The following two-part post was originally delivered as the 2017 commencement address for Trinity Academy in Portland, Oregon. Read yesterday’s installment here.
As you graduates well know, one of the most popular genres in books these days is the dystopia. Dystopia can be a powerful and revelatory form of writing, one that prophetically criticizes harmful trends that exist today. But most of our current dystopias feel self-indulgent and self-pitying.
It would seem that living in the past is America’s most popular pastime, at least for a large segment of the population. Which is ironic, right? The country founded with hope that it might become a city shining on a hill now so often laments the good old days, when it was supposedly “great.”
I call this the “narrative of decline” and despite it being a major bummer, it has had a mesmerizing effect on millions of people, including young people, if you can believe it.
But if you graduates have attended to your study of history well, you know that in every age there is loss and gain, rise and fall. To study the past is to understand how those who came before us were present to their own day and age and to equip us to do the same.
Indeed, if my understanding of your curriculum is accurate, you’ve spent the last few years devoting yourself to the two great disciplines of mind and heart that enable one to live in the present and be present: reading and prayer.
Given the rigor of your reading list, you’ve been given the opportunity to enter into a deep state of attention, to be alert to meaning and context, nuance and irony—the insights that lead us toward goodness, truth, and beauty. Prayer, too, brings us into this space of quietness and openness, of receptivity, in which the ego gives itself in generosity to the giver of all good gifts.
This sort of training is priceless; may you continue to deepen your capacities for reading and prayer.
Living in time, as we’ve said, is difficult. It’s confusing and messy and headlong. And yet at the heart of our Christian faith is the belief that God entered time and thus sanctified it. The Word became flesh and dwelt in time.
Did anyone ever live so fully in the moment as Jesus Christ? Did he not tell his disciples that God loves time and treats it as a means of grace? Time, he said, is a story that we need to read in order to see our place in the grand narrative.
The story of God’s revelation begins with the Jews. And just how did he reveal himself to us? As presence. The mystery speaks to us and says: “I am who am.” Christ echoes this when he says: “Before Abraham was, I am.”
Before God gives us laws or ideas, He gives us himself. He says: “Don’t be afraid. Be still. I am here.” In doing so, he makes it clear that all life is relationship and that everything follows from relationship.
The commandments aren’t arbitrary rules but ways of honoring our relationships, of being attentive to, and present, to the other. Indeed, with Christ and the Holy Spirit God reveals himself as pure relationship. This school is named for that relationship: the blessed Trinity.
To understand this fully is to get our priorities straight. People of faith so often go wrong when they put morality or doctrine before presence and relationship. When that happens, faith is reduced to moralism and abstraction, becoming legalistic, dry, and holier than thou. For that reason, Christianity strikes so many people today as inhuman, inhumane.
That’s terribly ironic because as an early Roman convert to Christianity once said: “When I encountered Christ I discovered myself to be a man.”The Incarnation, God becoming man, reveals to us our true nature as creatures of flesh and spirit. In that sense, Christianity is the only true humanism, a knowledge that you have been in the process of cultivating while you’ve studied the humanities.
Faith, then, is acknowledging a Presence, of being present to that Presence, of living fully and humanly in the present.
My hope and prayer is that you’re well on the way toward understanding this and putting it into practice in your lives, thanks to the education you have received here at Trinity Academy. Because if that’s true, you will be in a wonderful position to make a contribution to this world.
As budding Christian humanists, you can provide an example for the larger culture that faith is not simply a way of condemning those who behave in certain ways, but a journey toward a Presence that loves us. Following the example of Pope Francis, you can stress that the keynote of faith is not a stress on sin, but on the wider concept of God’s mercy, which encompasses both sin and grace.
By living fully in the present, you will avoid the twin errors of false nostalgia, which tries to restore a world that is gone, and apocalyptic fear, which tries to usher in the future by violence.
You will be able to embody an inner peace that knows God is always present, no matter how fearsome the circumstances may appear. You will know that Christians don’t need the so-called Benedict Option, which calls on believers to retreat into the catacombs; instead, you will move freely and lovingly in the public square, open to dialogue with those of all faiths and those with none, praying that Christ will be present and detectable within you.
Jewish thinkers have long explored a concept that has become central to their faith. In Hebrew it is called tikkun olam, which means “to repair the world.” For as I have said, ours is a beautiful and broken world.
You have been given the tremendous gift of an education that integrates faith, reason, and imagination—meaning that you have the ability to bring healing and wisdom to others, while always seeking those things for yourself. Whatever your vocations turn out to be, you will be able to pursue them in such a way as to make God’s love present.
To use another favorite image from Pope Francis, as members of the church you should be serving in a field hospital, close to those in need, present to them, shaping your life into a gift you will one day return to the One who gave it to you.
That is my prayer for you. Congratulations and Godspeed.
Gregory Wolfe, the founder and editor of Image, is currently Senior Fellow at the Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture at Seattle University. He edits a literary imprint, Slant Books, through Wipf & Stock Publishers. He served as the founding director of the Seattle Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing program. Wolfe’s books include Beauty Will Save the World, Intruding Upon the Timeless, and, most recently, The Operation of Grace. Follow him on Twitter: @Gregory_Wolfe.
Above image by Richard, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.