Thursday 21 September 2017

Dare to Disturb

The following is the Rector’s Address to the graduating Year 12s at this week’s Valete Assembly.

Greg Dening was an Old Boy of Xavier College in Melbourne. A Jesuit for a time, he then left, and became a noted professor of history at Melbourne University. He once wrote:

A school confronts a never-to-be-resolved contradiction. It must fulfill the expectancies of those it serves, if it is to survive. It must change those expectancies, if it is to be truly educational.

I hope you young men before me, about to graduate, can sense what Dening means in that paradox. I trust that you have had some of your expectancies challenged along the way. A Jesuit school has to be countercultural, just as the Gospel is countercultural. It must disturb its students and the community around it. I hope your experiences here, Year 12, have pricked your consciences at times to make you want to challenge that which needs changing. I hope you feel a niggling restlessness, a disturbance, that will not allow you to rest easy, or be content, while another is treated with less than that full human dignity which is the right of all. I hope your passions will occasionally have you question the status quo. If your attitudes and expectancies have been challenged and changed, if you have been disturbed, then that has been well within the ambit of the almost five-century Jesuit tradition.

A highly-regarded Jesuit educator in wartime France, Fr François Charmot, asserted that Jesuit education, which is about the development of conscience and character, is inevitably about the critique of culture. My great hope for you is, when you enter any new culture beyond this little community, that you will not simply and unquestioningly absorb it. That you will not be distracted and deceived by the tinsel and the trash. That you will recognise at once what might be dehumanising and death-dealing. That you will be alert to anything that is not worthy of you. All this is not to say the world beyond the gates is evil. In Ignatian spirituality, the world is user-friendly. It is God’s gift to us. That was Chesterton’s understanding when he once observed that we must be fond of the world, even in order to change it.

As a strategy, remember what Old Ignatian, Alex Seton, sculpted in that work you have walked past daily in the library – his core memory of his own formation here – ‘question everything’. This is not to encourage your being a cynic, or a skeptic, or ‘a doubting Thomas’. No – it is to invite you to be discerning. To have you distrustful of the drift and sway of public opinion that may influence our lives for the worst. To be quick to name the false voices of the world which can seduce and which can cripple. But be warned. To take a stand, to be prophetic, to challenge powerful forces, to disturb comfortable ways, always comes with a cost. As New York Jesuit pacifist and activist sometimes jailed for his beliefs, Fr Dan Berrigan, once said so wryly, “Before you get serious about Jesus, first consider how good you’re going to look on wood.” Prophets are usually martyrs.

Twelve months ago, you adopted ‘My brother’s keeper’ as your student motto. And while some people fussed about whether it was a motto without a verb, or that the language was not inclusive, you just got on with proclaiming it and putting it into practice. In doing so, you challenged the indifference of privilege and isolated individualism. You bound yourself affectively and actively to others. You reminded people that Riverview was more family than institutional school. It was your way of re-igniting Arrupe’s being ‘a man for others’. Now, at your departure, don’t let that motto be a sort of disposable ‘flavour of the month’. “It did us for a year – now what’s next?” No, it is a motto for life. That is because we are all born into a network of relationships. Our common humanity ties us together. Hence, we have a claim on each other. You recognised that last year. So have a care of each other in the months and the years ahead. Keep being keepers of each other.

How will you do all of the above? Not by the deception which many glibly describe today as ‘the good life’ – that is, a comfortable, cozy and self-centred existence. That is a description of people who do well, but don’t necessarily do good. It describes ‘good times’, not necessarily ‘a good life’. This perspective prompted the observation that you make your living out of what you get, but you make your life out of what you give. The benchmarks by which a really good life will be measured are: is it God-centred, is it other-centred, is it loving, and is it generous? That’s the good life. So try to live it.

Dare to do all that – just as the Riverview motto prompts us. Tantum aude – so much dare to do. Let that continue to motivate you. Be bold and daring. In his ground-breaking poem, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, T S Eliot describes a man stricken with incapability of decisive action. That fellow asks himself,

  And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and “Do I dare?”…
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?

Yes, I say, as you go. So much dare to. Dare disturb the universe.

Fr Ross Jones SJ