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Terrance KleinMay 01, 2024
Willa Cather on the University of Nebraska campus, 1893. Willa Cather photos from Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries.

A Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48 1 John 4:7-10 John 15:9-17

In 1890, the graduating high school class in Red Cloud, Neb., numbered only three. Each student spoke at the commencement. Typical of the time, the local paper, the Red Cloud Chief, predicted great futures for the two boys in the class, while statingt hat the young woman was “a great surprise” for her logic.

The young woman was Willa Cather, and perhaps the greater surprise was the quality of 1890s public education in Nebraska. She began her speech:

All human history is a record of an emigration, an exodus from barbarism to civilization; from the very outset of this pilgrimage of humanity, superstition and investigation have been contending for mastery. Since investigation first led man forth on that great search for truth which has prompted all his progress, superstition, the stern Pharoah of his former bondage, has followed him, retarding every step of advancement.

In high school, Willa Cather had wanted to become a physician. She shadowed a local doctor and even assisted in a young boy’s amputation. No surprise then, that this graduate spoke of “a conquest which will end only with time, for it is only the warfare between radicalism and conservatism, truth and error, which underlies every man’s life and happiness.”

This backward glance at a graduation speech shows more than our country’s educational decline. It illustrates how long we have been confident in the progress of science and the power of investigation. “What is it that characterizes our age and gives the present its supremacy?” Scientists “ceased theorizing and began experimenting.” That was a young Ms. Cather’s answer.

The coming Great War would challenge everyone’s belief in the emancipation of humanity through the technological mastery of science. This graduate almost seemed to see that future coming: “It is the most sacred right of man to investigate; we paid dearly for it in Eden; we have been shedding our heart’s blood for it ever since. It is ours; we have bought it with a price.”

Willa Cather did not pursue science. Instead, she became a great novelist. For her, the crucial questions went deeper than science could probe.

We may be advancing, but where are we going?

We may get what we want, but why do we want it?

When we know how the world works, will we then ask why? For what purpose? Can the second answer afford to attend the first?

Or as the graduate said in her speech, “Ah, why does life live upon death throughout the universe?”

These are real, deeply human questions. They matter greatly, but they exceed the reach of science. Instead, they are pursued by poets and philosophers, writers and artists of every medium.

Science studies the world. Religion questions us. Scientists envision their search ending when we know all there is to know. But artists will never cease asking questions because to be human is to be an enigma, an endless desire. As the graduate put it, “The most aspiring philosopher never hoped to do more than state the problem; he never dreamed of solving it.”

What is true of all Scripture is particularly true of the Gospels. They do not seek to know how the world works. Instead, they ask why. What are we to do with the world and, within the world, with ourselves?

God grants us the grace to investigate for ourselves how the world works, but the why of the world is too important to be left to us alone. This is what God reveals in Jesus. It is love.

As the Father loves me, so I also love you.
Remain in my love.
I have told you this so that my joy may be in you
and your joy might be complete.
This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (Jn 15:9, 11-13).

Willa Cather never ceased asking her questions. In a letter just before her death, no longer using language to impress, she would echo our Lord.

Now I know that nothing really matters to us but the people we love. Of course, if we realized that when we were young and just sat down and loved each other the beds would not get made and very little of the world’s work ever get done.

We keep producing masterpieces because our questions never end, and we preach the Gospel because we can learn the truth about ourselves yet lack the strength to be that truth. The church has been given the truth, but she must yet earn it. As Willa Cather said:

Superstition has ever been the curse of the church, and until she can acknowledge that since her principles are true, no scientific truth can contradict them, she will never realize her full strength.

Religious questions are right and necessary. We raise them to question ourselves. Who are we? Who do we want to become? Maybe someday science will solve all its problems. But religion is not problem-solving. It is mystery-exploring. It only ends when the riddle we are encounters the reason we exist.

A last word from the graduate:

Our intellectual swords may cut away a thousand petty spiderwebs woven by superstition across the mind of man, but before the veil of the “Sanctum Sanctorum” we stand confounded, our blades glance and turn and shatter upon the eternal adamant.

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