The following was given as a commencement address at the Dominican House of Studies, May 16, 2014.
I taught at the University of Virginia for twenty-five years. Thomas Jefferson, who founded the university, did not call the graduation ceremony “commencement.” He deemed it more fitting to call the occasion the “final exercises,” and it is called that to this day.
I like the term exercises, for it catches the ritual character of the event. It also brings to mind the many exercises, lectures, study, and exams that make up the life of students. Using the term final in tandem with exercise seems to suggest that there is one exercise remaining—to listen to the words of the speaker. And we all know that those words will vanish like a cloud of incense as soon as this day is past. No one remembers commencement addresses.
Yet one must try, and I thought one way of giving you, the graduates, something to hold on to was to call up several words, words that have resonance, and embroider these words with a few less memorable words of my own.
Since we are marking this occasion in the context of evening prayer, the words will come from the Bible. The words of Scripture touch us more deeply than other words, even the words of a great poet. Perhaps you recall the way St. Augustine begins Book Twelve of the Confessions. “In my needy life, Lord, my heart is much exercised under the impact made by the words of your holy Scripture.”
The more I read the Scriptures, the more I have understood the profound truth of what Augustine says. It is the words of the Scripture that stir the mind, enflame the heart, and move the will. The words of the Bible, more than ideas, sometimes even more than stories, sink deeply into our soul.
Words such as: “Living water” in John 4, “broken and contrite” heart in Psalm 51, “devouring fire” of God in Isaiah 33, “rest” at the end of the morning canticle, Psalm 95, “they should not enter into my rest.”
For this occasion, two words from the beginning of the fourth chapter of St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians come to mind. As I read them I want you to hear them as words spoken to each of you who are graduating, not as a group, but as though spoken to you personally. Here is what he wrote:
“This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.”
Two words leap from the page in this passage: steward and faithful.
What Paul says of himself, that he is a steward of the mysteries of God, applies equally well to others, especially those who serve in the Church.
There are many vocations: priest, religious, teacher, catechist, various forms of social ministry, and other kinds of service. In the same letter, St. Paul says that “there are varieties of gifts” but the same Spirit. All are stewards entrusted in different ways with the “mysteries of God.”
Notice that Paul uses the term mystery in the plural. In the New Testament, mystery designates God’s gracious intervention in history through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. But by using the plural, Paul reminds us that the central mystery is made known to us in many different ways: by preaching, by celebrating the Eucharist, by teaching, by contemplative prayer, by service, by catechesis, by nurturing the young, by caring for the sick and infirm, by the simple act of sitting with someone who is suffering and reaching out one’s hand to touch her arm or kiss his forehead.
1 Peter confirms what St. Paul says: “As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace; whoever speaks, as one who utters oracles of God; whoever renders service as one who renders it by the strength which God supplies; in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.”
Now a steward is charged with caring for what belongs to someone else whether property, money, fields, or goods. As St. Paul says a few sentences later: “What have you that you did not receive.”
Christian faith lives by the simple act of handing on what others have passed on to us. Twice in 1 Corinthians, St. Paul speaks about handing on what he has received from those who had gone before. First in chapter 11 in speaking about the Eucharist: “I received from the Lord what I handed on to you that the Lord Jesus took break and when he had given thanks he broke it and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” And then in chapter 15 where he is speaking about the Resurrection: “I delivered to you what I also received, that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, that he was raised according to the Scriptures.” In each case, Paul uses precise language to speak about receiving and handing on.
For the Christian steward, faithfulness means handing on intact what one has received in such a way that it can be received by others. Faithfulness, however, is more than the simple act of passing on. Recall the parable of the talents: One servant was given five talents and when the master returned he had earned five more; another had been given two, and he gave back two more. But the third one, who received one, buried it and gave back only that one. He was an unfaithful steward.
The point is obvious: When you leave this place, your responsibility is not to repeat what you learned here, but to make something of what you have been given. To thresh the lessons of the mind with the sharp blades of experience.
And that can only happen if what you learned here passes through your life and becomes your own. Only then will you be able to teach and serve. How? By finding new ways of saying what you were taught; finding unexplored avenues to serve others; clarifying, confirming, expanding, and deepening what you have been taught as it passes through your life; to touch the hearts and minds by who you are and do, as well as by what you say.
Origen of Alexandria, the great theologian and biblical scholar in the third century, had a student with the lovely name, Gregory Thaumaturgus, Gregory the Wonder Worker. In an essay on Origen as teacher, Gregory said that Origen taught as much by how he lived as by his teaching. Before he gave us words, said Gregory, Origen exhorted us by his deeds.
Perhaps you are struck each year during the Easter season as we read the Acts of the Apostles, the great account of the founding and spread of the Church in place of the Old Testament lesson. On several Sundays the term witness occurs in the reading: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:32). “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior. . . . And we are witnesses . . .” (Acts 5:31-2).
Wednesday was the day of St. Matthias, the apostle who was chosen by the eleven. In seeking to replace Judas the apostles had one criterion; the new apostle had to be someone who had been with the apostles when Jesus went in and out among them and was a witness to his resurrection. In his commentary on this passage, St. John Chrysostom stresses that Luke did not simply say Matthias was a witness of the many things Jesus had done, he said he was “a witness to the resurrection alone.”
A faithful steward of the mysteries of God is one who bears witness to the Resurrection, not solely or primarily by words, but by the testimony of his life or her life. As the writer of Hebrews puts it speaking of Melchizedek, a Christ figure in the Old Testament, “by the power of an indestructible life.”
Robert Louis Wilken, a member of the editorial and advisory board of First Things, is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity Emeritus at the University of Virginia.