Counting Our Days Aright
by the Rev. Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM Cap
Father Thomas Weinandy, Director of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, presented the commencement address at the University of St. Francis, Joliet, Illinois, on January 19, 2008. Father Weinandy has kindly granted permission to publish his address.
I am very pleased to be with all of you today. I am deeply honored to have been asked to give this commencement address, and I thank President Michael J. Vinciguerra and the university for this kind invitation. As a Capuchin Franciscan priest and friar I feel especially privileged to speak at a university named in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, a university with such a long and eminent Franciscan tradition guided by the charism of the Sisters of Saint Francis of Mary Immaculate. Let us pray and hope that Saint Francis will be pleased with what I am about to say here today.
While every graduation marks and celebrates the past the successful completion of the academic life of the past number of years every graduation also looks to the future. You who are graduating did not see your studies as a goal in itself. Rather, with every book you read, with every paper you wrote, with every exam you took, your mind was not simply focused on the present task at hand, but also on the future what you wanted to achieve after your days at the University of St. Francis had come to an end. That future, which may have often seemed so far off, is now present.
As you begin to live those once future days that are now present, you nonetheless keep your eyes fixed on the future to fulfilling your hopes and even your dreams. It is here, at this juncture, as you look anew to the future, that I would ask you to ponder with me the importance of who you are, the importance of your future life and the importance of what you wish now to achieve.
Psalm 90 declares that “Before the mountains were born, the earth and the world brought forth, from eternity to eternity you are God. A thousand years in your eyes are merely a yesterday” (Ps 90:2-3). In contrast to the eternity of God, whose days are boundless, the psalm also speaks of our own mortality and so the limit of our days. “Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong” (Ps 9:10). Because we as human beings have a limited number of days here on earth, the Psalmist entreats God to “teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart” (Ps 90:12). What would God teach us whereby we might learn to “to number our days aright”, and if we did learn what God taught us, how would that enable us to “gain wisdom of heart”?
The first bit of wisdom that the Psalmist believes God wants to teach us is precisely that our days are indeed limited in number. Therefore, each day, if it is truly to be lived profitably, must be lived rightly. It would be foolish to squander the limited days we possess.
The second bit of wisdom that God wants to teach us is that to live each day rightly is to live each day in His presence. Each day we live without knowing and acknowledging the presence of God is a wasted day.
The third bit of wisdom that God wants to teach us is that each day brings us closer not merely to our earthly demise, but more importantly each day brings us closer to our everlasting life. To live each day knowing that this day is not simply leading us to our death but to our everlasting future with God is to gain wisdom of heart. This does not mean that our personal achievements in this life and our earthly concerns are of no importance, for they are, and often they are very important. Nonetheless, this world and all that it offers must not become our exclusive focus. As Jesus forewarned us: “What will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life” (Mt 16:26).
Thus, to live our days wisely, to count our days aright, bears upon our practical everyday decisions which necessarily entail everlasting consequences. While the fool, according to the Psalmist, says in his heart that there is no God, Christians, in contrast, not only believe that God exists but they also acknowledge the need of His help in order to make wise daily decisions and so count their days aright. It is here that Jesus takes center stage for He not only frees us from the sin that would make folly of our days, but He also enlightens us with His indwelling Holy Spirit, the Spirit that empowers us to live our days aright.
Christians believe that a person can only count his or her days aright if he or she lives each day united to Jesus through the Holy Spirit. It is through the Holy Spirit that Jesus pours out the love of God the Father into our hearts (see Rom 5:5). Often men and women are desperate, in their insecurity, to prove their worth and their value. Christians, however, are assured each day that they are loved by God the Father and that their worth, their value, and their dignity are firmly founded upon that love a worth, a value and a dignity that no one can snatch from them. Moreover, Jesus anoints us with His Spirit of Wisdom and His Spirit of Truth. This Holy Spirit empowers us, through prayer and the sacraments, to live out that wisdom and that truth and so live virtuous lives. Likewise, as Catholics we believe that Jesus guides His Church through the Holy Spirit so as to ensure that the Church always proclaims, without error, the truth of the Gospel. Thus, we are always able to know what is truly good, right and just, and, in this knowledge, we can live each and every day of our lives by God’s wisdom and truth. Moreover, while the Christian Gospel enables us to count our earthly days aright, it simultaneously leads us to that future eternal and never ending day the day when we will be numbered among the saints in glory.
Three Virtues: Integrity, Courage and Endurance
Part of wisdom of the Gospel is the gift of three inter-related virtues that are sorely needed today if we are to live our days wisely not only for our own benefit but also for the benefit of all of humankind. The exercise of these virtues will help us live always in faith faith in Jesus; that we live always in hope hope in the triumph of God’s goodness; and that we live always in love love of God and neighbor. These virtues are integrity, courage and endurance.
At times it appears that the days of our contemporary world are caught up in a spiral of evil and meaninglessness days often consumed by lies, deceit and moral compromise; days in which men and women strive for nothing more than the accumulation of wealth with its abundant pleasures; days where unrestricted power and wanton cruelty so often mock justice, peace, and compassion; days where what frequently passes as significant is the trivial comings and goings of Hollywood celebrities and superstars. In the midst of such days, there is a need, a desperate need, for men and women, especially young men and women, who daily live meaningful lives of goodness founded upon integrity, courage and endurance.
The twin truths that men and women are created in God’s image and likeness and that they have become His sons and daughters in Christ establish, for Christians, the virtue of integrity for we share in the very integrity of God. Integrity resides, then, in keeping God’s commandments. This keeping of God’s commandments resides in putting God first through regular worship, respect for lawful authority, reverence for human life and sexuality, regard for property and the environment, honesty in speech and actions, and respecting the good name of others. By obeying God’s commandments we live in a divine-like manner in conformity with being His children. The commandments, then, do not shackle our human freedom or jeopardize our human potential. Rather, they allow us truly to live authentic human lives and so flourish both personally and as a community. For you who are graduating, I exhort you, live each day of your life with Christian integrity, as men and women of inner moral fiber and steadfast purpose. Do not be buffeted and swayed by the banalities of the present moment. Live each day aright and so gain wisdom of heart.
However, to live our days aright, to gain wisdom of heart, demands that we not only possess integrity, but also courage. Integrity without courage is dead. Why do we not stand up for what is right and just? Why do we compromise our moral principles? Why do we allow the erroneous moral and social fads of the day to dictate and enslave our own personal and professional lives? It is because we are afraid. We fear being thought old-fashioned, out of touch with contemporary reality, not in tune with what is considered the latest scholarly thinking that is touted to be revolutionary. We fear being considered intolerant, inflexible and illiberal. Most of all, we fear being thought overly religious, even fanatical. Courage, however, provides us the true freedom to be who we really want to be Christian men and women of integrity, men and women who live rational human lives, lives that allow us to flourish spiritually, intellectually and emotionally. So, again, to you who are graduating today, I exhort you, be not bullied by the many fashionable, but erroneous, social and intellectual opinions of today. Rather, count your days aright, gain wisdom of heart, be courageous in speaking what is true and valiant in doing what is good.
Christian integrity born of courage, however, is not enough to win the day. If one courageous act of integrity could solve all the world’s problems, being men and women of integrity would be easy. The person who wants to count his or her days aright, a person who wishes to gain wisdom of heart, needs to endure and persevere. Endurance is that virtue that ensures that we live courageous lives of integrity, not just one day but everyday. Endurance ensures that courage never fails and so ensures that integrity never wanes. Allow me to give a few examples of where courageous integrity is needed, examples that will focus exclusively on marriage and family life.
Faith, Family and Fidelity
First, the Catholic Church has always recognized and fostered the integrity of marriage and the centrality of the family. Today, marriage as understood to be the union of a man and a woman is being systematically attacked and methodically undermined. It is being summarily dismissed as an unenlightened vestige from a bygone culture and can now, in our day, finally be redefined and reconstituted so as to conform to our modern progressive tastes. Within this social environment there is a critical need for Catholic and Christian young men and young women to recognize clearly that marriage is indeed a divine gift founded upon who we fundamentally are as human beings male and female. To foster and defend this traditional understanding of marriage within our society, for the sake of our society, will take courageous endurance, for this issue will not depart us soon and what is at stake is too important to concede. Our social and political fabric will only be as robust and as vibrant as the strength of our marriages and the integrity of our families.
Second, in an environment that is increasingly becoming a culture of death, Christian and Catholic men and women are called today to bear witness to the gift of life. Only through the enduring courageous promotion and defense of life, from conception to natural death, will the lives of all human beings, including the physically and mentally challenged, once more be held sacred within our nation and the world, and so be protected by just laws. This fight on behalf of the sanctity of life has already been long and arduous, but then too was the fight to abolish slavery. We need the will to win this battle on behalf of life not only for the sake of those who might be killed, but also for the sake of preserving our own humanness.
Third, Christian and Catholic married couples also bear loving witness to the goodness of life by the mere existence and presence of their own children. New life testifies to the goodness of life. Some people may conclude that the begetting of children is an encumbrance, limiting one’s freedom and self-fulfillment, or as an unreasonable economic burden. Others may conclude that the begetting of children is a right that allows them to scientifically stage-manage and manipulate the whole process so as to produce a designer baby. In contrast, Christian husbands and wives possess the wisdom to recognize that children are a gift from God and the fruit of love. Unfortunately, some couples are incapable of conceiving children. This is, understandably, experienced with great sadness. Catholic couples, however, if they are incapable of having children, recognize that they cannot resort to unethical means to achieve their goal. Rather, they acknowledge that the begetting of children is inherent to their own mutual expression of marital love, and thus children are not objects to be manufactured in the sterility of a lab, the remainders discarded at will. Such infertile couples trust in God’s providential love and seek to nourish life in other ways such as through adoption.
In all of these various ways Christian men and women, and all right-thinking people of good intent, bear witness to the sanctity of life and the sacredness of the family.
I want to conclude by first telling a story about Saint Francis of Assisi and then return for a final thought taken again from Psalm 90.
When Saint Francis was a young man, he dreamed of fame and glory. This desire arose out of a deeper desire to be held in high esteem within his family and within his own hometown, but especially among his peers and particularly among his female peers. To achieve his goal Francis set about becoming a great and fearless knight, and so attached himself to the leading duke of Assisi. In his first battle fought on behalf Assisi against its archenemy, the bigger and more prestigious city of Perugia, Francis was captured and locked in a dungeon. There in the cold, dismal darkness, plagued with hunger, his wonderful dreams having become a harsh and bitter reality, Francis heard the Lord speak to him. “Francis”, the Lord said, “which is greater to serve the servant or to serve the king?” Francis replied that it was obvious that serving the king was far greater than serving the servant. The Lord responded: “Then why, Francis, do you persist in wanting to serve the servant?” Francis realized, if he truly wanted to achieve authentic fame and genuine glory, that the king to serve was not an earthly king, but the King of kings the Lord Jesus Christ. Francis had gained wisdom of heart and from that moment on he counted his days aright.
In all that I have said today this is the bottom-line message. We gain wisdom of heart and so are able to count all of our earthly days aright only if we serve, not the world, a kingdom that is passing away, but the Lord Jesus Christ for His kingdom lasts forever. To serve Jesus the King, though, will demand faithful integrity, steadfast courage and loving endurance all the days of our lives. This is my hope and prayer for all of you here today, especially for all of you who are graduating.
The Psalmist, in Psalm 90, having noted that our days are few in number and so the need to count our days aright, ends his psalm by entreating God. He cries out: “Prosper, O Lord, the work of our hands! Prosper the work of our hands!” That is the prayer that each graduate here at the University of Saint Francis should pray today. “Prosper, O Lord, the work of my hands! Prosper, O Lord, the work of my mind! Prosper, O Lord, the work of my heart!” If you pray that prayer with the integrity of faith, with a mind courageously focused on the truth, and with a loving heart willing to endure, I can assure you that Jesus will hear and answer you.
May the Lord Jesus bless you and may He prosper the work of your hands.
**Women for Faith & Family operates solely on your generous donations!
WFF is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Donations are tax deductible.
Voices copyright © 1999-Present Women for Faith & Family. All rights reserved.
All material on this web site is copyrighted and may not be copied or reproduced without prior written permission from Women for Faith & Family,except as specified below.
Permission is granted to download and/or print out articles for personal use only.
Brief quotations (ca 500 words) may be made from the material on this site, in accordance with the “fair use” provisions of copyright law, without prior permission. For these quotations proper attribution must be made of author and WFF + URL (i.e., “Women for Faith & Family www.wf-f.org.)
Generally, all signed articles or graphics must also have the permission of the author. If a text does not have an author byline, Women for Faith & Family should be listed as the author. For example: Women for Faith & Family (St Louis: Women for Faith & Family, 2005 + URL)
Link to Women for Faith & Family web site.
Other web sites are welcome to establish links to www.wf-f.org or to individual pages within our site.