Headmasters Address, 2021 Graduation

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

Let me begin by saying a few words about these fellows behind me.  They have matured from a pack of charming and silly squirrels in  their freshman year to strong and happy young men. They love a good joke, they love one another, and they love good conversations. And they have more to say in class and more questions to ask than any teacher could possibly answer. They are not afraid to think for themselves and to listen to one another and, of course, to mock one another, as well.  They take themselves and one another seriously but not too seriously. These guys are full of fun – but there is in them something deeper than fun – one might call it joviality – the happiness and confidence of Jove himself, certainly having much to do with the presence of joy. In his famous poem, “Character of the Happy Warrior,” William Wordsworth opens by asking a question: “Who is the happy warrior?” Well, these fifteen men are happy warriors. Here they are. Too bad Mr. Wordsworth isn’t here to meet them and find his question answered. For this is a class of happy warriors and I’ll do my best to tell you why.

In their junior year, these gentlemen learned a poem called “God’s Grandeur” which begins:

The world is charged with the Grandeur of God
It will flame out like shining from shook foil
It gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil crushed.

And then the poem goes on to ask a question:

Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Why is it, the poet asks, that men do not hear or reckon God.  If God’s grandeur is so shining, why can men no longer see or hear him in his world?  For an answer, I’d like to look to an essay by Erich Heller called the Hazard of Modern Poetry.  Heller argues that the loss of a universal symbolic language such as once prevailed in the Christian Middle Ages makes it impossible to be a poet in the modern world. Erich Heller, interestingly enough a secular Jewish Academic from the University of Chicago, , explains in this remarkable essay that the loss of the symbolic world is due to a loss of belief in the Eucharist that began with the protestant reformation.  What an extraordinary claim for a secular academic to make: that without the Eucharist, without the belief that God became man for us and becomes flesh at every liturgy and mass, the symbolic order of the world falls apart, leading to the lamentable loss of poetry.

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor comes at the problem in a different way: in his book A Secular Age he explains that the modern world is a world from which God has been evacuated and everything has been re-organized around this lack or absence of God. Although difficult, it is still possible, he maintains, to have faith in God in such a world – and Taylor himself is a Roman Catholic – but there is still a very real problem for the believer. Simply stated the problem is that the world he is in –with all of its symbolic cultural forms, are not Catholic. As Taylor poignantly expresses the situation – a Christian believer today is in precisely the same predicament as an atheist in the middle ages.  He can live and profess his faith but the world he is in stands in complete opposition to him at every level. So he is like a man living in a house that contradicts through its architecture, it’s style, its color, its furniture his very purpose and meaning.  And yet that’s the only house he has to live in.  One might say that the cosmic house medieval man lived in was Chartres cathedral whereas the secular cosmic abode is Walmart.

So how is a Catholic to act when he finds himself in such a predicament, we may wonder?   Can one be a poet in a non-poetic age?  Can one truly live one’s faith in a world from which God has been thoroughly drained?  One might think these two questions entirely unrelated, but I think the two are intimately related: Can one be a poet and can one be a Christian in a world such as this?

Well, I think we have already gotten the answer from the secular literary critic Erich Heller and the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor.  Men cannot see or hear God because in Heller’s terms the world has lost its coherence – the language of reality has been scrambled, making it seemingly impossible even for poetry to thrive, much less man. And in Taylor’s terms, the world has been re-arranged, albeit incoherently, around the death of God. The world as men now organize it and manifest its cultural significance denies the reality of God altogether – and even Christians cannot escape having to live within that new dis-organization.

I think both Taylor and Heller would assert that for us Hopkins’ poem can no longer be felt to be true.  Despite his faith, they would say, even a Christian man can no longer feel the presence of God pulsing in the world, can no longer sense the beauty of God’s order in his daily life.

But are they altogether right?  Or can we still seek, and find, and begin to see again the grandeur of God in an age such as ours?

The young men standing behind me would I think scoff at these wise old beards proclaiming the death of poetry and the death of Christian feeling in modernity.  And yes, it’s true they are young and perhaps overconfident, but are they not in some respect wiser than these much more learned men? Do they know something too?  I could be wrong here, but I think these youngsters behind me would answer this question with a rousing affirmative.  “Yes, we can still see the grandeur of God and Yes we can even be poets; maybe not at the caliber of Hopkins, but we can knock out a pretty decent sonnet or two if pushed.”  And I believe them; I think they’re right: the proof is from their own lived experience in a place like this where one is able to foster within the secular culture at large, a Christian culture where God can be seen, felt, and heard afresh.

So maybe we all should ask: what have you guys been doing for the last four years at Gregory the Great that has given you this confidence?  Well, lots of things: to name a few, you have been singing, praying, reading, talking and laughing, playing soccer, playing rugby, learning math, history, logic, and much much more.  That’s what you’ve been doing.  And you are about to put on a play and then go on a long pilgrimage together.  And you know, you truly know this, that these activities have begotten in you a sense of purpose, poise, and happiness.  But what will you do in the hereafter? What happens after the pilgrimage? Where will you be then?  How will you contend against the great forces that array themselves against you?  How will you remain, in William Wordsworth’s words, the Happy Warrior?  How will you continue to be a child of God in a world that denies him?

And now is the time for me to begin to give you some advice: The advice is in latin, so get ready: Age quid Agis!  For those who need a translation, that means: Do what you are doing.  Continue to do the same things you have been doing here!

OK, you may think that sounds absurd, and you’d be right – or at least partly right. Yes, I suppose it’s true you can’t continue to do all of those things you have been doing here exactly as you have been.  And if you strove with might and main to do just that, you’d just end up back here with us.  Which wouldn’t be the worst fate.

But in all of this tapestry of activities and experiences what have you been really doing?  I think Erich Heller helps us a bit here – you have been receiving through play and through work and through study and through conversation the language of God – the Logos itself – you have been taking part in the beginnings of a reconstruction of that lost symbolic world of God. Through a guided seeking you have been finding sometimes with great effort and sometimes effortlessly that lost forgotten world that Heller and Taylor consider so far from us today.  And you have learned in the small confines of this place what it means to thrive in God’s world.  You have tasted and seen the goodness of the Lord.  You truly do know that the world is charged with the grandeur of God because you have seen it. This, I believe, is what you have been doing.  And this is what you must keep doing.

But how?  How does one translate the little life of a boarding school into the grand life of your calling? And here is where we return again to poetry.  Why is poetry so important, especially for a Catholic in the 21st century?  Because putting the world back together belongs most fundamentally to the poet, to the maker of songs and stories. Atheist though he was, Shelley was right in saying that “poets are the unofficial legislators of mankind.” The persuasive power of the poetic word is overwhelming. Which is why a bad poem or a bad song or a bad story harms the world because we live and feel and see through these poems, songs, and stories.

After the senior class watched an excellent film version of Shakespeare’s 12th Night, Sam Guerrero was inspired to tell us that he watched Godzilla versus King Kong with his sister and afterwards realized how dumb it was.  Good!  But I warrant that his gift of discernment could only come from having entered deeply into better stories, and songs – that better persuade one of their goodness, beauty, and truth. The greatest story of all is the story of God’s creation of the world culminating with his entrance into it as a man! The only story with a truly happy ending.  This story convinced mankind that although more wonderful than any story told before – it is also true.  And because this story is true, that cosmic symbolic or poetic order that Erich Heller considers defunct and laments is still there waiting to be re-discovered.

Hopkins finishes God’s Grandeur with these words:

But nature is never spent.
There lives the dearest, freshness, deep down things.
And though the last lights off the black West went
O morning at the brown brink eastward springs
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods
With warm breast and with Ah! Bright Wings!

Gerard Manley Hopkins agrees wholeheartedly with our graduates here that man can know God and can see him even in this poor world.  But we have to work a little, we will have to dig a little for those freshness deep down things.  And good poetry and good music and good songs refreshed and illumined by the Spirit of God will enable us to do the digging.

So keep close to your heart the songs and stories and poems and prayers that you have learned, reflect on them, learn from them, live from them: Age Quid Agis – for it is through these ikons, these seeds of the Logos of God that you will continue to deepen your sense of the beauty and goodness and truth of God’s world.

I will end by reading the conclusion of the poem by William Wordsworth which I hope will be for these seniors both a fitting end to their journey here as well as a call to a new beginning. This should become the next good poem you take to heart:

‘Tis, finally, the man, who, lifted high,
Conspicuous object in a nation’s eye,
Or left unthought of in obscurity,
Who, with a toward or untoward lot,
Prosperous or adverse, to his wish or not,–
Plays, in the many games of life, that one
Where what he most doth value must be won;
Whom neither shape of danger can dismay,
Nor thought of tender happiness betray;
Who, not content that former work stand fast,
Looks forward, persevering to the last,
From well to better, daily self-surpast;
Who, whether praise of him must walk the earth
Forever, and to noble deeds give birth,
Or he must fall, to sleep without his fame,
And leave a dead, unprofitable name–
Finds comfort in himself and in his cause,
And, while the mortal mist is gathering, draws
His breath in confidence of Heaven’s applause:
This is the happy warrior; this is he
That every man in arms should wish to be.