moral integrity

Life Without a Veil


The following is the Baccalaureate sermon given by Dr. Hulsey in St. Andrew’s Chapel on Saturday, May 25, 2019, preceding the formal Woodberry graduation ceremony. 

Dozens if not hundreds of times over the past two, three, or four years, you have walked through the Barbee Center past the iconic mural of an early baseball team here at Woodberry, a mural anchored by a quotation worth remembering forever: “Effort in sport is a matter of character rather than reward. It is an end in itself, not a means to an end.” Now that you are on the cusp of graduation, it is worth reflecting on the fundamental, overarching purpose of Woodberry Forest. What is it for? Why does the school exist? If you have truly and fully embraced all that we are, what will you have gained from your experience here? We’ve said that Woodberry is a hard thing worth doing the right way, but why is that? This morning I’d like to focus my remarks on the concept of “character rather than reward” and connect that ideal to the invitation we all enjoy to live an undivided life without a veil.

Most adolescents go to high school because it is another rung on the proverbial ladder and a next step to college. The most accomplished strive for good grades and high test scores. Of course they have opportunities to explore the arts and play sports, occasionally at the highest levels. They develop friendships that can be sustaining and elevating, and they might establish a relationship or two with a teacher or a coach who shapes their experiences in powerful and important ways. The prize, though, is college, and while there are of course individuals who look for a grander meaning above the fray and a larger purpose to all of the effort, the truth of the matter is that many educational experiences are not a “matter of character rather than reward.”

The ideal Woodberry experience, however, is designed to turn those transactional experiences into a transformational opportunity for every boy in the Tiger Nation. Here we elevate character over reward, and it is important for us all to remember that the parchment of the diploma that makes alumni equal forever is far more valuable than any award bestowed upon an individual on Amici Night or later this morning. And why is that the case? Because character matters most, and it will last you a lifetime and it has the capacity to shape those around you for the good of all.

The honor system and a culture of moral integrity mean more to Woodberry alumni than any worldly accomplishment. Reflect back on how far you’ve come in these few years. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we can each allow that when we came to Woodberry it was not natural to take full responsibility for our own academic work when you might have cheated for a higher grade, or to respect always what belongs to others even when the dorm fridge is stocked with cokes that aren’t yours and you’re really thirsty, or to tell the truth always, even when we knew we might get in trouble. But over the years it has become natural, and the foundation of your character has been established for life. You’ve made good on that quote in the Barbee: “effort is a matter of character rather than reward.” We are here this morning to celebrate the undivided life, in other words, life without a veil, and to lift up that noble form of deep integrity in a Woodberry rite of passage that will mark you as a Tiger forever.

The character of which I speak, by the way, is far more than mere endurance all the way to graduation. It is the way that I believe God wants us to live our lives: open, free, honest, trusting. No matter where you go on to college, no matter what your profession, no matter what your material circumstances, we are called to life without a veil. If you’ve truly embraced the honor system beyond a set of rules to obey just to graduate and instead you’ve seen it as a life force woven into your identity, you’ve caught glimpses of life without a veil. Over your time here those glimpses have developed into a fuller, deeper, more panoramic view of who you really are, a keener understanding of the purpose of life, and and a more complete appreciation of your place in our community and beyond. Here you have come to belong. Here you are rooted. Here you will always be welcomed back for who you are and for what you mean in a community that values character over reward.

Living without a veil is a life challenge, and your graduation from Woodberry is a mere moment on that journey. Like many of you, I got my learner’s permit when I was fifteen. I grew up in northwest Texas, where the highways are straight and flat and traffic is light. And I had a trusting father. In the summer after I got my learner’s permit, the two of us went on a road trip. For a while Dad drove and I sat in the passenger seat. But he’s always loved a nap, and when he got tired, he’d put the car on cruise control and crank his seat back, doze off, and let me steer from the passenger seat. I could see way up to the horizon, and if we needed to brake, I’d nudge him and he’d oblige. But we loved the cruise control. And we made up games like trying to go as many consecutive miles as possible on those northwest Texas highways without having to tap the brake.

That made, as you might imagine, construction zones a real nuisance. I remember thinking that summer, “I can’t wait until all of this construction is over. Then we’ll really be able to go.” Well the truth of the matter is, of course, that roads are always under construction, kind of like the Walker Building! And each of us is under construction, too. If we are building our character, we will always be under construction, open and eager to learn a little more and grow a little more.  

There is no finish line for life without a veil, simply because the swirl of forces in the world will always make it incredibly hard to live life without a veil or to take our many masks off, first for ourselves and then for those we love and trust. The Christian tradition is full of examples that elevate light over darkness and orient us to the purpose of life without a veil. In Paul’s letter to Corinthians, he makes reference to “treasure in clay jars,” the beautiful truth that each of us is unique as a child of God in a body made of clay, ever attentive to God’s voice commanding us to “Let light shine out of darkness.” In the Gospel according to Matthew we learn of the very moment that Jesus died: “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” It was torn in two so that we might embrace the opportunity to live without a veil, first to ourselves, and then one to another.

Of all the forces in our wider culture that make life without a veil so very hard to embrace, fear stands supreme. Fear holds us back. Fear has us assembling and projecting layers of masks for self protection. Fear makes it hard for you to be you, and fear dulls the piercing and redemptive power of the undeserved gift of God’s grace and His assurance that each of us, stripped of any earthy accolade or material possession, is enough. We like to think of fear as unique to our circumstances, and while it is true that fear ebbs and flows culturally, it has always been with us as an constant element of the human condition. I recently learned that the life-giving phrase “Do not be afraid” is repeated 366 times in the Bible, once for every day, and once, perhaps, for no reason at all.

Sometimes the forces of fear come from the world beyond, but more than occasionally, they originate with us. The Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue has shared that his favorite story about fear comes from India: “It is several thousand years old, and it is a story about a man who was condemned to spend a night in a cell with a poisonous snake. If he made the slightest little stir, the snake was on top of him and he was dead. So he stood in the corner of the cell, opposite where the snake was, and he was petrified. He barely dared to breathe for fear of alerting the snake, and he stood stiff and petrified all night long. As the first bars of light began to come into the cell at dawn, he began to make out the shape of a snake, and he was saying to himself, wasn’t I lucky that I never stirred. But when the full force of light came in with the full dawn, he noticed that it wasn’t a snake at all. It was an old rope. Now the story is banal, but the moral of the story is profound: in a lot of the rooms of our minds, there are harmless old ropes thrown in corners, but when our fear begins to work on them, we convert them into monsters who hold us prisoners in the bleakest, most impoverished rooms of our hearts.”

In this morning’s Gospel reading from Matthew we’re given the good news that in the swirl of worries about tomorrow, the light for life without a veil comes from the Holy Spirit, and it is constant, and it resides in each of us. We’re invited to follow God and shine a light on our darkest selves so that we might love others as we have been loved. Mrs. Hulsey, who has taught me more about courage than I could have imagined, has a card taped to the mirror in our bathroom. It says simply, “feed your faith, and all your fears will starve to death.” Life without a veil is, in Woodberry language, a matter of character rather than reward, and it will always be the hard right over the easy wrong.

As you bid farewell later this afternoon, I urge you not to expect the rest of the world to care right away that you went to Woodberry Forest. Instead, let your actions show them the difference that Woodberry has made in your hearts and through your character as you live in the world beyond. Know deep to the core of your being that the truths of this place will hold you in good stead for the rest of your lives, but avoid the temptation to project yourselves with hubris and arrogance on those around you. Be humble and hungry always. Wear your experience here lightly on the outside and hold in your heart always the true value of what you gained here slowly, day after day, week after week, trimester after trimester. Take time to be curious, inquisitive, tender-hearted, and open-minded on the path that lies ahead. Have confidence in your ability to to reach beyond yourself, but always have something to prove, or else you are settling for a life of mediocrity that falls short of your potential.

Most of all, remember always that you matter and that you, through God’s grace, are enough. Lean into life without a veil so that you might serve others wrestling with their own struggles with darkness that each of us endures. Understand that we are one band of Tiger brothers, each blessed with opportunities to do a little good every day, and so, as the Boy’s Prayer concludes, “grow more like Christ.” Amen.        


Only a Little Longer

May  20, 2019.      
Woodberry Forest School Senior Shake

The following sermon was given by Dr. Byron Hulsey in St. Andrew’s Chapel on Monday, May, 20, 2019, ahead of the annual “Senior Shake.”

Not long after he graduated from Woodberry in 1974, former chairman of the board of trustees Sion Boney, a man whose love for our alma mater is unsurpassed, was visiting with some family friends who had just driven through the school. Impressed by the beauty and the splendor of our campus, the couple said to Sion that Woodberry reminded them of a country club. “Yeah,” Sion, responded with mock indignation, “a country club run by Nazis.” Sion exaggerated wildly, but I think we can all acknowledge that there are occasions that students and faculty alike feel like we’re in a prison of sorts, denied the conveniences of the world beyond and the full weekends of blissful freedom that for most Americans punctuate the close of the business week or the rhythm of the day school schedule that comes to an end on Friday afternoons.

I’ve recently heard “prison” defined metaphorically as anytime we feel pinched by the twin forces of limited space and unlimited time. But in tonight’s Gospel reading from John, we’re taken back to the drama of the Last Supper, and we hear Jesus tell his disciples, “I am with you only a little longer.” Knowing that he is headed the following day to the cross for crucifiction, Jesus challenges his followers with a “new commandment” to “love one another.” “Just as I have loved you,” he emphasizes, “you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

“Only a little longer.” At this moment in every school year I enjoy reflecting on the essence of time. It is, without question, our most precious resource. Once squandered, it can never be reclaimed. And if prison can be defined as the metaphorical bondage that comes with a heavy sense of unlimited time and limited space, surely freedom might be understood as a clear-headed appreciation of what many seniors and departing faculty might define as the intersection of very limited time and unlimited space. Underformers and even some members of the faculty haven’t truly grasped this. We know we will be back, grooved into the routines of the year to come. Many of us are eager for the end of the year and the sweetness of summer free from study hall, lights out, Saturday classes, evening duty, early morning faculty meetings, and 8:00 a.m. classes.

“Only a little longer,” and a clarion call to “love one another as I have loved you.” The language in tonight’s Gospel resonates with our commitment on the faculty to know, challenge, and love each of you, and our expectation that here you will learn to work hard, build your character, and (perhaps most importantly) take care of each other. These are high-minded ideals, and it’s important to acknowledge that we are a flawed community full of crooked timber, and we do not always deliver on our commitment to know, challenge, and love you. And you have not always followed through with our expectation that you will work hard, build your character, and take care of each other.

Even with our shortcomings, however, I want to convey tonight my belief that the Woodberry community is defined by the kind of love to which Christ calls his disciples. My overriding memory of the class of 2019 is shaped by my belief that you have invested in the best of who we are and the most enduring elements of goodness, decency, and humility that course through the alumni community. Many of these acts of love are not seen by most of us, most of the time. In fact it’s through the underknown folds of the subculture that these forms of taking care of each other penetrate most deeply and leave such a lasting imprint on our community. These acts anchor us with a sense of belonging and rootedness that gives us the courage to take off our masks for each other and live into who we are meant to be. You will surely have your own examples of the kind of love that I’m holding up this evening, and I invite you to take some time, no matter who or where you are in the Woodberry community, to reflect on those times that you were known, challenged, and loved by the faculty and those times when you were taken care of and loved by each other in the way that Christ called on his disciples to love one another.

Many years ago as a young alumnus, I met up with my headmaster, Emmett Wright. At some point our conversation turned to a discussion of friendship and his relationship with John Reimers. He said, “John is a true friend.” I asked him what he meant by “true friend,” and he said, the “kind of friend who, when you call him and say you need help, he doesn’t ask what’s wrong or what’s happening, but says simply, ‘Where are you?’” Not long ago I learned by accident of a group of Mrs. Hulsey’s friends who would gather here in St. Andrew’s Chapel to pray for her health and our family. Unseen, unheralded acts of love that foster rootedness, belonging, and gratitude for the blessings of this life in our community.

I remember a Saturday lunch in a nearly deserted dining hall early in this school year. It was about 12:30 p.m., and one of our exchange students from South Africa was sitting on his own. Two seniors came through the buffet line, and rather than sitting together in the sixth-form section, they took a seat with the fifth-form South African.

A graduating senior came as a new-boy fourth former. You were brave enough to tell me that upon arriving here you were absolutely terrified that you wouldn’t fit into our community. Early in that first week of school an old boy classmate who had already completed his first year at Woodberry approached the anxious new boy and threw an arm around him before saying, “You have a lot ahead of you here. And you’ll either love it or hate it. You need to be who you are, and if you are, you’ll be part of the brotherhood like everyone else.” That act of decency was the first moment that the new boy thought he might belong here, and the friendship these two seniors enjoy today will last a lifetime. The advice “to be who you are” aligns with a comment that one of last year’s seniors shared with me as he described what he valued most about the Woodberry experience. “If you can’t be yourself at Woodberry,” he claimed, “you’re gonna get crushed. But if you can be yourself, you’ll be part of the brotherhood forever.”

Having the courage to take off the layers of our many masks in the presence of each other, is, I believe, the essence of our culture and it captures the best of who we are as an all-boys, all-boarding community. Living with authenticity is a foundational part of personal integrity, and it establishes a fertile field of trust that distinguishes our community. At your best you’ve learned how to do that here, and I applaud the courage it takes to make yourselves vulnerable in the presence of those who care for you. And being who you really are, without guile or pretention, also seeds the field for the unconditional love that Jesus models in the New Testament. We’re called on to take our masks off in the presence of God. I am an Episcopalian, and I am routinely comforted by the opening prayer that marks the beginning of every celebration of Holy Communion in our church: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your name.”

“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Who did Jesus love, and how were they loved? Jesus loved the vulnerable, the misfits, the downtrodden, and the least among us. He loves, as we learned in Sunday school, “all the little children.” But he also loved the social pariahs, the prostitutes and tax collectors. Jesus loved a wide range of castoffs who only had in common the courage to take their masks off to be loved by the Son of Man and to then to share that love in return. Many of you have learned how to do that here, and that has been, in my estimation, a fundamental part of your Woodberry education.

Taking your mask off, by the way, almost never happens in prison. It’s way too risky. Those who are incarcerated in our nation’s prisons have an image to protect just to survive. There’s swagger and hulk and brawn on full display, and the mask that prisoners often project retards their social and emotional growth often leaving them unprepared for life on the outside when they are released. So when any one of us falls prey to the temptation to think that we’re imprisoned through that toxic combination of unlimited time and limited space, we undoubtedly squander the precious gift of time and surrender opportunities for ongoing growth and development.

Moving beyond the water balloons and the irritation that came for many of us on the faculty with the “Senior Skip,” I want to salute the class of 2019. Boys who have yet to make it to their senior year have not fully grasped what many of you can articulate so eloquently. They don’t see time as finite in the way that you do. They haven’t yet understood that the bonds of “Amici” are far more than meaningful relationships between your close friends. Instead, it is the bond that ties together your class as a whole, the connected tissue of groups of boys that once were cliques and are now far closer to a unified whole. You have modeled that oneness for those who have been paying attention, and I thank you.

One of you recently wrote that “the incredible power of the Woodberry bond is in its capacity to turn ordinary events into traditions and ordinary conversations into deep emotional sharing. Woodberry creates a self-sufficient support system on dorm after classes are over. With very little effort and proactive kindness, friendship returns a hundredfold. Sometimes, a simple ‘How are you doing today? You look worried,’ can turn into an all-nighter talking about deep, personal vulnerabilities.”

“Only a little longer.” Your charge, as graduates after this week, will be to take the courage and love and rootedness that you have experienced here to the world beyond, fiercely committed to the kind of unconditional love that Jesus calls us share with each other. Through the love that each of you gives as a husband, father, professional leader, and servant of your community, you’ll be known as a courageous man of faith and a Woodberry boy forever. Amen.       


A Vision for Woodberry Forest


We’re coming to the close of one of my favorite times in the school year at Woodberry Forest—the three-week stint between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Cold nights signal the onset of winter and also generate majestic sunsets over the Blue Ridge Mountains as we make our way to seated dinner. Trimester exams are complete, and the start of any new academic term generates hope and breaks the fever of acute academic pressure. We’ve started the winter athletic season, and boys are excited about their new teams and the contests that lie ahead. And all of us look forward to a restorative break with friends and family as we part ways for Christmas and New Year’s.

The annual candlelight service of lessons and carols in St. Andrew’s Chapel is a highlight of the year, and always reminds me that here we are part of a community and culture so much larger than any of us on our own will ever be. It’s a natural time to take stock in the year, to acknowledge the challenges and difficulties, the twists and turns, and the enduring resonance of why Woodberry matters.

This past summer I re-read Simon Sinek’s book, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. Sinek makes clear that most of us are more comfortable in the realm of what we do and how we do it, routinely losing sight of the bigger picture of why we do what we do in the first place. Sinek’s challenge is a clarion call to individuals, and also to institutions. I’ve often pondered Sinek’s challenge in the context of Woodberry Forest, the one community that means more to me than any other. Put simply, why does Woodberry exist? What is our purpose?

I’m an historian by training, and more often than not find comfort and solace and direction in the past. And when it comes to Woodberry Forest, there’s no better place to go than the school’s first headmaster, J. Carter Walker, who served for fifty-one years. Mr. Walker was very clear as to why Woodberry existed, and his words of wisdom inspire us today. In 1955, he looked out on the grandeur of the campus and wondered, “How is it possible that a school could begin without experience, without money, without any material resources, and acquire the plant it now has, and the reputation it has achieved during these years?” The answer, Mr. Walker understood, was the unbroken commitment to excellence that has shaped the school since the beginning: “Woodberry Forest,” he noted, “was founded upon two principles that are charged with force. From these principles there has been no deviation during the years that lie behind us, and I venture to say there will be none in the years to come. There are tremendously important principles: absolute intellectual thoroughness and moral integrity.”

Intellectual thoroughness and moral integrity are emblazoned on the plaque just to the left of the front door through the Walker Building, and these beliefs are the values by which we live as we construct our academic program and build character and integrity through the Honor System and residential life community. Mr. Walker went further, though, as he reckoned with the question: why? In one of his more inspirational and challenging statements, he noted that “We try to teach that education is training for service to others rather than success for one’s self; to give rather than to get; for sacrifice rather than gratification.” Most teachers and coaches I know are idealists at heart, and we pour ourselves into our students to make the world better through their lives after they leave the school. Mr. Walker knew this, and his charge remains our challenge today. When I scan the world beyond the school, I see communities that need better men of character who are willing, able, and committed to serve as leaders, learners, and citizens.

Presented to the board of trustees this past September, the current vision remains rooted in the school’s past and renews our dedication to graduate boys who understand that they must have a moral purpose larger than themselves. We also make clear, however, that we are evolving, too. We understand that to prepare boys for their future means that we must be more purposeful about developing their ability to adapt and to express the curiosity of life-long learning grounded in humility and poised to make the most of a world increasingly marked by accelerated and occasionally bewildering change.

No one knows what the future will hold. Uncertainty and anxiety seem more prevalent today than ever before. We do know, however, that in the midst of change, moral character will always prevail in the end. And we know that life-long learners who adapt to change will make the most of the opportunities that lie ahead. And so it’s with eagerness and anticipation that we present a vision for Woodberry Forest—true to our past and freshened by the opportunity and responsibility to play a transformative role in the lives of boys who’ve never needed Woodberry more than they do today.

Vision for Woodberry Forest

Since the school’s founding in 1889, Woodberry Forest has sought to develop young men of intellectual thoroughness and principled integrity equipped with the capacity and eagerness to serve as leaders, learners, and citizens. Consistent with the historical founding of the school on Christian principles, we aspire to instill in every boy a deep sense of empathy, an enduring self-confidence buttressed by genuine humility, and an enthusiastic pursuit of life-long learning marked by curiosity and adaptability. Above all, we aim for every boy to enjoy a meaningful life by nurturing his commitment to act upon moral beliefs and ethical values in service to others.