Valedictorian’s Graduation Address 2024

Reverend Fathers, Friends, Families, Faculty, Alumni, and, for the time being fellow, students,

These last four years of my life have been full of surprises–winning rugby state championships, juggling in the streets of Scranton, songs in the refectory, discovering great heroes and learning their deeds – and to top it all off, now I am going togive a speech – and I hope I will surprise myself by getting through it without making too much of a mess. But I’ve been hit with the surprise of a broken nose twice in my time here, so I’m pretty used to people looking at me funny.

Four years ago, I arrived in the back parking lot of this school at the beginning of my freshman year with the firm intent of getting out of here as soon as I could. But, you guessed it, I had a surprise in store. I met returning studentswho were best friends with one another and whom I believed were insane for wanting to be here. I met my new classmates, whom I thought I could never possibly be friends with in this seeming penitentiary. Yet now, surprise surprise, I find myself on this stage with a heavy heart saying goodbye to the best school I could ever have gone to on behalf of the best friends I will ever have.

Surprises continued to leap at me every step of my way. Before arriving, I had not a thought in my mind for push-ups in the snow, pig chores in the morning, praying with all my heart in a chapel, or living my life in a generally radical and intense way. Andyet, here I was, at 5 pm on a slushy, terrible February day, my thoughts turning longingly to the warm shower at the bottomof the hill as Coach blows his whistle, but then, surprise!, he tells me to gather the equipment and head down to the creek for an ice bath. For those who haven’t experienced it, this is one of the most hope-shattering things known to man. Not only have you had a miserable practice, but now you have to go down to the creek, break the ice with sledgehammers, and hop in for five minutes. “Just get through it,” I said to myself, “Think of how happy you’ll be once it’s over.”

These tough aspects of life that I discovered upon arrival here certainly were not what you would call pleasant, yet so many good surprisesresulted. Even though it was hard at first, I only became happy when the school worked and chiseled at my character and I shifted from “just getting through it” to genuinely enjoying the challenges thrust upon me. And that would catch meby surprise as well, every now and again, even though I still didn’t see the whole picture. That was yet to come. In these ways, myclass’ time here, and really any boy’s time here, is punctuated by surprises. Looking back at it all now, one of the most surprising surprises, funny enough, is how unsurprising it all really is. My experiences of the past four years are filled with adventure, discovery, and ultimately delight at the discovery, and it makes sense that these surprises should leave a young man with real cares for God, for the world, for friendship, for living life well, and for truth, goodness, and beauty– and for seeing Mr. Hanisch clock air time on his lawn mower as he ramps up the front hill.

Not only has my physical and mental transformation surprised me, but maybe even more surprising is the spiritual change. Before arriving here, I did not enjoy prayer, and I would often dread the long hour attending Mass on Sundays, waiting for it to end–just getting through it. But now, I cherish being in the Chapel singing Lauds and Compline, saying the Rosary, and attending Mass and Divine Liturgy. And not only just attending, but being attentive – participating as fully as I can in the life – giving surprises of the divine mysteries, and therefore developing a real and delightful relationship with Our Lord.

I have learned, though, that there is a little more to this school than the improvement of boys’ physical, mental, and spiritual states. From the very beginning of our time here we were told by faculty, alumni, current students, and everyone who had a meaningful connection with the Academy that this was the best school for boys our age. This bold claim surprised me, and got me thinking “What is so special about this place? Aren’t there other schools that do this?

Why is this one the best?” I wondered. One day during study hall, Mr. Williams came into my room and surprised me by handing me a small book. It was labeled, “A Warrior’s Meditation for the Rosary.” I brought it into the chapel and began to read. The purpose of this little book was not so little. It was to help guys like me see, through the mysteries of the Rosary, our purpose as men in fighting as warriors for Jesus Christ. Through this I gained a new understanding of our formation here at Gregory the Great.

What is the ultimate end in being skilled at rugby, being disciplined during clean-up, being able to demonstrate Euclidean propositions, or being able to get Kevin O’Brien to be quiet during study hall? What is the point of knowing about warriors like Achilles, or Beowulf, or King Alfred of the White Horse? What is the point of standing in ranks like singing soldiers during the Divine Liturgy?

Every challenging action we engaged in as students at this Academy was directed to our formation as warriors for Christ. Our world today seems bent on creating soft, weak, and cowardly men who will recoil when surprised with what Hamlet calls, “The thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” This attack on masculinity, though, strikes beyond the physical or the emotional–it strikes at our spiritual being. Our world desires to takemen by surprise in its own slave-seeking way, like an ambush or a trap.

So for the past four years we have been challenged daily, testing the limits of our manly capacity for work, play, and prayer, surprising ourselves with what we can accomplish and be. And this rigor, though very difficult at first (and still difficult), has grown into a surprise of joy in our lives. We are, as William Wordsworth famously phrased it, “surprised by joy.” And,as Wordsworth also noted in his poem about the Happy Warrior, joy is indeed a warrior’s surprising response to the battle.

This year, for our senior Theology seminar with Dr. Lefler, we read and discussed Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. A part thatstruck me was when the Riders of Rohan rushed to besieged Gondor’s aid and arrived at the battle right in the nick of time. Asthey fall on Mordor’s armies Tolkien describes the Rohirrim: “And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them.”

These warriors, faced with pure evil, charge ahead with joy because, even though they know their danger and imminent pain, they are resolved in their cause. They don’t “just get through it,” like my freshmanself told me to do before my first rugby game. Rather, they found joy in battle and they relished in the fight for their freedom. And, to our surprise, so have we. We have found joy in this place and in each other, joy in our battles, joy in our prayers, joy in our studies, and there will be joy in the tears we will shed as we leave this place.

I remember Mr. Fitzpatrick telling us in Humanities class long ago and far away now that Aristotle said that the secret of humor is surprise. However, Aristotle also stated that surprise was the secret to tragedy as well, and, standing here today, Ican relate to both of those realities: to things that are funny and things that are sad, in the context of this speech. I look back now on the moments of discovery I’ve experienced at this school, I think of the good times, and I laugh at the twists and turns of our adventures together; but I am also sad that, after our last pilgrimage to Italy together, we will all be shaken by the words of Lord Byron’s poem:

So, we’ll go no more a roving
   So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
   And the moon be still as bright.
For the sword outwears its sheath,
   And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
   And love itself have rest.
Though the night was made for loving,
   And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a roving
   By the light of the moon.

What is funny, though, and therefore surprising, is how much of my four years here came into perspective just in writing this speech. So much of what I did diligently at this school took on meaning only after I had been at it for a while and thenhad to express it here in writing–and the surprise of battle joy is among the attitudes I have suddenly discovered is mine. Andit has been a part of all our lives in many ways. It is central in our juggling escapades, and the way we look at the stories of great menlike Don John of Austria who danced on his deck at the Battle of Lepanto.

It is the beating heart of many of the songs wesing, where men have passion for their fight, and it is manifested in different ways. Our school song, “The Minstrel Boy,” sings of ayoung warrior bard with a proud soul going to war with his father’s sword girded on and his wild harp slung on his back. Yet we alsosing songs like “The Town I Loved So Well,” which displays passion through sadness at the loss of something held dear, in this case one’s beloved hometown caught in the fires of war.

This is one reason why our folk music tradition is such a vital part of our culture–it participates in forming us into passionate men, both on the battlefield and in the playfield, in joy and insorrow. The songs we sing teach us how to feel rightly and these feelings are often surprising in how they seize us or suddenly become meaningful.

And now, all at once, feelings stored in my memory of the songs we have sung are suddenly taking on a new shape and a new sheen, as my classmates and I find ourselves placed here as though in the story of some song, a joyful song, though this maybe a sad turn in the tune. We must leave the town we love so well as we receive our diplomas and step off this stage. Other surprises await. But this place that has made us into warriors will forever be in our heads and hearts and hopefully in ourhands.

As we walk out into the world that is pitted against us and our faith in many ways, we will hold the brotherhood, the tales, the music, the prayers, the juggling, the sports, and the culture we have shared here at the Academy as weapons against the enemy snares that lay in wait for us, and as stars that will continue to guide us toward the good, true, and beautiful. On behalf of my class, I want to thank our parents and everyone that contributed to making our education here possible, because without them, we would have missed the opportunity of a lifetime that this school truly is.

To conclude, I would like to say to all the remaining students, never forget the life that you are so blessed to live here. Wait for it. You’ll be surprised, too. One day in just one, two, or three years, your time will be up, and you will be standing on this stage like weare about to leave this building, the front field, the water tower, the plateau, the barn, and your best friends, and discover that what you may thought was a prison or an asylum (like I did) is actually a second home and a warrior’s training ground. Giveyourselves to all your hard and happy times as much as you can. I miss them already, even as we will miss all of you dearly.

God bless you, thank you, and farewell.

Headmaster’s Graduation Address 2024

Reverend Fathers, Faculty, Families, Students, Alumni, and Graduates: 

Everyone knows the geometric puzzle of trying to square the circle; that is, to create a formula that will construct a square equal in volume to a given circle.  In 1882 it was proven impossible because of the irrational nature of pi.  Nonetheless, mathematical cranks (or would-be geniuses) have never given up trying.  

If geometry provides life lessons, this one might indicate that there is some kind of incompatibility between the straight and the curved, per se, or living life in a linear fashion and living it in a curved and meandering fashion.  We see this mathematical antagonism at work in that mirror of life called great literature. Achilles represents the straight path – a man who speaks his mind, says what he means, and does exactly what he says. He is uncompromising and direct in his goals and decisions. 

Achilles would have loved Nietzsche’s virile aphorism: “A yes, a no, a straight line, a goal.”  Odysseus on the other hand represents the curved path; he is the man of many twists and turns; he does not mean what he says; or he means many things, and sometimes contradictory things.  He does not go straight into battles. He talks and talks first, and he doesn’t go straight home after battles. He wanders and explores and goes in circles before eventually finding his way home.  

So what kind of man ought one to become? The Achillean straight man, whose thinking and doing are in perfect accord or the Odyssean curved man who thinks a multitude of things, who sometimes thinks in circles and who has to go away from home in order to eventually get there?  

A straight man makes a schedule for himself when he goes out into the world and he lives by it: he gets up at a certain time, he says his morning prayer, he exercises, he eats, he works, all according to a pre-made plan and set of principles. 

The curved man gets up with the sun or when his body or conscience tells him to and sees what the day has to offer and then responds to it accordingly.  

Who are you? Are you straight or are you curved?  I once came across another aphorism that offers the promise of a reconciliation of the two ideals: “Straight is the way of duty, curved is the way of beauty; follow the straight path and the curved path follows thee.” 

The message here is that the straight path is the dutiful path – and it is a hard one because doing one’s duty often means not doing something you’d like to be doing, something that seems more beautiful to you in the moment than what duty uncompromisingly calls you to.  But paradoxically it is only by following this hard and straight path that one truly lives a beautiful life.  

I think the aphorism is helpful in making duty the goal of life, but it perhaps over defines the path of straightness with the path of duty.  

Is the path toward one’s duty always the straight path? Or does doing your duty often require you to meander and curve? 

Dante certainly had to meander and curve before he was able to follow the straight path of virtue – he was instructed that he could not climb the mountain of purgatory toward paradise until he had first turned around and circled all the way down to the pit of hell.  

Like Odysseus, he had to journey away from until he was prepared to go toward his goal. The true reconciliation  of the curved and the straight is, I think, better characterized by the symbol of a cross inscribed in a circle. 

Man is straight, he is a cross stretching out in all dimensions toward reality attempting to grasp it but he never can grasp it: by himself he grasps only fragments for a moment and incompletely, and all his efforts end in futility.  But if he reaches out in order to be caught, in order to be held, in order to be heard and then guided by the all embracing circularity of a personal God — a reaching out which will entail letting himself be moved away from the straight lines that he has set for himself –  he will find the way to his true form. By allowing the straight lines of his human rationality and intentionality to be met and moved and reoriented by God’s loving and always unpredictable divine hand, man’s efforts will  not end in vain.  

Seniors, as you walk this path of your life toward the realization of the true form God gave you (or the true face God gave you, as we just learned in Till We Have Faces), I would ask you to ponder this figure of the cross inscribed in a circle, a cross that may remind you of the cross that Constantine saw before the battle of the Milvian Bridge, the cross inscribed in the sun.  Because there is also a great battle before you.  To fight this battle, you will need both the gallant courage of Roland and Oliver but also the playfulness and grace of Taillefer the jongleur who tossed his sword in the air singing the Song of Roland to the troops before the battle of Hastings.  

Upon leaving the academy, many Saint Gregory’s lads find themselves very quickly in a world where it is difficult to follow the way of life they have been living at the academy. There is no morning prayer and evening prayer sung in the company of your friends. There is no mandatory study hall.  There is no one to lead your hearts and minds on the adventures of great books. There is no one to require you to do hard things that keep your mind and body strong and tough. There seems to be no one around to sing songs with or to put on juggling shows with or to go on pilgrimage with.  

Where has it all gone?  What is a young man to do?  

How is he to set his footsteps firmly on the same path he has been walking for the last 4 years when the path seems to disappear very soon after he walks out the door and into the real world? This is a difficult prospect that every young man who leaves this place has to face up to.  How indeed?  

So, before you head out there, I would like to offer to you young gentlemen a few simple but I believe true suggestions on how to face that battle of circles and squares: 

First, you must try to grasp what it was the school was giving you all of these years.  There are many ways to answer this question, and ultimately you will need to do your own thinking on this, but I will offer you something to begin with.  

When you were freshmen you were given 3 balls and taught to juggle them; three very real, very colorful juggling balls (actually they were beanbags).  Now you might have wondered, why juggle? Why is it so important to learn how to juggle these three balls?  Each of these balls, like the ball of fire with the cross inscribed in it that Constantine saw before his great battle, symbolizes an aspect of the life you have been living here for these last four years, and moreover, each is a way for you to reconcile in your life this conundrum of the straight and the curved that every man must solve; that is, to reconcile your life with the divine life God is leading you toward.  These three balls will help you continue to walk the path you will need to walk.  Each of these balls has a name that you know very well: 

The first juggling ball is called Bonum, or the Good. Be a good friend. Hold onto your friends and be the kind of man that others want to be friends with. To do that you must embrace a life of goodness or virtue: strive to be honest with yourself and others. Be generous with your goods and your time. As the chivalric code says, “Give largesse to everyone.”  Help those in your path that you have the gifts to help. Be a light to others by helping them to share in your own life of goodness. Be a kind friend rather than someone who criticizes, ridicules and scoffs. Speak truthfully to your friends when they need to be told something difficult to hear rather than someone who indulges a friend’s bad behavior and thus allows him to go down destructive paths.   

The second ball is called Verum or the True.  To follow this path I invite you to continue to read, and to think, and to imagine and discuss so that your mind will be able to grow more closely into the truth of things.  

When you engage with friends and antagonists in important debates, strive with all your might to be like Socrates, a man who cared far more for the truth than for being right. Read something good and solid every day. Discuss what you read with friends and family.  Keep a journal of your ideas as you grow them.  

The third ball is called Pulchrum or the Beautiful.  To juggle this ball you must build on what you have begun here: continue to cultivate your love for the beauty of nature and of art.  Remember, by singing and reciting them, the poems and the songs and the prayers that you have learned here. 

Learn more. Learn a line from a poem or a song or a psalm or a prayer while you’re brushing your teeth at night or taking a shower in the morning.  Keep your eyes peeled for what is noble and beautiful. Fall in love and marry a beautiful woman – or, like Psyche (and Dante), fall in love with the God of the mountain, the place from which all beauty comes. You’ll find that many of those poems and songs and psalms will come in handy as you start going down that path.  And protect your heart, stay away from what is not truly beautiful – stay away from the inanities of Tik Tok and Instagram and Facebook and YouTube.  You have better things to do with your life and your time than to watch other people and actors pretending to live theirs. 

And finally, develop your prayer life – which is your most direct access to the source of all Beauty and all Truth and all Goodness.  Pray each morning, and pray each night.  I am giving each of you a prayer book that you may choose to use. It contains a shortened form of the Byzantine Daily Hours.  If you like, you could use this and structure your whole day according to the most profound and personal prayers of the Church, the psalms of David.  By developing a habit of prayer, you will open and widen your heart to the source of all gifts, you will become a lover of beauty, you will become good, and your goodness and beauty will not be fake; they will be the real deal.  

This, my friends, is the threefold path that will sustain you as you go forward.  And each of these balls or symbols will help you reconcile the conflict between the straight and the curved (or the human and the divine).  For, each of these 3 transcendentals (or what Justin Martyr called seeds of the Logos) begins on earth but ends in heaven. Each is readily available to man’s mind and imagination and experience, but, like a seed from God sown in the earth, each inexorably grows both higher and deeper, leading man finally into the vision of God.  

As you nurture these seeds in your heart, you will develop in ways that no one here can foretell or imagine.  For the path of each man is his own and God’s.  

Let us return for a moment to that cross inscribed in a circle (or better yet, a cross embraced by a circle).  The cross is a man with arms outstretched.  And that man is a juggler.  And the image of juggling is perhaps a good way for us to imagine just a little what it feels like for man to walk a path that is always being laid down for him by God, for man to walk the right way, the way that God leads him.  For is not juggling itself a little image of trinitarian giving and receiving?  We throw out a ball, as we throw out ourselves into thought and into action, and we receive back a ball as soon as we throw one out.  We are constantly throwing out, giving, and receiving something back, giving and receiving, for as long as we keep juggling.  So keep juggling, keep juggling these three balls of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, praying for the threefold gift back of Faith, Hope, and Charity and you will find that your path is both straight and true like the cross, and curved and beautiful like the sun in the heavens.   


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