President’s Dinner August 27, 2007

I.    Introduction

Tonight is an occasion to welcome you to St. John's.  This is the first of three banquets in this place that you will share as a class. At end of 2 yrs, we'll gather here for what we call our "Half-Time Celebration," a time to celebrate the mid-point of your college years.  And then at the end of 4 yrs, we'll gather here once more for your graduation banquet as you prepare to enter the ranks of Saint John's alumni - without whom very little that we do would be possible.  Every Johnnie alumnus has a story.  You enter a place filled with their memory, a place with deep roots and long experience in men's education. We invite you to add the story of your remarkable, emerging lives to the story of this place. 

Forty years ago - it seems like yesterday - I was sitting where you are right now. I had grown up in Minneapolis and had my heart set on going to Marquette. I wanted to go away to college in a big city and I was impressed with everything I had heard about Jesuit education. So it was Marquette for me.  But a friend of mine wanted to go to Saint John's and asked me to come with him on a campus visit.  From the moment I set foot on campus, looked up at the Bell Banner of the Abbey Church and met one of the monks (Fr. Don LeMay, then the Director of Admissions), I never thought of Marquette again.  There was something that felt right about being at Saint John's.  I couldn't describe it, but it lodged right here  The campus was filled with brand new buildings by Marcel Breuer, the Collegeville Institute that brings together scholars of different faith traditions was in its 1st year, so was Minnesota Public Radio founded here by a recent  graduate named Bill Kling with the support of the Abbey and the University.  The Hill Museum and Manuscript Library was in its first years of filming endangered manuscripts from the past (today it is a world resource of over 100,000 MSS.)   And Sen. Eugene McCarthy, an alumnus, announced his candidacy for president to prompt a national debate about the war in Vietnam. 

Saint John's was the most exciting place I had ever been. It opened me up to such a large world and invited a deep reckoning with pressing human issues.  I discovered a group of monks in the dorms who read books and listened to classical music, who loved conversation and who befriended me.  Profs monastic and lay befriended me, inviting me into their homes, enlisting me in causes they'd devoted a life to. And a monumen-tally near-sighted monk, named Br. Willie, wandered the buildings as night watchman making sure all was in order.  (None of us was sure what he actually could see, but he came to know us inside out!) 

I was a political science major, in ROTC, set for a career in law, going steady with a girl (alas!) who stayed back home.  As you can see, life took a different turn than I'd imagined. It all started in my first weeks on campus, when I made new friends, found myself in courses that in the end meant more to me than the major I had planned, and was encouraged to pay special attention to what my life at its heart was all about. 

Countless Johnnies tell a similar story. Most don't stay to become a monk, but they look at their time here, their mentors and their friends, their studies and their extra-curricular activities, the thick cultural memory of this community and its striking encouragement of risk-taking as the foundation for their lives.  Tonight I invite you to enter into the heart of Saint John's, to stretch in ways you have never imagined, to cast your lot with one another and the larger student body, faculty and staff, to attune your heart to your deepest core purpose - the passion that can galvanize all that is powerful within you. 

You remember I mentioned the Senior Banquet that we'll all celebrate four years from now.  Each year, there will be an open mike and many seniors use it to talk about what the people in this room have come to mean to them.  They return time and again to stories of Tommy 4, Mary 2 that are beginning for you right now and will take sometimes mythic shape with the passage of time.  But one or the other will, on occasion, talk about the uncertainty they felt when they first arrived.  Paul Storm, last year's senior speaker at Commencement, talked of being terrified at the very beginning.  He "knew no one, was moving into a strange building, sharing a tiny dorm with a roommate [he] had only spoken to once prior to that day, and didn't feel ready for this thing called College." He  "wanted desperately to back up and wait a few more moments" before entering his new home at Saint John 's, "but that wasn't an option."  So he found some time to get away from everyone, to walk on the edge of campus and the woods where the words of the Brazilian novelist, Paulo Coehlo, came to him: 

"Life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back."

The challenge will not wait.  You are entering an educational community with Benedictine roots a millennium and half old, that draws on the faith, wisdom and experience of the ages and seeks to put all of that to the service of community and the formation of character.  But none of that will work for you until you engage in this community, until you commit.

The challenge simply will not wait.  You are entering a University founded before the Civil War, on the edge of what was then the U.S. frontier, part of a great effort by the monks of Saint John's and their sisters at St. Benedict's to assist in the birth and renewal of dozens and dozens of communities in Minnesota, the Upper Midwest and beyond.  A University where for 150 years the sons from those and other communities have come on the verge of adulthood to study and live together, to find themselves transformed.  A place that one day most of those young men must leave, but a place that - far more often than not - serves as an anchor and inspiration their whole life long.  But the rich tradition of Saint John's will only work if you begin this week to take responsibility for your education in ways perhaps never before demanded of you.

This place of deep roots, long experience has always focused on young men, with much to learn, with energy to burn, restless, on the move, endlessly inventive as they claim adulthood. 

Each of these young men was dropped off, sometimes sent off, by parents aching at having to let them go -- parents with tear-filled eyes and words sometimes stuck in the back of their throats, yet immeasurably grateful and proud.  (You know what I am talking about...)  It is not easy to commit fully to something new with all those emotions churning within. 

Each of the young men who has started at Saint John's has felt uncomfortable at first with monks and the larger faculty and staff, who have remarkable credentials and high standards, and has had to risk getting to know these new mentors so that the purpose that animates their lives can make an impact.  It is not easy to open oneself to authority figures whom most of you have never before set eyes upon. 

I can assure you that nothing at Saint John's will work for you unless you are able to commit to a new and enlarged life in this community. 

Perhaps you agonized long and hard about whether St. John's was the college for you. Or maybe the decision to come here was so natural and straightforward that you hardly noticed when it first began. Perhaps, despite all appearances, you really just wandered in and now are thinking "What in God's name have I gotten myself in for?"

Whatever the case, St. John's is ready to welcome you as a member and, out of long experience, knows that nothing will ever be the same again if you follow the words of Paulo Coehlo and recognize that becoming a member of Saint John's sets you a challenge to test your courage and willingness to change.  There is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that you are not ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back.  Saint John's will not work unless you commit to something radically new in your life.

II. I want to make three requests of you

1.  Work hard.

Nothing that Saint John's and Saint Ben's offers will be yours unless you take time to study, unless you come to class ready to participate and to take risks.  To engage in thinking is not easy.  It is a practice that needs to be cultivated over and over again.  At times it will be more tempting to spend time saving the human race in Halo 3, exploring your alter ego as a rock star in Guitar Hero, or addressing the addictive challenges of the World of Warcraft, or building a clandestine life around guzzling beer until health and sometimes even life itself unravels. 

Please be attentive to how you squander time, energy and health.  They are not infinitely renewable.  You are the prime agent in whether or not you integrate the learning offered at Saint John's and Saint Benedict's.  I urge you to do whatever it takes so that you can fulfill your primary responsibilities as a student.  The decisions may at times feel isolating, but you will discover more fellow students who stand with you than you might at first imagine. 

2.  Enter fully into this community

At every turn Saint John's is shaped by community.  It starts on a dorm floor, where students get to know one another, beneath the stereotypes and outside of the myriad pressures to conform.  Life these next years will serve up example after example of personal uniqueness you might never have imagined -- in classmates of color, among classmates from different social and economic backgrounds, from different countries, with unexpected stories, with different temperaments and skills; and in women classmates from St. Benedict's who have a special level of self-confidence because they have a space truly their own. 

Generations of Johnnies can testify that as they have recognized these human differences and cherished them within their relationships to one another, their own sense of self has grown stronger, they have become more confident, more resilient and filled with compassion.  They have learned, sometimes when they least expected it, what the difference is between that which is and that which ought to be. 

And because in this place of community students care for one another, and know that they are cared for, they can risk finding common ground and working together for the larger good.  You will see this skill of building community in every corner of this campus -- in volunteer programs, in student clubs, among RAs, in varsity athletics, in men's spirituality groups. 

So look to your right, to your left and all around you.  There is nothing mysterious about what I am describing.  Generations of Saint John's students know that lasting friendships emerge in this community, often with the most unexpected people.  If you keep your eyes open and make room in your heart for students of different temperaments and life stories, for students from vastly different cultures, you will find your capacity for leadership enhanced, as well as abundant new energy for improving the world which we so often take for granted.

3.  Ground your self, again and again, in this place

There are role models and mentors galore at this place.  You only have to keep your eyes open -- to see how one person keeps enthusiastic about ideas over a lifetime, how another faces overwhelming problems and comes out new, how hope is never really very far away.  I urge you to get to know your Faculty Residents, your profs and coaches, secretaries and kitchen workers.  When you spot some one you admire, try to figure out how they do it.  You will find they don't even mind being asked. 

And seek out occasions to experience what keeps this place ever new -- the Abbey Church, the woods and the prairie, plays, concerts and art exhibits.  As a our former Abbot Timothy once said, this place was holy long before the first monks arrived.  If you let it work on you, what is most important in your life will never be too far from your awareness.

III.  Conclusion

Tonight I welcome you to St. John's University ‑‑ this place of mentors and friends, monks and natural beauty.  For a century and a half Saint John's has called a sharpened, tested sense of self to come into being for one generation of students after the next.  And if you have the courage to take advantage of all the resources of this marvelous place, full lives will emerge and you will make a difference in the new age fast breaking in on us.  If you take on the motto chosen by the founders of Saint John's and "put on the armor of light," your lives and the lives of untold numbers of people, many of whom you do not yet know and have yet to be born, will be immeasurably enhanced.

Tonight I welcome you to St. John's University.  I welcome you knowing that many people are making sacrifices for you to be here.  Your parents, family and friends back home have a hollow pit in their stomachs right now, and some more tears likely have to fall, but people who believed in you -- before you could even believe in yourself -- are cheering you on. 

And then there are others whom you probably don't even know yet.  There are the members of last year's senior class who before they graduated pledged to contribute a significant amount of money over these next years to help underwrite the cost of your education, as others have underwritten the cost of theirs.  There are thousands of generous alumni and benefactors, including the monks of Saint John's Abbey, who make contributions, year in and year out, so that the University is able to charge a tuition that, in fact, covers only about 70% of the cost the education you will receive. 

This week your life in college begins.  It will have more than its share of hurdles.  But remember that you are not alone.  We believe in you and we have every reason to believe that you will walk tall beginning this very day.  And so, members of the class of 2011, I welcome you into this remarkable community and I wish you God's blessings in abundance.