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Anthony Esolen on Sending Our Children into Eternity (A Graduation Address)
Parents, was it so long ago that you could rock your child here to sleep in the crook of your arm? Can you remember when they had small voices, and could run about all day with a smudge on the nose and never notice?
In my office at school there’s a framed picture of which I am most fond. In my entirely impartial judgment, it is the loveliest baby picture that has ever been taken. It’s of Jessica at a few months, quite bald; but no doubt if she could have spoken then, she might have justly said, with the Bride in the Song of Songs, “I am bald, but I am beautiful!” She has a look in that picture—I am sure you have seen that look from your own children—a look as if she had recently arrived here from another world, and was not entirely sure of the goings on in this one.
I don’t have that picture here to show you, but I can show you this: It’s a sneaker belonging to my son, Davey. His feet are bigger now, but I keep this shoe on the dashboard of my truck, as I keep that picture in my office, to remind me of the helpless and incomparably precious beings that they were, and as any parent would say, that they always will be.
The Parents’ Time
It is a sweet and sometimes sad thing to live as we do, with the bodies we have, subject to change and time. We parents sometimes want to hurry that time along, to get past whatever difficult year we are in. And when our heads clear, we may want to stop time dead in its tracks, because it seems as if we had dozed in the afternoon and awoke, to find that our son was a man, and our daughter a woman.
But God lends time to us; he does not give it outright. We pray for the good sense to use it well, to love the time we are given, and to help our families love it too. You parents have not yielded to others the responsibility to redeem the time: your homes were no flophouses where strangers spent the night, no factories where the workers punched a clock and toiled year after year to produce what?—a scholarship, prestige, status, vanity.
Your homes were homes; and there, as untold generations of mothers and fathers had done before you, you did more than impart to your children the alphabet or the rules of arithmetic; you brought them up in wisdom and understanding. You brought them up in the Lord, and now, as the time nears when they will leave your home, you are rewarded by seeing a little, but only a little, of the fruit that your labor will have borne.
It is sometimes said that children have no sense of time. I have never believed it, and I certainly do not believe it about the young men and the young women seated before us now. For if we do our work right, my fellow parents, our children will notice. They will see that in our care for them we all but repeat the wistful yet generous words of John the Baptist. When John’s disciples reported to him the preaching of Jesus and the miracles he had performed, John said, simply, “He must increase, and I must decrease.”
There is a part of all good mothers and fathers that would like to keep their children small; but another part, a better part, that knows that our children are given to us as children only for a time; and that part says, “They must increase, and I must decrease.” Nor are the children themselves unaware of it.
I remember that when I was about the age of these fine young people here, I used to like challenging my father to ping-pong matches. We had some roaring duels.
But I was young, and I got better, and he was older, and he did not. And then there came a day when I knew that he would never beat me again. I saw in his smiling eyes that he knew it too.
No doubt some of you here have had a similar experience. I did not rejoice on that day. My father might have, because he knew better. “He must increase, and I must decrease.”
An Unending Story
And yet, for all that we feel the joy and the wistfulness of a night like tonight, when we honor these youngsters who have so suddenly grown tall and wise, if we were all we should be, if we were sinless, we should feel that joy and wistfulness all the more. That leads my mind to consider what must have been the peace and the privacy of a home that is a deep mystery to us.
We who are sinners feel that clutch in the throat when we see our parent who was once so trim and strong, now stooped a little under a load of firewood, let us say, that had never been a trouble before. If our hearts go out to those who raised us, what must the heart of our Savior have felt, as he laid his foster-father Joseph to rest, or saw the first inevitable wrinkles round the eyes of his mother?
Parents who now see the time coming when your children will leave to study at college or learn a trade, eventually to marry and have children of their own—what must it have been like all those quiet years, to be his mother, and know that the time was coming when he must leave, and the sword so long ago predicted, when he was so small, would pierce her heart?
But we know the story does not end there. If we were pagans, we would not know that. If we were pagans, I might tell you, with a note of urgency and some considerable dishonesty, that you should go forth and make something of yourselves and change the world. Well, if you are going to change the world, you had better do it quick, because the time is short, and all flesh is grass. Time devours his children.
Ever in the ancient Greek mythology time and change are felt as unseen threats, impersonal and deaf to all appeal. The story goes that the wise Athenian, Solon, after he had reformed the laws of Athens, went on a tour of the known world, to see the habits of men and their fate. On that tour he met the richest man alive, Croesus the Emperor of Lydia.
Croesus asked Solon whether he had ever seen a happier man than he. To which Solon replied that he had: a certain Athenian citizen, not terribly important, who fought well for his country when he was young, led a comfortable life, raised upstanding children, and then died—died before he could see how time and change would destroy it all. “Count no man happy until his end,” said Solon. Croesus laughed.
He, the happiest man in the world, wanted to make something of himself, wanted to change that world—that is, he wanted more land. So he asked the Oracle at Delphi what would happen if he attacked Persia, and received the reply, “If Croesus attacks Persia, a great empire will be destroyed.” So he attacked Persia, and a great empire was destroyed—his own.
When Cyrus of Persia—that same Cyrus in the Bible who sent the Jews back home to Palestine—ordered his men to place his royal prisoner upon a pyre, the bystanders heard a voice crying over and over, “Solon, you were right, Solon, you were right!”
But Solon wasn’t exactly right. The pagans did not know, but we Christians know, that time is going somewhere. How could it not be going somewhere, when all the creatures in this wondrous world, including even our bodies and the time they dwell in, were fashioned by God, who is the Lord of time?
We may then, with the hope that the wisest of the Greeks could not have, send forth our children into time, because that Lord of time himself came down, was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and grew in wisdom and understanding, and in the fullness of time made his glory known, not by means of a college degree, as worthy a thing as that may be, but by suffering the end of time that awaits us all, even upon a Cross. But as we know, that was not the end, either.
So how can I tell you to go forth and change the world? It has been changed, changed forever. Go forth and conform yourselves to him who changed it. Whatever your walk of life, whatever you do and wherever you go, go into time with him, for whom a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day.
Other graduates at other ceremonies may be told that they are going places. They may, and you may, and some of those places may be good, and meant for you. Then go there. But there is only one place where I and your parents really want you to go. That place is where time is going, for time is the moving image of eternity.
In that place, all this time that we have been given will be returned and redeemed—this very moment of joy and solemnity now, this brief time in a little old schoolhouse in a town with the funny name of Scituate, Rhode Island—and all the things we loved, even that little foot of a child whom you could rock in the crook of your arms, will be restored and made whole.
For the time is coming, and is near, when there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor tears, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things shall have passed away. And he who sits upon the throne shall say, “Behold, I make all things new.”
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.