Let me tell you a story of what happened to me yesterday that I’m sure you won’t believe, even though the heart of it is absolutely true.
Last week, by a fortuitous turn of events, I was invited to give the commencement address at a major secular state university. At the last minute, the director of the FBI, who was going to deliver the address on the theme of moral righteousness in the modern age, was called before Congress for further questioning and couldn’t make it. In a panic, the board of regents met to discuss what to do. One of the members, an Episcopalian, said that he was very impressed by the wonderfully long and vacuous sermon that Presiding Bishop Michael Curry gave recently at the royal wedding. Since the regents were looking for someone who could talk at great length without saying anything controversial, they called him, but he was in Washington leading a protest against the NRA and couldn’t make it. But, he said, “I was cruising the internet last week and stumbled upon the website of St. George and St Matthew’s, Dundalk, and I’ll tell you, the preacher has posted there some of the best sermons I’ve ever read. He’s probably doing nothing—call him.” So they called me and I said I’d be happy to give the commencement address. They asked what my fee would be. I said, “Well, I heard that Hillary Clinton got $10,000 for her most recent speech.” They laughed and offered to pay my expenses.
So there I was, standing before an audience of almost 4,000 receptive young minds eager for me to finish speaking so that they could get to the drunken beach bacchanal to which they were going after receiving their diplomas. I could see from the quizzical expressions on the faces of the faculty (some of whom who were clearly wondering “Who is this guy? Does he even have a degree?”) that I needed to start talking fast. So I wasted no time and got right to it.
“Women, men, straight, lesbian, gays, bis, transgenders, those who have yet to determine what gender you are: Thank you, “I said, “for inviting me to address you on this august occasion. Today is, you may know, the 35th anniversary of the controversial commencement speech that Alexander Solzhenitsyn gave at Harvard in June of 1983. That speech, titled “A World Split Apart,” addressed what this great man of the Orthodox faith called “the calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness” that he said was bringing both East and West to moral and spiritual ruin. “On the way from the Renaissance to our days,” he said, “we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity, which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in politics and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life.” It took courage for him to say that to the Harvard faculty, of all people. Harvard was founded by Christians for the purpose of training Protestant clergy, who at the time were considered the most important teachers and leaders in American society. No one at Harvard, not even the faculty of what is now a thoroughly agnostic divinity school, believes that today. Let’s be honest. Almost no one on a college campus goes to church on Sundays. Am I wrong? So give Solzhenitsyn credit. For him to say that the West has lost faith in God and has lost its spiritual life, what he called “our most precious possession,” and to say that to an historic educational institution that was founded to protect and transmit from one generation to the next that very thing, was to accuse the institution of failure. That took some guts.
Furthermore, remember in June of 1983, the Iron Curtain, as Churchill called it, was still a physical barrier marking off the communist empire in Eastern Europe from the capitalist democracies in the West. The cold war was at its hottest. Everyone feared mutual assured destruction. It seemed in this battle for control of the future of the world that America and its European allies, the West, were the good guys and the Soviet communists, architects of the gulag archipelago, the East, were more than just bad guys; they were evil. Solzhenitsyn, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for his great novel, The First Circle, which exposed the horrors and hypocrisy of Stalin’s police state with its gruesome politicized prison system, gave witness to that. He sought asylum in this country in order to finish his writing without interference from the communists who hated him and were trying to destroy his work and silence him. In those dark days, Christians were trying to smuggle Bibles into Russia. The Nobel laureate was trying to smuggle his novels out. By 1983, he had been residing in Vermont for four years. He had become to the free world a living icon of anti-communist virtue, a genuine hero who had suffered for the sake of his literary art and had endured torture rather than stop speaking out against atheistic dictatorship, which is why the theme of his speech, that the West had become as degenerate as the East, shocked almost everyone. The Harvard faculty did not appreciate his criticism. There was no chance he’d be invited back.
But that’s the prophet’s fate. Jeremiah was thrown down a well for speaking truth to power. Elijah was exiled and hunted down like a criminal for doing nothing more than reminding his generation that the commandment “Thou shalt not worship an idol” was a divine commandment, an absolute moral imperative that humans have no personal right to ignore. People living in a pagan, pluralistic society then, as we do today, are inclined to take offense at that. You could say Elijah brought it on himself. His doctrine was not inclusive. You could say to him, “Hey, I’m sorry but when you cross the boundaries of a person’s safe space you have to expect consequences. Liberalism is tolerant but not unconditionally. You can’t push God on people.” But that’s what prophets do, they give offense by speaking the truth and they suffer the consequences, in the hope that truth will prevail over popular opinion. It sometimes does. We all love the truth or say we do until the light of truth shines on our corruption. Then we get defensive. In any age, the establishment does not like to be told it’s sinning.
So, what strikes me looking back on it is how prophetic Solzhenitsyn’s speech was. All the problems he saw in the West have only intensified in the three decades since then. “Two hundred or even fifty years ago,” he said, “it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual be granted boundless freedom with no purpose, simply for the satisfaction of his whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were eroded everywhere in the West; a total emancipation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. ..The West has finally achieved the rights of man, and even to excess, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society has grown dimmer and dimmer.” “Man’s sense of responsibility to God… has grown dimmer and dimmer.” Isn’t that the truth? We talk today constantly about our rights, the respect and service that others owe us but never about our responsibly to God. And that is the nexus of the problem because our responsibilities to God, which are grounded in natural law and are therefore universal and eternal, precede our rights, which are temporal and local. We have, in effect, as Solzhenitsyn said, jettisoned “the moral heritage of Christian centuries.” We are not living behind the Iron Curtain, where atheism was institutionalized and religion forced underground, but we have become essentially an agnostic society, serving no higher moral purpose than the pursuit of ever-increasing GDP and economic justice for all. Winning the war against poverty is important. But what does America stand for today? We stand for liberty and freedom to be sure. But we have defined liberty as freedom from responsibly to God, which is false liberty; the founders did not see it so. As Solzhenitsyn said, “the moral heritage” that guided us for centuries is now gone and we consider this to be “emancipation,” as though a ship having lost its rudder is set free from an obstruction, when in fact, by losing its rudder, that ship becomes directionless.
If the West is going to survive and thrive, we have to know what we are for and we have to be for something more than single payer health care, free college tuition for all, same sex marriage, and abortion rights. Success on those fronts may advance a progressive ideological agenda, but there is no heroism it. Heroes are those who know their responsibilities to God and keep them. We used to have a word for those heroes; they were called saints. “There is only one misery,” wrote French novelist Léon Bloy, “not to be Saints.” The most urgent task in the West today is the recovery of what Solzhenitsyn called “our most precious possession: the spiritual life;” we are miserable without it. We need to recover the idealism that guided the generations before us, to aspire to live a heroic life in humble obedience to God’s natural law, which is the great battle we lost on our way to winning the Cold War.
You students are going out in the world today to do what? Many of you will search for a job or begin a career. This institution has equipped you well for that endeavor. But what are you really living for? It has to be something more than just material success, social status, and sexual fulfillment. Solzhenitsyn put it like this: “It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become above all an experience of moral growth: to leave life a better human being than one started it. It is imperative to reappraise the scale of the usual human values; its present incorrectness is astounding.” In other words, he said, if you are not living for God you are cheating yourself. Without God, your life will come up empty wanting more.
One day the intoxicating effects of this false freedom will wear off, I promise you, and you will find yourself wanting more. Where will you turn to find it? I will leave you with a clue. How many of you know about the supernatural events at Fatima in 1917? (No hands were raised). It was the most important event of the last century. The Virgin Mary appeared to three children with a message from heaven warning that if the human race continues to ignore its responsibilities to God, to obey the commandments and avoid sin, that God would punish us all. Do you know what she said that punishment would be? She said that God would allow the errors of Russia to spread around the world. This prophecy was given to us a year before Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power. And do you know what the error is that Russia spread around the world? It is communism. I do not mean dialectical materialism, state ownership of the major means of production, failed five-year plans, Karl Marx, and the KGB. I mean the systematic repression of religion, institutionalized atheism, the denial of God, and the abolition of our sense of responsibility to God. And with that comes indifference to religion, the abandonment of natural law in favor of moral relativism, and the ideological conviction, completely false, that there is no supernatural grace available to us, reason is all we’ve got—the false conviction that there is no Spirit, that the material realm is all there is, was, or ever will be. That this evil philosophy has infected us is tragic. That we must rid ourselves of it and rise above it is urgent. We won the Cold War militarily and economically, but we lost it spiritually. The materialist philosophy, the soulless core of communist ideology, has infected Western civilization, leaving us like a patient fighting congestive heart failure, drowning in false agnosticism, feigning respect for all religions while actually believing in none. But there is hope and a way forward. Our Lady of Fatima revealed that also.
So these are your marching orders as you exit this ivory tower and enter the real world: Ask yourself one simple question, “Why has no one ever told me about Fatima before?” The answer is as obvious as the air we breathe. Since the day you entered pre-school, you’ve been indoctrinated into a liberal philosophy that relegates the supernatural to the realm of superstition and denies the natural law. You need to unlearn all that. No one will do this for you. You need to get a real education. Truth is out there. It’s up to you to find it. Whatever you do, don’t be afraid of the truth. Saint Thomas Aquinas, another philosopher I’m sure you have never read but ought to, said that “the universe was made for truth.” The human soul needs truth like a plant needs water. That is why the recovery of our Judeo-Christian heritage, of faith in God and obedience to natural law, is so important; we wither without it. But hope springs eternal. As Jesus said to an establishment that crucified him on his way to the resurrection, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”
At this point, I was just warming up and about to get into the heart of the speech when suddenly, a SWAT team rushed the stage and quickly put me in handcuffs and read me my rights, after charging me with a number of hate crimes. Apparently, I had struck a raw nerve with the university community. Counselors were called in by the hundreds to help console the students who were offended by my oration. Pillows were handed out to all who needed a hug. For a moment, I feared for my life. But God is good. For although I languish in prison now, one brave student took the manuscript of my speech from the podium and put it on the internet, where it has gone viral. There are rumors that at the urging of Kanye West, President Trump is about to grant me a pardon. But God’s blessings on those who dare to keep the faith are greater even than we can imagine. When I found myself in prison last night, I prayed to the Lord, reminding him that I needed to be in church today. So early this morning, the Lord did for me what he once did for Saint Alphonsus Liguori. Alphonsus, the great bishop of Florence, fell asleep in his office chair after mass one Sunday. Twenty-four hours later, he finally woke up. When his fellow priests, who were worried for him, asked what had happened, he said not to worry, that he had gone to Rome to give last rites to the Pope, who had died early that same morning. In other words, by God’s grace, he had been in two places at once. By a similar miracle of bi-location, God has allowed me to be here with you today, in order to bring you this simple message. Keep your faith in God no matter what. Even if the whole world turns against you, God will always be with you. As Saint Paul said, “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Our Lord Jesus Christ.”