Uncomfortably Real: An Orienting Welcome to Students and Parents

(Note: The following is a talk given by Harmel President Dave Phelps to incoming students and their families during Orientation 2023)


Might we start with a prayer your sons will get to know well in the next several months?

Our Lord is working here and now. 

Let us join him with joy and thanksgiving. 

Glory to God in all things. 


Let us pray.

Lord God, in your abundant love you created the heavens and the earth, and from your Son’s availability to do your will, you fashioned the salvation of the world. Help us always and everywhere to be attentive to your presence, hungry to do your will, mindful of your love, thankful for your gifts, and joyful in our every task, through Our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, world without end. Amen.

St. Joseph the Worker, pray for us.

Men, Dads, Moms, Siblings, Family Members, Friends,

My name is David Michael Phelps, and I am the president of Harmel Academy of the Trades. On behalf of our faculty, staff, our many friends and supporters, our collaborating shops, and our alumni, please allow me to say: Welcome to Orientation 2023 for Harmel Academy of the Trades. 

My first task today is to welcome you — welcome —and my second is to kick off orientation. So let’s orient ourselves, shall we?

One way to understand Harmel Academy of the Trades is to say it is a Catholic men’s trade school. This is true enough, and it is, in a sense, the quickest way to say what we are. But like so many things, the quickest way isn’t always the best way.

While it is certainly true to describe us as a Catholic men’s trade school, it is truer yet to describe us as a community of work, prayer, and study. And if we were to push for even a bit more clarity, it would be important to note that we are a place of formation for young Catholic men, and that the tools we use for that formation are community, work, prayer, and study.

It is important that we make these clarifications for several reasons.

First, as T.S. Eliot said, in our end is our beginning. It is your goal which defines the direction in which you strike out. It determines your first steps. If you don’t have at least a sense of what target you’re shooting at, you’re probably not going to get anywhere near hitting it. You also need to have a sense of where you’re going if you ever want to keep sense of where you are. You need a point of orientation, a way of telling which way is east, which is, of course, what the word orientation means literally.

There will be plenty of times in the next several months where each of us — students, parents, faculty, staff — will have moments, small or large, of disorientation. Perhaps the work schedule will wear on us. Or the study will frustrate us. Or our roommate’s greasy work clothes will pile up in the corner, despite repeated requests for him to tidy up a bit. Perhaps your notion of work in the trades will be a little less romantic once you bloody your knuckles for the fifth time, or pull a muscle in your back, or learn what rancid coolant smells like, or have a coworker chew you out for the first time, or not get hired after your first or third interview. Etc, etc, etc.

But in the moments of disorientation, I like to remember something written by one of my favorite artists — a man of tremendous skill, insight, and erudition named Neal Peart. (He also happened to be the drummer for history’s greatest rock band, Rush. Change my mind.) Peart wrote a book called The Masked Rider which details a bicycle trip he took around Africa. In the introduction, he notes that adventures like this one are wonderful in two ways: in the anticipation of them in the future, and in the memory of them in the past. In living them in the present, however, adventures often aren’t so wonderful. “Reality,” he wrote, “has a tendency to be so uncomfortably real.”

Reality has a tendency to be so uncomfortably real. Fellas, whatever you’ve imagined by joining this community, and whatever memories you have of it once you’ve left, there are certain to come times in the real experience of being here that will be uncomfortably real. But this is part of becoming who you are made to become. Mom and Dad, this is part of you watching your son become who he was made to become. 

So in those uncomfortably real times, you need to have a way to orient yourself, to remember what we’re here to do: to be formed into the image of the Crucified Christ — in our particular ways, in our particular time, and in our particular work. Remember, gentlemen: you are here to be formed — in fact, to be cruciformed.

So yeah, at some point, it’ll probably be uncomfortable.

But here is the Good News — none of you is called to encounter “the uncomfortably real” alone. First, to be formed by God is precisely to be formed in Christ. Our formation has a ground and prototype in Jesus Christ. He has already walked the road, you might say, and he is with you, next to you, closer to you than you are to yourself. 

But secondly, when Our Lord draws us into himself, he draws us into the community — in fact, the Scripture calls it the Body — of believers, the Church. Christian community is in a real sense the expression of Christ’s closeness to you. 

Now, if you’re like me—and I know I am—then you may not exactly—how shall I say it?— ”like people.” Community is a part of reality that, for me, is especially and keenly uncomfortable. My wife is fond of reminding me (rightly) that my social skills are underdeveloped, and that my antisocial tendencies need a regular dose of party-going, even if it amounts to three hours of awkward corner standing and anxiety attacks. The reality is that community is a gift, and for some of us, it is a medicine—a sometimes sour but ultimately healing medicine. 

I say all this about community because it may be easy for you men—and especially those of you for whom community is more like medicine than macrons—to think that community is a bi-product of what we’re here to do, and you may be tempted to think that community life here at Harmel is something for you to take or leave. 

But men, it is important that each of you understand that, in a very real sense, you are not here for you. You are here because Our Lord has a gift to offer the men he has gathered here in this community — a unique and unparalleled gift, and that gift is the singularity that is you. You must be willing to invest that gift in others, because Our Lord has graces to give by and through you being you in your community. You are a real gift, and the community comes to be what it really is by you offering that real gift.

So first, we orient ourselves by remembering this is a real community.

Second, this is a place of work. We’re here to get to work, to learn to work, to grow in work, and ultimately, to learn how work is a primary path of our formation in holiness. St. John Paul II taught that the path to the Cross — and thus to our redemption — went through the workshop of Nazareth, and thereby sanctified it. Work is not simply, or even primarily, a means to make money. It is not even primarily a means to serve our families and our neighbors. By the fact that Our Lord Himself worked — and sanctified work — and now invites us into collaborating with him in the creation and redemption of the world — work has become one of those places “where Our Lord is.” And just like St. Thomas in the Gospel, we should always seek to be “where Our Lord is.” 

What’s more, work occupies a central place in the great redemption of creation on the Cross — since, as we all know (but far too seldom notice) that, first, Our Lord invites us — rather, commands us — to unite ourselves to him as he offers himself to the Father and all creation in tow behind him, and that, second, he starts out this work not with the fruit of the earth alone nor the fruit of the vine alone, but with the fruit of the earth and the vine and the work of human hands, taking up the offering of our very work, and elevating it into his very body, blood, soul, and divinity. Our work is part of the core human drama whereby God himself enfolds us into his love and divine life. Work is a chapter in the story of deification itself. The offering of real work has a part to play in God’s real presence to his people.

So work is a serious thing. It is a powerful thing. And therefore it is important that we learn to do it well—with skill and attention, with intelligence and intention, with responsibility, and ultimately with love. Work is rewarding, but it is also hard—of course it is! If it is a part of our salvation like we just said, it is part of the Way of the Cross. 

So, there is real work to be done here. That’s a second point of orientation.

Third, this is a place of prayer. And this may be the most important aspect of what we strive to be because while we are here to work — to learn to work and to work — it is very easy to fall into an error, the error of thinking that the work to be done is primarily our own, and therefore its rights and responsibilities are primarily our own. We are, in a very real sense, not our own, and our work is, in a very real sense, not our own. The work of creation and redemption is our Lord’s, and if it is to be the occasion of holiness for us, then we need always to have our eyes firmly locked on the Master to whom we have apprenticed ourselves. And this is easier said than done, especially when so much of the world — in the workplace and without it — seems hellbent on distracting us from this reality.

And let’s be a little gentle with ourselves — the reality we are describing is not so obvious. It isn’t like we see the full reality of our work in front of us—its full role in Christ’s salvation of the world. We have to gain the eyes to see it. And this takes practice. It takes learning a rhythm. It requires us to continually, gently, and in all things, draw our eyes back to Our Lord, our attention back to Our Lord. It takes prayer. In all things. At all times.

In fact, Harmel has a distinctly Benedictine flavor to it since we strive to see prayer as distinct from our work, but not to see our work as distinct from our prayer. Real prayer is the core of real work. We strive, like the Benedictines, to find the ora in the labora, the prayer in the work, as well as in those times that are, and must be, dedicated to prayer alone.

But this goes beyond simply reciting prayers. Whether in those times dedicated to prayer or on the shop floor, we seek real prayer. And although recitation is often a first step toward real prayer, please know that if you’re here just to go through the motions of the prayers, you’re not really getting it. We will all stumble time and again, but it’s essential we remember: real prayer is what we’re after. We’re all beginners, and none of us here are masters in this regard, but if you’re not interested in real prayer, even a little bit, then you’re in the wrong place. It’s something we all have to keep in mind every day, even and especially those of us who serve as presidents.

Real prayer. That’s a third point of orientation.

Lastly, this is a place of study. Now, I will readily admit, although I know my fellow faculty will gladly rib me for it, that the study here is, in some sense, the least important part of what we do here. We are here to be a real community, to do real work that we might learn real prayer. So what then does our study here — which is robust and rigorous — have to do with all that reality? After all, isn’t so much of modern education so thoroughly removed from real life? Why take time to study the old thoughts of dead people printed on thin slices of dead trees?

Well, if you think that when we talk about study here, we mean something like that, you’re deeply mistaken. That is not what study is, not real study. The French philosopher Simone Weil — whom some of you will read in about a year and a half — noted that study’s primary value was not to give us ideas or knowledge, but to teach us how to pray. What a strange thing to say. How can that be?

Well, what is study, in its core and initial steps? What are we doing when we are really studying? Whatever real study is, it cannot be accomplished without a cost. And what you pay when you study is attention. Learning to pay attention is the prerequisite to prayer—as it is the prerequisite for all meaningful human action. 

And as we mentioned a few moments ago, if there is one thing the modern world seems most intent to steal from us is our attention. This is because the devil knows that without attention, we cannot pray. Without attention, we cannot be present, and the present is where God is. So the devil wishes to steal our attention, to help us to spend our attention on grievances of the past, or anxieties about the future, or whatever itching nonsense we so desperately want to look at on the screens of those precious, precious palantirs we carry about in our pocketses. 

Therefore, we must especially safeguard our attention, nurture our attention, and build our powers of attention—for it is a power. And study—real study—is one of the very best ways to acquire this essential skill of being human called attention.

Now, something curious happens when you exercise this human skill, when you learn to really study. If you really study the right things, you get to benefit from the deep attention of others — you get to look through the eyes and think with the minds of people who are not you. Not only are your powers of attention — and thereby your capacity for prayer — strengthened by real study, but real study gives you access to the study of others in their own quest to be more human, their quest to acquire a greater and greater share of the humanity God designed for them, and intended them to share with you. And this is, by the way, why those bits of reflection on our humanity itself — that loose collection of subjects we call “the humanities” — can be so beneficial to us. The study of the humanities can help us not only know more about what it is to be human, but they can help us actually become more human, especially when they become shared—across time or across the lunch table.

(I’ll say in quick passing, however, that it is also very easy to miss the point of the humanities, and one’s mastery of the methods of the humanities is no guarantee of one’s moral quality. As a former English professor, I know this by much experience, both relational and personal. Many of the Nazis were very learned and cultured men, but that didn’t stop them from being Nazis.)

So, through building our capacity for prayer and by being the occasion to share our humanity with one another, real study can give us an insight into real life. That’s our fourth point of orientation.

But that real life only blossoms in a real relationship with our Lord, most especially in prayer, but as importantly in our collaboration with him in our work and in our communities.

And so, Harmel seeks to be a place to bring this all together, to integrate all this into a whole: a community of work, prayer, and study. This is what we’re here to do. This is the goal. This is what needs to orient us. A Catholic men’s trade school? Yes. But a community of work, prayer, and study? That’s closer to what we’re doing for real.

Now, all this is lovely enough said in an orientation speech. But to do it for real, that is what you are being tasked with. And it is what you are being tasked with because as of today it is your community, your work, your study, and your prayer. It is yours to do for real. This will be what you make of it. You must do this. For real. 

So gird yourselves, fellas. Reality has a tendency to be so uncomfortably real.

A final couple of thoughts, specifically for the moms and dads. Mom and Dads: please know how seriously we take the trust your sons are giving to us as those tasked with stewarding the community they are here to build. As institutions go, we’re still very young—in fact, we’re not very long out of our diapers—and we still make plenty of mistakes and trip on our own feet from time to time and we’re still learning how to eat our vegetables. 

But know that we see our roles as that of stewards of the good work you’ve already done and continue to do in the formation of your sons. Now that they are men and must take up the burden of their formation upon their own shoulders, you may find that we will be gently encouraging them to stand on their own two feet as often as possible and in as many ways as possible. Please understand that, when we do this, we do it precisely to help them build on the foundation you’ve laid, not to undercut it or undermine it. 

Of course, moms and dads are moms and dads forever, and I would never dream of asking you to be anything but. But as your son experiences the real reality, the uncomfortable reality of being  a man, of living on his own, of navigating the challenges of community, work, prayer, and study, I hope you will continue to support him by helping him always to see that the Lord has placed a path in front of him that he must be the one to walk—with your advice, sure (when he asks for it); with your support, of course, (when he needs it); with your prayers, absolutely (even and especially when he doesn’t ask for them). But please, before you go today, and regularly when you speak with him, help your son always to see that he can face every challenge of the coming months with grace and competence and initiative and stick-to-it-ive-ness precisely because it is in those challenges where Our Father may be looking to form him into the image of His Beloved Son.

(And boys, if you don’t call your mom and dad regularly so they can do this for you … well, there’ll be hell to pay.)

Thank you all for being here, today, this year, and for every year beyond this one, since the “here” that is Harmel is, as of today, you. Harmel Academy is not this place, nor this staff, nor a school. Harmel Academy of the Trades is now you, and I am very thankful to be able to see the grace upon grace the Good Lord will give us all by bringing you here.

So thank you, and have a tremendously great year.

Let’s pray.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us sinners. And glory to you, O Lord, in all things and in all ways. Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and every shall be, world without end. Amen.

St. Joseph the Worker, pray for us!

Share This Post