“One swallow does not make a summer.” This famous quote from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics refers to the author’s belief that the moral life is not determined by any solitary event. The next line of the original text goes on to state, “one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.”
The 380 members of the Class of 2023 who descended upon Saint Ignatius High School for the very first time this week are in some sense wishing that they were witnessing the first swallow of summer, yet are hopefully also at the beginning of a path that will bring them lasting joy.
For the past several years I have felt very much like a freshman as I walk into each of my classes on the first day of school. I, like the freshmen, am looking around at a lot of people who are faces without names. I, almost literally, know no students. Recognizing a student because of some connection – through an extracurricular or through his relation to a former student – is rare, and so as I walk into class in mid-August it, in many ways, seems like the first day of school in 1981 and not in 2019.
There is a blessedness and happiness on the first day that – even with Aristotle’s warning and even after having experienced it 38 times before – I can’t deny. There is something about “getting back into it” that continues to thrill. That education, unlike other occupations, has built-in beginnings and endings is one of the great non-monetary rewards of the profession. Each new school year is a do-over, a fresh start, a way of correcting the past. Imagine the ability to play an important game over again and to not throw that interception or that hanging curve ball. Or, even better, imagine being able to add a new pass route to the playbook or a new pitch to the repertoire. That’s what teaching allows.
Some things remain the same – the novella The Little Prince and the film Quiz Show are iconic staples of Christian Manhood from the glory years when our dearly departed Jim Skerl ’74 held the reins. Others are personal additions, yet have become essential to Manhood 2.0 – little things like comedian Demetri Martin talking about why he left law school after two years and students logging how they use their time, hour by hour, for a full week; but also big things like the emphasis on virtue ethics and following the Logos of God, Jesus Christ, by a personal commitment to all that is true and good and beautiful.
The “official” title of the course, so that it adheres to the guidelines set by the American bishops, is: Responding to the Call of Jesus. As described in “Doctrinal Elements of a Curriculum Framework,” the purpose of this course is “to help students to understand the vocations of life: how Christ calls us to live.” That is almost a perfect description of the purpose of Christian Manhood. It is “almost perfect” because in my version of this course the word “vocations” should be singular. Instead of, as in the by-the-book approach, focusing on the various calls – priestly, religious, married, single – to which people can respond, our course assumes that ultimately there is only one call – to follow Christ.
Whether one of my students becomes an ordained minister of the Church, enters religious life as a brother, marries and has a family, or remains single, he must do so with the same sense of commitment. To us a construction metaphor: to build a parish rectory, or a monastery, or a house, or an apartment building, one needs the same skill-set and the same tools. Always in the back of my mind is the belief that every man need to cultivate those traits – those virtues – that are indicative of being a good father, regardless of whether he ever raises any children of his own.
A good and virtuous priest, or religious brother, or single man, just as much as a man who is married, must exhibit those qualities that the Father reveals throughout the Bible and throughout Salvation History. Just as the Father is, at the core of His being, love, so must every man in his vocation, at the core of his being, strive to exhibit that love. In the Incarnation God completes that love by calling each person to love in a very special way, and the example of Jesus becomes the blueprint for the fulfillment of what it is to be a man.
At the our faculty meeting on Monday our esteemed principal Dan Bradesca ’88 concluded the day by offering an impassioned look at what we as teachers in the Ignatian tradition must bring into our classrooms every day. Its litany of what to do (and what to avoid) read like an extension of the Christian Manhood class he had with Jim Skerl, and concluded with one word that summarizes that special love that we must have for our students: empathy. In the Person of Jesus Christ God reveals the essential nature of empathy: the ability to feel what another feels from within the frame of reference of the other person.
That is what we at Saint Ignatius hope to bring to all of our young men – from the most self-assured senior to the most trepidatious freshman. It may fly into their experience as the first swallow of early summer, but it is our prayer that it will build a nest, that it will grow and flourish and bring each of our students to a life of true blessedness and happiness.