” Even as we are so keenly aware in this most uncertain of times of absence and loss, of sadness and even great sorrow, we are even more conscious of the abundant and overflowing love that God showers upon us all, every day and in every occasion, those that are wonderful and those that are challenging.
Members of the class of 2020, because of the unique ending of this year I can assure you of this: you will always hold a special place here on the Hilltop. You will be remembered for your fortitude, and endurance, for your resilience and determination, for your good spirit, and for taking care of each other in a most difficult time. It is a special honor which your goodness and your grace have earned for you: No earlier graduating class nor any to follow would ever begrudge you this special place in our hearts.
I close with a blessing for our graduates taken borrowed from Saint Pachomius whose feast we celebrate this day, and who wrote the following words long centuries past:
May God bless you! May your springs become rivers, and your rivers a sea. May the lamp of God burn before you who reflect the hidden life of the spirit. May you be one strong in action and words. Do not lose a single day of your existence, and be aware of what you will give God each day. Sit alone by yourself like a prudent general; sift your thoughts, whether (you are alone or with others). In a word, judge yourself each day. May you put on humility. And may you take Christ and his good Father as your counselors this day and every future day. Amen.