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The 2017 Senior Address by Joseph Rivera

Posted: May 13, 2017

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Note: Each year the graduating class elects one of its members to present the Senior Address at Commencement. Upon graduation, this year’s speaker, Joseph Rivera of Kendall Park, New Jersey, plans to pursue graduate studies in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

 

“We Have Become Lovers of Wisdom”

by Joseph Rivera (’17)
Senior Address
May 13, 2017
 

Mother Agnes Mary, Fr. Scalia, President McLean, members of the Board of Governors, benefactors, priests and religious, faculty, students, family, and my dear friends — fellow graduates of the Class of 2017 — good morning and thank you for the privilege of speaking before you today.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.”

“This is the day that the Lord hath made, let us be glad and rejoice therein.”

How fitting it is that Commencement falls within Eastertide, when we have the greatest cause to rejoice. We rejoice in the Resurrection of Our Lord, and soon on Pentecost, we will rejoice in the descent of the Comforter among us.

Today, however, we celebrate a smaller triumph. We graduates have spent the last four years in intense study of the best things, striving — sometimes more, sometimes less — to know and love God better in our vocation as students.

Now that we have reached the end it may seem curious that we rejoice, as we must soon leave our dear friends and teachers and scatter among different places across the country and perhaps throughout the world. Most of us will be leaving aside the studies of the free man for the reality of hard work in a world that is not only deaf to the truth, but often opposed to it. Under these circumstances sorrow might seem more appropriate than jubilation.

Yet we rejoice today, not principally in the community and studies that we must now leave, but in a change that has been wrought in our souls. It is easy to forget, when in the midst of all the labors of study, that a marvelous work is being done within us. Every mathematical proposition, every seminar reading, every class discussion has been ordered toward making a change of inestimable value.

But what is this change? I would like to say that we have become wise, for wisdom is the last end of all the studies here, but I know that, at least on my part, that is not the case. I doubt that any of my classmates would lay claim to the name of wise, either, nor even those who have taught us for the past four years. Indeed, as Socrates says in the Phaedrus about the educated man who pursues the truth diligently, “to call him wise, seems to me too much, and proper only for a god.” But as he adds, “to call him a lover of wisdom — a philosopher — or something similar would fit him better and be more seemly.”

If we have not become wise, perhaps we have become lovers of wisdom, and that is no small thing. Though, what does it mean to be a lover of wisdom? I think that Plato can teach us much about this. In his allegory of the cave, he compares education to prisoners being set free from chains, so that they may turn from looking at mere images of objects to the things in themselves.

The prisoners must move from the things they can see, to those things that are invisible to them in their captive condition. Indeed, when they first come out of the cave, they cannot bear the light on account of the weakness of their eyes. Likewise, a lover of wisdom must turn from what is apparent to those things that are most real. At first this is difficult, for we are accustomed to thinking only of sensible things, and because in our sin and weakness we have become “vain in our thoughts” and our “foolish heart has been darkened.” But with persistent and open inquiry, Plato shows us, we can free our minds from slavery to the senses and see the realities that underlie the visible world.

But there is a truth here that Plato perhaps missed, namely that in order to see invisible things, we do not need to turn away from the visible, but rather to see the visible rightly. “The heavens show forth the glory of God, and the firmament declareth the work of His hands.” Everything that we see around us on this fine spring morning is an expression of the Wisdom which wrought it all. It is from seeing things as they really are, with attention to their beauty and order, that we are led to knowledge of God, Who is the most real of all realities: “For by the greatness of the beauty and of the creature, the Creator of them may be seen, so as to be known thereby.”

The philosopher, then, is one who listens to nature. And what have we done over these past four years, if not that? We have marveled with Fabre at the workings of instinct, plotted the course of the stars with Ptolemy and Kepler, constructed the five perfect solids with Euclid, pondered the imponderables with Maxwell and Einstein, and with Aristotle and St. Thomas, reasoned from these changing and changeable things, to the first unmoved mover who made them all. The principle thing that we take away from this education is not any one of these things — though all of these are wonderful — but an openness to all that creation has to tell us about God, and a delight in thinking upon His works.

In short, we have become lovers of wisdom, and have spent a short time in intense study so that we might spend a lifetime in openness to the truth in all its manifestations. We have been given the habits of soul requisite to live the fullest kind of life. As Hamlet said, “Sure he that made us with such large discourse, / Looking before and after, gave us not / That capability and godlike reason / To fust in us unused.” To live the most human life, and indeed the most divine life, we must live according to what is best within us. “For even if it be small in bulk, much more in power and worth does it surpass everything.”

But we have not accomplished this alone, and are deeply indebted to our parents, for sending us here, and to our tutors, who by word and example have cultivated this love within us, and to each other. Each of us has added something to the discussion that no one else could. As Aristotle says, “everyone says something true about the nature of things, and while individually we contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed.”

Together, sometimes through cooperation, and sometimes through disagreement, we have offered those parts of the truth that are ours and have mutually enriched each other’s understanding. I hope that we will always remember with fondness that common endeavor.

I have spoken thus far about the change we have undergone in regards to our education, and rightly so, for we rejoice today in the accomplishment of that work. But our joy is not complete unless we are lovers of the Divine Wisdom, made incarnate in the person of Our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. “If I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries, and have all faith so that I could move mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” We rejoice in what we have learned, not on our own account, but because God has used these four years of study to draw us closer to himself. As we will sing at the end of this ceremony, “Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to Your name give the glory.”

Moreover, with our education comes a responsibility. As in Plato’s allegory, we must re-enter the cave, and help those who still sit in darkness, help them to come to clearer vision of the truth. This responsibility assumes a greater significance in light of our Christian obligation to preach the Gospel in and out of season. As Our Lord says, “The kingdom of heaven is like to leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, until the whole was leavened.” We are to be leaven to the world and to bear witness to the truth.

But again, this work is impossible without charity, and that great fruit of charity, humility. St. Teresa of Calcutta expresses this with beautiful simplicity in our class quote: “Go out into the world and love the people you meet.” If we wish to be leaven, we must not only hold firm to the truth, but make it attractive to others with kindness and simplicity of life.

In doing so we are only completing the picture. For just as God may be known in all Creation, so can he be loved in all Creation. This is what Father Zosima encourages in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “Love man in his sin, for this likeness of God’s love is the height of love on earth. Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things.”

All of Creation participates in this love; all of Creation strives towards its maker with a wild and ancient joy: “And the stars have given light in their watches, and rejoiced: They were called, and they said: Here we are: and with cheerfulness they have shined forth to Him that made them.” We take our proper place in the whole of Creation when we seek to know and love God in sincerity of heart and with all of the sons of God cry out with gladness to the Lord, our maker.

Let us then rejoice in the opening of our minds and hearts to God, and pray that every day we may give him glory in our words and actions. “For He hath given us understanding that we may know the true God, and may be in His true son. This is the true God and life eternal.”

Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us. May God bless you all.


 

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Joseph Rivera -- Commencement 2017
Br. Robert Nesbit

“It was at the College when I began to take my faith seriously. The community life, all the people, the faculty, the staff — and the Mass — all that really helped.”

– Br. Robert Nesbit, O.S.B. (’07)

“I was moved and edified by your remarkable fidelity to St. Thomas Aquinas. Your academic program proposes an original way of training men and women capable of reading, thinking and interpreting tradition correctly.”

– Marc Cardinal Ouellet

Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops

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