Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | July 17, 2015

A Letter to Young College Students on The Occasion of a Birthday

untitledPlease forgive me if the title of this post seems presumptuous. I don’t mean it that way at all. I have great respect and admiration for you, the delightful and challenging young people who pass in and out of my classroom. So this letter is not written with any intention of preaching to you or “setting you straight” on any particular issues. Really good teachers understand that the craft of teaching well is a two-way street, not a one-way delivery system. From every class that I teach I learn something new: about youth, about pedagogy, about overcoming obstacles, and about life. So you are teaching me as often as I’m teaching you.

Way back in the 6th century this fact was recognized by none other than St. Benedict of Nursia, the father of western monasticism. In writing his Rule (the outline of behavior and life for his monks), Benedict pointed out that it wasn’t only the youth who could learn from the seniors in the community. The older, more established monks could also learn from the young. The youngest members of the order were always to be given their opportunity to speak.

Since you have taught me so much, I’d like to offer a few insights from my experience on this 55th celebration of birth. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether or not it qualifies as wisdom.

When I was your age and sitting in undergraduate college classes, it was mostly at a small seminary college operated by Benedictine monks. I remember one day in English class that the professor, Fr. Stan Moseley OSB, seemed particularly reflective. Something was troubling him, or perhaps he was just feeling his age. He must have been in his mid-50s, about the same age that I am now.

I don’t remember whether we talked much that day about the course topic, but I do remember him as he pensively drew a circle on the chalk board. He neatly divided it into four equal quadrants. He marked each quarter of the circle in a clockwise manner, using each quadrant to symbolize the stages of a person’s life: childhood, young adulthood, mid-life, and late adulthood. Perhaps he was struggling with the fact that he was moving into that last stage of life and wanted to share it with us.

One comment in particular from that day has stayed with me for the more than thirty years hence. “Gentlemen,” he intoned, “you will never understand the future phases of your life until you get there … until you have to live them.”

Damn, he was right about that. He was a wise monk. It seems to me, even now–especially now–that he was right about a lot of things. Only now, at this age, am I beginning to realize just how right he was.

Growing older is a wonderful experience. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Oh, sure, it comes with its own challenges. You discover aches and pains attached to internal body parts that you never even knew existed, and that ibuprofen should be a sacrament! You reach points of insight and recognize that there are things you can no longer do, like buying dog food in 50-lb bags (the 10-lb bags are much easier to manage).

These are realities with which you have to make your peace, but they are not only challenges–they are blessings in disguise. They teach you ever so insistently that you’re not God. You’re not invincible. You won’t live here on this earth forever, and this insight is a good thing.

St. Benedict, in his Rule, warns us to keep the reality of death ever before our eyes. To our contemporary ears this sounds so harsh and pessimistic. But he doesn’t mean it that way at all. He’s not advocating a life of sadness or depression. He’s challenging us to live for the moment, and to recognize in each moment the presence of God.

Bette Midler sings a beautiful song entitled From a Distance, but in the lyrics she gets one thing wrong … and it’s a really big thing. She says God is watching “from a distance,” but that’s not true at all. God is not “out there.” God is within you, around you, part of you. “God is closer to you than you are to yourself,” as St. Augustine reminded us centuries ago.

Don’t go looking for God. Stop and welcome God where you are. If you’re missing God, it’s because you’re taking God for granted. God is like breathing. Rarely do you think of it so it’s easy to overlook. As someone wiser than me once said, “Looking for the kingdom of God is like riding your donkey while looking for your donkey.”

It’s just like the young couple on a date at a nice restaurant where each is self-absorbed and lost in their own electronic device. They don’t even realize what they’re missing. The reality of the moment, a moment that will soon be gone and done forever, is lost on them. It’s that way with God. Put down your worries. Put away your i-phone. Sit and be still for just five minutes. God is there. Listen. You are good. You are blessed. You are divinely created.

That listening can teach you a great deal. By the time you get to be my age, if you’ve listened well, you will have figured out a few things about life. You won’t know everything and you’ll be happy about that. But by this time you’ll have had a chance to determine what you believe. I hope you’ll realize that while compromise is important in relationships, your core values must be identified. These should normally not be compromised.

So what should you do with those core values? Argue them passionately. Be open to learning and to updating your values when it’s necessary, but don’t surrender those values just because someone else tells you that you should. Passionate debate is not the same as being disrespectful. Don’t allow yourself to be silenced by peer pressure or political name-calling.

Think critically, not negatively. To be critical means to look deeply and discerningly at life’s experiences. And let me warn you of something. In our society today we give lip service to the notion of being open-minded, critical thinkers. And we claim to appreciate diversity. It’s not true for most of us. We’re too busy hanging out only with the people who agree with us, reading only the things that affirm our limited views, condemning those who challenge our perceptions.

Perhaps Mark Twain said it best: “Many people would rather die than think. Most do.”

Don’t be like that. Learn a lesson from the episode of the Pied Piper. As the children scurry behind him to their deaths, stop and ponder. Rarely is a stampede a good thing. It often results in giving injury to the most vulnerable among us and can even lead to jumping off a cliff.

Be grateful. You didn’t ask to be here, but your presence here is a gift. Whether you think it’s God or an evolving cosmos that put you here (or both), live with an attitude of thanks. Be thankful for everything: getting up in the morning, enjoying a meal or snack, study, exercise, wine, sleep. Be grateful even for the pain that life sends your way. Search it for meaning. Remember the insight of Joseph Campbell: “Where you stumble and fall, there you will find gold.”

Be courteous. Even at my age, I still hold the door open for others, even when they are younger than me. Do that often. Say hello to people. Smile at strangers. Buy a sandwich for a homeless person. Write a real letter to somebody and mail it. Learn to compose genuine thank-you notes and send them often. Don’t be a texting zombie. Remember that your parents won’t live forever. Offer a brief word of thanks to a teacher, a friend, or someone else you take for granted. Sit with the kid that no one else seems to notice.

Go to church. Be church to the people around you. Don’t just show up. Show up early. Talk to people. Be an usher. Volunteer in the parish kitchen. Say hi to the old folks and laugh with the children. Tell the pastor that you appreciate the sermon, even if it’s not the best one you ever heard. Decide how much you can drop into the collection plate and then add $5 more.

The blood of Christ isn’t just in the chalice, by the way. It’s running in your veins. It swims through every moment of your life and it gushes in every ounce of creation. It’s green in the grass, brown in the soil, and frail in humanity. We breathe it, we drink it, we eat it and we crap it out. And every bit of it is holy.

Recognize and be satisfied to know that faith is not just religious faith. If you can’t believe in Christ or even in God, or if you’re still unsure, then just be still with that knowledge. Be comfortable with the questions of life. Ignoring the questions never brings insight, but neither does rushing to judgment. Decide less and discern more. You were called to something. What is it? Until you find that thing, that one important thing you’re supposed to do on this earth, you won’t find happiness. Don’t tell others how to live. Show them.

Be wise. Be prudent. Don’t be milquetoast. If you don’t know what those words mean, look them up. You’ll be glad you did.

Seek justice, but don’t be a crusader. If you must champion a cause, don’t let it be about you. Living justly in every moment of your life will produce much more happiness for you and for others than a thousand years of protest and whining. As the Talmud says, “Save one person and you have saved the whole world.”

If you’re an extrovert, learn to speak less and listen more. If you’re an introvert, push yourself to be more engaged in the public sphere. When you’re thinking like a liberal, seek conservative counsel. When you’re acting like a conservative, ask the liberals what they recommend. Be a person of dialogue.

There is more to life than just what appears in the headlines. Newspaper reporters are human, too. What you see online or on the news is someone else’s opinion about what’s important. Go out and discover the rest of the story and then decide for yourself what’s truly important.

Don’t abandon your ancestors. They were sinners, too, but they still have something to teach you. Nobody’s perfect. There is a wave of negativity sweeping our country today that proposes that the failures of our forebears make them unworthy of appreciation. Learn from their victories as well as their failures. Recognize the moments of conversion that haunt the past and ask their meaning for today.

Nobody has all the answers but God, and God has not revealed all of them to any of us. Run away quickly from anyone and any community that claims to have all the answers. Embrace your own limits and frailty, but learn to work through them. For every door that is shut in your life a hundred others are opened. If you’re crying in front of the closed door, you’ll miss the openings all around you.

As you are, I once was. As I now am you will be. Prepare yourself well. The cosmos is consuming you, so relish the experience. Live in a way that will make it obvious to others what words should be on your tombstone. And no matter what may come your way, find a reason to rejoice. Drink in the blood of Christ as it stirs within you and circles all around you. Live like you belong here, because you do.

“O God, you have taught me since I was young,
and to this day I tell of your wonderful works.
And now that I am old and gray-headed, O God, do not forsake me,
till I make known your strength to this generation
and your power to all who are to come” (Psalm 71:17-18).


  1. Loved the post! Michele

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Your wisdom comes through bright and clear! Don’t you wonder sometimes why it takes nearly a whole life to learn these pearls when it is nearly too late to apply them to the rest of your days – it just seems a shame there really is no way to gain all that wisdom at an early age when it really would do you well!

    • Thank you, Perilla … you yourself are a person of great wisdom and passionate understanding. Thank you for being the example that you are for many of the things in this commentary!

  3. Wise words. St. Benedict, pray for us.

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