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Posted November 20, 2004

Convocation Address
Saint Vincent Founders’ Day
at Saint Vincent Archabbey Basilica
Latrobe, Pennsylvania
Thursday, November 18, 2004

Education a la St. Benedict

Eugene Hemrick

If the spiritual writer Jean-Pierre de Caussade were here tonight celebrating St. Vincent’s Founders’ Day, he would remind us that this is a sacramental moment, a unique, never-to-be-duplicated moment in our life that God has created. Why has God created this moment, and what, in particular, are we celebrating?

May I suggest that we are gathered to celebrate the awesome vocation of educators, the sacredness of ideas we as educators propound, the formation of good judgment we teach, and the human touch of St. Benedict.

In the first act of A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt gives us a masterful depiction of the nobility of a teacher. The scene opens with Sir Thomas More, one of the most powerful lawyers in King Henry VIII’s court, being ferried home along a picturesque river. Upon disembarking from his boat, he is greeted by Richard Rich, a simple looking man in his thirties who makes no pretense about being enamored with the prestige of court life.

As he accompanies More to his house, Rich tries to convince him of his love for the court. More sees in Rich a man hounded with self-doubts, whose only love is for the court's trappings. He also sees in Rich a gift for being a teacher.

As Rich accompanies More to his house, he tries to convince More of his sincerity. More turns to him and politely says: “Why not be a teacher? You'd make a fine teacher. Perhaps even a great one.”

Rich scoffs and replies, “And if I were, who would know of it?”

“You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public that . . . Oh, and a quiet life . . . Be a teacher,” More replies.

Being a teacher has a beautiful ring of nobility. It fits into the category of musicians, artists, philosopher and scientists. But, as the saying goes, if you are in the category of a musician, you most likely will be a starving one.

Even though teachers don’t make great salaries, the life of a teacher is anything but poor. We teachers live in the rich world of ideas. Our minds are forever curious and our imaginations on fire in search of inspiration. Although we may teach in one locality, mentally we are forever traveling the world and dancing in and out of time.

Being a teacher has many perks few outsiders see. For example, loved ones around us may past out of our lives, but we are never alone. Students often return to thank us, and in a very true way are our extended family.

More awesome than this, being a teacher means being responsible for making this world better through the Word, with a capital “W”, and also the word, with a small “w.” No matter whether we are teaching science, literature, history, languages, or whatever, we are God's stewards, working beside him in the development of his creation. Not a bad public, if we dare say so. And oh, the quiet life. [That is, if you aren’t in charge of students’ dorms, or in the midst of them at a sporting event.]

What we are celebrating tonight are teachers who go beyond representing an occupation, a career, or a business. Rather, we are celebrating a sacred, noble vocation.

Today we live in the age of the information highway, an age bursting with ideas. Tonight we are also celebrating the beauty and power of “The” idea.

An idea is a concept — a mental picture capable of shaping and forming us and the world around us. Looked at globally, it can make the world go round, or go bust, depending on how well we use or misuse it. Looked at personally, it, and it alone directs our lives. When we think about it, every inspiration we experience; every grace God sends us, ends in some form of an idea.

At this very moment, cherishing the power of the idea and using that power to the best of our ability is paramount to whether we will live or perish in the near future. [This may sound harsh and ominous, but it is an undeniable truth.] We are fighting the war on terrorism. It is our idea that terrorism is evil. And yet, many terrorists have the idea that they are in a Jihad, a religious battle against our evil western culture. How all this plays out will not depend on military might or economic strength, but on the strength of ideas. This war will not be won by annihilating or capturing an enemy, but rather on capturing it minds.

What we are celebrating is the most powerful weapon we have for achieving peace. Our classrooms, lectures, discussion forums, and literature are the conveyors of ideas. To the degree we formulate inspiring ideas that open hearts and minds and can overcome cultural differences, it is to that degree we will achieve unity.

When we reflect on St. Thomas Aquinas’ treatise on love, we learn that peace is a quality and essential part of love. But ultimately, it is virtuous ideas on which peace and loves depend. Hence, the reason we are celebrating the power of the idea tonight.

Interestingly, Cardinal John Henry Newman defines an idea as an illumination — light that is cast upon a subject. It is no exaggeration to say that the educational endeavors here at St. Vincent's ultimately aim at creating life-giving light and love capable of conquering the culture of death our pope and we deplore.

We are here tonight to also celebrate St. Vincent’s role in cultivating good judgement. Cardinal Newman would tell us that judgement is our greatest faculty. It must never be taken for granted, but always improved. [It needs to be mentioned here that depending on how well we use judgement in this life will determine our life after death.]

At the moment, we have nuclear submerged nuclear submarines carrying nuclear bombs circling the world. One imprudent judgement on the part of a commander, and we have an Armageddon. Unfortunately, too many people today feel it is not a question of whether an Armageddon will occur, but when it will happen. If nations keep their wits about them, it won’t happen. But how do we keep our wits? It is through institutions like St. Vincent's, where courses are taught; conferences are held, and discussions abound on morality, world views, cultural differences, and God’s wisdom.

No doubt one of the lesser fond memories of students when they leave St. Vincent’s is that of it being a testing ground. Not a month goes by in which there is not yet another examine. Not a day passes in which you who are students do not get uptight about making the grade. But making the grade for what? Is it not so that you will leave here as better decision makers? Is it not so that you will be the next generation of prudent thinkers who are responsible for preventing an Armageddon? Is it not so that you can cultivate a more secure and wholesome world in rapidly changing and mind-boggling times?

If an old Benedictine friend of mine was here to hear me, I think he would shout out at this point in my talk: Gino, you stuffed enough ideas into their heads. Tell them about stuffing dirt under their finger nails. Ground education by speaking about the Benedictine motto Ora et Labora, which translates prayer and work. And Gino, emphasize the important role of work.

Some time ago, I was all out of sorts with myself. I went to the doctor, and to his credit, he tried to help me by giving me tranquilizers. They only seemed to make me worse. One day, during one of my therapeutic walks, I remembered the advice of my Benedictine friend about Labora — the value of manual labor. I halted all intellectual pursuits, canceled meetings, and began cutting lawns, pruning trees and bushes, and I got down on my knees and weeded. I would come home covered from head to foot with dirt, and I ached like never before. In fact, I did so much manual work that my normally good golf game went to pot. And yet, within days I was back to normal.

Tonight as we are celebrating the vocation of being an educator, the powers of the idea, and the cultivation of prudent judgement, we also need to celebrate St. Benedict's common sense. Education can become lofty, leaving us consumed with books, ideas and conferences. Worst than this, we can wear our education on our sleeve. This is all good and well if it doesn’t puff us up and destroy Benedictine common sense that advocates being down-to-earth.

Humility comes from the Latin word humus, meaning soil. By getting down on our knees, grubbing in the dirt, and doing manual labor, we not only are engaging in good physical therapy, but more so, imbibing in the humble-down-to-earth spirit of St. Benedict. Without this spirit, it is too easy for education to lose its balance, and worst than this, to dehumanize us. When we hide behind books and degrees too much, and don’t reveal our true, humble self, we become small rather than big in the eyes of others. In celebrating the virtues of education tonight, we celebrate the trinity of labora, humility, being down-to-earth, and their ability to make us true to our self and to others.

Let us speak a little more about St. Benedict’s notion of humility and the way it causes us to be truly educated in the deepest sense of the word.

Years ago, there was a documentary on Britain's Marshall Montgomery. At this time, I was a young priest living with two other priests. Periodically we would sit down and watch the documentary series. I remember a night in which one of the other priests said to me: “Gino, did it ever occur to you when we listen to Montgomery, it sounds as if he won the war single handed?”

He had a point. In his narrating of the war, Montgomery was forever using the word “I.” “I told Ike I would take my troops and position them here. I accomplished this with great success. I furthermore informed Ike that it would be best if I and my men were better positioned than we had been.”

As we listened to Montgomery, we began to count the “I’s” he used. The number was astronomical.

No doubt, Montgomery was an excellent leader and had outstanding qualities, but he, like some people who reach the top, tended to be a little too much full of himself. Unfortunately, his pomposity overshadowed the gifts of genius he had received from God.

The dying words of a person are often the most sincere and pure uttering to issue from his or her mouth. Let us listen to the final words of Abbot Boniface Wimmer, the founder of St. Vincent’s. Listen to how he gives credit to the primary cause of true success. He wrote: “No one imagined us capable of accomplishing anything significant, and yet we did accomplish something. God's grace was obviously with us. Our chief objective the establishment of the order in America has been achieved, and our second major purpose -- training and providing a sufficient clergy for our German Catholics -- is well underway. May unbounded thanks be given to God a thousand times, for He chose and made us as instruments for the execution of His designs.”

“In as much as things have come this far only with the evident protection and grace of God, so may we not expect from ourselves success in the future, but again only from the grace and protection of God, who cannot fail us so long as we work not for ourselves, but for Him, for His Holy Church, for the order, and for souls.”

Tonight we celebrate the spirit of Abbot Wimmer’s dying words — words devoid of "I's", but rather focusing on “we” and “God.” He reveals the humble spirit of St. Benedict and a person loyal to Lectio Divina, the Benedictine Rule, the monastery, selflessness and God. As long as this spirit remains strong here at St. Vincent’s, those of us living, praying and studying within its hallowed walls can be insured of enjoying the fullness of a true Benedictine education.