Editor’s note: this fictitious letter is adapted from a commencement address given for Cardinal Kung Academy in Stamford, Connecticut.
Dear Incoming Freshmen,
I’m delighted that you’re headed to college next week after years of diligent and careful work in high school. I expect that this is something that you look forward to, but also something about which you might have some trepidation. After all, while many people still idealize college as a time of intellectual ferment and personal exploration, we hear more and more about how American colleges are unhappy places.
For too many students, college is a place where they are intellectually malformed, isolated, and steeped in an atmosphere made toxic by social media and ideological polarization. We hear of increasing numbers of students who censor themselves lest they be condemned as bigots. Immense pressure to gain prestige leads students to seek campus mental health services. These various challenges too often squelch the possibility of genuine intellectual life.
The good news is that this is not the whole story. Most of your fellow students probably won’t be agitators, and you’ll study with professors who will care about your well-being and intellectual development. Still, you are likely to encounter the problems I name above in some form. And regardless, before engaging in a new activity, we should ask what that activity is for and how we can do it well. So I wanted to send along some thoughts on this question: what do you need to do to live a rich and joyful life in college and beyond?
Learning for Its Own Sake
At some point in the next four years, someone will probably ask you what the use of a particular major or class is. Why should you study American literature, medieval theology, or higher forms of mathematics? Why major in art or classics? As your cocktail party interlocutor will inevitably say, “What are you going to do with that?” In her book Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, St. John’s College tutor Zena Hitz argues that all good work provides us with valuable human goods like food, safety, shelter, art, and culture. If intellectual work is real work, therefore, it has to provide a human good. The good of intellectual work is pursuing truth about ourselves and the world around us, and helping others do the same.
This kind of intellectual work takes different forms, but it involves savoring the object of inquiry for its own sake, not as the means to another end. In other words, the reason you should read Jane Austen or Elizabeth Anscombe is not because doing so will give you better critical reasoning skills and thereby prepare you for a lucrative career in law or finance—though that of course is all well and good. Rather, we should read great authors because reading them is an enriching human activity, because their novels and arguments are good things to enjoy, and because they teach us about ourselves and our world.
That latter point is also essential: learning uncovers motivations and desires that lie hidden in ourselves. It prepares us to embrace the work and relationships that will come to define our lives. In this vein, Hitz notes that many paintings of the Annunciation depict Mary reading when the angel Gabriel appears to her. The image is based on the Church Fathers’ understanding of Mary as an educated reader of Scripture, one whose intellectual life prepared her to consent to become the Mother of God. As you embark on the next stage of your studies, keep that image of the Blessed Mother in mind. The Incarnation of Christ was the direct fruit of Mary’s study. Her contemplation enabled her to give her heroic “yes” to God. I urge you to do your work so that it prepares you to embrace the particular vocation—with all its joys and sorrows—that God has for you.
Hitz also draws on the French filmmaker Mona Achache’s film The Hedgehog to offer four insights into the intellectual life. She argues that the intellectual life is a form of a person’s inner life, a place of retreat and reflection. As such, it is withdrawn from the world, the place of competition and struggle for wealth, power, and prestige. It is a source of dignity, a place to recover one’s value when the world denies it. And it is a space for communion with other human beings. The intellectual life is therefore a multifarious good, Hitz concludes:
It is a refuge from distress; a reminder of one’s dignity; a source of insight and understanding; a garden in which human aspiration is cultivated; a hollow of a wall to which one can temporarily withdraw from the current controversies to gain a broader perspective, to remind oneself of one’s universal human heritage. All this makes clear at the least that it is an essential good for human beings, even if one good among others.
Such an intellectual life requires leisure, free time, exposure to the natural world, and mental emptiness and receptivity. It also requires an escape from the world in which human goods and human beings are instrumentalized—the interior and social realms of ambition, competition, and thrill-seeking.
This brings us to the first answer to my initial question: what do you need to do to live a rich and joyful life in college and beyond? If we gather these concepts together, we can say that you will need silence. “Do you want to do intellectual work?” the Dominican friar A. E. Sertillanges asks in his book The Intellectual Life: “Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worthwhile.” Sertillanges later adds this beautiful insight: “All great works were prepared in the desert, including the redemption of the world.” Whenever Christ prepared to do something significant in salvation history, he retreated to silence for prayer, like Mary preparing in silence to consent to the Incarnation.
Silence in this case doesn’t mean simply an absence of noise or distraction, but openness to the uninterrupted presence of the created world and the God who created it. The great German philosopher Josef Pieper in his classic Leisure: The Basis of Culture writes that silence is “a mental and spiritual attitude” closely connected to the leisure we need to enjoy communion with God and his creation:
Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality: only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear. Silence, as it is used in this context, does not mean “dumbness” or “noiselessness”; it means more nearly that the soul’s power to “answer” to the reality of the world is left undisturbed. For leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.
If nothing else, college is four years of your life when you can carve out time—perhaps more time in your life than you will ever have—for silence, time to steep yourself in and rejoice over as much created beauty as possible. In The Power of Silence, the Guinean cardinal Robert Sarah reminds us that “The real questions of life are posed in silence.” During the next four years of your life, you should begin to answer those questions as they are posed to you—a task that will continue for the rest of your life.
You will need silence all the more because your time in college will be filled with noise: chatter from your roommate, texts and tweets, TikTok and YouTube, a barrage of emails, and much more. But the serious truths that your intellectual work pursues will come to you in complex paragraphs, extensive proofs, and long movements of music. You will need silence in order to take them in and slowly digest them. I remember a day in graduate school when I had been skimming short essays online and then turned to read Gregory of Nyssa—one of the more complicated Church fathers—in a nineteenth-century translation, only to discover that I was unable to do so. I’d been training my mind to think thoughts that were 900 words long, while Gregory’s thoughts were much longer. In order to live well in college, you will need to carve out the silence necessary for thinking in long paragraphs, not 280 characters.
I’ve found Georgetown professor Cal Newport’s concept of deep work to be extremely helpful in this regard. It’s a kind of self-help program for Aristotelians. Newport notes that the most valuable work in our scattered economy requires deep, extended, specialized thinking. He encourages us to develop the habits that maximize this kind of work, to get the shallow work done so that we can easily focus on the deep. We need routines and rituals that limit the amount of willpower we use to enter and sustain unbroken concentration.
For college students, that means keeping a schedule that blocks off hours of the day for serious study and writing, uninterrupted by email and social media. It means setting goals you can attain: reading these books at this time, writing this many words on a paper today at that time and again tomorrow. It means giving yourself leisurely downtime so that you can ruminate on what you’ve learned and rest—especially time spent in prayer, outside, or alone. It means gaining control over your use of technology so that you use smart phones, laptops, and social media for clear goals and at allotted times. You want to be in control of your technology, not to have your technology in control of you. When I was a graduate student at Boston College, I often walked by students whose laptops had one window open to their notes and another open to online shopping or a video. Do not be that student. Silence, and what you can discover in it, are richer and more satisfying than internet distractions.
Learning As Service
If silence is the first thing you will need to live joyfully in college, the second thing is love. Your time in college will be much more joyful if your intellectual work is a means of pursuing the one who is the Truth itself. As Fr. Sertillanges puts it,
The intellectual is not self-begotten; he is the son of the Idea, of the Truth, of the creative Word, the Life-giver immanent in His creation. When the thinker thinks rightly, he follows God step by step; he does not follow his own vain fancy. When he gropes and struggles in the effort of research, he is Jacob wrestling with the angel and “strong against God.”
Intellectual work is also much richer if you do it as a kind of service to those who read, see, or hear your work, and as a means of preparing you for greater service later in life. We can sometimes wonder how it is that we do good or love our neighbor by doing intellectual work. “For you, an intellectual,” Fr. Sertillanges writes, “your neighbor is the person who needs the truth, as the neighbor of the good Samaritan was the wounded man by the wayside.” During your time in college and for the rest of your life, you will encounter many people who have been wounded by lies and sin and are desperate for the truth, even if they don’t know it. Study well so that you can tend to them like the Good Samaritan did to the man by the side of the road.
We are called to love and serve not just in intellectual work, but in our lives as a whole. Over the centuries, many monks and nuns have referred to the monastery as a school of charity. My hope for you is that your college can be a school of charity for you as well, a place where you can learn to love your peers and professors better, and grow deeper in your love of God. Some people will say that college is the best years of your life. Thankfully, those people are wrong. I hope your college experience is great, but I’ve discovered that the best years of your life lie ahead of you. Those years will involve demanding vocations that will require sacrifices you could not anticipate and give you joys you did not know existed. I urge you to prepare now for the love that they will require.
The best way to do this, of course, is to pursue God through prayer and the sacraments—or more accurately to let him pursue you. The more you allow his joy to animate your life, the more joyful your time in college will be. In a homily for the Easter Vigil in the early years of his priesthood, then-Father Joseph Ratzinger reflected on the singing of the Alleluia as a way in which the liturgical joy of Easter is an anticipation of the great joy of heaven. He writes that “alleluia” was originally a Hebrew expression meaning “Praise the Lord,” but that we leave it untranslated because it is “the nonverbal expression in song of a joy that requires no words because it transcends all words.” Our singing the Alleluia is the outward expression of this joy, a joy that exceeds what we can put into words. And so, Ratzinger concludes,
The Alleluia is like an initial revelation of what can and shall someday take place in us: our entire being shall turn into one immense joy. What a prospect! Should it not impel us . . . to forget all the trivial things that oppress and worry us and to let ourselves be swept up by this great expectation that is our future reality already present in us, though hidden, and thus truly to sing: Alleluia!
As you head off to college, remember that this is the destiny for which God made you. You were created so that you would be immersed in the life of God—forever. I pray that this truth will guide you through the next four years and thereafter, that through your knowledge and love you will experience that future reality now. I pray that the Alleluia crescendoes throughout your life until it turns your being into immense joy in the life to come. Godspeed.