Exceptionality and Holiness: Reflections on 2022 Matriculation Address

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will.”

-Romans 12:2, NIV

“Holiness consists simply in doing God’s will, and being just what God wants us to be.”

-St. Thérèse of Lisieux

It’s easy for students to grow uneasy with words like “exceptional” used to describe themselves and the education they are receiving. For many of us, "exceptional" invokes uncomfortable connotations of considering oneself “better” than others. We recall the mental image we have of the stereotypical pretentious student, who thinks himself superior. We know we don’t want to be this. We know we would look silly if we were to be like this, and we might become self-conscious about what someone would think if he heard a word like “exceptional” applied to Templeton or the people in our college. However, the kind of exceptionality speaker Oscar Ortiz Duarte describes in his Matriculation speech is not an elitist exceptionality; rather, it is a simple call to holiness.

Holiness, by its very definition, is exceptional. To be holy means “to be set apart.” This is why the Bible refers to, not only people, but objects as holy (holy altar, holy anointing oils, holy vessels, etc.). Objects can be holy because holiness does not consist primarily in being righteous but in being set apart. Likewise, humans can be holy by being set apart from the world.

However, holiness is not only exceptional but accessible. God makes holiness accessible by His grace. He gives us the tools necessary to be holy by providing an escape from every temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13). The accessibility of holiness distinguishes holiness from an elitist exceptionality because elitist exceptionality is, by its nature, inaccessible.

The similarity between holiness and the exceptionality Duarte talked about was made evident in his retelling of Aesop’s fable of The Man and the Stone, which was the crux of his speech. In this story, Aesop’s master sends him to the public bath and instructs him to report to his master the number of men who are there. Aesop visits the bath and notices a stone blocking the entrance. Everyone who enters the bath stumbles over it, but no one moves it. He watches each new person stumble over the stone, then enter, one after the other, until finally, one man decides to move the stone. Aesop then returns to his master, who asks him how many people were at the bath. Aesop replies, “Only one.” Duarte then adjures us to be exceptional by picking up the stones in front of us that are getting in everyone’s way but that no one else will move.

Notice how simple the exceptional act of the one true man is. Moving a rock is not something only the elite can do. It is not an especially complicated task that requires a highly gifted mind to complete. This task is something anyone physically capable of walking himself to a bathhouse could do and something that everyone who entered the bathhouse had the opportunity to do. For Duarte, exceptionality is exceptionally accessible.

While Duarte acknowledges the exceptionality of the educational program at Templeton and even of the people there, he does not tell the freshman cohort they are destined to be exceptional because they are special or elite; instead, he exhorts them to be exceptional by simply doing that which they ought to do and that which will help others around them, even when no one else is doing it. Essentially, Duarte tells the freshmen to be exceptional by being holy.