2022 Headmaster’s Graduation Address

Reverend Fathers, Faculty, Families, Students, Alumni, and Graduates: Those of you who were fortunate enough to see “Circo Giovanni” last night already know a lot about this class.  It was no accident that Mr. Fitzpatrick set his “chopera” inside a circus, and it is no accident that a serious story about the shameless and unrepentant womanizer Don Giovanni feels a little different under the big top when every scene is punctuated by funny and wonderful clown pantomimes.  The play’s mixture of high and low, beautiful and silly, grave and frolicsome all clashing into one another and then often mysteriously coexisting at the same moment is perhaps a good way of glimpsing the special character of this class.

Like the play, (and like any good circus) this class has a high volume of clowns.  I would definitely say more than their fair share.  There have been ‘moments’ in the past four years – sometimes very long moments, lasting days and weeks –  when it seems like the clowns have completely taken over the show.

But, as in any good circus, they are not all clowns (or at least not all the time)– there are strong men, ring masters, lion tames, fire jugglers, and so on.  And there is a kind of epically joyous quality to the class as a whole that is very circus-like – they want to do everything, and they want to include everybody.  In the very last week of school they were asking if we could somehow take the whole school roving on the last weekend of school. Usually only one class goes roving, because the singing has to be well coordinated and because you have to fit into bars and restaurants, but they thought it would be grand for the whole school to be roaming and roaring about Scranton in one raucous body, and they wanted to do it as a surprise to the rest of the students – just tell them to get in the bus and don’t say why or where we’re going, they urged me.  They like surprises.

On April Fools they woke up the whole student body at 2 oclock in the morning and got everyone to begin their day with morning prayer of course, breakfast, cleanup, and then – classes, yes they conducted their own classes.  When their noisy middle of the night shenanigans woke up some of the dormstaff the boys never broke character and put on such a convincing show – I am sorry sir, I don’t understand why you are so upset, I am just cleaning my room – that the dormfathers either joined in the fun or went back to sleep confused.  Their upside down day went on all night until morning prayer when they had to start the day all over again.  It was epic and it was joyous.

So what does one say to a class full of boys whose predominant virtue seems to be playfulness, clowning about, pranks, and buffoonery?  (and by the way, is playfulness even a virtue?).

I suppose I could just say, have fun guys, have a great life!  — and we could be done? Well, there is a bit more I could say…

But, if you think I am going to spend the rest of this talk going on about playfulness, clowns, buffoons, and circuses at a grand occasion like this, if you think I am going to praise these boys for coming up with clever pranks, at a time when the world needs sobriety and clear headedness more than ever, if you think I am going to tell jokes about William Howerton playing the fiddle (or the bodhran) while Western Civilization burns,  well…. you’d be on the right track.  I’m going to do something like that.

I am going to talk about play and playfulness not, I hope, for frivolous reasons, but because we actually take play rather seriously at the school, as we should, because the thing we call play is indeed profound and goes to the heart of life’s mystery.  At Gregory the Great our students play continuously: one could easily think of this school as a giant playground.  Students act in dramatic plays like “Circo Giovanni”, they play in song, they play through juggling, they play games of sport.  Are not mathematical exercises and discussions about “the greatest that has been thought and said,” a form of play?  And one might even think of the noblest action of prayer and liturgy as the highest form of play available to man.

So let us now praise this thing called play and men who are playful.

Aristotle says that play is one of the virtues essential for human happiness, he calls iteutrapelia; it is the golden mean between buffoonery (the type of person who can’t resist getting a laugh at any opportunity) and boorishness (the person who can’t ever relax and enjoy a good joke).  The virtuous habit of soul called eutrapelia occurs in one who is serious about the serious things and lightsome about the light things, and knows how to mix the two in just the right proportions.

So if play is a virtue, then it is something we ought to take seriously.  Friedrich Nietzsche writes that “A man’s maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child at play.”  Think of how absorbed and intent that child at play is.  For Nietzsche the child and the man at play enters more truly and completely into the realm of serious and mature action.

Plato takes us more deeply into the mystery of play.  In his last work called Laws, as an old man he writes:

I seek to expound the best way in which men can shape their lives, and in this I appear to be a shipbuilder who in laying down the keel already determines the shape of the whole ship.  Like him, I am carrying out a kind of keel laying when I seek correctly to determine what conduct and what attitude of mind will best help out little ship to steer past the rocks of this human existence… What I would say is this: serious things must be treated seriously, but not those that are not serious.  In deed, and in truth, however, it is God who is worthy of all our deepest and most blessed seriousness.  Man, on the other hand, is, as I remarked previously, a plaything in the hand of God, and truly this is the best thing about him.  Everyone, therefore, whether man or woman, must strive toward this end and must make of the noblest games the real content of their lives.  (The Laws, Plato)

Plato advises us that since God is ultimately the only thing really worth taking seriously and since we are a kind of plaything in God’s hands, the wise man will seek to play the noblest games, the best games God created for him to play.  So what are these games and what does it mean really to play?

Charles Peguy describes heroic action itself as a kind of exalted play:

Heroism is essentially a skill, a condition and an act of sound health, good spirits, joy, even merriment, almost a frivolous playfulness – in any case, an act of pleasure, well-being, an act of the unconstrained, relaxed, productive person, of security, self-mastery, almost (so to speak) of custom and routine, of good manners.  It is without any posturing or ulterior motive, and, above all, without any self-pity; without sighs and lamentations, without the wish to win a reward.  The person who only wants to win is a bad player.  What makes a great player is the will to play.  He would far rather play without winning than win without playing.

There is a famous story of the Spartans preparing for the battle of Thermopylae by lavishly combing their hair.  The Persian spies who witnessed this act of luxurious repose before battle were shocked by the kind of mettle that must reside in such men.  A less well known story is of Tailifer the jongleur who entertained the Norman knights before the battle of Hastings by tossing his sword in the air while singing the Song of Roland.  The two stories are related but I believe the story of Taillefer, who was both a jongleur and a knight, tossing his sword and singing bespeaks a form of joyous playfulness toward the hard game of battle that surpasses the grim equanimity of Spartans carefully combing their hair.

In the Song of Roland, we are told that Roland and his knights “hold their lives like playthings and precisely because “they hold their lives like playthings they embody a heroism that surpasses the martial prowess of the Paynims (or muslims) that they are fighting.  As we read the poem carefully we discover that the reason they hold their lives like playthings is because they know themselves to be held in the loving embrace of God.  Confident in being held, they are confident and even reckless in giving their lives (up) (back to God) in a cause that is noble and just.

I will never forget the phrase a young monk from the French abbey of Fontgombault used in this very room almost 20 years ago when summing up to our students what the life of a monk consists of.  He said “Ludens coram eo omni tempore” which means playing before his face all the time.  The life of a monk, he explained, consists in the most beautiful kind of play, a play of work, a play of prayer, a play of loving contemplation, always before the face of God.  The phrase comes from the book of Proverbs and a bit more of the text is worth quoting:

When he established the heavens, I was there…
When he marked out the foundations of the earth,
Then I was beside him, like a little child;
And I was daily his delight,
Playing before him always,
Rejoicing in his inhabited world, and
Delighting in the sons of men.    Proverbs 8: 27-31

The fathers of the Church understood the playing child to be the Wisdom or the Logos of God, that is to say, the son, the second person of the Trinity.  “For the Logos on high plays, / Stirring the whole cosmos back and forth, as he wills, / Into shapes of every kind.”  Writes Maximus the Confessor.  By the way, the Hebrew word for play is the same word used to describe David’s action of dancing before the ark of the Covenant.

The Logos creating the world is a playing, an act of unconstrained joy, a dancing before his father.  “A rejoicing in his inhabited world, delighting in the sons of men.”  The great English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins captures this truth by identifying this play of God within man as man when he is acting out his most essential, most personal, most interior and free essence.

I say more: the just man justices
Keeps grace that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Christ – for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

And speaking of Christ “playing in ten thousand places…” I wonder if the image of William joyfully playing the fiddle or the bodhran while civilization burns, as crazy as it sounds, is really the most right answer, the profoundest answer, to how we can best navigate the difficulties and crises of our time.  For Christ was playing through these boys in their encounter with the pro-Life and pro-Abortion forces shouting at one another, that Isaac described for us.  We all felt this: there was a strength of happiness to our song that was deeper, stronger than ourselves.  Or perhaps, put in a different way, it felt like we were being enfolded in a singing, in a joy that was us and more than us.  And it was palpable and persuasive.

The man in front shouting the loudest through his microphone would have to leave off shouting at us because he couldn’t help dancing to this music.  I believe this experience was a playful analogue of what is happening when a saint fights against evil through the power of good, of love, of joy.  We are not saints, far from it, but in this encounter, this noble game of singing and dancing and juggling, I think we were given a gift in play of understanding something of the mystery of the charity and playfulness of God.

I would like to end by exhorting these young men, these merry men about to go out into the world, to continue to play well, which will not be easy, and to continue to seek out the noblest of games.  Men today are becoming hollow men, zombies in fact, who are filled with empty inanities from things only half seen, texts only half read, deeds only half done, Youtube videos glutting and blocking the pathways to their inmost heart.  Such men have never known or are fast forgetting how to play, how to enter deeply into the games of this created world of wonders.  But you gentlemen, have played many games with gusto and with joy.   You know the joy that comes from giving your entire body and spirit to a noble action – whether that be rugby or song or laughter or liturgy.

So, never submit to being the spectator of other people’s lives lived on a 3×5 inch screen, and eventually, a spectator of your own life (in those rare moments of rueful self-reflection), but instead be a player, continue to play your part in the dramatic game of this your own life, continue to enter more deeply into the joyous dance that is at the heart of all creation and of God himself.  And in doing so, you will become the warriors, the poets, the jongleurs, the fathers, the teachers, the monks God made you to be – playing, dancing, rejoicing before His face all the time.  Ludens coram eo omni tempore!

Thank you.

Opening Ceremony 2020

Good morning gentlemen and welcome back to Gregory the Great Academy!

I want to begin this year by telling you all what I said to the faculty about a month ago. So I thank them in advance for listening to this twice. Given the constraints of this year of Covid-19, we are going to have to hunker down at the school more than is usual for us. We will have to do more things at school, on campus, and on our own property. But I don’t see that as an altogether bad thing. It may in fact be a very good thing. I’ve heard the frustration over the years that we are sometimes doing too much, we’re too busy, we’re trying to be too many places at the same time. That may well be true.

So I propose that we embrace this opportunity to do less things, do more local things, and do them better. And as we embrace this discipline of enforced isolation, as we explore the possibilities of doing things more on the home front, I think we may also have the opportunity to explore more deeply what is essential to our education. What is truly essential? What is the essence?

This word “essential” has been bandied about much of late in the context of the new COVID World that has come upon us in order to designate just who are the essential workers and of course who are the inessential.

Well, by opening our doors wide this year, we have declared to all of your parents and to you that what we do here is essential. Most schools, I would have to say, are not essential. But some schools are. I believe that this school is one of those schools. This school is essential.

And my hope is that this year will afford us the opportunity to deepen our understanding of what is most truly essential in our education.

As radical leftists rampage through the big cities tearing down statues and setting other people’s property on fire, our call is to embrace the challenge of becoming true radicals – righteous radicals who are emboldened by Christ and his saints to go to the roots of who we are and of what we as a school ought to be doing. The word radical comes from the latin word radix, which means roos. So a righteous radical goes to the root of things, not to tear things up by the roots but to plant himself ever more deeply in the soil of the Real.

We seem to be living in a strange time. Is it an extraordinary time. I don’t know. There have been many extraordinary times in history. To me, this seems like it may very well be one of those. You feel something of the flavor of momentous change in the air, change that is by no means all for the good.

In such circumstances, it seems obvious that there is a pressing need to be strongly rooted in the things that are most true, those “dearest freshness deep down things” whatsoever those may be, that the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins speaks of in a poem many of you know.

I don’t wish to be too apocalyptic here but as the adverse forces of our culture buffet us this way and that, there is a need now more than ever for those who have the knowledge and the ability and indeed the grace to gather closer to the center so that the center can hold them in place.

As I speak of gathering closer to the center as torrential winds blow us this way and that I am thinking about lines from a poem by the great Irishman William Butler Yeats called “The Second Coming”. It’s a bit of a terrifying poem. Listen:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats is saying that the world is like a falcon that can no longer hear the call of his falconer, it is a world where anarchy is loosed, causing things to fall apart, allowing innocence to be drowned. And all because man has lost his center. And a man without a center, he says, even the good men, lack intensity, lack passion, lack conviction – in a word, the man of today is weak. And he’s weak because he lacks conviction. What does that mean to lack conviction? It means he’s not convinced of anything, because he has no real knowledge and experience of the center of reality, a knowledge that could root him and guide him through the storm.

So what about us? Where do we find the center here? How do we become men who are convinced of the Good, convinced of the Truth and convinced of Beauty so that we can weather the storm and help others to weather it? Where at Gregory the Great Academy do we find our center?

Music and poetry are at the center; these are at the essence of what we do here for music and poetry form the heart of man both for good and for ill. Let’s take this opportunity to explore this mystery deeper to help us to better understand and to experience the power of the muses. And let’s take this year to carry on and breath new life into one of the greatest treasures and traditions of our academy – our musical culture – by fostering an in-house musical tradition. The same goes for poetry. One of the surprise fruits of last year’s distance learning program was Mrs. Beebe’s sonnet class and the discovery that so many of our boys could learn to write profound and beautiful poetry. Let’s be a school of poets who know how to write sonnets and ballads. Let’s be a school of bards who learn as many folk songs as we can and even start writing our own folk songs.

Sports are at the center. The joy of using the body effectively to do wonderful things on the sports field both with teammates and alone. The intensity and joy of battle. These early existential confrontations on the soccer field and the rugby pitch that call one to courageous action, often for the first time in one’s life. The slow painful but satisfying knowledge that hard work builds strength, ability, and character. And perhaps best of all the sheer joy of learning to play a game well. All of this is central to our education.

The farm is a new plank that is also central. Bringing boys into contact with the realities of pigs and chickens and let’s hope sheep, goats, and cattle up ahead, roots our students on a daily basis in chores that are tied to the earth, tied to the land, and teaches them something profound about the very act of eating: that our lives are dependent on the sacrifice of many other lives. Learning to understand, participate in, and honor this sacrifice and the animals who make it – is a profound and necessary education.

And now what of academics? Are academics central to our education? I certainly hope so. But at the same time I think what makes our school extraordinary and transformative is that we understand that academics is only one of the many educational endeavors that is essential. Our school is not confined to desks and classrooms. Far from it. But what does happen in the classroom? What are we trying to achieve there? As your teachers we are trying to lead or to charm or to surprise the minds and imaginations of our students into a state of wakefulness and liveliness. We do not simply want to pack your minds with as many truths as we can fit into one class period. That kind of learning will only be disgorged onto the next exam and soon forgotten. What we want is for students to come to experience the power and profundity and joy of discovering for themselves that there is truth in history, in stories, in nature, in the very workings of the mind, in the wonderful ways that one’s mind becomes stretched and refined by writing sonnets, working out Euclidean props, and struggling to articulate ideas in speech and on paper.

Prayer is central to our education. I think to myself all the time that our school is ideal for developing the inner life of young men – because prayer forms the rhythm of every day and every activity in this place but also because here boys are given the first opportunity of their lives to begin to form their own life of prayer outside the orbit of their family. They are given a new space, new voices, new ideas, new prayers, and new liturgies with which to encounter God communally and personally.

And there is much more we could include here. What about juggling performance and craft guilds? And what of camping trips and trips to Europe? What role do they play? Are these central? I say yes. They too are essential and thus central.

At this point you may be wondering how many centers there can be. If something has too many centers, then it has no center at all. So am I speaking nonsense here?

An image that could make sense of my claim would be the image of a wheel and all of these planks that I am calling central as spokes leading from the outer rim into the center.

So with this image I think we can truly say that all of these activities that we pursue here are central, are essential because they lead us and our students to what is the true essence and center of all – to Christ.

The great Church father Saint Irenaeus wrote that “The glory of God is man alive”. Sometimes it is translated “the glory of God is the living man”. What this means is that Man glorifies God by living his life to the fullest extent and he can only live fully as man if he is formed according to the image of his maker, the image of Christ. This sentence (“The glory of God is man alive”) gives us a pithy expression of our mission. For our mission as educators is to work with one another and with God to bring ourselves and our students more fully alive through participation in the resplendent form and being of Christ. And we lead our students to encounter this font of Life through music, poetry, sport, history, literature, logic, mathematics, chores, caring for animals, juggling, and many many other essential things.

Yeats writes that the center cannot hold. He is wrong there. For the center is God who is like us a man and he can hold us if we allow ourselves to be held. If we wish to be men who are passionately and intensely good, men who can stand up to the winds of this age and even help others to stand with us, men who are true explorers and adventurers of the world God has made, let us begin here and now by learning to plant ourselves ever more deeply in the truth and beauty and goodness of God.

-Luke Culley, Headmaster