Delivered on the Ninth Annual Spring Semester Defense Day, 12 May 2022. Transcribed from memory and revised the following day.
You’ve probably heard me say that education means, “lead out” – leading the student out of evil, ugliness, and falsehood into goodness, beauty, and truth. (If you find any educational institution that is not doing that, it is not really educating.)
The purpose of Scriptorium Hall is to be a place where truth, goodness, and beauty are upheld and taught.
The Venerable Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, described the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. In their debates, one man likened life to a hall — fire-lit, warm, defensible — in the middle of a raging storm. If a bird were to fly into the hall out of the storm, he would find light, warmth, life — refuge from the storm, from dragons, from Grendels.
That storm, those dragons and Grendels, are what we all face — and what you, graduates, must face increasingly. And in doing so, you will have to make a choice.
Pico della Mirandola, while he was utterly wrong to say that man was created without limits, nevertheless was correct to say that to a certain extent, we do create ourselves. We can be high: we have the opportunity to have a relationship with the Creator of the Universe, with God Himself. But we can also destroy ourselves, abolish ourselves, as C.S. Lewis would say, and as many of the characters in his novel, That Hideous Strength, do: we can become beasts, never, as Whittaker Chambers says, in his autobiography, Witness, more beastly than when intelligent about our beastliness.
Making this choice is hard, because in choosing to do right, we ensure our own suffering. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato writes in The Republic that the just man will be killed: that is the end of the “Allegory of the Cave” mentioned earlier in the student presentations.
Jesus Christ told His followers something very similar: “I send you out as sheep among wolves. Therefore be wise” — prudent, aware, shrewd, keen — “as serpents, but be harmless,” — merciful, sincere, gracious — “as doves.”
Plato and his fellow Greeks had fine myths of demigods — half-gods and half-men: Herakles, Theseus, Achilles, beings who had chosen to do right and had suffered. Yet the Greeks had no certainty their gods would be pleased with them: sacrifices were constantly demanded to placate the gods and buy their favor. The Greeks were utterly hopeless. They could choose the way of right and suffer or die for it — like Leonidas and the Spartans and Thespians at Thermopylae — but they had no hope for the afterlife, as the inscriptions on their funeral stele make clear.
But Christ’s followers do have hope in circumstances of dire danger. Christ is not half of God and half of man but fully God and fully Man. He did not merely choose to do right: He never did anything wrong. And yet, His government broke almost every law on the books about arresting and trying Him: at night, in an illegal location, seeking evidence from false witnesses, making the decision to have Him executed in just a few hours — despite having no evidence that He had done any immoral act. Then Jesus was handed over to the conquering government — the Romans — who also found that He had done no wrong and yet mocked Him, scourged Him, and crucified Him.
But the story does not end there: Jesus Christ rose from the dead. He defeated death. He defeated evil. He defeated sin. And He is able to defeat the evil in our own souls through the power of His Holy Spirit, the Comforter.
This is the God who loves you.
This is the God who knows that you can never make a sacrifice good enough or big enough to please Him — and so in Christ, He sacrificed Himself, so that through faith in Christ, we can become pleasing to Him.
This is the God who left His perfectly loving, perfectly comfortable place in Paradise to suffer as a man; He endured every temptation, He allowed Himself to be tortured to death.
This is the God who will be with you in all your sufferings, who will never leave you, even as you are killed because you have chosen to do right.
So as the storm grows fiercer — and we have heard many times tonight about the growing evil, tyranny, and destruction of language in our current culture — you have to make your choice: comfortable wickedness, or virtue that may cost you your life.
No one can make your choice for you.
And you must determine now, before your trials begin, which path you will take. Like Dante and like Mark Studdock, without a constantly-alert determination to do right, you may, midway upon the journey of your life, suddenly jerk awake to find that you have become a somnambulist in a dark wood at the gate of Hell.
In Christ there is hope — hope of real and lasting peace with God, of joyous friendship with God, steadfast strength and tenderest comfort in God amid suffering.
In Christ, there is courage and valor given to you from the Almighty Lord of Hosts to face the storms, to slay the dragons, to defeat the Grendels.
So, friends, my dear students: go slay dragons, go defeat Grendels — with courage, and with great, great joy.
Image: Jacob van Oost the Elder, David with the Head of Goliath, 1648; Wikimedia