top container

Headmaster Burke Delivers Opening Remarks on "Wisdom"

Headmaster Burke Delivers Opening Remarks on "Wisdom"

During the first Corporate Chapel of the school year, Headmaster Burke delivered his Opening Remarks on this year's theme - WISDOM.

The significance – and ultimately the quality – of the work we do is determined by our understanding of the story in which we are taking part.

These are the words of Wendell Berry, author of our All School Read, Fidelity.

The story in which we are taking part is a love story, and it began long before St. Sebastian’s was founded and long before any of us was born, and, happily, it’s a never-ending story. Made in the image and likeness of God, we devote ourselves to living happy, healthy, holy lives of love and service in this world by loving God, working hard, and taking good care of one another, and keeping the hope of heaven ever before us. In the words of Harvard Business School professor, Arthur Brooks, who spoke here last year, The goal is to get to heaven and to take as many people with us as possible. So, that’s our story, our game plan, how we roll – by beginning with the end in mind and living freely, fully, and lovingly every sacred moment of the present.

It’s all a gift, a gift from God: Our lives, our faith, our families, our friends, this School, our ability to see and hear and think and read and write and walk and talk and block and tackle and pass and shoot and draw and paint and sing and dance – all gifts from our gracious and loving God, the giver of all good gifts. May we ever praise God for His great goodness, thank God for His bounteous gifts, and ask God for continued blessings, as St. Thomas Aquinas does in these words:

Grant me, O Lord my God, a mind to know you, a heart to seek you, wisdom to find you, conduct pleasing to you, faithful perseverance in waiting for you, and a hope of finally embracing you.

By tradition, we have with us this morning our outstanding Board of Trustees President, Mr. Jim Elcock ’77 P’08, and our newest trustees, who are engaged in their orientation program. Let us welcome them and express our gratitude to them.

Trustees are intelligent, talented, energetic, deep-thinking, deep-feeling, kind and giving, truly great people of faith and honor who govern our School so magnificently well. Their major duties include hiring and supporting and at the proper time replacing the headmaster, overseeing strategic planning, and assuming ultimate financial responsibility for our School.

Theirs is a leading role in advancing our School’s mission, which I’m honored to recite:

A Catholic independent School, St. Sebastian’s seeks to engage young men in the pursuit of truth through faith and reason. By embracing gospel values in an inclusive, nurturing community and by inspiring intellectual excellence in a structured liberal arts curriculum, St. Sebastian’s strives to empower students for success in college and in life. The ideal St. Sebastian’s graduate will be a moral and just person, a gentleman of courage, honor, and wisdom, a life-long learner who continues to grow in his capacity to know, to love, and to serve God and neighbor.

How richly blessed we are to be guided, supported, and inspired by our clear, important mission; our unified, focused board of trustees; our gifted, devoted faculty; our talented, dedicated staff; our loyal, engaged alumni; our bright, promising students; and our selfless, loving families – each of us striving to cooperate with the grace of God – ’tis a beauty to behold!

We’re not perfect, and we never will be, but I love every one of you, and I love the way we’re trending.

As I shared in our opening faculty meeting last week, we can all benefit greatly by visiting Mr. Wilbur’s laboratory/classroom in our science center and casting our eyes upon the many stirring quotations posted on the wall.

I have found this one by David Starr Jordan, founder of Stanford University, most apt: 
Wisdom is knowing what to do next; virtue is doing it.

Of course, “knowing what to do next” presupposes that there is an objective reality, a universal right and a universal wrong, a way we ought to behave and a way we ought not to behave.  It’s right to be kind; it’s wrong to be cruel. It’s right to be honest; it’s wrong to be dishonest.  These shouldn’t be debatable concepts, and, thankfully, at this School, they are not.

Our faith teaches us that WISDOM, our year’s theme, is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Dictionary definitions include: the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise; the ability to discern inner qualities and relationships; insight, enlightenment, perception, prudence, sapience, sagacity, common sense

Wisdom and her powerfully positive essence are all good things, great things, and, as we have just been reminded, wisdom is in our mission statement: the ideal St. Sebastian’s graduate will be a moral and just person, a gentleman of courage, honor, and wisdom…

Listen to these poetic descriptors of wisdom from the Bible’s Book of Wisdom. 

Wisdom is a kindly spirit… Resplendent and unfading is wisdom, and she is readily perceived by those who love her and found by those who seek her… in her is a spirit intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, agile, clear, unstained, certain, not baneful, loving the good, keen, unhampered, beneficent, kindly, firm, secure, tranquil, all-powerful, all-seeing…she is an aura of the might of God and a pure effusion of the glory of the Almighty…she is the refulgence of eternal light, the spotless mirror of the power of God, the image of His goodness…compared to light, she takes precedence, for that, indeed, night supplants, but wickedness prevails not over wisdom.

Talk about power!  Here are some antonyms – words which express the opposite of wisdom: density, dullness, brainlessness, foolishness, idiocy, craziness.

Please, give me wisdom, this most precious gift of the Holy Spirit and an unbeatable strength developed through experience. 

A few years ago, a St. Sebastian’s parent honored me greatly by presenting me with this sturdy mug; it’s emblazoned with words, which I consider to be aspirational: that is, they describe not the person I am, but the person I hope ever more fully to become.

Let me read them to you. On one side, it says: “Man of Wisdom.” The other side reads: “Blessed is the man who uses knowledge and experience to improve the well-being of others, who guides with respect, and encourages with love.” And underneath is this passage: “Make me know your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths.” (Psalm 25:4)

Man of Wisdom. Woman of Wisdom. Doesn’t each of us want to hear that language applied to us? Don’t we all want to gain knowledge and experience, to improve the well-being of others, to guide with respect and encourage with love? Don’t we all want the Lord to show us His ways and His paths?

Montaigne, a brilliant French philosopher of the Renaissance era, has this to say about wisdom:
We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we cannot be wise with other men’s wisdom.

We pray for the divine light of wisdom and truth and the Lord gives them to us, and we build up our wisdom muscles throughout our personal journeys most often through our responses to adversity.  As has been said: Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.

We’re all going to make mistakes, but, if we learn from them, we gain wisdom, and, ideally, do not make the same mistake again.  As legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, famously exhorts: “Make all your mistakes new mistakes.”

And so we, like Solomon, ask God for wisdom. Listen to this Old Testament Passage: …the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream at night. God said, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” Solomon answered: “O Lord, my God, you have made me, your servant, king to succeed my father, David; but I am a mere youth, not knowing at all how to act…give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong…the Lord was pleased that Solomon made this request. So God said to him: “Because you have asked for this – not for a long life for yourself, nor for riches, nor for the life of your enemies, but for understanding so that you may know what is right – I will do as you requested. I will give you a heart so wise and understanding that there has never been anyone like you up to now, and afterward there will be no one to equal you. (1 Kings 3)

The lesson here is, we can live for ourselves alone and be miserable, or we can live for the Lord and others and be joyful.

Let me tell you a story, which I believe some of you have heard. Years ago, I was watching a soccer game. You know how it goes: the team benches are on one side for the field, and we fans stand along the opposite sideline.  An opposing player ran past us, kicked a long high curving ball, which our goalkeeper caught and punted far downfield. The opponent reversed his direction to get back on defense and was soon running right in front of us again only in the opposite direction. Well, you know how a ball can have such a significant sideways arc that it can arc into the goal before it bends back out and into the goalkeeper’s hands? Well, this is what the kicker believed had happened, and he was running stride for stride with the referee and screaming at the top of his lungs: “You blew it. You blew it. You blew it. That was a goal. You’re horrible.” It was so abusive and so loud and so constant. There’s no way the ref could ignore it. The referee slams on the brakes. The player slams on the brakes. Mano a mano, tête-à-tête. Tableau. Right in front of us. Tension reigned supreme.  And the ref said: “And to think I had a perfect day going.”  The opponent smiled and shook his head and resumed his run downfield. The ref smiled and winked at us and moved on. And we rose, lifted by that delightful, joyful feeling of relief. The grip of tension released. Euphoria held sway.

The ref could have escalated by flashing a yellow card or red card, but he de-escalated. Clear-thinking and wise and with supreme equanimity, he made time his friend. He owned the moment between stimulus and response. That “perfect day” he had going became eminently more so.

His composed, witty, creative and upbeat response calls to mind these words from our friend, Montaigne: The most certain sign of wisdom is continual cheerfulness; her state is like the things above the moon, always clear and serene.

And it calls to mind these words from scripture: 

…the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and sincere. (James 3:17)

Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. (Proverbs 12:18)

The fool gives vent to his anger; but by biding his time, the wise man calms it. (Proverbs 29:11)

And finally, Jesus tells his disciples:

Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute. (Luke 21:14,15)

So many times, we have big moments, and we don’t know how to respond or what to say and you just pray to the Lord. The Lord will provide the words; just put yourself where you need to be and the words will come.

As has been said: Hurt people hurt people; healed people heal people. So, if our words or actions are hurting others, if we’re chirping at or being nasty to another person, chances are that we are hurting inside ourselves, and we’re in great need of healing. Hurt people hurt people. Healed people heal people. May we forever seek wisdom and forgiveness. And going forward, may all our words and actions be uplifting.

Let us turn for a few moments to the stories in our All School Read. One of my graduate school professors loved to remind us that one of the great values of novels and short stories is that they give us a wonderful and instructive hum and buzz of another time and another place.

The characters in Wendell Berry’s stories evince a depth, a truth, a wisdom, a sense of commitment to God, to one another, and to our planet that I find most admirable.

In the story "Are You All Right?" the characters are described in these words:

They practiced an old-fashioned independence, an old-fashioned generosity, and an old-fashioned fidelity to their word and their friends.

So we must always be ready. Pray without ceasing. These are the words of Miss Della Budge in the story: "Pray Without Ceasing".

Now, “pray without ceasing” is one of the five three-word phrases from sacred scripture I like to offer as a mini-sermon of sorts: God is love. Love never fails. Love one another. Pray without ceasing. Be not afraid.

And though I often say the words “pray without ceasing,” I must confess I never fully comprehended the message. Thank God, our hearts beat without ceasing, and we almost always breathe without ceasing, but how, I often wondered can we possibly pray or do anything else without ceasing? 

And then from on high came an epiphany. In the Cloud of Unknowing by an anonymous 14th Century English author, we find this definition of prayer: In itself, prayer is simply a reverent, conscious openness to God filled with the desire to grow in goodness and overcome evil.

So, prayer is really just an openness. That’s it!  Just be open to God, who made us and who loves us more than we can love, and our life becomes a prayer, a life stance, way of living, a way of being. Our life becomes a prayer. Our hearts beat on and we pray without ceasing. And we are always ready, as ready as that soccer ref.

I truly love Berry’s treatment of the power of forgiveness. Mary Penn reflects on her husband in these words: … her parents’ rejection of him had cost him dearly. Even as he defied them to matter to him, they held a power over him he could not shake off. In his inability to forgive them, he consented to this power, and their rejection stood by him and measured him day by day.

Unfortunately, her husband is locked in resentment, and resentment is drinking poison and waiting for the other guy to die. If we harbor resentment, happiness will dock elsewhere.

What a contrast Andy presents in "Pray Without Ceasing":

My grandfather made a peace here that has joined many who otherwise would have been divided. I am a child of his forgiveness.

Finally, this passage from FIDELITY describing Hannah, whose first husband died young, is truly magnificent:

She thought it strange and wonderful that she had been given all these to love. She thought it a blessing that she had loved them to the limit of her grief at parting with them, and that grief had only deepened and clarified her love. Since her first grief had brought her fully to birth and wakefulness in this world, an unstinting compassion had moved in her, like a live stream flowing deep underground, by which she knew herself and others and the world. It was her truest self, that stream always astir inside her that was at once pity and love, knowledge and faith, forgiveness, grief, and joy. It made her fearful, and it made her unafraid.

What a deep person she is. How inspiring. Every person wants to be part of something great. Each wants to be as wise, as just, as balanced, and as brave as he or she can be and wants to fall ever more deeply in love with learning, so become the person you are called to be, the unique person only you can be. Plumb the depths of soul to discover your passion, your truest self, and summon the courage to develop it and share it with the world. Be a difference maker.

In 2016, we were blessed to hear from famous historian and author, David McCullough, who asserted: There’s nothing inevitable about history. He reminded us that history is the story of real people making real decisions in real time. And things did not have to turn out the way they have. And the decisions they make truly make all the difference.

As you may know, David McCullough passed away on August 7. The next day, I received this message from his son, Geoff:

Hello Bill, on the way back from St Sebastian’s from our time there with you and the assembly, my father said schools like yours are true difference makers. He died last night. You and he are difference makers to so many. All the best, Geoff.

 When Geoff, wrote “you”, he meant you, the School, and every member of our St. Sebastian’s family, every one of us who makes real decisions in real time, every one of us who chooses to ask for wisdom to pray without ceasing to be healed and to heal.

On August 30, I received this message from Chris Riley. An Arrow from the Class of 2013, Chris is a graduate of Harvard and of the University of California at Berkeley Law School.

Dear Headmaster Burke,

I hope this email finds you and your family well, and that you and all the faculty are excited for the beginning of a new school year! 

I have been thinking a lot about Saint Sebastian's this summer, as attending my fifth Harvard reunion has put my tenth high school reunion next on the calendar. And I wanted to reach out to say how enduringly proud I am to be an Arrow.

I have spent this past year working with a federal judge in Portland, Oregon. We have had the opportunity to talk a fair amount about her daughters' experiences at their high school – a well-regarded private school in Oregon – as one is applying to colleges and the other recently graduated from Dartmouth. The daughter applying to colleges has felt that her peers do not want her to get into her top choices, because that would mean one fewer spot for them. As a result, she has not told some of her closest friends where she is applying. The daughter graduating from college was blindsided by the academic rigor she found at Dartmouth and took a few semesters to find her footing. 

How foreign that all sounds given my experience at Saint Sebastian's! I cannot imagine having had more supportive peers or teachers in high school. I cannot imagine having felt more prepared for college academics than I did after years of learning from Mr. Lynch, Mr. Wilbur, and Mr. Cleary (or any other number of formative teachers I was lucky enough to know). I cannot imagine being a lawyer without Mr. Nerbonne's debate coaching. And I certainly cannot imagine navigating life – graduate school, work, cross-country moves, marriage – without the religious and moral lessons I learned at Saint Sebastian’s, without the work ethic instilled there, and without the intellectual curiosity to be a lifelong learner fostered there.

Needless to say, I feel unbelievably blessed to be an Arrow, and I hope that I am able to make every institution that I am a part of a little more like Seb's. I am so looking forward to visiting campus in May 2023 for reunion, but until then I will keep the students, faculty, and alumni in my prayers.


There’s so much to like about this letter, but I choose to focus on the supportive culture he describes. Every Arrow wants to succeed, and he wants his brother Arrows to succeed as well. May we commit ourselves to strengthen our very healthy culture.

Abraham Lincoln proclaims: I do not think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.

 Gentlemen, if I stop you and ask how you’re doing, may I hear: I’m wiser today than I was yesterday, but I have a long way to go.  And should you ask how I’m doing, I hope to say, with true conviction: I’m wiser today than I was yesterday, but I have a long way to go.

 May we all go deep and long together in our year of Wisdom and forever.

In closing, I offer this well-known prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.