Patrick Henry College Commencement Speech
“Remembering What it Means to be Human”, by Christian Fernandez
At the end of every journey is the gate, of Patrick Henry College, to a new and greater journey. The gate instills nostalgia of the journey complete but reminds us of the lessons that brought us to the end. From the harmony of these sentiments arises an inspiration to boldly pass through the gate; fondly recalling the road of the past but knowing our call is forever forward, not back.
Here, today at Patrick Henry College, we all stand to face that gate. We may wonder if our journeys will ever meet again, whether our next journey will be the hardest one we have in life; and some of us may be staring at the gate wondering what the next journey even is. Why do we wonder so? Why are we so urgent to know? The cause of that confusion, the cause of the ambivalence, is the very thing God wishes us to reflect on: our humanity. It is our humanity that causes us to remember the past and witness how we have prospered, suffered, and grown. It is that same humanity that causes us to look into an undefined, uncertain future and ponder wonder, and even fear.
Yet, it is this matter of humanity, what it means to be human, that we must recognize and answer to press us on through the journey. So often, we stress “growth,” “change,” and “flourishing,” but forget to consider what exactly is the thing we must devote our efforts in moulding. If we do not know what it means to be human, we make years of education here at Patrick Henry College and mentorship useless. What we must realize is that every fact we learn, every discourse we engage in, and every mystery we ponder is a step on the path to discovering the purpose of our humanity in a world under the care of a sovereign God whose Son was also fully man.
When we contemplate this matter of our humanity, the first fact we observe is that we are not alone. There are no groups of people who are “more human” than others. Mankind is not alone; it was never intended to be alone. The God of the Universe beheld the one time a member of mankind was alone and said: “it is not good.” We were created for each other: to know and serve one another. By our love for God and His love for us, we execute that service of selflessness; and in that service is the fulfillment of our purpose to glorify God. Never permit opportunities such as the education received here at Patrick Henry College, jobs, and wealth guide your perception of your humanity. The essence of humanity cannot be portrayed as a staircase where people stand on different steps and merely focus on reaching the top to “become more human.” The education we received at Patrick Henry College does not serve as the steps to apotheosize ourselves. Certainly, learning helps us grow individually in wisdom and maturity. However, whatever we learn in life is also intended to better our ability to take care of one another; to take a step forward on the journey, turn around, and know how best to help those behind us join us at the next step. Knowing our humanity also keeps us eager and humble when those ahead reach out to help us. At the very core of knowledge, of understanding the world past, present, and future, we do not find pride but a Beatific Vision. We find a love that reminds us of the beauty in everything around us: from God and the celestial cosmos to the common person on the street and a small flower preparing to bloom. All the more there to overwhelm us is not the pride, but the honour, that just as we love and adore everything around us, we too are loved and adored by others, including God. Our humanity, and the humanity of others is not something to despise and be ashamed of. In its true form as the Imago Dei, it is to be remembered, cherished, and preserved.
Yes, sadly, we live in times that have forgotten what it means to be human; and in that forgetfulness are lost the remembrance of the love that brings a man to marvel at this world and the love God showed to save it. Each moment humanity forgets that love, darkness over Creation grows more powerful. Yet, friends, do not despair and lose hope. It may be hard to hope, sometimes it will seem impossible. But, hope knows that its existence only occurs when troubling times arise. Hope comes strongest when times are at their darkest. Recognize the struggle, but do not linger talking about it. To quote English poet Robert Herrick,
“GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.”
Robert Herrick “To the Virgins, to make much of Time”
Hope, and let your hope become action. Carpe diem-seize the day.
But, what does that mean? We so often hear an imperative to fight, a rousing speech to spur us into action, only to leave that motivation in the rooms at Patrick Henry College we close the doors on as we leave. Here, at Patrick Henry College, we boast this motto “lead the nation and shape the culture.” How? How do we accomplish this task without falling to the same, generic, formulas employed in speeches and advertisements for politicians and political parties? People are tired of formulas, tired of being considered intellectual lab rats that rhetorical devices and forms of manipulation are practiced on. How do we actually “lead the nation and shape the culture?” By being human. My appreciating each other as humans. By reminding others of our humanity and sharing in its blessing.
To shape the culture, this takes the following forms:
- Prioritizing in every day the struggle between Life vs. Death
A culture is not an abstract deity that rules over a society. It is the internalized and expressed worldview of the individuals that make society. It is through individuals, one by one, that we understand a culture. Every individual, especially in these times, struggles with the dualistic conflict of Life and Death; whether personally or in the lives of others. Never believe that we can shape a culture while leaving behind the person with cut wrists believing life is a curse, not a gift. Never assume that those in the “changing” culture will eventually learn the preciousness of Life. Begin with Life, and from hence, conquer Death.
- Appreciating others as bearers of the Imago Dei
Stop to realize that every person around is a miracle of God’s grace and love. Realize that He cared so much that He made us in His image. Above all, realize that the people we may scorn, despise, or simply not care for a bear that same image just as much as we do. Satan’s greatest lie to people is that they are alone. Show them that you see His image in them; show them that you share that image with them.
- Remember and pursue the world of Innocence
We think that “innocent” means “inexperienced,” “foolishly idealistic,” and, worst of all, “naïve.” Friends, fight back for the true meaning of Innocence. Innocence is not a judgment of epistemic breadth, but a fervency to “suck the marrow out of life” each and every day. Show the world the wonder, not the naivety, of hope. Show what it is to bear an everlasting joy that is renewed with every night of sleep and wakes with new awe at the splendour of the day. There is a world of Innocence: a world that can see the best and worst in life, and still believes the best is the truth. Be one of the Innocent and show it.
- Strive for eternity while making sure to leave your mark on posterity
Grow in the understanding of eternal life and pursue it relentlessly. See the glory of God and thirst to know Him more as the Creator of the Sublime, our Father, and our Savior. However, do not forget that you were put on an Earth full of other humans for a reason. Never believe that you were created for just yourself and God’s pleasure. Never live a life merely of “It’s just God and me.” Character and virtue are worthless if they are not oriented and shown to others. Be like Lucan’s Cato: a person created, not for you, but for all the world. Not from the pride of seeking your own glory, but from the bursting excitement to love others and, in doing so, glorify the Father. Let your lives be a testament so that when you pass from this world you will have left your mark on the tablets of time and the hearts of people. Should you ever despair, and wonder if the effort is worth it, gaze at the triumph of the sunrise, and bask in the promise of the setting sun.
And what of the nation? Here, it gets more specific…
- Value people individually
Do not define people by their background, by a group, by a label, or anything else aside from your intentional efforts to understand them individually. Appreciate how a person’s past has shaped them into what they are today, but never let a past identity or past association with others determine your love for him or her. Learn their story, learn the journey they are on and appreciate it.
- Remember that being “elite” never saved souls
It is easy to think of ourselves as big fish. We come, we learn groundbreaking truths at Patrick Henry College, and we wonder how the outside world could possibly not accept the wisdom we have gained here at Patrick Henry College. Do not emerge from Patrick Henry College and boast of it only as a time to make yourself a god. Do not make a monastery of Patrick Henry College: a place where people retreat to for study but have little interest in going out and sharing. A self-proclaimed monastery will only hide behind a haven of pride and neglect the world beyond its walls. We will not touch the nation in such a manner. Remember that the people emulated in the halls of posterity did not build their own temples, but were carried on the shoulders of followers deeply touched and personally transformed.
- Shine as people still desperate for truth
At Patrick Henry College, we do not know all the answers. But, O the joy we have in being set on the path to finding the right answers. Delight in the constant pursuit of truth and show others the thrill and reward of the hunt. Confront the monotony of the despaired with the gentle glee of a spirit learning more truths with each day’s pursuit. Despite what criticisms may come, be steadfast in the confidence that you know the ultimate answer to life and its purpose. Yes, that answer raises even more questions than before; but, show others the undying excitement of exploring the mysteries and the wonder it brings to transform mere existence into life.
Each of these principles are to ensure that the journey we take is not one taken alone. They bring everything about ourselves, other people, and this world together and put them into focus. When they do, we realize something remarkable about the journeys in our life: they are all part of one journey, our story. We see that each “journey” is but a part in the whole of our continuing journey to eternal life. Do not let yourselves be alone on that journey; walk alongside others and pursue the gates of Heaven together as fellow creations of God coming home. In all parts of your journey, inspire such an awe in people of the world and its creatures that they are amazed to learn this world is but a pale reflection of one even greater to come.