This text is adapted from the funeral homily for Don J. Briel, professor at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota and founder of the Catholic Studies Program at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was preached on February 20, 2018 at the Cathedral of St. Paul the Apostle in St. Paul.
Don Briel was never one to suffer fools gladly. Even when you grew close to him, you wanted to be thoughtful about what you said. And so I won’t forget what happened when I last offered Mass for him, at his bedside the week he died. One of the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus came into his study, where we were getting ready, and said: “Just so you know, right when you finish your homily we are going to need to give him morphine.” I asked, politely, if the Sisters could furnish painkillers whenever I preach.
“A great number of men live and die without reflecting at all upon the state of things in which they find themselves.” These are the opening words of “The Cross of Christ the Measure of the World,” a sermon for Lent by Blessed John Henry Newman. “They take things as they come, and follow their inclinations as far as they have the opportunity. They are guided mainly by pleasure and pain, not by reason, principle, or conscience; and they do not attempt to interpret this world, to determine what it means, or to reduce what they see and feel to system.”
This is true of many men, but not of every man. God grant that it not be true of us. As Don Briel would often ask young faculty as they launched into the academic world: “Are you going to be a student of your life or a victim?”
And so, three lessons.
The integrated life
Genuine education promotes an integration of life in which the claims of the intellect find a complementary formation of virtue. When these are severed from each other, a couple of things happen. Knowledge is reduced to either sentiment or power, and the aim shifts from forming the good person to producing the well person. Then those entrusted with the hearts and minds of the young squander all their best energy on concerns of health and safety and regulatory compliance. Education deteriorates from the transformational to the transactional and the therapeutic.
But we are unimpressed by this reduction. We want to grasp the whole of reality, mind and will, and invite young and old into that same vision. And this vision is not something we make up; we find it woven in a thousand threads in the vast tapestry of Catholic thought and culture. We learn from it, taking it in deeply, and then we pass it on.
This understanding of wisdom means addressing the whole of the person, and the whole of reality, in an integrated way. Here we are after not just technical training or barren knowledge, but the formation of the personality: mind, will, emotion, spirit, relationships. Anything less is not real education.
But when we try for real education we have in store a breathtaking adventure, not the dry and tedious round of classwork that is so common, but a way of seeing and knowing that opens up the deepest possibilities of existence and gives meaning and focus to all of life. And as the fog clears, we see His face: Christ the Teacher.
Here is the gaudium de veritate of St. Augustine, the joy in the truth. Here is the “stupor” or astonishment of mind that Dante speaks of in the Convivio. And how many here today can personally attest to the transformative power of the Christ-centered invitation to true wisdom, to the integrated life?
“I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mt. 10:16). Service to Christ is a battle: against self, and against the forces of evil that constantly war against goodness. Life is therefore very good, but not easy; momentous, but costly.
Don Briel was convinced that modern life had caught the disease of triviality—that we were being taught to think that our lives were of little worth, and that we could be satisfied by arranging a mediocre life with the right comforts and signs of success. “Mediocre” was a word often on his lips. By it he didn’t mean lack of technical excellence. He meant “small-mindedness,” a willingness to be occupied with unworthy pursuits that did not speak to the high destiny of humans. He perceived this in university life whenever energetic apostolic engagement gave way to fussy bureaucratic rearrangement and curricular tinkering. This was a wasted choice: a refusal to clamor like champions, to be faithful to a great calling.
He constantly insisted on the serious venture of life. “What are you serving?” was his steady question, especially to those who felt burdened. “What are you willing to suffer for?”
The fruit of this trivialization is a deep-seated fear. Because our lives are not founded on the true realities—not deeply grounded in Christ and the Church, the “rock” that could withstand the storms of wind and rain—we find ourselves prey to constant fear lest the fragile construction of our lives be overwhelmed.
The counter to this fear is courageous engagement. Don’t be afraid. Embrace Christ in all the costly sacrifice that might mean. Don’t hide in a protected enclave, seeking only to secure your own commitments. We have universal concerns with the whole of humanity, and so you confront the culture boldly with the truths you have been given. And don’t be surprised when you encounter opposition and difficulty. Nothing worth gaining was ever accomplished without the cross.
When I think of all this, I hear in the distance an old battle cry from Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, a cry that today rings in my ears as the true voice of the young Catholics of a rising generation: “Spare me a gospel of easy love that makes of my life a thing without consequence!”
And so if our hearts are heavy, this lesson is an invitation to rouse them in our chests for gladsome battle.
The invisible world
“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). This is, after all, the fundamental orientation of a man who is able to take death in stride, with such grace and serenity as to convert more deeply those who touch him.
The conviction that life is a thrilling but costly battle is nourished and sustained by a deeper conviction: It means—with Charles Ryder and also all the saints—“to accept the supernatural as the real.”
When one’s life is integrated by a habit of mind to see things in proper relation, forming new wholes and amalgamating experiences that an ordinary person perceives as chaotic, irregular, fragmentary—falling in love, reading Spinoza, the sound of a typewriter, the smell of cooking—when all these begin to mean something taken together, then you begin to suspect that there is a conspiracy afoot, that there is actually a mystery that runs underneath all things.
In the face of such a mystery, admiration is not enough. We must stand with Rilke before the Apollo Belvedere in the Vatican Museums and know this: “You must change your life.” Education is not, then, the renewal of the intelligence but of the imagination. It entails a profound conversion and a fierce allegiance to the invisible world.
This allegiance, which is Christian faith, had very practical implications for Don Briel. He was much taken by the story of final words said to a Holy Cross priest at Notre Dame by a dying friend: “We can live our lives out of either gratitude or resentment—there is no middle ground.”
The excuse so many give for not leading a meaningful life is scarcity: I don’t have enough time, security, talent, resources. And this scarcity is experienced as a burden, a cruel injustice to be resented. The demand is always for justice, getting what should be coming to me. And it’s never enough. I begin to undergo life rather than live it.
But this is an anti-Christian attitude, a defect of faith. For the true question is one not of scarcity but of abundance. How does one navigate the astonishing range of what one has been given but could never deserve? Time is too short to take in all the wonder and opportunity and possibility of life. What does one do with this overabundance, this unlooked-for gift of life from Christ?
A child who makes a Christmas list and gets everything she wants experiences a mysterious disappointment. But if she is given a gift she didn’t ask for, one she didn’t know she wanted, she feels a profound enjoyment and delight. How can we then prepare our lives for the gifts we didn’t know we wanted, but for which we are longing so deeply? It is a matter of learning, habitually, how to receive our lives.
Don Briel would say this—words that have run through my memory again and again during this past month:
Do you know that you are born to die? We are born to die. It is a fundamental truth, which is avoided by most of us. But it is true. What then are we to do in search of meaning? It does no good for us to cling to our lives madly in hopes of not losing them. Both vocational discernment and daily decision are sabotaged by this: “How can I be sure?” Well, that question has nothing to do with it. It is a question of the opportunity to serve, the call to gift. For the invisible world is the real, and it is true that in losing our lives we find them.
On September 25, 1843, John Henry Newman preached his final sermon at St. Mary and St. Nicholas, the church he had built in Littlemore. It was a painful farewell, and they all could have used the Handmaids to come round with their morphine. He titled that sermon “The Parting of Friends,” and it ends in this way:
And, O my brethren, O kind and affectionate hearts, O loving friends, should you know any one whose lot it has been, by writing or by word of mouth, in some degree to help you thus to act; if he has ever told you what you knew about yourselves, or what you did not know; has read to you your wants or feelings, and comforted you by the very reading; has made you feel that there was a higher life than this daily one, and a brighter world than that you see; or encouraged you, or sobered you, or opened a way to the inquiring, or soothed the perplexed; if what he has said or done has ever made you take interest in him, and feel well inclined towards him; remember such a one in time to come, though you hear him not, and pray for him, that in all things he may know God’s will, and at all times he may be ready to fulfil it.
Msgr. James P. Shea is president of the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.