On Monday June 1 I was privileged to deliver the commencement address to the class of 2015 of Seton School in Manassas, Virginia. Here is that address.
“Remembering the Past and the Future, Today”
There are certain times in life when we step back, and we take stock. We have an opportunity, if we are willing, to take a closer look. To look anew, and perhaps see what we have not seen before, which is always a good thing. At these times we do not look so much at the present; rather we tend to look back or look ahead.
This is fitting, for to have a right vision of the present, it is essential to have a right vision of both the past and the future. I would like to focus my comments this evening on remembering: first of all what we should remember from the past, and then also a few things we can ‘remember’ about the future.
Remembering is simultaneously one of the most important and most difficult things for us to do. Why do we struggle so much to remember important things? Remembering requires something of us, and indeed at times it can require much. This is perhaps most evident by seeing the contrary: forgetfulness comes easily to us; too often we actually spend time seeking forgetfulness. When we try to drown our sorrows, we are seeking forgetfulness; how many of our sins are actually things we do in order to forget? Given how prone we are to forget, we should give special attention to days for remembering. Like today.
Memory is actually the human way of approximating God’s mode of existence. In other words through memory, we can be more like God. It allows us to have many things present, in a sense, all at once. God is eternal; to be precise He does not need to ‘remember,’ for all things are fully present to Him at once.
Think about life without memory. What if as I look at old friends in this very gathering, we did not remember each other? How could we be friends? The very thought is horrifying. Memory is at the center of relationship; it is at the center of people living in communion with one another; of sharing a life—which is what friendship is.
One of my favorite stories that my children listen to on tapes is called Winter Cherries (told by Odds Bodkin). Tears come to my eyes every time I hear it. The old warrior Cledges goes to see the great high king Uther Pendragon. In their youth, once in the heat of battle Cledges had saved the king’s life. But they have had no contact for many years. Cledge’s greatest fear is that the old king will have forgotten him. At the key moment, the king asks the name of his visitor; the old warrior says, “Sire, I am Cledges.” A faraway look comes over the king’s eyes, and then slowly, with great feeling he says: “Ohhh. Cledges! Cledges.”
Today Ladies and Gentlemen, and I speak especially to you graduates, is a day to step back. To remember. And in remembering to be grateful.
Let’s consider A few things you might want to remember today:
First of all: the people around you: the ones who have brought you to this day. For brought you they have. They are part of your story. Here today we need to recognize this. Today is a day to feel gratitude and to express gratitude, for being proud.
We can begin with Mrs. Carroll, and all your teachers. Year after year they give of their very substance—materially and spiritually, to help each of you become a certain kind of person. Their lives are spent to give you something precious, even when you haven’t wanted it. In strict justice, you cannot repay them. But one thing you can do: you can remember what they have given. Beginning today, it is a memory. It is yours to hold on to.
And then there’s a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, a coach—someone who always had more confidence in you than you had in yourself. Because he or she saw you better than you saw yourself. May I make a suggestion: if that person is not in this room, call or write him or her. That is a good way to express your memory, and your gratitude.
And then of course, graduates, for most of you, there are people in this room who remember the day you were born as though it were yesterday. Maybe there was some trauma at the birth. Most importantly, there was you. They wonder where the years have gone. Their world was never the same after you were born; and it never will be. You are part of the very fabric of their identity. And they wouldn’t trade that, for anything in the world. When you leave their home, there will be a place that can never be filled by another. They know that; and you need to know that. Especially on great days, like today.
But there’s more. Sometimes in Scripture I think you can feel a tremor in God’s voice: “Even if a mother should forget her child, I will never forget you.” Each one of us needs to know this. And there may be some among us whose own human parents have in some sense forgotten them. There are certainly such around us in the world. To them I say: In God’s mysterious and loving Providence your parents’ forgetting can serve as a special reminder to you, and to the rest of us, of the central truth of our existence: It is His ‘memory’ of us that makes us who we are, that makes our life precious and worth living. It is His stable, loving gaze that holds us, secure. And no matter what we do, He never turns away.
Each of us should be a witness to this truth, by remembering it. And then living it.
Who or what else should we remember? For many of us there are people who are not here, who would have been. Already many of your young lives have been touched by the death of a loved one. Maybe others in this church have no idea, or will never know that loved one. But you know; and you remember. These are part of who you are. And you wouldn’t have it be any other way. You carry them with you. What a gift you have, in your memory.
We turn now to the future. Again, we look to the future, just as to the past, for the sake of living in the present, which is the only real moment that we ever have in which to live. One might reasonably think: looking to the future is even harder than remembering the past, since the future hasn’t happened yet, how can I know what is coming next?
The most important things there are to know about the future the wise man can already know. Indeed, if we are attentive to the natural wisdom of our tradition, we too can know what is in our own future. And it is in this sense that I speak of remembering the future: remembering what we can already know about it. Today.
Here are just a few examples, which we can try to remember. Many in the world will judge your success in life by the wrong standards: by your job and by your salary, by the prestige of the college you attend, by where you live, by what you look like: how you dress and the car you drive. While in reality your success will actually be much simpler, and more profound: have you put spiritual goods first—such as integrity, moral character, wisdom, friendship? Ladies and Gentlemen, your happiness will be fundamentally tied to the quality and the depth of your friendships. Good friendships never happen by accident. Their quality will reflect the attention and cultivation you have given them. That is your future. Have no doubt about it.
There are some things that we know about the future only when the great virtues of faith and hope come into play. You have perhaps heard the cheer: I don’t know but I’ve been told. The position of faith is: I know because I’ve been told. Period.
Perhaps the central truth we need to remember is this: all our labors in life, including our efforts to grow in virtue and righteousness, have their importance and their fulfillment in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and his Father, and the Holy Spirit. Our Lord assures us of this: “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” Jn 14:23
Dear graduates, you live in an age of forgetfulness. Be a person who remembers. Let us pray together to the Holy Spirit for help. Our Lord promised that the Holy Spirit would “bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (Jn 14:26). To be one who remembers is not to live in a fantasy world. Rather, one who remembers well truly lives in reality itself. So on this special day let us try to remember well together, in anticipation of one great day when memory will give way to vision, and we will share a joy that no one can take away from us.
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