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.