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Columns

Old Saints

On Commencement and Dexter Gate

By Stephen G. Mackereth

“Enter to grow in wisdom. Depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.” So it is written above Dexter Gate as one enters Harvard Yard.

I came to Harvard to slake my thirst for knowledge. I wanted to learn more about mathematics, but I had vague wild designs to learn about everything else too. I wanted to study quantum mechanics and molecular biology and organic chemistry. I wanted to broaden my horizons. I didn't know anything about politics or economics, but Harvard seemed the perfect place to learn. Harvard is full of knowledge, and full of knowledgeable people.

I think I have gained more knowledge here than in my entire life before college, and that gets me excited. It also leaves me daunted. The more you know, the more you know you don't know. “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh,” reads Ecclesiastes 12:12. And yet at least we know where to get knowledge. There may not be enough hours in the day to learn it all, but we know which books to read, and which professors to ask.

But I wonder where we learn wisdom.

“Enter to grow in wisdom...” Wisdom is different from knowledge. When I think of wisdom, my first thought is not of my classmates or even my professors (though many of them are wise). I think of my parents and grandparents. I think of old priests and much-loved pastors. I think of Paul the security guard in Quincy House. Old saints, robed in graciousness and dignity, patience and peace. That is what wisdom looks like.

Old saints, I must emphasize, are not the same thing as heroes. Saints are not perfect. But that's not what being a saint is about. In her book “Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis”, Lauren Winner has quoted Samuel Wells as saying: “A saint can fail in a way that the hero can’t, because the failure of the saint reveals the forgiveness and the new possibilities made in God, and the saint is just a small character in a story that’s always fundamentally about God.” As Winner remarks, “It turns out the Christian story is a good story in which to learn to fail.”

That's the kind of truism that I can only repeat secondhand. I don't really know what it means yet. Let's not fool ourselves: We have to grow into our words. There are whole books, like “Brideshead Revisited," that I can read and understand and yet know that I won't really understand it until I've lived it. Wisdom seems to be found only at the end of a long, slow road.

And now it is time to depart, to take our clumsy first steps along that long road, “to serve better thy country and thy kind.”

I hope someone teaches me wisdom, that I may serve better, because I can't bear to settle for less. I don't want to live a boring, trivial, wasted life. I don't want to be climbing a corporate ladder, or making money for money's sake, or living for those fancy academic letters after my name. God help me, I need to live for something bigger than myself.

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11.

It's been a wild old time here at this rather good school in Boston. It's been a time of intellectual growth and exploration. I didn't expect to get hooked on philosophy and theology above all else. I never could have imagined that I would spend more time reading the Bible than any other book during these Harvard years.

And little did I know how much joy I would discover in writing. Which brings us, dear reader, to the end of “Unapologetics.” This semester, we've considered such diverse topics as the problem of suffering, the relation of science and the Christian faith, the concept of sin, the vision of community. Through these topics I hope to have suggested something of the warp and woof of Christian thought, and its expression in art, poetry, literature. I have not given a systematic, rational defence of the faith. Take these remarks only as rough brushstrokes, words gesturing at experiences. Maybe with more time they might have been made systematic. But it is always time to move on. God is always ahead of us.

Not long until Commencement now. The pre-nostalgia begins to set in.

May we depart to serve better.

Et gloria in excelsis Deo.

Stephen G. Mackereth '15 is a joint mathematics and philosophy concentrator in Mather House.

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