Six Guidelines for Living a Fulfilling Life
Commencement Address 2010
Father Ubel, Mr. Morehead, Mr. Adkins, Mr. Kimec, fellow teachers and staff, parents, families and friends, and class of 2010:
I am exceedingly humbled, honored and grateful to have been asked to deliver this evening’s commencement address. This month I am completing my 25th year of teaching at St. Agnes. Reflecting and praying about what I should say to you this evening makes me realize more than ever what a great privilege it has been to teach our beautiful Catholic faith to the students of St. Agnes.
In my comments to you this evening, I want to propose to you six guidelines for living a fulfilling life.
Guideline 1: Be a person who knows how to say thank you, who knows how to be grateful.
The great Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton said of gratitude: “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
You have, we all have, so many things to be grateful for. Thank God every day for the countless gifts and blessings he bestows on you: your very life, your health, your talents, your family and friends, and most of all the inestimable gift of your faith. Be grateful to your parents for their sacrificial love, wise guidance and constant support, especially during life’s most difficult moments. Be grateful to your teachers for all they have done to educate you and form your character and help you to become mature young adults. Be grateful to your friends for the good times you have shared, the laughter, the fun and, yes, sometimes the tears. And, finally, be grateful to God for the crosses he has allowed in your life, for by embracing them with trust and love, they draw you ever closer to the heart of Christ.
Guideline 2: Always realize that education is primarily and above all else a search for truth.
Indeed, study has been called a prayer to truth. In his classic work “The Intellectual Life,” the great Thomist A.D. Sertillanges writes: “Intelligence only plays its part fully when it fulfills a religious function, that is, when it worships the supreme Truth, in its minor and scattered appearances. Each truth is a fragment which does not stand alone but reveals connections on every side. Truth in itself is one and the truth is God.”
At a time in this country when many in academia scoff at the very idea of truth, I urge you to reject this false notion and remember the powerful words of Jesus in the Gospel of St. John: “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” It is only those who seek the truth who will ever be really free.
Love learning for its own sake. Believe passionately in the life of the mind. Never lose the excitement that comes from exploring the world of ideas.
Your education does not end when you leave high school, nor when you leave college. Learning is a lifetime task and a lifetime vocation. Never stop reading, reflecting and cultivating the intellectual life.
Guideline 3: Never lose your sense of wonder, for a childlike wonder and astonishment should be the normal human response to the world that surrounds us.
Be alive to the splendor and beauty of reality. In the words of noted theologian Fr.Thomas Dubay: “God loves to astound us, for every single thing he has made is amazing, all the way from . . . the incredible technologies within any living cell . . . to the mind-boggling enormities and power in a single one of the 50 million galaxies in our cosmos” (“The Evidential Power of Beauty”).
Historically, the greatest thinkers and scholars in every field of study have demonstrated a common characteristic: a profound sense of wonder before the created world. Albert Einstein, for example, marveled that the universe is knowable, comprehensible, that visible reality is intelligible and can be understood by human minds, or, as he himself said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”
Famed biologist Lewis Thomas, who enthusiastically shared with the general public his joyous amazement with the living world, wondered why all scientists didn’t more often rush out of their laboratories into the streets shouting their exultation at the wonders of nature.
There are today, however, many people, including a good many young people, in our overindulgent, materialistic culture who are listless, jaded and bored with life. They are blind to the beauty around them; they seem to lack all sense of wonder.
Our lives are enveloped in mystery — both natural and supernatural. May we never lose our sense of awe and wonder before the incredible, often heartbreaking, beauty of God’s creation.
Guideline 4: Recognize the great importance of silence and take time each day to be enriched by the world of silence.
We live in a terribly noisy world. From every direction we are bombarded by endless talk, chatter and just plain noise. It seems that many people today cannot get into a car without immediately turning on the radio. They cannot be in their own home for five minutes without turning on the television. They can’t even go for a walk in the park without those omnipresent cell phones and iPods.
With all of this endless noise, is it any wonder why so many people are restless, distracted and anxious? They need — we all need — the healing balm of silence.
We need regular periods of silence in our daily lives. We need silence to think. We need silence to reflect on our lives and to address life’s deepest questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? What happens at death? What is the meaning of my life?
Finally, we need silence for prayer — deep, intimate communion with God.
Another name for God is silence, and, conversely, another name for the devil is noise. If there is one thing the evil one does not want us to have in our lives it is silence because he knows that it is especially in silence that we encounter the living God. In the silence of our hearts, we listen and hear the beating of a great heart, the heart of God.
Guideline 5: Cherish the great gift of freedom, but understand what true freedom is.
Freedom is not doing anything you want, anything you please. That is license, not freedom. Authentic freedom is choosing the good; it is doing what one ought to do.
True freedom isn’t something we win for ourselves. It is a free gift from God, a fruit of the Holy Spirit. We receive this gift in the measure with which we surrender our will to the will of our Heavenly Father. This is exactly what Christ meant when he said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
It is certainly no accident that throughout the centuries right down to our own time those human beings who were most free were God’s heroes and heroines: the saints. Because they submitted to God’s will, because they were obedient to their creator, and because they tried always to say, “Not my will be done but thy will be done,” the saints were the most liberated human beings in all of human history.
One thinks, for example, of St.Therese of Lisieux. This cloistered Carmelite nun was living anything but a narrow, constricted life. Her life exemplified the most expansive kind of interior freedom because she loved so intensely. Her heart was burning with love for God, her fellow sisters and the world. When, like St.Therese, we do even the most ordinary tasks with extraordinary love for God, our souls are set free and we share in the infinite freedom of God himself.
Guideline 6: My last guideline is the most important: Do not be afraid to be religious. Do not be afraid to bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in your daily lives.
It is not news to any of you that we are living in a society that is becoming increasingly more secular, a society hostile to Christianity and especially to Catholicism. Our task as disciples of Christ is to do what his faithful followers have always done: live the faith we profess, be true to our baptismal promises, imitate Jesus. As Christians, we know we are in a spiritual battle, and if we are going to fight and win this battle, we had better be well armed.
So, the first piece of spiritual armor that is required is prayer. We need to pray daily, for, as St. John Vianney used to say, prayer is nothing else than union with God and a foretaste of heaven. A day without prayer, no matter what else one may have accomplished, is a wasted day.
To fight this spiritual battle we also need the grace that comes to us through the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, the most precious gift Christ could have ever given us, the gift of himself.
To win the battle for our souls, we must live lives of virtue and holiness. In short, we must strive to be the saints God has called each and every one of us to be. And, the first step toward personal sanctity is to actually desire it. We must want to be saints or we will never be saints. We must ask for this desire from God, and he will eagerly provide it and all the grace we need to be holy.
The final line of Leon Bloy’s classic novel “The Woman Who Was Poor” should burn in the soul of every believer: “There is only one tragedy in life and that is not to be one of the saints.”
The greatest gift we can give to God and the greatest contribution we can make to the church and the world is to seek personal sanctity. Mother Teresa was often asked if she was a living saint, and her response was always that personal holiness is not the privilege of a few but the duty of all.
And, of what does personal sanctity consist? In a word, “love.” God, who is Love, created us to love and be loved. We human beings are on earth for one reason: to learn to love as God loves. That is quite simply the purpose of our lives. Love is the meaning of life and the meaning of religion and the meaning of everything.
There is a story told of a very popular itinerant medieval preacher. He would travel from town to town preaching the Gospel, and because of his great learning and eloquence huge crowds would attend his sermons. One Sunday evening it was announced in this particular Catholic church that the following Sunday evening this much revered preacher would be giving a sermon entitled “What True Love Is.”
The Sunday evening arrived, and the church was filled to capacity with people eager to hear this famous preacher. As the sun set in the west, the church was enveloped in darkness. Despite the large crowd in the church, all was perfectly quiet and still.
Finally, the preacher appeared. He walked into the sanctuary and sat down. After some minutes passed in total silence, the preacher stood up and walked over to a tall candle standing near the altar. He then lit the candle and walked toward the altar. Hanging over the altar was a large crucifix. The preacher took the lighted candle and first placed it for several moments at Christ’s feet; then he placed the candle at Christ’s left hand; then his right hand; then his pierced side; and lastly he placed the lighted candle at Christ’s thorn-crowned head.
The priest then carried the candle back to its stand, blew out the candle, and slowly walked out of the sanctuary of the church. All the people in attendance agreed they had heard many times about love, but now they saw with the eyes of their hearts what true love is.
“In the evening of life,” says St. John of the Cross, “we shall be examined in love.” It is the only exam we must pass. It is the one exam that will determine our eternal destiny. For, the school of Christ is the school of charity. May all of us work diligently in this life to prepare for this truly final exam. And may all of us be found worthy to meet again in the heart of God.
Thank you and God bless you.