Our Lady of Mount Carmel School: 2018 Commencement Address
Delivered by Mrs. Kathryn Stejskal, OLMC Instructor of Latin II
You’ve probably been asked a lot this last week where you’re going to high school, what you’re doing this summer, maybe where you want to go to college or what you want to be when you grow up. This is, of course, a perfectly lovely conversation starter, but I want to ask you all, and the graduates especially, to consider with me for a moment: Is there part of human existence that isn’t fulfilled, isn’t completed by this world of accomplishments, activity, work?
We complain all the time that the world has gotten too fast, too busy. You’ve heard the clichés: “We live in a world whose ideal is busyness, ambition, hard work,” and it’s true! So I want to ask the question: Is there any use for things that are useless? Is there any use for wonder, contemplation, quiet? Or should we constantly be asking: Where do you see yourself in five years? What’s your plan? What steps are you taking? Is that all there is to be human? Or is there something else, too?
Or another way of asking this question is this quotation by Joseph Pieper, who wrote a book called Leisure, the Basis of Culture: Here it is: “Is there still an area of human action, or human existence, that does not have its justification by being part of the machinery of a ‘five year plan’? Is there or is there not something of that kind?”
I want to defend to you the usefulness of the “useless.” (As a Latin teacher, I confess, this isn’t my first time defending the “useless.”) And I want to praise leisure.
Some of you have been here for eleven years—Mr. DiGiacopo came when he was 3!—and some for just a semester, but have you ever heard your teachers tell you: you have to learn this information so you can become a productive worker, so you can negotiate an advantage in business dealings, so you can contribute to the American economy.
No! Rather, your teachers put true things and lovely things and interesting things in front of you and said: look! Or listen! Or why? You were immersed in poetry, and art, and song, and Latin. Latin for heaven’s sake! So why would we, who claim to want you to be successful, give you Coleridge’s Kubla Khan or the Dies Irae in Latin? When could this possibly be USEFUL? And I’m sorry Mrs. Testa, but those flowers out there aren’t useful!
It’s because there is more to being human than work and accomplishments, and there’s more to education than just training.
Aristotle said: “we work in order to be at leisure.” Leisure, in this sense, is not idleness, it’s not doing nothing, and it’s not even play or vacation. Rather, it’s activity undertaken for its own sake. That is, treating the thing or activity as an end in itself, as the goal.
But what does it mean to do things for their own sake?
Let’s go back to Mrs. Testa’s flowers. Here is one way of approaching a flower:
I need to pick this flower so that I can cut it up and count its petals and stamens and pistils so that I can learn it for the test so that I can get good grades so that I can get into Princeton so that I can get a good internship so that I can get a good job so that I can have nice vacations. And it could go on. Everything is done for the sake of something else.
And here’s another way of approaching a flower. You smell and look at it for the sheer beauty of it, and examine it for the wonder and joy of knowing how plants work, how fast they grow, why they smell as they do. You receive what it gives you. Pieper says that “Leisure is…the condition of considering things in a celebrating spirit.” A celebrating spirit.
So, every time you delight in reading a poem or doing a geometry proof or sketching a pumpkin, you become a little more human. Why? Because you develop that interior part of you that lies outside, lies above the world of work and accomplishments and “usefulness.”
According to Pieper, true learning only happens when one is at leisure, when one is doing the thing one is doing for its own sake, because only then can you see things as they really are. He says, “Leisure is a form of that stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear. Leisure is the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion in the real.”
So, be leisurely in your education. Be leisurely in all your life pursuits. Do at least four “useless” things a day, things that you do because they are good in themselves, that aren’t a step in your five-year plan.
Miss Flaherty, paint pictures and learn calligraphy.
Miss Webber, translate Cicero and Caesar for no good reason.
Mr. DiGiacopo, frolic in a meadow.
Mr. Geraghty, keep on reciting poems in a British accent.
Miss Zachok, plant an oak tree.
Mr. Garry and Mr. Huresky, serve the Mass.
Everything I’m telling you about doing useless things and about leisure is utterly meaningless without the truest leisure, the deepest peace, and that is the Cross.
There is a Latin phrase Stat crux dum volvitur orbis. This translates to: “The Cross stands, is steady, while the world is turning.” A medieval writer had the idea that the universe rotated around the perfectly still axis of the cross. The world is whipping through space at a dizzying speed, and we’re all whipping through life at a breakneck pace, and it’s only in the contemplation of the cross, standing silently at the pierced feet of Christ beside our Blessed Mother, that you will ever find the truth and beauty and peace that you seek.
But in all this, I’m not saying not to do things. Yes, 100%, do a lot of awesome things. Go to two swim practices a day, join soccer teams, win medals. Read all the books and dissect all the animals. Get involved. Do things.
First and foremost, be human. Not well-trained workers, not students who mechanically stack up a bunch of trophies and awards, but humans. Here in your time at OLMC, we tried to help you become as human as we could. Thank you for responding to that call. You led field day teams and read Beowulf around a bonfire—all these things that can’t be put onto your resume. Our deepest desire for you as you go out from here is that you keep on being human, and in doing so, that you fulfill your true calling as sons and daughters of God.