Dear Graduating Seniors:
As Simone Weil teaches us in her essay on the right use of school studies, the purpose of academic study is to become ever more attentive to reality, to God, as He is found reflected in the world, and truly present in our neighbor and in our hearts. Indeed, this is the purpose of not just study but all human activity. We cannot be good instruments of Christ in the world unless we try as best we can to obedient to Him at every moment, and we cannot be obedient at every moment unless we try as best we can to be attentive to His will in every moment, in every place, in every activity, in relation to every person, event, and situation, in joy and suffering, in affliction and rest. You have trained your intellects, imaginations, wills, emotions, and bodies these past four years. You have done it above all so that you can be a more finely tuned and honed instrument of mercy and consolation for your neighbor, and a more potent weapon against the formidable enemies of love, the principalities and powers in government, media, and culture that hate the Logos and seek the ruin and destruction of souls by co-opting us into this hate under various counterfeit guises. Do your best to recognize and unmask these counterfeits and idols. You, in virtue of this education, have the tools, and you must continue to develop them and use them. In this, you serve the vast number of the intellectually poor who cannot see through these lies for themselves and thus become their victims.
But you will only be as effective an instrument and weapon as you are united to Christ in your hearts. For this union to be real, you need, of course, to pray unceasingly, to remain in His grace and frequent His Sacraments. But for this union to be real to you, you need to experience it, and for this, you need to be silent and still in His presence. I would encourage all of you to find time, forty-five minutes a day at least, to sit still and silent in His presence, beyond thoughts, words, and images, because God is beyond any human thought, word, or image. But most of all because such is the practice of death, the death to self. John Main, the great Benedictine teacher of silent Christian meditation, spoke of silent meditation as self-forgetfulness, the letting go of self-consciousness. Main wrote: “Now perhaps this is the greatest thing we can do as conscious human beings—to offer our consciousness to God. In offering our self—we become fully conscious.”13 Or, as Jesus puts it, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it (Matt. 16. 25).”
Allow me to quote from another great teacher of silent prayer, Sarah Bachelard, quoting the Pulitzer Prize winning author and mystic Anne Dillard.
American writer, Annie Dillard, is one who insists on the magnitude of the reality we’re invoking in prayer. “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions,” she writes. Or is it simply that “no one believes a word of it?” And she goes on: “The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” Why? Well, because “the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” In more familiar language, the letter to the Hebrews makes the same point: “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10.31). Being truly present involves profound respect, and expectancy, in the face of God’s radical Otherness. Something could happen here…something will happen here. If we don’t believe that, why are we praying—who are we praying to? Unless we’re ‘sensible’ of these conditions then, whatever we say, however pious our approach, we’re actually in some form of denial. Isaiah was utterly aware of the danger, when he implored God to depart from him, “for I am a man of unclean lips” (Isa. 6.5). “Why do… people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute?,” Dillard asks. Reverence is the traditional marker of expectant and awe-filled availability in prayer, but it too can become stylised to the point of domestication—more play-acting. Real prayer, true reverence calls for an apprehension of the risk and vulnerability of falling into the hands of the living God. For opening oneself to God is an “agonistic and transformative” encounter, Chrétien says, one in which our very truth is at stake. This is the fear of the Lord, the beginning of wisdom. It’s the condition of prayer.
We must have the attentiveness, courage, and vulnerability to allow ourselves to “fall into the hands of the living God” every day, indeed, every moment. I hope that the education with which you have been gifted will, with your graced and willing cooperation, make you ever more attentive to God and neighbor, and ever more courageous in His service.
Thank you, seniors, for making it to the end, for keeping your commitment to God and yourselves, for all your struggles and suffering. May God richly bless you now and in every moment. And may the knowledge that you have gained make you more and more aware of what and that you do not know. Take to heart T.S. Eliot’s words and teach them to others by your presence and attention to them.
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know.
Editor’s Note: This essay was addressed to the 2018 graduating class of Wyoming Catholic College by the author.
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