Essay / Culture

A Graduation Speech for the Torrey Honors Institute

On Friday, we watched as the Class of 2014 in the Torrey Honors Institute graduated. Most of the students I have worked closely with in the last four years graduated, and I got the chance to speak to them.

How do you give a graduation speech without turning into Polonius? In his parting words to his son Laertes, Shakespeare’s old blowhard makes two mistakes: He hands out hackneyed advice, stringing together the kind of maxims that apply to everyone and no one. The commencement address, as a genre, is made for this kind of thing:  Reach for the stars. Be the best ‘you’ you can be—or, in Polonius’ version, ‘to thine own self be true.’ These statements aren’t bankrupt in themselves, but they’re thrown out with such negligence that they function better as soporifics than spurs. Plus, they beg a lot of questions. By all means, be true to yourself—so long as your self is a self worth being true to. If it’s not, be true to someone else. In any case, I doubt it’ll help to be told, yet again, to ‘discover your passion’ and ‘embrace change’ (two phrases, incidentally, that come from USA Today’s commencement speech bingo game).

Polonius’ second mistake is that his advice comes too late to be of any good. At the point he leaves for France, Laertes is already either the kind of man who doesn’t need advising, or the kind of man who won’t be helped by advising. It’s a bit late in the game for me to tell you seniors something new, as if by doing so I could alter your character. Besides, character is formed more than informed. You are shaped over time into who you are, and the most advice can do is call you back to that formation.

What to say, then? Let’s start with acknowledgment:  Seniors of the Torrey Honors Institute in the Class of 2014… You’re done. No kiddin. You’re done. I remember sitting in Sutherland 200 with about 25 of you four years ago this August. You were eager, quick with a joke, self-conscious, squirrelly, anxious, confident, confused, earnest. Freshmen, on the whole, are bold and loud. By the time they become seniors, they are nuanced, thoughtful. I hope, too—and I believe this is the case—that they, that you arrive at graduation having been formed by the Spirit into the image of Christ. I hope that your resemblance to the One who is your brother and Lord is immediately apparent, that those who meet you just know you two are from the same family.

Hope is a powerful word; but sometimes, it can feel flimsy. Sometimes all we can do is hope, and, in hoping, trust. Among other things, today is a day of entrusting. When your parents sent you off to college, they entrusted you to us—albeit with white knuckles and red eyes. That took a lot of guts. It took humility, too, and a fierce commitment to live in the midst of a host of unknowns, always with tantalizingly little information. Parents, families, thank you for entrusting your children to us.

Seniors, today we, your mentors and teachers, join your parents in entrusting you to yourselves. To graduate from college is to emerge from under the watchful eye of parents and teachers, to become one over whose shoulder nobody looks. If we have done our job well, you are ready to keep your own watch now, to keep a weather eye on the horizon. If we have done our job well, you are ready to take your place next to the hard-working women and men who assume responsibility for their own lives, and for the lives of others. After four years, countless hours in class and office hours, on the Urban Plunge, in Rome, in Cambridge and Europe, after Torrientation and the Dead Kitty Party and all those dreaded Don Rags, we may as well admit it—we love you. Do you know that? It’s true. We really do love you all. And because we love you, we want to do everything we can to aid and abet your flourishing. Today, the best way we can do that is by entrusting you to yourselves.

That’s quite a task—deciding and discerning the course of your life. It’s a pit-in-the-stomach kind of task. Turns out, it’s not only your parents and your teachers for whom today is a day of entrusting. Today you, too, are invited to trust. Trust your training. You’ve got 22 years of training at this point. Even in the last four years alone, think of all you’ve learned to do. You know how to locate a problem, dissect it, and devise a workable solution. That’s another way of saying you kept a pre-class notebook. You know how to navigate and nurture the life of a mid-sized group of people, learning to love in the midst of difference and disagreement as you push through the obstacles of sin, personality, and sheer over-exposure. You can thank your group, and all those hours with the same dang people, for that. You have learned how to live with a boss who tells you what to do, even if you don’t like it—or him; for that, thank your mentor. You have made a habit of doing things that are much too hard for you, of reading books that college students in our internet age have no business reading—and in the process realized that they weren’t really too hard for you.

Did I mention you have learned to read—I mean really read? You have learned how to take an author to task, how to listen to an author whose ideas make you nervous, how to separate wheat from chaff, how to simply pay attention long enough to know an author. If you can read a book, you can read a city, you can lead a Bible study, you can heed a person. I’ll never forget one of my first mentees saying to me a while after he graduated, ‘I’m realizing I can use my skills I learned in Torrey to get to know people. It’s like I know how to read people.’ Amen, and amen. Trust your training, friends. You’ve now got a storehouse of the best thinking on the biggest questions in your minds and on your bookshelves. As you experience new things, you will find yourselves returning to it.

Perhaps you remember one of the authors we read in Torrey; his name is St. Augustine. Augustine gets a bad rap at times. He’s a bit gloomy, a pessimist—the guy papered his walls with the penitential Psalms so he could meditate on them from his deathbed! He made moral mountains out of molehills, fretting over youthful peccadillos as if he were Judas himself.

But that’s just where Augustine catches us out. His circuitous path to Christ taught him that even the most trivial of infractions reveals the orientation of our hearts. Tell the story of a man’s loves, and you tell the story of the man. When the boy Augustine stole a few pears just for the heck of it, or just to fit in, he betrayed the bent of his heart—toward himself and away from God. For all the variety and vagaries of human desire—and he knew the labyrinthine geography of the human heart as well as anyone—Augustine insisted that love can be divided, at the end of the day, into a love that delights in self and one that delights in God. In fact, to love the one is, with appropriate caveats in place, to hold the other in contempt. Such a simple lesson, but one which, according to his own confession, it took this brilliant man far too long to learn.

It’s true:  better late than never. But it’s also true that better sooner than later. One of Augustine’s loveliest passages in the Confessions sings this lament:

Late have I loved You, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved You. And see, You were within and I was in the external world and sought You there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which You made. You were with me, and I was not with You. (Conf. 10.27.38)

Though the Confessions reads like a high stakes game of hide-and-seek, with Augustine looking for God in all the wrong places until he finally meets him in Christ, in reflection Augustine confesses that God was always with him. The problem is that ‘I was not with you.’ Instead, Augustine launched out onto the shifting sea of other, lesser beauties. He loved a phrase nicely turned, a pretty face, the roar of the crowd, the scintillation of the intellectual life. Beautiful things, all of them. One could spend a lifetime on any one; many have. But these things were not the one good, true, and beautiful Thing, the one who himself is Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. They were not Jesus.

I hesitate in saying this. I don’t want you to hear a call to abandon the life of the mind, to find in Jesus the kind of clingy, jealous lover who scolds you for loving anything else. To love Jesus is not to jettison a love of books, of music and food and friends and lovers, of children and chocolate and cheese. No, to love Jesus is to discover a world of beauty in all that he, together with the Father and the Spirit, has made. To love Jesus is to revel in his creation; indeed, it is to glory in it for its own sake, which is to say, just because he made it.

But I think most of you know that by now. You may have not known it coming in. But over the years of apprenticing yourself to Plato and Moses, Augustine and Dante, Luther and Shakespeare, Austen and Eliot—all in the name of Jesus under the leading of the Spirit—over these years I’m willing to bet that you have come to taste and see that the world God created is good.

But, dear ones, don’t forget to taste and see that the Lord is good. I’m not worried that you will forget to love learning once you leave us. But sometimes, I do worry that you will confuse the finer things in life with the one thing needful, that you will choose to be an aesthete rather than an ascetic, that you will love the theatre more than the church, the literate more than the poor and the lost. None of us plan this. We have regular habits of corporate and individual devotion. We go to church, study the Bible, love and serve our neighbors, even, at times, our enemies. I don’t doubt your sincerity—Torrey students are nothing if not earnest. It’s just that I know myself, and I know you. I know what it is to secretly delight more in a great book than the Good Book. I know how easily I can tire of the same old thing, even if that thing is as wondrous and unfathomable as the cross and resurrection of Jesus. You and I, we’re people who will be good citizens, good churchgoers, good employees, good spouses and parents. We will continue to say the right things. I don’t know if we will savor the right things. Augustine wept over the heartbreak of Dido; he was moved by one of the saddest stories in literature, a fiercely strong woman reduced to ashes by the fire of spurned love. But in retrospect, Augustine wept again over his self-deception; his heart had ached over Virgil’s art but remained cold to the love of Jesus. Will you warm to the love of Jesus? Will you cultivate a taste for the goodness of the Lord? Will you attend to him? Be curious about him? Contemplate him? Befriend him? Delight in him?

I have no idea where life will take you. Just last Friday, I had dinner with a handful of recent alum in Washington, D.C. Geoffrey was a bouncer for a while in a high-end R&B club; now he works for Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Jonathan and Janine, married just a year, are working as a teacher in a tough school and for a conservative think tank, respectively. Danielle, who could easily be running an office—or running for office—finds herself delighted to be a wife and mother, working a bit on the side. They told me how important it is to be open to doing something that comes as a complete surprise; beware the over-defined plan that refuses flexibility. I saw that in my own life upon graduating. In my tenderly conscientious commitment to do what God wanted, I shrunk back from initiative and risk; I stalled out and had a hard time getting the car started, despite all the awards, all the promise. I say this as a reminder that, whatever the next few years look like, they will look different from the way they look in your mind’s eye. Embrace that. Accept it as the way of the world—even, as the way of the Lord. He will disciple you not least in and through the varied, unscriptable, unpredictable course of your life. He will teach you to trust the Father in the power of the Spirit, to trust him in the face of the blank page of the future, and just so walk in the way of Jesus.

You’ll be getting a ring in a few minutes. On it are inscribed the words ‘Bonum  Verum  Pulchrum’—‘Goodness, Truth, and Beauty’. This is shorthand for all that we want to be about in Torrey. We want to think and talk about these three things, which are the best things. We give you this ring as a memorial, betokening the immensely difficult work that brought you to today, re-minding you—bringing to your mind again that to which you have devoted your heads, your hearts, and your hands while in Torrey. You have sought, served, and celebrated goodness, truth, and beauty.

But as a memorial, I hope this ring will also be a goad, prodding you to a continued, lifelong orientation and dedication to pursuing and publishing goodness, truth, and beauty in the world…. Those are nice words. But they’re still too abstract. Let me be direct. Jesus Christ is the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Paul writes that in Christ ‘are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.’ (Col. 2:3) You have hunted for treasure in the dusty pages of old books. Commit yourselves to a life of looking for the treasures buried in Jesus. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field,’ he tells us, ‘which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.’ (Matt. 13:44) Be that man. Buy that field. And joyfully get rid of all you have if only you can get that treasure.

May this ring be a spur in your side to pursue and publish the goodness, truth, and beauty found in him. May all you do be good, because you walk along his Way. May all you think and say be true, because you have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16). May you love only what is beautiful, because you have seen the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).

This won’t be easy. A blithe reference to goodness, truth, and beauty belies how contested they are in the world. Jesus is good, is himself the Way, yet he was regularly accused of being demon-possessed, being a blasphemer, of compromising himself by that bad company which, as they say, corrupts good morals. Jesus is the Truth, yet the way of truth in a world of lies looks like folly and leads to death. Jesus’ true word—the word of the cross—‘is folly to those who are perishing’, even if ‘to us who are being saved it is the power of God’. (1 Cor. 1:18) Jesus is beautiful, the loveliest one, his face shining with the luminous glory of God, but ‘he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.’ (Isa. 53:2) Your devotion to this One who is goodness, truth, and beauty may provoke the ire and disdain of others. It will look bad, deceptive, and ugly at times—to the world, to those around you, maybe even to you. Things will get cloudy. Storms will overtake you such that you lose the horizon. Batten down the hatches, and look to the ‘Captain of your salvation’, this one who is the author, yes, but also the finisher, the pioneer and perfecter of your faith (Heb. 2:10, 12:2). ‘In the world you will have tribulation,’ Jesus tells us, never one to mince words. ‘But take heart; I have overcome the world.’ (John 16:33)

Kierkegaard stirringly wrote that ‘purity of heart is to will one thing.’ While the years ahead will see you do many things, may you follow his counsel in willing only one. Consider the words of Mother Teresa: ‘By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus.’ Our hearts are full with pride and expectation today, friends. We love you. We’ll cheer for you. And we—your parents, your teachers and mentors—pray for you that, come what may, your hearts will belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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