The Catholic University of America

124th Annual Commencement Remarks
John Garvey, President of The Catholic University of America
East Portico, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
May 18, 2013

 

 
  President John Garvey

Cardinal Wuerl, Mr. Gioia, honored guests, mothers and fathers, family members, graduates of the class of 2013 . . . .

I spend much of my time with students talking about the virtues. This is my last chance to address that subject with our departing graduates. Perhaps it’s fitting, on such a festive occasion, to say a word about joy.

Before our philosophers and theologians get nervous, I should qualify what I just said. Joy is not a virtue in the strict sense. The church calls it a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Aquinas refers to it as an act, or effect, of the virtue of charity.1 But I’m going to talk about it anyway.

Joy is hard to pin down because it’s often confused with other things, like pleasure. Zadie Smith, the British novelist, cautions against that confusion in a recent column in the New York Review. “A lot of people seem to feel that joy is only the most intense version of pleasure, arrived at by the same road – you simply have to go a little further down the track,” she writes.2 But joy and pleasure are different in a more fundamental sense. Joy is a more profound sentiment.

Profound, Smith says, but less agreeable. Joy has a downside that troubles her, an element of fear and sadness. A spouse or a child who brings us intense joy inevitably changes or dies, and leaves us behind. Smith says about joy what Julian Barnes once said about mourning: “It hurts just as much as it is worth.”3 In the end she decides it is worth the trouble. If we never experienced joy, she writes, “how would we live?”

This is true as far as it goes. And yet there is something missing in Smith’s account. She’s right about joy and pleasure being different. But in her picture joy too is temporary. The house always wins, unless you have the good fortune to die while you’re still holding good cards.

Smith’s account is like Dorothy’s view of Kansas before the tornado. Or like Harry Potter’s life with the Dursleys. They are all unaware of a whole magical world that exists side-by-side with their own and influences its activities. Smith leaves God out of the picture.

The psalmist tells us we find real joy in God’s love: “The Lord has done great things for us,” Psalm 126 says. “We are filled with joy.” This is not the evanescent emotion Smith fears. Christian joy survives the death and change that make her experience of joy a zero-sum game. If we look carefully we will find an expression of God’s love in everything we do: in the grace he gives us to do what is right; in the mercy he shows us when we fail.

That is the way to begin – by looking for God’s love. But finding it is not a one-time thing. And enjoying it is like, in fact it is, being in love. We have to work at it. We have to find the joy in what comes our way. We have to learn to be joyful.

Flannery O’Connor had a pen pal named Betty Hester, who started by writing her fan mail and became a regular correspondent. They wrote back and forth every week. (This was before texting.) In one of her letters O’Connor writes to Hester about “what you call my struggle to submit.” It is not, she says, a “struggle to submit but a struggle to accept and with passion. I mean, possibly, with joy. Picture me with my ground teeth stalking joy . . . .”4 I don’t know about the teeth-grinding. But I agree about the struggle and the passion. Love is something we work at every day, and we give and accept it with passion. I mean, with joy.

So on this, your last day at Catholic University, let me offer you three pieces of advice for finding joy:

  • First, don’t be fooled by pleasure. Zadie Smith is right about that. It won’t give you lasting joy, and it can distract you from the real thing. This is true about beer and sex and BMWs; fancy clothes, shiny phones, chic restaurants. Dana Gioia puts it perfectly in one of his poems (Shopping):
     
  • I would buy happiness if I could find it,
    Spend all that I possessed or could borrow.
    But what can I bring you from these sad emporia?
    Where in this splendid clutter
    Shall I discover the one true thing?
  • Second, discover the thing in life that brings lasting satisfaction, and make that your priority. Loving God, your neighbor, your vocation – this will bring you joy in long run. Ask yourself: will this matter to me in 10 years? 30 years? 50 years? If it won’t, don’t waste your time on it.
  • Finally, we have tried to teach you to find God in all things – not just in theology class, but in literature, biology, music, engineering, and nursing. Christian joy begins with seeing God in all things. It is sustained by loving him in all things. But that requires that you don’t stop looking for him. Look for God. Love him. Be joyful.

Congratulations, once again, class of 2013. You have been in school for at least 16 years. It’s now time to leave. But it’s been a lovely place to be. Enjoy the last few moments before you step out. God bless you all.

 

1Summa Theologica IIaIIae, Q. 28, art. 4.
2Zadie Smith, Joy, New York Review of Books (Jan. 10, 2013).
3Julian Barnes, “For Sorrow There Is No Remedy,” New York Review of Books (April 7, 2011).
4Terrance W. Klein, Stalking Joy, America (Dec. 7, 2012).