(Trinitas faculty member Mr. Sean Johnson addressed these comments to the graduating class of 2020 at Commencement Exercises on May 29, 2020.)
You have been looking forward to graduation for some time, which means you have fairly well-formed ideas about what graduation is and what it will mean for your life. This is how anticipation works. If something is a complete mystery to us, it is very difficult to look forward to it with any great eagerness. Expectation grows with understanding; I have been in the classroom with you for the last 36 weeks (most of them, anyway) and I know how fervently you have been looking forward to this day and what you think it signifies.
And that’s my cue.
There is something you may not yet understand about graduation. In this season you have heard a great deal of talk about goodbyes, about “the last” this or that, “the end” of this or that, talk about where you will be next year and advice about what you should remember and do when get there… — and all this talk (I suspect,) has only served to confirm in your minds the belief that you are being graduated out of something. You are mistaken. While I cannot speak for the secret thoughts of your frustrated teachers on those dark days when you have been eating candy since 8:00 am, I can assure you it is generally true that graduating you out of Trinitas has never been our goal.
You may also be confused about the way you have been singled out today, and I must confess that we as an institution have not done you any favors there. If you look around the room you will quickly notice that no one else is dressed the way you are dressed. You might logically conclude that we have clothed you this way in order to set you apart—to recognize your unique achievement today. I’m afraid that in this, too, you would be mistaken.
We dress prisoners in special clothing to single them out; being the first man to die on Mars is a unique achievement. Overrated. Whether we remember to talk about it or not, we dress you this way on the day of your graduation not to set you apart but to include you, not because you have achieved something unique, but because you have achieved something gloriously common.
In a perfect world, everyone seated up here would be be-robed like you and our clothing would make my point for me. Until then, you’ll have to take my word for it. By granting you the garments you now wear we are welcoming you—we are graduating you into—membership in an association that includes not only the men and women you see here before you, but stretches back to the very beginning of history. We are graduating you into the assembly of the wise.
I feel a bit like Laban, here, bringing you one bride when you believe you’ve labored so hard for another. You may decide, after hearing me out, that you don’t much want what I’ve described—when I have pulled back the veil to reveal Rachel, you may realize it was Leah you hoped you were working for all of these years. But that matters very little to me, if I’m being honest. We teachers are content to play the long game. You have been given what you have been given, and it cannot be taken from you. The wanting [shrug] can come later.
It would actually be a little strange if your new membership in the assembly of the wise were exceedingly exciting to you now. Life is a series of peaks and valleys, and you are most decidedly experiencing a peak moment (present global catastrophes notwithstanding). This thing that Trinitas has given you—that you are presently being inducted into—men and women tend to value it most in the valleys.
Let me read to you the words of a well-known Italian who was driven from his home city of Florence, stripped of his livelihood, and forced to eke out his existence in exile:
When evening comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where, solicitously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death. I absorb myself into them completely.
Graduates, by granting you’re the garments you now wear, and by inviting you up onto this stage, we have declared to you that the privilege just described is yours by right.
You are on a peak now, but the valleys will come. Your first college major will be a disappointment, your first church away from home will fail you, your first career will fall to pieces, your children will develop mysterious ailments, your principled stance will make friends into enemies. You will be driven into exiles of your own. Indeed, this is the life we are called to. The author of Hebrews reminds us that Our Lord suffered outside the camp and that we must go to dwell with him there, in the wilderness of this life.
As Boethius, slandered and sentenced to death, gained consolation in the presence of Lady Philosophy…
As Dante, lost midway through the journey of our life, found comfort in the presence of great poets of old…
You too have been granted access to the venerable courts of the ancients. Enter, and you will always find companions: Job, Homer, Virgil, Cicero, Augustine, Boethius, Benedict, Dante, Shakespeare, Calvin, Newman, Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien, Hadley, Stout, Phillips, Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa. Speak to them, challenge and be challenged by them; let them lead you back home when suffering has made you forget your true nature.
We teachers will not measure our success by how much knowledge you have gained in your time here. Hopefully you have gained a great deal of knowledge, but that is a secondary concern. When you meet peers from other walks of life who know more than you, do not be dismayed. And when their aberrant ideas or their cool disdain for the things of God suddenly seem compelling because they can quote French philosophers or speak fluent Italian, do not envy them their knowledge. You have been given a privilege for more enviable. You belong in the company of the ancients—ask them your questions, and they, out of their human kindness, will answer you.
Knowledge is easily acquired, when you know the right people.
As teacher and scholar David Hicks has written,
“Classical education eventually fills the young person’s head with the sound of voices; the impassioned debate of the many great figures of myth and history concerning what is good, beautiful, and excellent in man. Through his imagination, the student participates in this dialectical confabulation, and his thoughts and actions become literally involved with the Ideal type. The Ideal is refined, and action and thought join inextricably in the life of virtue.”
This is what you have been given and what this ceremony means for you. We have been putting voices into your head; we have been giving you a living tradition that belonged to you by right and that you now belong to by achievement.
Now, in the words of Lady Philosophy, shun vices and cultivate virtues, lifting your minds to proper hopes and offering humble prayers on high. For, if you wish to speak the truth, a great necessity has been placed upon you men and women to do good, since you live in front of a judge who sees all things. Let us rejoice that such a duty need not be born alone.
Trinitas Class of 2020, it is my sincere honor—not to bid you farewell—but to bid you welcome.