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Headmaster Burke Shares His Opening Remarks on Faith

Today, September 9, 2019, students and faculty gathered in the Church for the first Corporate Chapel of the new academic year. Continuing a tradition that began in September 1997, Headmaster Bill Burke gave the following remarks to introduce this year's one-word theme: Faith.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of Mother Teresa’s conversation with a Congressman at a White House reception held in her honor. The Congressman praised her for her heroic service on behalf of the poorest of the poor in India and then asked whether she believed that her work was making any significant difference. Given the tremendous magnitude of the poverty problem with so many people dying on the streets of hunger and disease every day, did she really believe that she was being successful? Mother Teresa responded by telling the lawmaker that God doesn’t ask us to be successful. He asks us to be faithful.

And so we launch our year of Faith.

Faith is the first of the three theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love. All three live in the here and now and concern themselves with the beyond and forever. A life devoid of faith, hope, and love would be very small, so terribly barren, and abjectly sad.

Years ago, I read an article written by a Jesuit priest named William O’Malley, who had just celebrated a milestone birthday. What have I learned in these 60 years, he mused? These three things, he hoped: The difference between certitude and faith, the difference between optimism and hope, and the difference between sinlessness and love.

We’ll tackle just the first one this morning: the difference between certitude and faith. Certitude or certainty exists in reason’s realm. Two and two equals four. The sun rises in the East. The Patriots defeated the Steelers last night. These statements can be tested, verified, proven true or false.

Not so, Faith, which is often associated with the heart and has been defined as complete trust or confidence in someone or something and as strong belief in God. Loyalty and fidelity, morality and trust, humility and belief travel with faith.

Faith and reason perform different functions, and we need them both. Faith is soul stuff, immeasurable. 17th century French mathematician and Catholic theologian, Blaise Pascal, shares: "The heart has its reasons which reason knows not of.” And he asserts: “It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith; God felt by the heart, not by reason.”

There are so many definitions of faith. I especially like one expressed by Thomas Keating, an American Catholic monk and priest, who passed last year at the age of 95. When he was in your age range, he was a student at Deerfield Academy. Here’s his definition: Faith is opening and surrendering to God.

Opening and surrendering. We spoke much of opening 15 years ago, when Open was our theme. I remember sharing then that I had chosen Open because it was the word I overheard myself using most often when speaking with a person struggling with his or her faith life. I’d often say something such as: “Just be open to the possibility that there is a God who loves you more than you can love. You’re a smart person. You’ll figure it out.” 

To learn and grow and be productive, fulfilled, and complete, we need to have open minds and open hearts.

Faith is opening and surrendering to God. I don’t happen to be in Alcoholics Anonymous, which is frequently referred to as AA, but I have many good friends who are, and I learn so very much from them. AA is sometimes referred to as The Program, as indeed a 12-step program is central to its mission. The first three steps can be expressed simply as:

I can’t.
God can.
So I’ll let Him.

The “so I’ll let Him” is what is meant by surrender. Faith is opening and surrendering to God in hope and in love.

“So I’ll let Him.” I have to tell you that I really like the word so. In fact, I have even written a short poem titled “So.” Here it is:

You pierce our Patron with Arrows
So we sew them on our crest
You nail our Savior to the Cross
So I wear one on my chest

That little word so almost shouts, “This is what I’m going to do about it!”

I can’t.
God can.
So I’ll let Him.

As Father John Arens and Mr. David Cornish will tell you, Semper Fi, the motto of their United States Marine Corps, is the shortened version of Semper Fidelis, which is Latin for “Always Faithful.”

Believe me, it is our great hope and expectation that you gentlemen will live your lives in such a way, that we can write, with true conviction, in our college letters of recommendation that you are always faithful.

When walking from our West Campus to the Birmingham Academic Building, we pass between two stone pillars and rock walls. Engraved in one of those walls are these words: Fides et Ratio. Faith and Reason.

The first sentence of our mission statement reads: “A Catholic independent School, St. Sebastian’s seeks to engage young men in the pursuit of truth through faith and reason.”  

We are totally committed to calling you gentlemen to the highest levels of academic excellence, to sparking the life of the mind, to fanning into flame your intellectual curiosity, and to inspiring the full development of your reasoning powers, but we’re also totally committed to engaging and evoking and deepening more, much, much more than your minds in our quest for truth.  

Faith and reason are complementary, not opposing, forces. As Thomas Aquinas asserts: “Both the light of reason and the light of faith come from God. Therefore, there can be no contradiction between them.”

When we make our way from Ward Hall to and through the math corridor, which we have named St. Sebastian’s Way, we encounter three panels on our right, each emblazoned with words and images expressive of our spirit and mission. On the middle panel we find these words: “The power of St. Sebastian’s is the synergy of faith and reason in the focused, determined, inexorable pursuit of truth.”

Bishop Robert Barron shares: “To have faith is to allow oneself to be overwhelmed by the power of God, to permit the divine energy to reign at all levels of one’s being.”

Note the verbs: allow and permit. God, who is love, loves us first and wants us to be able to love Him in return, so He has given us freedom, freedom of choice. We can turn away from God, or we can say yes to love, to hope, to faith. To have God’s power and energy rule in us, we have to allow it; we have to permit it. We have to mean it when we say “Thy will be done.”

After the Transfiguration, Jesus comes down from the mountain with Peter, James, and John to rejoin the other disciples. Here’s what happens next:

When they came to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and scribes arguing with them. Immediately on seeing him, the whole crowd was utterly amazed. They ran up to him and greeted him. He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I have brought to you my son possessed by a mute spirit. Wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive it out, but they were unable to do so.”  He said to them in reply, “O faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you? Bring him to me.” They brought the boy to him. And when he saw him, the spirit immediately threw the boy into convulsions. As he fell to the ground, he began to roll around and foam at the mouth. Then he questioned the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” He replied, “Since childhood. It has often thrown him into fire and into water to kill him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us. Jesus said to him, “‘If you can!’ Everything is possible to one who has faith.” Then the boy’s father cried out, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” Jesus, on seeing a crowd rapidly gathering, rebuked the unclean spirit and said to it, “Mute and deaf spirit, I command you: come out of him and never enter him again!” Shouting and throwing the boy into convulsions, it came out. He became like a corpse, which caused many to say, “He is dead!” But Jesus took him by the hand, raised him, and he stood up.
When they entered the house, his disciples asked him in private, “Why could we not drive it out?” He said to them, “This kind can only come out through prayer.”
(Mark Chapter 9. Verses 14-29)

Everything is possible to one who has faith. May we all grow in faith. I do believe. Help my unbelief. No matter how much we grow in faith, we will never have enough, so let’s keep asking God for more of it. This kind can only come out through prayer. And let’s step up our prayer lives. Let’s find time to be alone with God and to find God deep in our hearts. Let’s listen to Him. Let’s say yes. I believe. Help my unbelief.

I recommend that we consider committing to memory a sentence from every good book we read. Here’s one from Father Eugene Boylan’s wonderful book, This Tremendous Lover: “Confidence and humility always go together.”

To have confidence in our ability to balance and solve an equation, memorize lines for a play, or hit a curve ball, is quite literally to approach and perform each task with faith. Humility, the opposite of arrogance or sinful pride, is, as Boylan suggests, all about truth and reverence for God.

Pride, in the words of Father Keating, attributes to oneself the gifts of God.

Tomorrow in Mass, when we recite these words – Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof – we are being truthful, grounded; we are practicing humility. And when we follow with these words – But only say the word, and I shall be healed – we are expressing confidence, faith in God, the Giver of all good gifts.

Everything is possible to one who has faith.

Confidence and humility always go together.

So we want to be open to God; we want to grow in faith, but what about our doubts? We all have them. It’s normal to doubt, even good, as Sister Wendy Beckett shares here:  “Doubt is often an excellent thing. Credulity is infantile: we all have to weigh evidence and make up our mind, and until we do, there is honest doubt, surely. But honest doubt is not willful doubt. Willful doubt is wrong precisely because it is not honest. It has an agenda: it is evading truth for its own reasons.”

I do believe. Help my unbelief.

As we often share at this School, we seek to inspire the integrated happy, healthy, holy life that God wants us to live.

Happy, healthy, holy – these are concepts that speak for themselves. Integrated, however, calls for some analysis. In the early 1990’s, we were blessed to have noted child psychiatrist, prolific author, and Harvard professor, Robert Coles, address our community. He told the story of Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to desegregate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana during the New Orleans school desegregation crisis in 1960. Coles happened to be in New Orleans on the first day that 6-year-old Ruby entered her new school. He reported that the little girl had to be escorted by federal marshals, as they made their way through a roiling sea of angry protesters, chanting: “2-4-6-8. We don’t want to integrate!” Coles, a master storyteller, paused and wryly offered an aside in these or similar words: “You know, we psychiatrists and psychologists happen to think that integration is a good thing.”

And, of course, we do, too. To integrate is to unify, to connect, to become one. We seek to engage young men in the pursuit of truth through faith and reason. Truly, everything we do here calls us to nurture and deepen and develop and integrate our spiritual lives with our intellectual lives. What a great opportunity we have! 2-4-6-8 most schools don’t seek to integrate faith and reason, worship and intellectual inquiry, but we do, and we thank God for it.

As our friend, Reverend Thomas Keating, proclaims: “The goal is to integrate and unify various levels of one’s being and to surrender that integrated and unified being to God.”

Last year, I attended the Massachusetts Football Hall of Fame banquet at which two of our Arrows and a number of other secondary school athletes were honored. One of the athletes shared that his coach called him and his teammates to greatness several times a day with this refrain: “All I want is all you got!”

And I thought, isn’t that what God asks of us? All He wants is all we’ve got, our fully integrated whole selves.

Hang with me on this one. In 1873, Matthew Arnold writes in his famous essay Literature and Dogma:  “ is neither the submission of the Reason, nor is it the acceptance, simply and absolutely upon testimony, of what wisdom cannot reach. Faith is: the being able to cleave to a power of goodness appealing to our higher and real self, not to our lower and apparent self.”

And so we have a link to our all School Read’s title: The Soul of America ~ The Battle for our Better Angels. On March 4, 1861, with the Civil War about to erupt between our country’s North and South, President Abraham Lincoln stood and delivered these words at the conclusion of his first inaugural address:
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

What Matthew Arnold calls our higher and real self, Lincoln refers to as the better angels of our nature. In today’s culture, we speak of our true self and our false self and we speak of striving to become the best versions of ourselves, and at St. Sebastian’s, where we pursue truth through faith and reason, we proclaim our commitment to love God, to work hard, and to take good care of one another.

Made in the image and likeness of God, there is a way we ought to be and a way we ought not to be, and we ought to be honest and kind and loving people of faith and honor.

We read in Mr. Meacham’s book, that among President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s last words were these: “Let us move forward with strong and active faith.”

May we all move forward with strong and active faith, so that we may lead integrated, joyful, fulfilling lives of love and service and, at the end of our time on earth, be able to speak these words of St. Paul: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)

And upon our passing hear these words: “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Come share your Master’s joy.” (Matthew 15:21)

William L. Burke III
St. Sebastian’s School