Commencement address for the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
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I have the very happy responsibility today of congratulating the University of St. Thomas class of 2021! And also to express my pride in becoming today a member of your class. I’m delighted to be in your company. I would also, of course, like to thank and congratulate your parents, your siblings, your friends, and your professors, who have done so much to bring you to this day and who feel a very justifiable pride in your accomplishments.
My fellow graduates, I would like to reflect with you, very briefly, on the meaning of the formation in the Catholic intellectual tradition that you have received here at UST. A standard view today, on display in practically every nook and cranny of our cultural life, is that the individual person has the prerogative of creating his or her own values. Freedom, especially the freedom of self-determination, is practically unassailable. Frankly, I cannot think of anything more boring!
If we define our own values, our own truth, our own purpose, we effectively lock ourselves into the tiny space of what we can imagine or control. When we follow these prompts of our culture today, we become cramped souls, what the medieval philosophers called pusillae animae. The entire point of a Catholic intellectual formation is to produce magnae animae (great souls). A great soul doesn’t invent her own values; rather, she intuits the marvelous intellectual, moral, and aesthetic values that are found in the objective order—and then she responds to them with her whole heart. She thereby expands in a manner commensurate with the goods that have captivated her.
The basic purpose of the initiation rituals found among primal peoples around the world was to convince a young person that his life is not about him. Typically, he would be wrested away from his comfortable domestic environment, scarified in some way, instructed in the lore of his tribe, and then, equipped with only a few provisions, cast out into jungle or forest or tundra and told to make it on his own. This was not arbitrary cruelty; it was an invitation to move out of his own space and to discover the objective values in his people’s history, in nature, and finally in the spiritual order.
Your time here at the University of St. Thomas has been a kind of ritual of initiation. The point of these last four years has been to break you out of your self-regard and to invite you to an adventurous exploration of new worlds of thought and experience. I am concerned that “safe” and “safety” have become, for the present generation, such conspicuous words. No one would deny, of course, that a modicum of safety is required for any sort of peace of mind or achievement; nevertheless, one would be hard pressed to say that a religion that places at the very center of our attention a man nailed to a cross is concerned primarily with safety. According to the cliché, ships are safe in harbors, but ships are not meant for harbors; rather, they are meant for the open sea. In a similar way, you are safe within the confines of your own desires and expectations, but you are not meant to live in that small world, but rather in the infinitely wider and more fascinating world of objective value.
Your generation, I would submit, is especially oriented to the realm of value in regard to two areas: the natural sciences and social justice. In the course of my evangelical work, I find that there is, among many young people, a great reverence for the sciences and the technology that they have produced. Even as they demonstrate a certain impatience with other disciplines, they tend to accept physics, chemistry, medicine, and engineering as authoritative. In doing so, they are acknowledging an extraordinarily significant realm of value—namely, objective intelligibility. No scientist—physicist, chemist, astronomer, psychologist, etc.—could get her work off the ground unless she believed that the world she investigated was marked by form, pattern, understandability. The responsible researcher is not inventing intelligibility; she’s finding it, following it, rejoicing in it.
And you and your peers are passionate about issues of social justice. You are eager to fight corruption, discrimination, race prejudice, and inequality; you advocate for inclusivity, the acceptance of diversity, and care for those on the margins of society. In so doing, you are acknowledging the existence of certain moral values that you have not invented and that apply in all circumstances. None of you, I wager, would say that racism or sexism or human trafficking are acceptable in some contexts or that opposing these is simply a matter of personal opinion. No, in point of fact, you feel so strongly about these matters precisely because you know that they are moral absolutes that summon your attention and demand your acquiescence. Like the intelligibility of the world, these objective moral truths draw you out of yourself and toward spiritual adventure.
Now let us take one more step. If the patterned structure of nature and moral values are not projections of our subjectivity, or the products of mere social consensus, but rather objective features of reality, we readily ask, “Where did they come from?” The answer of the great Catholic intellectual tradition is that they came from the Creator God, who is intelligibility itself and moral goodness itself, from the God who is supremely wise, supremely good, supremely beautiful—and who therefore ought to engage our attention most completely. The great command found in the sixth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy and reiterated centuries later by Jesus himself gives expression to this conviction: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength.” We can now see the point of a Catholic education: to beguile you with the objective values—epistemic, aesthetic, and moral—that exist in the world and that direct you finally to the divine source of those values. Once you understand this, you’re ready for spiritual adventure; you’re ready to move the ship out of the safe harbor; you’re ready to become a great soul.
How can I address this assembly and not make reference to your patron, St. Thomas Aquinas? In the second part of his magnificent summary of Christian doctrine, the Summa theologiae, Thomas discusses the virtue of magnanimitas (magnanimity), the quality of having a great soul. He writes, “Magnanimity by its very name denotes the stretching forth of the soul to great things.” That pithy definition expresses everything I’ve been trying to say in this address. What are these “great things” that Thomas references but the objective values that summon the soul? So the key to a spiritually successful life is to go for them, to stretch out toward them. To stay within the musty confines of the self, or to see the values in question but never to reach out toward them, to settle thereby for a kind of spiritual mediocrity—that’s the tragedy of being a small soul. Here is St. Thomas again: “For just as the magnanimous person tends to great things out of greatness of soul, so the pusillanimous person shrinks from great things out of littleness of soul.”
So my young friends, fellow graduates of the class of 2021, identify a value that you have learned here at UST, some goodness or truth or beauty that has sung to your soul, and then give yourself to it with reckless abandon. Stretch out toward it, and it will give you satisfaction and finally lead you to God. The literature of the world is filled with stories of people who have spent their lives satisfying their egos, building up wealth, pleasure, power, and honor, but neglecting the development of their souls. Perhaps you have met such people: glittering on the outside but atrophied on the inside. And perhaps you have encountered the opposite case: those who have very little in the eyes of the world but who are vibrantly alive, spiritually on fire, for they have cultivated their souls.
There is a story told of Thomas Aquinas that I particularly savor. Toward the end of his life, Thomas was laboring over the section of the Summa theologiae dealing with the Eucharist. Though it is commonly taken now for a masterpiece, Thomas himself was uneasy with his treatise, convinced that it did not do justice to the mystery he was attempting to describe. And so he placed the text at the foot of the crucifix and asked for God’s help. According to the legend, a voice came from the figure of the crucified Christ: “Thomas, you have written well of me. What would you have as a reward?” The great man could have asked for anything—for fame, for wealth, for a powerful office. But instead he said, “Non nisi te, Domine” (Nothing except you, Lord). The patron of this university spent his life discerning and seeking objective values, and he knew that all of those goods find their source in the supreme value of God. His soul stretched out to great things and finally to the Creator of those great things.
The purpose of this university is to make you like Thomas Aquinas. So put the ship out to the perils and possibilities of the open sea. Be great souls!