Father Michael Graham, S.J., Ph.D., President of Xavier University, presented the Graduation Address at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's Cincinnati Graduation on Sunday, May 22, 2016 at HUC-JIR. Father Graham was also presented with the Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.
His address is below.
To Convert Life Into Truth
President Panken; Dean Cohen; distinguished Trustees, Overseers, Governors and guests; happy graduates; faculty, family and friends and Joan Pines in particular; all you who gather here for this festive and important day in the life of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion: it gives me great joy to be with you here today. Having gone through Xavier’s own graduation a bit more than a week ago, I have some sense of what you all are feeling: students, a profound and well-earned sense of accomplishment; families, pride in these people you know and love so well, as if seeing them fresh, somehow amazed by them all over again; faculty, that rich sense that only days like this can bring, when you know in a flash why you do what you do for a living; and administrators, your summer is around the corner at last. (Perhaps I give away a bit too much of myself in that one!) My warmest and heartfelt congratulations to you all!
I must begin by telling you the flat-out truth as I stand here: I am deeply touched by the honor you do me – more touched, indeed, than I can possibly say. But it has also caught me up short. I once heard someone wish someone else well by saying he hoped the man would someday be half the man his dog already thought he was. Today, I feel rather like that dog’s man -- although I think I’d settle for being someday one-quarter of the man you think I am; one-eighth would probably do!
But more than that: a rabbi friend congratulated me last week on this pending honor and then remarked that we are past the point where such a recognition – a Jewish university granting a Catholic priest an honorary degree – would have been unthinkable. I later thought to myself: Yes, we are past that day. But we are not past the day when such an event (or its reverse) prompts the observation that we are past the day when it would have been unthinkable. It is neither impossible on the one hand nor so ordinary, so common place, on the other that it is taken for granted or unremarkable. At least, it is not unremarkable to me.
And this is what pulls me up short, ultimately. I know that not everyone receiving a degree here today is Jewish, but I know vividly that I am not. Moreover, the institution granting each and every degree today is a Jewish institution I revere, and revere precisely as unmistakably, unambiguously and unalterably Jewish. And this realization leads to a nearly existential shudder on my part: Why me? What can I possibly say to you?
As I sat with that question, a clue came to me in the very honor you do me today – that you have found in me something praiseworthy, words or actions that resonate with you in some more than ordinary way, such that you want to take note of them and invite others to note them too. If that is so, then perhaps the best thing for me to do today is repay your own kind favor. I have discovered many deep consolations in interfaith work, but no consolation deeper than this: when I am privileged to be with someone who embodies their own tradition palpably and well, I am always encouraged to better embody my own. Over and over, I have found myself called to deepen my Catholic faith and life through the witness of better Jews and Buddhists and Muslims and more. And so let your notice of something in me today be the occasion for me to ask something of you in return, something I believe our world desperately wants and needs – namely, that you embody the tradition that is yours (whatever your tradition may be) in so deep and convincing a fashion that you will become a living witness of that which is deepest within you (and therefore also beyond you) to everyone you meet.
The rest of this talk will fall into two broad halves: What the deep embodiment of our traditions seems to me to mean, how it shows itself, how we know it when we find it; and then the conditions necessary for us to embody our traditions persuasively and well. Guides will accompany us in each of our sections.
And so, Part 1: What the embodiment of our traditions looks like to me, how I know it – or better, feel it – when I see it. Our guide will be Ralph Waldo Emerson, specifically his Divinity School Address given to seven students and their guests at Harvard College, July, 1838.
I first came to know Emerson well in my own grad school days, under the remarkable teaching of Professor John O. King at the University of Michigan, who (regrettably) died young. I remember John clearly: standing entranced before us, fingertips on his forehead, chain smoking and channeling one transcendentalist after another, and none so vividly as Emerson. Now, I must confess, the more I studied Emerson, the more reservations I had: his ceaseless demand that we trust no oracles unless they proceed from within us, for example, and this demand uttered always with serene oracular assurance. And yet, Emerson repays the hard work of ploughing through him with often luminous words: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us,” or “Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be,” or “The world laughs in flowers.”
And so it is with the Divinity School Address: it’s a heavy slog through thick transcendental woods, but congenial groves occasionally open and let dazzling shafts of sunlight in. I first studied it with Dr. King at Michigan, but then taught it myself a handful of times back when I did the honest work of a faculty member. At some point along the way, an important penny dropped. I wasn’t yet ordained, hadn’t even entertained the thought of one day being ordained, when I first became acquainted with the text; but I was a priest by the time I taught it and suddenly Emerson had something important to say to me that he hadn’t before, and I was keen to hear it. (When the student is ready, the teacher appears, I’m told the Buddhists say). This passage in particular stopped me cold: “The spirit only can teach. Not any profane man, not any sensual, not any liar, not any slave can teach, but only he can give, who has; he only can create, who is. The man, on whom the soul descends, through whom the soul speaks, alone can teach. Courage, piety, love, wisdom, can teach; and every man can open his door to these angels, and they shall bring him the gift of tongues. But the man who aims to speak as books enable, as synods use, as the fashion guides, and as interest commands, babbles. Let him hush.”
Emerson’s condemnation of religious formalism in his day made me wonder about the authenticity of my own word and witness in mine. It struck me that he was absolutely right – “Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead,” and “It is the office of the true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that He speaketh, not spake.” What Emerson encountered, I encountered, too – men and women hungry for words that cut through the clutter and the clatter; that fed them with real bread and did not give them stones instead. The complaint against dead and dismal preaching: I heard it often and I hear it still, although often unvoiced except that when I hear a preacher praised, the words “finally” or “at last” or “for a change” seem often implicit in the tribute.
But what makes for living preaching, whether the preaching of words or, as St. Francis of Assisi pointedly reminds us, the better and more important preaching that uses words only when necessary, the preaching, that is, that a life itself proclaims – for this is the heart of our question? How does the spoken and unspoken testimony of one’s faith touch another, such that the one touched feels brushed by God? A lengthy passage from Emerson’s Address is well worth quoting in this regard: “I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. …A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned. Not one fact in all his experience, had he yet imported into his doctrine. This man had ploughed, and planted, and talked, and bought, and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches; his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers; yet was there not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse, that he had ever lived at all. Not a line did he draw out of real history. The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life, -- life passed through the fire of thought. But of the bad preacher, it could not be told from his sermon, what age of the world he fell in; whether he had a father or a child; whether he was a free holder or a pauper; whether he was a citizen or a countryman; or any other fact of his biography.”
Here is the meaning of Emerson for us, I think, and how the luminous witness of faithful men and women living their traditions nobly has inspired me to better live out mine. Because I perceive in them that they are the living embodiments of their own living traditions. As if these ancient ancestors of ours are a living people still, and we are, not their mere descendants today, but their brothers and their sisters. As if that which lived then in them lives now in us, our hearts beating with, our veins pulsing with, the blood that animated them. As if our faith is for us what their faith was for them: a living thing for which we would give our lives, for faith is indeed a matter of life and death and we are clay creatures, you and I, without it. Our faith must always be tangled with the visceral messiness of our very real lives, for it always is for others. We can only lead if others know that we are in the fray, and in their fray, with and for them. “Let their doubts know that you have doubted,” Emerson counsels, “and their wonder feel that you have wondered.” By this, all you meet will know that you have a word worth hearing – indeed, a word they will want to hear: that it descends not on either you or them from above, but comes forth hard won from the midst of your own life, bearing the blood and the dirt of your struggle.
Which brings me to the second broad half of these remarks today, namely how we can best ready ourselves to be compelling witnesses of our various traditions today. Here we have another guide, someone who has helped show me a way and perhaps can help show you a way as well. He is Robert Conway and for years he led the Bistro Group here in Cincinnati, a great owner of many restaurants. A friend of Catholic philanthropic enterprises here in Cincinnati, he is also a friend to all here at HUC-JIR as well, for he was a major benefactor of the exhibit “A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People.” Indeed, without the generous support of Bob and his late wife Ruth, the exhibit would not first have come to be at all and then, second, would never have made it to Rome and now be on its way to its resting place in Poland.
Bob was one of our Trustees as I transitioned into the President’s Office. And, as was the case with all our Trustees, I had known him somewhat well, but now needed to get to know him better. And so I decided to visit all our Trustees at their homes or offices – all 38 of them! – to ask whatever counsel they had to give as I prepared to take up my new role. I received a great deal of interesting and important advice, and you can probably guess most of it: how to go about doing a strategic plan, what the next capital campaign should focus on, what building projects the university needed next, and so on.
But Bob was different. Bob gave me the advice I needed most to hear and still remember. I don’t recall exactly how his wind-up went – something about a university like Xavier ultimately making the biggest difference not simply in the minds and lives of our students, but in their very souls. Something like that, probably. But this was his point: if I was to do my job well, I needed first and foremost to care for the condition of my own soul. Not the kind of thing you expect to hear from a successful restaurateur!
As I said, Bob’s advice sticks with me still. I needed it then and I still need it now. And maybe you do, too. For you to do the work that is before you to do, to build upon what HUC-JIR acknowledges and affirms in you today, you must above all else embody your traditions eloquently, and therefore you too must have a care for your souls.
Which all sounds well and good, of course, but how is it done? How best to care for these souls of ours, so that the traditions that are ours are radiant to those around us? I suggest three disciplines: the discipline of study, the discipline of prayer and the discipline of service.
The first, of course, is familiar to you by now, perhaps even overly so! Our traditions, yours and mine, are traditions of the book. And over the centuries, the books at the hearts of our traditions have begotten more books in turn. Generations after generations, for thousands of years, have probed, have questioned, have sought after meaning. We are the most recent participants in a conversation that has unfolded across centuries, and if we are to be true to our traditions, you and I, then we must listen well to where that conversation has been and to where it is now, how the living bring their fresh questions to ancient texts today that those texts may come alive again today and show themselves divinely inspired. But more, we must make our own contribution to that conversation, whatever our contribution might be. The discipline of study is not satisfied just by cataloging the thoughts of those who came before. Like a child who watches something demonstrated that they may do it finally for themselves, the discipline of study requires us to try our own hands at it.
But at some point, studying must glance up from the text in a gaze that seems to lose itself in the distance but in fact is burrowing deep within. The realities central to our traditions and therefore to our study cannot simply be dismantled or dissected, parsed or taken apart. What is base and elemental to them is base and elemental to us. That Mystery, that Presence, constitutes the horizon against which we live and act. It approaches us nearer than we are to ourselves and yet recedes from us as well, dancing always just beyond our grasp. And so we must seek a relationship directly with it, become still before it, ask it to illuminate our own darkness, bestow upon us whatever gifts it has to give. We must breathe it in and breathe it out again, lose ourselves within it that we might find ourselves finally, find ourselves in a way that is impossible without the losing first.
Just as prayer is what study becomes when it glances up from texts and breathes in the full Wonder and Mystery at the root of its academical contemplation, so service is what prayer becomes when it rises to its feet and strides out into the world, purposeful and seeking to be useful. And so the discipline of service is the third necessary exercise the care of our souls requires. None of our traditions imagines anything other than a world around us that we are part of. That world is broken and disfigured, no less than we ourselves are, and we always have responsibilities within it – responsibilities to that world itself and responsibilities especially to those men and women everywhere with us whether we know them or not, whose lives we are connected to and whose lives are connected to ours, by filaments both gossamer fine and steel strong. Service is taking responsibility for the good that we are called to do in the world, and then doing it.
And so here is what I ask of you today: the gift of your luminous witness. Nurtured by study, nourished by prayer, enlivened by service, become men and women our world needs more of and needs desperately: men and women who cannot help but “convert life into truth,” as Emerson well put it, the steady practice of which across a lifetime leads at last to radiant effortlessness.
I referenced earlier my own grad school days at the University of Michigan. Let me close with another memory of those days that becomes in turn a hope, even a prayer. I recall well going to football games on Saturdays in the fall. My friends and I set out in groups from Alice Lloyd Hall, the residential college where we lived, drips and droplets to add to the steady trickle of other people seeping out of other dorms up on our part of campus. Small streams converged to cross a footbridge and bubble its way to the Diag, where still more people came together in a kind of confluence, all of us surging, flowing forward. The closer we got to the stadium, the more this happened: stream met stream and melted together, becoming rivers that merged with still more streams and other rivers, becoming greater rivers still, swirling and eddying, spilling over sidewalks and flooding through streets, carrying along venders of t-shirts and cider like foam flecks before making the final turn to the stadium where this mighty Mississippi of Michigan fans crested and washed up against the walls of the Big House itself.
It is, perhaps, how the Promised Land itself will one day be: separated streams will leave their own proud and ancient banks behind and join their waters in happy embrace as they empty into one great ocean, where each stream will be welcome and every river find its home. I’ll look forward to greeting you there.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your kind attention. And graduates, once again, congratulations!