This past Sunday, my wife Liz and I drove down to Berea College, where I delivered the baccalaureate sermon for this spring’s graduation.
We had a delightful time. Berea is an amazing college. Students from Appalachia and around the world receive tuition-free, first-rate educations. The faculty and administration are doing God’s work.
As best I could tell (I can never really tell), my message went over OK. At least no one fell sleep and tumbled out clamorously into an aisle. Score one for me.
So I’ll share here a condensed version of my sermon. My subject was how and why we should choose to live spiritually in a largely unspiritual age.
We reside in a society run by people who appear to have gained the whole world but to have allowed their souls to atrophy. It ought to be our goal not become one of those people.
Toward that end, I offered these suggestions:
▪ One, however you earn your bread, whether you’re a banker or a retail sales clerk or a farmer, fill your leisure time with the arts.
Take a vacation to New York City and spend a whole day, or three, perusing the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Read good books.
Watch Chinese films or Swedish films or Afghani films with subtitles, to get some idea of how people live in other cultures you might not be able to visit.
Learn to paint or play the oboe, even if you do it badly. Learn to tap dance.
Art feeds our spirits and broadens our vision.
▪ Two, learn humility.
Actually, you will learn humility. If we live long enough, the world will humble us. Still, it’s better to develop humility on purpose than to have the hubris kicked out of us against our will.
Humility reminds us we shouldn’t judge others, because we’re not perfect ourselves. It says we don’t have all the answers, that, indeed, we may not have any answers.
Humility shows us that we never know what brought a person to the place he or she is in. If we’d walked in their skin, we probably wouldn’t have done any better than they’ve done.
Humility gives us compassion for the broken and lost and confused, because we’re broken, lost, and confused, too.
▪ Three, pray. Pray a lot.
How you pray isn’t so important. Get a Catholic prayer book and read it aloud. Go to Red River Gorge and talk to the spirit in the trees. Pray in tongues.
However you do it, pray.
Spiritual life is filled with paradoxes.
One paradox is that prayer is intensely personal. Some prayers focus us mainly on our breathing rhythms. Most prayers can feel as if we’re communing only with ourselves, since the deity we’re addressing remains silent.
Yet this private act magically takes us outside ourselves. It reminds us we’re part of something cosmic, something eternal. It reminds us of our own smallness, which is a good thing to be reminded of.
A related paradox is that at a church or synagogue or mosque, we may perform this solitary act in unison with fellow pilgrims, our voices rising together, and in those times our prayers simultaneously connect us with the Lord — and with each other.
▪ Four, be kind to everyone, including those with whom you disagree.
I’ve spent 40 years studying Christianity. It’s a complicated faith with hundreds of denominations, each convinced it’s discovered the surest path to heaven. There are innumerable libraries filled with ponderous tomes of Christian theology and eschatology and apologetics.
Yet the majority of the New Testament, at least, can be understood in three words:
Just. Be. Nice.
The byways we travel are filled with irritating people who give us so many reasons to set them straight and pay them back that which they richly deserve to be paid back for.
But instead of giving people what they deserve, we’re to give them what they genuinely need. If your enemy is hungry, buy her a cheeseburger. If he’s thirsty, give him a bottle of water. If she’s cold, give her a coat.
▪ Five, practice agape love.
Agape was an ancient Greek word for love. It was rarely used by the Greeks, but the early Christians adopted it and used it almost exclusively.
Agape is a different kind of love. It’s not dependent on our emotions in the way our loves for our spouse and children and friends are dependent on how we feel about them.
Agape is an act of the will: we perform acts consistent with love whether or not we happen to feel loving. We show agape toward people we don’t even like.
Agape requires us to develop longsuffering. We’ve made up our minds to do right, and by George we’re going to do it regardless.
The goal in all these virtues is to transcend our own pain and self-righteousness and narcissism and greed.
We dare to be different from the prevailing culture — and to overcome the darker inclinations of our own nature.
We use what we’ve endured to bring comfort to others.
We draw strength from on high, or from within ourselves, or both.
We strive to overcome evil with good.