Graduates: Continue encounters with people and books

By Santiago Ramos

Maybe it doesn’t make sense for somebody who is still in school to be dishing out advice to recent college graduates. The fact that I am still exiled in Ph.D. Land perhaps disqualifies me from telling anyone anything useful about how to make it out in the “real world.”

Maybe. But I’m gonna do it anyway. My advice doesn’t have anything to do about careers. It has to do with books – something which, as a grad student, I ought to know something about.

You don’t need me to repeat what all the other speakers have already told you: You are ready for anything. Yes, you are. College has prepared you for the workforce.

Let me instead address that nagging doubt: “Maybe I should have paid more attention in philosophy/English/theology/history class… I wish I had done all the reading… I wish I had thought more about the meaning of life. Because while I know a lot about business/nursing/finance/engineering, I still wonder sometimes whether I really know anything about love/God/life/happiness…”

I know the feeling. I had it, too.

Here is my advice, in two parts: 1. Read. 2. Keep track of the people who recommend books to you.

We cannot decide nor foresee the people whom we will meet in life, the people who will change us for the better or the worse, and the people whom we will love. The same goes for the books we will read. Both — books and people — are instrumental for finding our way in life. A book, anyway, is only an indirect way of meeting a person. So, given that you are already likely to seek out new friends and a husband or wife, I will advise you to do something you might not be thinking about doing, having just finished four grueling years of study: Seek out books. Read!

Let me tell you a story which shows just how important books can be in a person’s life.

This is the story of how the great American monk and poet, Thomas Merton, got his education. He talks about it in his memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain (a book you should definitely read). Merton was something of a literary celebrity in the United States in the 1950s and 60s. His memoir inspired nationwide interest in monasticism; his writings on war and peace, faith and modern life, and sundry other topics, earned him a place as one of the top American Catholic writers of the 20th century.

The key moments in Merton’s education all had to do with particular books that he came across. He read a collection of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry while suffering from a blood infection during prep school (the book was a gift from one from one of his teachers). Hopkins’ poetry opened up the world of poetry to young Merton.

He read and reviewed Aldous Huxley’s essay collection titled Ends and Means as an upperclassman at Columbia University (recommended by his best friend, Robert Lax). That book convinced Merton that it is impossible to live life without a sense of the mystical and of the supernatural.

He read half of Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, which he picked up on a whim and almost tossed out the window of a bus after he realized that it was a Catholic book. He never did finish it, but what he read of it left him with the impression that the belief in God is probably more reasonable and respectable than he had previously believed.

A Buddhist monk named Bramachari, who for some reason was hanging out with Merton and his buddies during his college days, recommended to Merton that he read St. Augustine’s Confessions. Merton loved it; he could relate to Augustine’s restlessness as he searched for the truth.

One day, as he was reading a collection of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ letters, Merton decided to become a Catholic.

According to Merton, each of these books was instrumental to his journey from being a Communist, libertine, trust-fund baby, to becoming a poet and monk – that is, to finding his path in life, to finding freedom and happiness.

And none of those books were assigned for class. Rather, they were usually the gift or recommendation of a friend. This is why you should keep track of the people who recommend books to you. Those people might end up being the most important friends you make in your life.

For Merton, those people were the classmates, teachers, and one random Buddhist monk. In the end, the people were more important than the books. The books broadened Merton’s mind. The people broadened his mind, AND they made sure he did not walk alone in life.

My own experience has been similar to Merton’s. I became educated, or rather, am still becoming educated, by meeting and following good teachers who were not usually formally my teachers. No official curriculum made my education automatic – in fact, I had to tolerate a lot of boring classes, and bad semesters when I personally failed to do any meaningful reading. Yet a few professors and older friends told me about some good books, and I read them. It isn’t a systematic endeavor. But it works.

Call it Providence or call it luck, but either way, education is a gift.

So don’t worry if you feel like you don’t know enough, or wasted too much time, or are lost in a dark wood. Don’t worry about your lack of education. Education is a gift. It comes to us as a surprise, through encounters with people and books.

Education is a gift. Ask for it. Reading is one way of asking.

Santiago Ramos is a graduate of Rockhurst University and is pursuing graduate studies at Boston College.



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November 26, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph