I was honored to represent the August 2015 graduates as the student speaker at the BYU Humanities College convocation ceremony. Here is what I said—it's a topic I care deeply about!
As a student of the Humanities here at BYU, I have come to understand the eternal value and real-world applications of everything to which we have dedicated our minds and hearts. We do not have to leave our chosen disciplines behind as we graduate today, nor should we have to defend their practicality. The most important thing I have learned at BYU is that our degrees in the Humanities are not only practical, but they are vital—they are the means by which to build and to beautify Zion on Earth.
How can we, as individuals with seemingly small spheres of influence, actually build Zion? As a student of art history, I have been personally inspired by studying the life and work of William Morris—the father of the Victorian Arts and Crafts movement in England, and a holistic designer of medieval- and nature-inspired aesthetics. William Morris was dedicated to the discernment of truth and the creation of beauty in every area of his life. His philosophy is best summarized by this piece of advice: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” In order to build and beautify Zion, I believe we should each apply this principle to our own lives.
We should garnish our homes with objects we find beautiful and useful, and cultivate cleanliness instead of clutter. We should also take care to beautify our workplaces, churches, temples, and civic buildings. I also believe that this principle can be applied metaphorically. We should seek to garnish our lives and minds only with what is most beautiful and useful. We can accomplish this through the values and faith by which we live, through our interactions and relationships with others, and through the priorities and pursuits that drive us each day. In doing this, we can cultivate Zion in our homes literally and figuratively. Our education in the Humanities uniquely empowers us to create a society wherein learning, creativity, and beauty abound. We have the knowledge and skills to discern and create that which belongs in our homes and in Zion.
Brigham Young once said: “Let us train our minds until we delight in that which is good, lovely, and holy...seeking continually after that intelligence which will enable us effectually to build up Zion, which consists of building...every convenience and necessity to embellish and beautify [it].” We must not simply wait for Zion to come to us. Rather, we must find and create the means to build and beautify it ourselves. In our study of the Humanities, we have been taught to delight in that which is good, lovely, and holy. We seek and study the truths and beauty which God has provided through creation and inspiration—they exist throughout the world and its history in art, literature, language, and culture. In my own experience, I have come to realize how such beauty, and those who create it, embody the spirit and sensibilities of Zion.
I found Zion in the technicolor resurrection panel of the Isenheim Altarpiece in France—an expressive, empathetic image meant to comfort those afflicted with disease. This image was painted in the sixteenth century by Matthias Grünewald, who used his artistic ability to alleviate the poor among him. For Zion to exist on the earth, shouldn’t we, too, use our time and talents to buoy up our fellow men and women rather than to seek recognition?
I also found Zion in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, a tiny nondenominational chapel in Midtown Manhattan. In 1977, Louise Nevelson created this universally tranquil, meditative environment so that anyone—regardless of background or belief—could find spiritual refuge from the noise and speed of the city. She understood the centrality of community and peace in a Zion society. In our thoughts, actions, and interactions with others, can’t we, too, use our knowledge and experience to facilitate communion and peacemaking?
I found Zion again in my studies of the art and writings of William Morris. He envisioned a world much like Brigham Young’s Zion: a society in which every individual can contribute to and be edified by art, education, and beauty. William Morris, and other inspired individuals we have studied, knew the value of truth and beauty and consecrated their knowledge and talents in order to share and cultivate it. Certainly they were “of one heart and one mind” in discerning and creating Zion. As children of endlessly creative and intelligent Heavenly Parents, I believe that we all have the same potential and responsibility. As students of the Humanities, we must study and share the elements of Zion that we have found in our various disciplines. And we must consecrate our knowledge, experience, perspectives, and skills to build Zion however and wherever we can.
As Brigham Young implored, we must “gather every item of truth...wherever it may be found in every nation, kindred, tongue, and people and bring it to Zion.” This is our unique charge and vital mission as BYU Humanities graduates. Because we are devoted both to our academic disciplines and to our faith, we have the right tools and mindset to gather truths and use them to beautify all we can. Our degrees can be consecrated to discern and create Zion in our minds and lifestyles, in our homes and families, in our workplaces, and in our communities and congregations.
Today, as BYU graduates, may we go forth together—of one heart and of one mind—and use our Humanities degrees to find and build Zion everywhere we go.