The following is the commencement address given by Msgr. Michael Heintz at the graduation ceremony of Marian High School, Mishawaka, his alma mater, on June 2.
High school commencement addresses are notoriously and almost universally dreadful. Filled with platitudes and trite sentiment, they’re largely useless exercises in false praise, empty clichés and pious twaddle. My goal tonight is first and foremost to avoid all of that. I want to speak to you as graduates of my alma mater, and now yours, directly and honestly.
The facts I lay out to you are these. First, the culture we live in is corrosive, and thus damaging to us and to our relationships; but you don’t have to buy in. You can become a critic and a rebel. Second, life is not fair, period; but you can have a good life anyway. And third, as you look to your future, keep in mind the words of a 19th-century French novelist: “the only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.”
The culture we live in is toxic, and thus corrosive. Watch the news for more than three minutes — and it matters not which channel or website: CNN or Fox, Breitbart or Michael Moore — and your soul will be damaged by its coarseness and distorted by its subtle dishonesties. It offers little that is enlightening or uplifting. Further, technology, which has no doubt enhanced our life in a number of ways, has at the same time impaired the way we think, radically limited our capacity to remember anything and skewed the way we look at and relate to others. Violence and pornography (and I am convinced one is as bad as the other), which mark so much of contemporary media, are corrupting, not liberating or even harmless, influences on us. The images that fill our screens have deeply impaired the way we see one another, and social scientists are beginning to take note how these influences lead to any number of dysfunctions in marriages and other relationships.
The myth — and it is pure myth — that guides our contemporary culture is that the ideal life is one without any restraints. Boundaries, limits, rules and the moral and social norms that codify them are considered a burden and an arbitrary impingement on personal freedom and expression. In the culture we inhabit, the goal or end of all our striving is nothing more than the removal of all limits so as to maximize personal comfort and pleasure. Plato would have called this hedonism, and really there is nothing noble or beautiful about it. As a matter of the historical record, hedonists are serially miserable people, always blaming others for being in their way, for foiling their plans and impeding their happiness; or alternately they use other people, leaving in their wake a trail of wounded, damaged and broken relationships.
Now, we are all part of this culture, and we can’t simply extricate ourselves from it. We all live and breathe in it. But we don’t have to buy into it.
My advice to each of you is to become a critic and a rebel. And push back. Don’t believe everything Anderson Cooper or Bill O’Reilly tells you. In fact, question all the prevailing orthodoxies of our culture; learn instead to listen to different voices. Don’t buy into the agenda that Hollywood, Wall Street or ESPN peddles about what’s important in life. None of them has your best interest in mind: That is a fact. They’re actually all in the business of making money off of you. So listen instead to those whose love and care for you are genuine, especially when they’re telling you something you really don’t want to hear (perhaps like your parents or the church); that subtle rebellion inside you is more often than not an indication that they might actually have something important to say.
Formed by the rugged and foolish individualism that is part and parcel of a fallen culture, we tend to avoid asking for help, we eschew looking to others and we’re resistant to the acquired wisdom that is not dependent on our immediate experience (which, by the way, is called tradition). But be wary: Don’t take advice from individuals whose personal life is a train wreck. How can someone who is a hot mess be in any position to offer you real insight or guidance about life?
The network of relationships, friendships and fellowships that we forge in life can make or break us. The people we choose as our friends either help us on the way to heaven or speed our course on the highway to hell. There are no neutral friendships. But we are innately social beings, and we do need each other. Desperately. As the great GK Chesterton once wrote, “We men and women are all in the same boat, upon a stormy sea. We owe to each other a terrible and tragic loyalty.”
So be a rebel and push back. Focus on the good, the true and the beautiful. How? Take long walks, alone; read poetry; take the South Shore up to the Art Institute in Chicago; learn to take art and literature seriously, but not yourself. Read — and re-read — the Gospels; take a long bike ride on a country road; listen to music you’ve never listened to before; spend an afternoon, an entire afternoon, in the park without any electronic device; go to a daily Mass when you’re not obligated, but just because you want to. Volunteer three hours a week at a local charity, since as Flannery O’Connor observed, God is encountered not only as truth, but also — and remember this when you’re struggling intellectually with the faith — as charity; and learn to appreciate silence. Don’t constantly tweet or post; put the darn phone down and spend more time experiencing life instead of describing it digitally. Build relationships that demand something from you — that’s what real friendships do, and so make you a better person — and strive to bring out the best in others. Resist the pressure to make your own comfort, your own prestige or your own sense of power (these are the trinity of contemporary culture) the aim of your life. You will discover that a life lived outward, towards others and not focused inward on yourself, is truly liberating. Love, real love, is what makes us free.
Second, life does not come to us with a satisfaction guarantee. In other words, life is not fair, period. There will be things that you experience or even suffer (and this may be old news to you already) that are simply unjust and unfair, things beyond your control to manage or contain, things that make you question the goodness of God and the goodness of others. Sometimes these evils are the product of other peoples’ malice. Often, the evils we experience seem to have little or no rational explanation – they’re just circumstantial. We inhabit a warped cosmos where good things happen to wicked people and bad things happen to good and decent people. Good and evil seem to move about indiscriminately, without any calculus or rationality; it doesn’t seem to make any sense.
Now, one response to this — understandable in some ways — is cynicism. But this rapidly morphs into anger, resentment and bitterness. You can choose to live your days literally mad as hell at God, at other people or at the world’s unfairness. But this anger only enslaves you and destroys you from within; such rage is ultimately demonic, self-defeating and draws us into the very flow of the world’s disorder. Anger makes us less free. We all know people who seem to be consumed by an inner rage, folks who are angry almost all the time; is this any way to live? And where does it get them?
One of my heroes is St. Augustine, who did not suffer fools, or evils, gladly. He was a shrewd observer of human affairs. Noting that good people and wicked people alike suffer evils and also enjoy goods, he pointed out that the difference between the wicked and the righteous is not in what they experience or suffer, but in how they handle it. The wicked respond to life’s unfairness by becoming bitter and resentful. The righteous experience life’s unfairness too, but do not allow themselves to be distorted and destroyed by the evils they suffer, and as such they experience a freedom that the wicked, in their bitterness, simply cannot enjoy. Living in dark times, when the power of the enemy seemed to have a terrifying advantage, Gandalf had to remind Frodo, lamenting his circumstances and wishing he didn’t have to deal with the task handed to him, “so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
So do not live in anger or in fear. Resist being drawn into the darkness. Nothing happens apart from the Providence of God. Thank God for the blessings you receive, and ask him for the fortitude and patience to deal with life’s unfairness — and there will be plenty of it — so that it doesn’t destroy your soul. We will each encounter all kinds of obstacles and hardships in life, but the fact of the matter is that none of these, as dreadful as they may be, can block our way to holiness or harm our friendship with God; the martyrs are living (and dying) proof of this. The only obstacles to holiness are self-imposed.
Finally, strive to become a saint. Holiness, freedom and love are all inextricably woven together in the fabric of a life, and while I suspect that most of you would acknowledge your desire for freedom and for love, holiness tends to sound a bit less appealing. Saints seem plastic and boring; we never quite imagine them having much fun.
But the saints are those remarkable men and women who have learned how to love and who are thus truly free. The saints are life’s real adventurers. No longer enslaved to their own desires and to their own willfulness, they are unconquered victors, the true freedom fighters, the real rebels and insurgents in a world that is out of whack and seems to be spinning more so all the time. They have learned that prayer — personal and liturgical — is an act of defiance against the world’s darkness, a way of rebelling against all that is hateful and ugly, and an act of allegiance to the “capital-L” Love that Dante said moves the sun and the other stars. The love the saints share cuts against the grain of a warped world turned in on itself and undermines the Enemy whose negative energy derives from fear, spite and envy.
Because they are willing to let go of themselves, of their own obsessions, of their own ambitions, of their own innate but quite fallen desire to promote and assert themselves, the saints have discovered what life’s really all about. They have learned how to love. They have realized that every gift is intended to be given away, paid forward so to speak, and that in making a gift of themselves and their life to others, they receive far more than if God, the world and everyone else simply catered to their own immediate ambitions and desires. In the economy of grace, if we love, we always receive more than we ever give. And as a result of learning to put themselves aside, the saints experience a freedom that many folks in our world have barely even tasted.
If you want real freedom, learn how to love. That’s what holiness looks like: not a plastic figurine or a pious picture, but love and freedom in action. So learn how to love; discover true freedom; and become a saint.
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