Baccalaureate Mass Homily
LMU Baccalaureate Mass Homily
By Robert B. Lawton, S.J.
Delivered Friday, May 6, 2005
Tomorrow afternoon, those of you who graduate will leave the familiar. For the past few years, whenever you wanted to share a pizza, get help with homework or talk to a friend, you've known where to knock, email or call. As you walked around campus, you've recognized faces, and been known by name. In clubs and courses, on athletic teams and service organizations – you've found a place for yourself. Here on campus, you've become a somebody.
And tomorrow that will all change. And it's exciting, and it's frightening, and it's everything in between, so however you're feeling tonight, that's all right.
And that momentous day tomorrow -- momentous for you -- you've no doubt discovered is not a momentous day for the world. The world has not been waiting for you. CEOs and senators have not delayed their retirement until next Monday, anticipating your availability. Those of you going to graduate school, medical school or law school know that surgeons and law firm partners are not beginning to count the years. In fact, these people have been so busy that they haven’t even kept minor jobs open for you.
And so, in response, many of you are keeping your options open. You're going to travel this summer, delay the decision for a couple of months; and probably quite a few of you during these past few months have thought, "Maybe I should have been an accounting major."
The world has not been waiting. Actually, in my homily this evening, I'd like to make a slightly different twist on that. I'm going to suggest that the reason the world has not been waiting is that the world welcomed you long ago, threw its arms around you and embraced you. So I want to say a word about the world. As a worldly Jesuit, I have some expertise. And then I want to issue a warning. Preachers love to issue warnings. But I don’t want my final LMU words to you to be a warning, so my third point will be positive. And in my third point I'm going to say a word about each of those readings.
So the homily has three points, the third point has three parts; the first part has three quotations that begin it. As you prepare to leave, a firework of threes.
First of all, the world. Three quotes. The first is from Alain de Botton, from a book he wrote last year. "Every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories. The first, our quest for sexual love, is well-known and well charted. Its vagaries form the staple of music and literature. It is socially accepted and celebrated. The second, the story of our quest for love from the world, is a more secret and shameful tale. And yet this second love story is no less intense than the first, no less complicated, important or universal, and its setbacks are no less painful. There is heartbreak here, too."
The second quote is from Adam Smith, writing in the 18th century. "To what purpose is all the toil and bustle of this world? What is the end of avarice and ambition, of the pursuit of wealth, of power and preeminence? Is it to supply the necessities of nature? The wages of the meanest laborer can supply them. What then are the advantages of that great purpose of human life which we call bettering our condition? To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency and approbation are all the advantages that we can propose to derive from it."
And the final quote is from William James writing in the 19th century. "No more fiendish punishment could be devised, were such a thing physically possible, than that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed by all of its members. If no one turned around when we entered, answered when we spoke, or minded what we did, but if every person we met cut us dead, and acted as if we were nonexistent things, a kind of rage and impotent despair would well up long in us, for which the cruelest bodily torture would be relief."
Each of us in Gersten Hall this evening shares a common trait. Each of us is more or less insecure. And we share that trait with everyone outside these walls, with people who've gone before us and with people who will come after us. And because we're insecure -- and doubt our own value -- we give too much value to the opinions of others. And so, far more than should be the case, if someone simply recognizes our name, greets us when we enter a room, praises our appearance, answers our phone call, this means so much to us.
And so, much of the world is built on this need for approval, approbation, recognition -- to be seen, to be somebody. The houses we live in, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear -- all of these things are in many ways, ways to win the respect, the approbation, the approval of others. They are ways to become somebody.
That's what I mean when I say the world welcomed you long ago. All of you graduates know exactly what I mean: All these ways that we try to prop up our view of ourselves by all of these external objects. And advertisers know it as well. There was a wonderful article in the Harvard Business Review about a decade ago, and it bore the title, "Advertising: The Poetry of Becoming." Advertising, as we all know, doesn’t basically speak to our needs, it speaks to our need to be approved, to be recognized, to be seen to be somebody.
And all of this would be pretty harmless, in a way it could simply be a way to disburden the day -- and indeed, even to keep the economy going -- if it didn’t have some dangerous aspects. Hence, two warnings.
The first warning is that all of these things that are offered to us to prop up our view of ourselves ultimately don't do that. They are like a short-lasting drug that we take for a while, feel good about ourselves, and then we're back to feeling negatively about ourselves. It doesn’t really give us what we need. No sooner do we have a Bimmer 7-series than we want a Bentley GT. Also in black.
And so this desire continues. From my high school class, there's only one member that's really wealthy, and some of us got together with him at his home a couple of years ago. He's worth about seven- or eight-hundred-million dollars. And he said to us, "You would think that would be enough." But, he said, it's not enough. It's never enough. Because it's a scorecard. And in fact, isn’t it interesting? I said, "Someone worth seven- or eight-hundred-million dollars." Unfortunately, that's how we often think about ourselves or others, in terms of how much money they have, how they look, where they live, what kind of car they drive. And yet, how ultimately futile that is as a way of propping up our feelings about ourselves.
But that's not even the worst of it. It's not the reason for the direst warning, which is that pursuing this way of life, seeking our attribution in all of these external things, really leads us away from what will ultimately make us happy.
When I was a young Jesuit at Georgetown, I got to know a student who was graduating number one in his class from the School of Foreign Service. And we were having one of these meaning-of-life conversations and he said, "I'm not really sure what I want to do with my life." And then he paused, and he said, "Yes, I am sure what I want to do with my life. I want to be a teacher."
He said, "But I can’t be a teacher, because I know what I fear: That when I come back to my college reunion, in 10 or 15 years, people are going to be silently thinking about me, 'What happened to poor Bill? He had such promise. He could have been somebody.'"
This is somebody who was letting an external view, an imaginary view, determine how he was going to live his life. This story has a happy ending. After wandering around trying things for several years, he's become a teacher, has been one for many years, and is a very, very happy person.
So this need to be approved by and loved by the world can lead us in so many wrong directions. And yet we so deeply want to believe it's true. We want to believe that this whole scaffolding -- which our culture and our economy have created to tell us we're valuable -- we want to think it really means something. When actually we know it doesn’t mean very much at all.
As Dr. Johnson once trenchantly observed, we wouldn’t spend so much time worrying what other people thought about us if we realized how little time they spend doing so.
So what is the answer to this deep insecurity that we all have? The answer, I think, is what Danny Harper said earlier in his liturgy. To embrace the adventure of becoming deeply, and fully, ourselves. This is what God is really calling us to. It seems like the riskiest of all journeys, this journey to be oneself. But it's ultimately the journey that leads us to happiness, that leads us into God's dreams for us. And each of today's three readings tells us a little something about that journey.
The first reading talks about wisdom, and says that wisdom is always easily at hand. And what that really is telling us is: ‘Pay attention to your own experience.’ We all have experience, day in and day out. Pay attention to that experience, listen to it, try to trust it, own it. What makes us happy, what makes us sad. What makes us feel fulfilled, what gives us a purpose in life. What are we good at. To really pay attention to our own experience. This is what wisdom is. It's owning our own life. Not somebody else's life, not our brother or sister's life. Not our roommate's life. Not our friend's life. Our life. Trusting it, owning it.
The second reading talks about different gifts. Ultimately, this adventure to become oneself is not a narcissistic enterprise. It's ultimately about not only being happy oneself, but giving to others and what is it I have to give, what are my own particular ways of loving? This is what we discover through our experiences: What each of us has to give.
I know that each of those who graduate tomorrow have grown a lot during your years here at LMU. You've discovered your talents; you've discovered ways of loving. But you're going to discover far more about yourself, because the adventure is not the adventure to find yourself. It's the adventure to become yourself. And all kinds of circumstances will happen to you, and they're going to bring forth from you new talents, new ways of loving, new ways of giving, that you don’t yet suspect. It's all going to involve plenty of mistakes, lots of failures. But if you pay attention to your experience, and trust it, own it, try to figure out, "How can I best love?" then God will be calling you, leading you to your deepest, truest self.
And that final reading, that beautiful Beatitudes. The Beatitudes basically reflect God's call for us to be open to life in all of its mystery, beauty, and tragedy. A lot of those things that we build around ourselves to prop up our self-worth are really things that can make us invulnerable and unfeeling. God in the Beatitudes is calling us to be open to life, to let ourselves get close enough to persons so that we can mourn loss. To let ourselves be open to the injustices of the world, so that we can be enraged and want to do something through our passions. To be open to all people, no matter how much they make, where they live, how beautiful or handsome they are, to be truly poor in spirit. This is what God is calling us to, because this is what life ultimately is about. And God doesn’t want us to miss out on that.
So God in these readings is calling us to that great adventure that Danny talked about at the beginning, that great adventure to be deeply and truly ourselves. It's a wonderful adventure that God invites us to. Far more fulfilling and far more rich for community than building things around ourselves, or pursuing ultimately the empty love of the world.
That ends the official sermon. I have really, really enjoyed your class, so I'd like to end on a more personal note. As I have spent the past few weeks with many of you, I've naturally thought back to when I was your age and in a similar position. And I have to admit first of all, that I was far more neurotic, controlling, anxious and afraid than any of you are. It's probably an East Coast thing. But with all of that, God has been able to break into my life in surprising ways and lead me into unexpected and enchanted places. I have to admit that God has done a far better job running my life than I would have done. And so my advice to you is not to put too much weight in your worries, and even not to put too much trust in your plans.
Trust rather in yourselves, and trust even more than that, God. The God who loves you more than you can ever imagine, the God who will always be with you on your life journey, often at your side, but occasionally out in front, leading you into unknown and magical places where you can become even more fully yourself and love in your own particular and wonderful ways. And when that happens, and as that happens, my guess is that you will discover, much to your own surprise, that you have indeed become a light to the world.