“Reaching Out
for the Deep-Down Things”

John Walsh’s 2024 Senior Address

My task today as the class speaker is seemingly impossible. How do you sum up four years at Wyoming Catholic College? How do you neatly package all the joys, griefs, challenges, and laughter that we seniors have been blessed with in this journey? One simply cannot recount in a few minutes what seems like a lifetime of experiences. Nevertheless, my dear seniors, we must cap off our time here at Wyoming Catholic with a word. With a choice of attitude—a choice of our departing note. That is what I see as my task today, and I hope my words can illuminate how exactly one should leave Lander—leave the place where so much transformation has occurred in each of our lives.

I’ve noticed that class speakers at this college and other liberal arts colleges often gravitate towards the sentiments of the final poem we memorize at WCC: “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats. These speeches revolve around lines like, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” There is profound truth in such words, and in the sentiments that prompt such speeches. We are about to enter a hostile world—a world in which our faith will be attacked, our intellect scorned, and the uselessness of our liberal education mocked. Yet despite these premonitions, it seems odd to end our education in this key. During this deeply celebratory day, our minds should instead gravitate towards another poem in our curriculum: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out like shining from shook foil.” How do you sum up four years at WCC? Well, a stab at it would be: “Four years of wriggling ourselves deeper and deeper into the grandeur of God, the glory and beauty that He has bequeathed on this universe.” We must choose to leave today, to graduate, not with fear. Not with anger at a hostile world. But with gratitude for these four years—these four years that God has granted to each of us for the development of our souls and the widening of our hearts.

Indeed, perhaps this attitude of grateful reflection will be precisely what is needed when we encounter the challenges of this modern world.

In order to leave in this manner, in this tone, we must spend some time reflecting on what exactly we have experienced at this college. We must recall what has occurred between the first brilliant moments under the blazing stars during the 21-Day Expedition, and the bittersweet celebrations under the northern lights this weekend. What has happened to our souls? In answering this broad question, I find it helpful to reference the phrase so closely tied to this college’s mission: “formation of mind, body, and spirit.” Or, as it is often more casually put, “formation as philosophers, poets, and cowboys.” Fellow seniors, as we look back on our time here at WCC, we must realize that it was not just one aspect of our being developing. This college has laid a claim to everything we hold dear—all that we are as composite beings. Our minds have been developed by the challenges we have faced in our philosophy and mathematics courses, wherein we repeatedly encountered the order and structure of the universe, even when it was more difficult to perceive on the surface. More dramatically, our minds developed control and vigor as we heroically kept from tears during Dr. Olson’s sophomore math midterm. We saved all that for after the exam.

Our many experiences “in the flesh,” so to speak, through the outdoor program, horsemanship, and other spontaneous endeavors have, in a way, made us into cowboys. No, we are not all like Jonathan Allen, Caitlin Duggan, and the other seniors who performed the wonderful quadrille yesterday, but we all have gained a greater appreciation for the beauty and wonder lurking in the natural world. We have learned to appreciate the formative power that is in discomfort—and the toughness that can come from a wet sleeping bag and some unholy blisters. We have been awakened to the glory of “God’s first book.”

And finally, we have been formed in spirit. We have all, in our own ways, become poets. Through our liturgical life, our humanities and trivium courses, and most of all through our journey in this powerful community, we have been immersed into the meaning and vibrancy possible to human existence. Seeing the wild glint in Benjamin Licciardi’s eyes as he leans fully out of my car window, while we prepare to speed away on another of our many adventures, reminds me that here in Lander, at least for moments throughout the year, life can seem so full. The air we breathe, the mountains towering before us, the friends surrounding us—they all congeal into a single impetus to go, to do, to ride off on wild adventures that always include glimpses of bravery, loads of fun, and just a touch of downright stupid. We have all experienced an inspiration to greatness and heroism at this college, whether in scaling a peak, crafting a thesis project, or finishing one of Dr. Virginia’s humanities readings. In a word, we have been given the eyes to look at the world around us and pursue its inner depths, bathe in its beauty, rest in its silent whisperings of transcendence. And these glimpses of a life so full of meaning and of color will keep our hearts burning for the rest of our lives.

Now, all that you just heard is the tidy summary of our education that I wrote before finals week. But after grueling exams, and after tasting the pain of saying goodbye to so many friends, and particularly after facing the tragedy that has struck at the very heart of the college this weekend, I knew more needed to be said. Amid all the grand experiences of our education just outlined, perhaps the main thing that we learn was left out. As Alcibiades learned from Socrates thousands of years ago, we have come to know that we do not know. We have learned that our power of understanding is limited and is dwarfed by the mystery of the universe we inhabit. We have learned, sometimes with laughter, but perhaps more often with tears, that we cannot understand the way our Creator works. We cannot predict or comprehend the mysterious workings of His hand in our lives, especially when it seems to inflict tragedy. Yet at this college, this recognition of our ignorance is not a terminus of despair. We do not “end” there. As Socrates did in Ancient Athens, we use the knowledge of our ignorance as the starting point of wisdom. We still seek to understand, even as we realize that such understanding will never be completed until we see Him face to face, and finally ask Him “why?”

We are not leaving this college as complete, neatly packaged human beings who know all the answers. I certainly do not want to paint a picture of our class as perfect. Indeed, many of us might be struggling more deeply than ever before about the meaning of life and the difficulties of our faith, especially when our joys this weekend are mingled with so much grief. Yet I can say that one strength we all possess thanks to the last four years is simply that we will struggle.

Whether we like it or not, as WCC graduates we will not be able to rest content with meaningless lives. We are constantly reminded that we do not know, but we hate not having the answers—and we will continue to seek them for the rest of our lives. Such is a determination that many outside Wyoming Catholic College lack, and though it will not make life easy for us, it will keep us from the encroaches of numbness. We might be faced again and again by subtle implications that the world is meaningless, that the temptation of the serpent in the garden is actually true, and good and evil have no objective existence. But our four years here have given us glimpses of meaning, glimpses of a transcendent order, that will haunt us in all such moments, and will urge us to go further, to find the “deep down” places where the loving Creator still shines.

It is at this point that we get to the odd part of today. For the past few minutes, we have been recounting the joys and lessons of these past four years. But now, we must leave. We can spend all the time we want remembering the past four years, but we cannot forget that they must come to an end. And as I implied at the start, I must warn you, my dear seniors, that we will not fit neatly into today’s world. We have gone against many of the trends of modern life. We have pursued a degree that is deliberately “useless,” not aimed at pragmatic profit. For some reason, we have willingly thrown ourselves into experiences of extreme discomfort, sleeping in freezing cold snow caves and scaling arduous peaks. We have received an education that treats God as an actually existing, personal being. When we try to share these experiences with those “out there,” we will get many raised eyebrows and uncomprehending gazes. The state of culture today remains as Hopkins observed: “Why do men then now not reck his rod? /Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; /and all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; /And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil /Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.” We are about to enter a word that is bleared and smeared, that is bare, and that men cannot feel. This is the cliché moment in graduation speeches. I should say that the world is filled with problems and ugliness, and that you all should go out and “change the world.” “Go out and make a difference.” But as I stand here in front of my class, looking back over the past years and wondering about the next few, I know that we need a deeper message, a more nuanced view of our mission and the challenges we face.

We do indeed go out into a world filled with problems, filled with suffering and depravity. We need only look at what has been happening at colleges across the country over the past few weeks to truly appreciate this claim. Many today protest violence with more violence, corruption with more corruption, and lack of faith with faith that is fake and ingenuine. Yet, despite the temptations to the contrary, it would be wrong to think of these evils as ugliness within Creation itself. As Hopkins points out, “And for all this, nature is never spent; /There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Nature is never spent. The cosmos never ceases to unfold according to the plan of the Creator, with whose grandeur it is charged. Where, then, does the apparent ugliness and corruption of today’s world come from? It is here that we reach the central point of my speech—the fundamental truth that we must bear in our souls as we move forward in life. The ugliest part of the world today is that it no longer bothers to notice its own beauty. It is not that God is dead, that the universe no longer participates in His grandeur, but instead that the confines of our modern lives have become so narrow, so crowded—that we cannot open our souls to the beckoning’s of transcendence. As the great Shakespeare taught us all Junior year, the deepest tragedy does not occur in a meaningless world—a world devoid of all beauty. It instead occurs in a world where Desdemona is doubted, where Cordelia is shunned—where silent, unconditional love is drowned by the noise of our own pride.

The world of today is not devoid of beauty. It is devoid of beings who recognize such beauty. Our society has, to a great extent, lost the belief that our reality is designed by a loving Artist. And this loss entails the snuffing out of humanity’s only hope for meaning. The majority of men and women rarely confront this profound void of meaning, subsumed as they are in a world of hedonistic and technological distractions. What can we do in a crisis like this? What does the modern world need right now? How can we truly “make a difference”? Well, we must start with ourselves. If the world passes beauty and meaning by, we must be willing to always stop and soak in the gifts of our Creator. Our mission over the coming years is thus to look always to the “deep down things.” To strive always for glimpses of the dearest freshness that yet lurks in nature and in human experience. Our education has given us the tools and habits for this life of contemplation. We must keep them alive and put them to use. We must constantly pry open the confines of our hearts and let the splendor of beauty, of God’s design, touch our deepest core.

At this point, I know my class is going, “Oh boy, there goes that hopeless romantic John Walsh again.” Perhaps it would be hard to find a more cliché saying than “seek beauty.” But in my defense, I know I am speaking to a crowd of 41 individuals who cannot be satisfied by a “beauty” that is sickly sweet, that is unreal. I am not telling you all to fill your lives with cheap beauty, with the kind that glimmers and charms. I am not claiming that a “comfortable beauty” will be there to find in our lives. I am not telling you that the beautiful, the glory of God’s Providence, is easy. No, we all know that is far from the truth. Four years at Wyoming Catholic College, a place that devotes itself to the true, the good, the beautiful, will likely be some of the hardest years of our lives. Sure, we were immersed in breath-taking beauty during our outdoor experiences, but we were also without showers—and were equally immersed in the odors of our involuntarily intimate companions. Yes, we have spent four years reading many of the greatest works of human thought—but often it took until the deep hours of the night to fit it all in. We have repeatedly experienced the goodness and life-giving energy of our friends and classmates, but we have also felt the pangs of loss and betrayal. Our experience of beauty at Wyoming Catholic has never been easy, has never been simple. We should not expect anything different as we enter the world.

In our final class last Friday, we were reminded of the Platonic concept of beauty by a reading from Cardinal Ratzinger. Beauty wounds. It shocks the heart, awakens the soul immediately to a reality outside of it and beyond it. The beautiful makes us potently aware of our own deficiency—our own metaphysical weakness. If this is the case, then a life lived in the constant pursuit of beauty, the life we are called to as alumni of WCC, will be a life open to constant wounding. Unlike the “hardened heart” of Pharaoh, crusted over with the armor of power and luxury, we must present a permeable heart, a heart open to the spears of beauty that cause us to bleed—that open us to a higher reality that gives our lives meaning. The world often will not present itself as effortlessly wonder-filled. All of us will experience times of life when the voice of God seemingly fails, and when our four years in Lander seem impossibly far away. Yet even in such times, especially in such times, we must reach out for the deep-down things. We must open our eyes to the beauty that lurks even in the mundane, even in the painful.

If we do not, we will be no different than the multitude that crucified the living God. As Ratzinger told us, we must learn to see the ultimate beauty that resides even in the weeping, bleeding, exhausted Christ.

Thankfully, even in this fallen world, our God has not made this mission I have laid out an impossible task. As Hopkins concludes, “And though the last lights off the black West went/Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—/Because the Holy Ghost over the bent/World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” The brightness of morning will always dawn even upon the darkest moments of our lives, and the new eyes we have been given at WCC will once again see the grandeur in God’s cosmos. For despite its wrinkles and rough spots, this world that we live in is still indestructibly beautiful. If we truly look for them, we will find ourselves surrounded by realities and mysteries that beckon us out of ourselves and into a profound communion with our Creator.

A few weeks ago, we found these same ideas expressed by an unexpected philosopher. President Washut shared with us the wisdom of the great Calvin and Hobbes. Not the protestant and the political philosopher, but the 6-year-old and the tiger from Waterson’s comic strip. One of the New Year’s specials depicted Calvin and Hobbes racing around in their small red wagon, holding as usual a deeply philosophical conversation. But this time, as they raced through the beautiful trees and under the magnificent sky, Calvin’s fatalistic and totalitarian musings were silenced by the splendor of the world that whizzed past their little wagon, and he could only give voice to the wonder that filled his spirit. I will end this speech and send us off into the world with Calvin’s words. It’s a magical world, my dear class of 2024.

Let’s go exploring.