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.       


The Journey Ahead

Screenshot 2018-08-28 13.12.49

“Look Further” by Spence Whitman ’21 is a water color and colored pencil on 8 x 11 inch paper. It appears in the Spring 2018 issue of The Talon.

The following is the Opening of School Address to the Woodberry Community in St. Andrew’s Chapel on Sunday, August 26, 2018

This summer my family and I made the trek to New Zealand and Australia and on one unforgettable day we journeyed three hours into the waters of the Pacific onto the Great Barrier Reef for a magical afternoon of snorkeling in the company of dozens of species of fish and spectacular coral formations. Though I’ve never owned a boat or been on a cruise or even spent the night on a seafaring vessel, I’ve always been drawn to the water and the beauty and magnificence of the open seas.  

And I’ve begun to believe that the start of any school year at Woodberry Forest is not unlike a great ship embarking upon yet another voyage across the oceans. Over the summer months the ship has been restored and renewed by our extraordinary staff whose work is often unseen but whose devotion to our school knows no bounds. Dorms have been cleaned and made ready for your arrival; Hanes Hall has been renovated into a magnificent dormitory for sixth formers; the post office and and student store are open for business. Each of us is on his or her own adventure, a journey or a quest into the vast unknown.

As we prepare to push off from the dock, we’re aware that some of the faces from previous journeys have changed. The class of 2018 has graduated, the class of 2019 is now leading the school, and we’ve welcomed 127 new boys on board. We mourn the death of twenty-year veteran Jim Robertson in the dining hall, just as we celebrate his life and give thanks for the gift he has been for us. Two long-term members of our faculty retired at the end of last year; several others left to take on opportunities beyond the school; new teachers and coaches have joined our community for the journey ahead. As we greet old friends and meet new ones, we’re a cauldron of swirling emotion: excited, anxious, scared, overwhelmed, and, in some cases, already missing the lazy days of summer. I love the start of a new school year: the anticipation is thick with possibility and the canvasis blank for each of us to leave our mark on the moment that we have, fleeting though it may be, to leave a legacy for the next voyage a year from now.

The anticipatory excitement I have about the school year is tempered by an awareness that uncertainty, disappointment, and difficulty are inevitable. We’ll travel together through the hottest days of August through the bleakest and darkest days of January and back again. You’ll have tests, quizzes, and papers that might feel overwhelming. Friday night study hall and Saturday morning classes may cause you to question why you’re here. Sixth formers may not be accepted into your first choice college. New boys will surely struggle through bouts of homesickness. Very few of you are likely to play on an undefeated team, and some of you may suffer through a very difficult loss or endure an injury that you never wanted and certainly didn’t deserve. The seas ahead will be rough and stormy, and you may on occasion wonder why you ever stepped on the ship.

Given the perilous uncertainties of the journey ahead, what sustains us? How do we know that we will prevail? Each of us will answer those questions differently, and for many it will be some combination of faith, family, and friends. Part of becoming a man is wrestling with the demons that exist in each of us so that we might come to know, as Lincoln famously offered in his first inaugural, “the better angels of our nature.” It’s important for each of you to know that even though you may on occasion feel lonely, you are never alone here. Every boy in the Tiger Nation has a team around him who wants each of you to make the most of the journey. But for us as a larger community, I want to focus this evening on the power of culture and the resonance and constancy of what we know as the Woodberry Way.

The most important and most distinctive gift for the journey ahead is the trust that has been freely extended to each and every one of us here at Woodberry by those who’ve come before. Mr J. Carter Walker, Woodberry’s first headmaster, was unwavering in this belief, making clear that the “Honor System rests upon the conviction that boys want to be honorable andwant to be trusted.” He went even further and stated, quite radically in my opinion, that “it is a fundamental right of every boy to demand that he be trusted and that his word be accepted at all times and by all persons.”

I want us to reflect briefly on the essence of trust and to consider how rare it is in the world beyond and therefore how even more extraordinary it is to us at Woodberry. The trust that we enjoy is an undeserved gift from every alumnus who cherishes his journey here as the most formative of his life. Trust is akin to a kind of secular covenant between us and the alumni and former faculty and previous headmasters on whose shoulders we stand today. When it is real and more than mere rhetoric, trust makes the school unique as we aspire to a kind of oneness that binds us all together.

I urge you to care for and nurture the gift of trust as one of the most most precious and priceless that you will likely ever receive. Now that you have received the gift of trust, you are responsible for exercising it thoughtfully and judiciously, understanding that it is the foundation of your character and the bond that ties you to your brothers and to us on the faculty. With trust in ourselves and each other, greatness is within our reach. Without it, we are doomed and our community will be cheapened. Trust is the engine that makes us far greater than the mere sum of our parts.

Trust is the essence of the brotherhood that connects each of you to one another in equality as a Woodberry boy. Earlier today I shared with the parents of our new boys that we on the faculty have renewed our annual pledge that every boy under our care will be known, challenged, and loved. Trust makes that goal attainable, and that goal becomes actionable when you have the courage to trust us enough to allow yourselves to be known, challenged and loved. Old boys know that we call on you to work hard, build your character, and take care of each other. When you trust and are trusted, working hard, building your character, and taking care of each other become more natural and the school gets stronger and the brotherhood thickens for the journey ahead.

I thought a lot about trust when I read Beartown and assigned it as the headmaster’s book for summer reading. Throughout the book I was asking myself a question that I’ll pose to you: What kind of community do you want to live in? Like the residents of Beartown, we all know the comfort and belonging that we feel when we’re connected to friends and family we know and with whom we’re bonded. We know the thrill that comes from rivalry games and a tribal belief that it’s us against them and we’re David battling against Goliath. Many old boys and veteran faculty know the positive power of community expressed through the help we draw from one another when we’re down and the support we can give each other in a time of need.

But a healthy community can turn rotten at its core when it calcifies into an impenetrable inner ring that won’t allow for difference, that can’t have itself questioned, that demands loyalty over truth, that champions worldly success and material riches over character and integrity and that demeans the courage that Amat summoned in Beartown to act on the hard right over the easy wrong. Beartown captures the best and worst of who we are as individuals and as communities, and I call on all of us to be mindful what we’re doing this year to be a vibrant and open brotherhood of all and for all, shaped and forged by values like truth, integrity, grace, empathy, and curiosity.

To all 127 new boys who come from all over the nation and the world, as well as to our new faculty, a heartfelt welcome. A special word of welcome in St. Andrew’s chapel to our new chaplain, the Reverend Tyler Montgomery. I hope that each of you comes to know Woodberry as a second home, a community shaped by place and defined by values that are bigger than we’ll ever be, a culture that empowers us to trust one another, gifts us with the grace to be trusted, and provides foundational beliefs that call on us to be bigger and more noble together than we would have been on our own.  

As we look to the horizon, we don’t know what the future holds, but we’re fortified for the work ahead by the 129 years at our back and the culture that we’ve inherited. We’re the beneficiaries of more than we could ever count or even completely understand. And we’re humbled by the fact that for the journey ahead we’ll have our chance, our moment, to leave a legacy and shape a message for those whose names we’ll never know but who will benefit from the oneness of our brotherhood in the coming years.

We have pushed off the dock and the open seas lay ahead. Our journey will be ours and ours alone. The values and ideals of Woodberry Forest, however, are constant and they are timeless. And the mission remains the same: embrace intellectual thoroughness, live into moral integrity, practice good sportsmanship, hold dear a reverence for things sacred, and, on the voyage, take down St. Christophers and beat Episcopal.