It has been an unprecedented year at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts.
In the fall and early spring semester we enjoyed the tangible fruits of learning and praying together, of our community, friendships, and the graces of our collegiate mission and life.
How little did we know about what the future held? And yet here we are. Our seniors have completed their four years and will soon be college graduates.
Though our formal and physical graduation will take place in October, we could not allow this moment to pass unremarked.
All of you have worked hard together and made enormous sacrifices to become liberally educated—to leave the Cave and walk, sometimes stumbling, into the light—and God has blessed us with a community of learning unlike any other. If we had taken it for granted before spring break when we were last together physically, we take it for granted no longer.
For these last twelve years it has been an honor for me to be a part of this community and to work alongside our students, our faculty, and our staff to bring to reality the vision of liberal education that has been entrusted to us.
Each one of us is a bearer of our college’s particular vision of human flourishing and the particular form liberal education that can be the means to that flourishing in communion. We are all, in whole or in part, stewards of this vision. Let us all be good stewards and courageous defenders of that vision.
If I may, I would like to recall an anecdote that I proposed four years ago to our students, at the very beginning of the year, in which these seniors were freshmen.
This anecdote appears in George Weigel’s biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope.
The story goes that in the communist era in Poland there was a popular joke: the Party Boss asks, “How much is 2 + 2? The worker responds, “Whatever you would like it to be.”
Near the end of the communist era, a Solidarity poster read “For Poland to be Poland, 2 +2 must always equal four.”
This joke and political poster illustrate how ideologies can seek to hide the truth and how revolutionary the discovery and articulation of truth can be. When at the College we say that we seek wisdom and desire to “know the truth.” This is what we mean. We seek the fundamental truths that will transform us, transform our culture, and keep us rooted to reality, allowing us to thrive as created beings, made in the image of God.
During this same period in Poland, Karol Wojtyla (the future John Paul II) joined three other faculty members to create the “intellectual engine” of the Catholic University of Lublin. An engine that ran, much like our Program of Studies, on questions.
Through their teaching and studies, these four professors sought to clarify and articulate three classes of truth: metaphysical truth, anthropological truth, and ethical truth. In the pursuit of metaphysical truth, they sought to re-establish truths about the nature of things-as-they-are, reviving the classical understanding of reality as an antidote to Cartesian doubt and its progeny.
In the pursuit of anthropological truth, they strove to clarify the truth about man’s created and relational nature as well as his telos. And, in the pursuit of ethical truth they sought to clarify and articulate answers to the question, “How ought we to live?” They sought answers , however provisional, that were themselves not merely another “will to power” but that emerged from the truths of metaphysics and anthropology.
As our students know well, our collegiate community is ordered to dialogue in which we seek these very same truths. Behind every reading, there exists a fundamental question that touches on our quest to know things as they are, to know ourselves in relation to our final end, or to know how we should order souls, our communities, our affections, and our actions.
And yet our methods are not always philosophical in the most narrow sense, these sense that passes for philosophy at most universities and college’s.
In more recent years the star of poetry (understood broadly as poetry and literature) has risen higher and higher . We have come to appreciate—with Josef Pieper—how poetry can tutor us in the nature of reality through its gift of wonder.
Citing Thomas’ commentary on the Metaphysics, Pieper wrote, “The philosopher … is related to the poet in that both are concerned … with wonder, with marveling and with that which makes us marvel. … Thus, poetry and philosophy are more closely related to one another than any of the sciences to philosophy; both, equally, are aimed, as one might say, at wonder … and this by virtue of transcending the everyday world, is a power common to poetry and philosophy.”
And we have learned how the genres of literature—”the great forms of the poetic imagination and their deep unity in the human soul”—can capture and express what it means to be human at the most fundamental level. Poetry is not a competitor to the philosophical act broadly understood but rather can be its midwife, its teacher, and the source that ever expands the horizon against which philosophy roams. And it can teach reason to be humble in the face of the irreducibility of the human experience and condition. A syllogism can never capture fully what it means to be human. But a poem, a play, a novel, or a prayer can perhaps come closest of all.
I charge you therefore, to take these companions—poetry and philosophical wonder—with you wherever you go. Plant them in the garden of your life, tend them well and they will bear much fruit.
Finally, let us consider our motto “Duc in altum,” “Set out into the deep.” What does this mean?
Put another way, “What does it mean to allow Christ to enter the boat of our lives, and for us to humbly and joyfully follow him, Dante-like, as our guide?” “What does it mean to follow Christ without reservation seeking the beatific vision, the heavenly city, the wedding banquet?”
Pope Saint John Paul II, whose birthday is this Monday— set out “into the deep.” He followed Christ, and he—as one person—changed the world.
Our seniors have devoted themselves to liberal learning, the fine arts, and the pursuit of the True and the Good. They have cultivated joyful lives of faith. They now have the opportunity to leave the shore and to go out into deeper waters in a way they’ve never experienced before.
But what a catch, what an adventure awaits them.
As you, our beloved graduates go on your way, I would encourage you to set out into the deep by remembering your radical dependence on God, who loves you and called you from non-being into being and desires for you to live and flourish in communion with him and the saints. I encourage you to cultivate the garden of your lives through prayer and the sacraments, to be courageous in founding and sustaining the communities and practices you will need for flourishing, and—to quote Pope Saint John Paul II—to “Be not afraid.”
Though you, our graduates, will go out from our midst, you will always be part of our community. You will never be alone and we will uplift you in our prayers and rejoice in your courage and fidelity.
Let us follow Christ together.
George Harne, Ph.D., President, Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts