Address to the Senior Class of 2014
Let us raise a toast “To our hale and hearty host!” …. That, of course, is the cheer I imagine being raised at a medieval feast of good King Arthur, as the gathered company settle into their meat and drink [their sandwiches and Gatorade], and the warmth of each other’s company. This feasting, this slaking of thirst, this moment to rest, this gathering, creates a space in between everything else – suspended and beautiful and yours.
Gathering is an ancient, ancient word. It speaks to one of the oldest practices of life: to pull together, to amass, to mobilize, to muster – to collect ourselves. As a species, we most likely gathered before we spoke, we grouped around first fires; we gathered from disparate parts; were ready to disband again. Then we gave this act a word, we gave it shape in multiple languages, signaling this very moment of people drawn together just for a while (a meal, an hour, a night, four years…). In English, its first manifestation is in Old English around the year 900 and it’s a broad word, a generous word – it speaks of gathering and sharing gold, weapons, flowers, lands, thoughts, and people. It’s akin to a word that has become so generous that it’s lost its original meaning. In the oldest of Old English the word “thing” meant a gathering, an assembly [“Are you going to the thing?”] – it became the matter of the gathering [“Did you hear about the thing?”] – and it’s now become one of our most ordinary words [“What’s the thing…?”]. But today, I think of the word “thing” in all its origins of gathering and generosity. When the assembly gathered together multiple nations, it was called, in Old English and Old Iceland, the “Althing.” You are about to participate in an Althing of the 18 nations you come from tomorrow, an Althing of the 536 of you and all of your possibilities and generosities. An Althing that is gathering, even as we speak, people unto you, converging energies and loves and efforts upon our strange little island home of Greencastle, Indiana.
So now, I’d like to invite you to pan out in your mind’s eye (like they do in so many movies when they hover way above the action) and think with me of the multiple somewheres that are starting to pull your family and friends to gather here for you. Somewhere right now, a father is looking for another pair of socks to pack – it may take him longer if he finds that poem you wrote him in 7th grade. Somewhere right now, a mother holds a picture of you in your Little League uniform, looking down at your gap-toothed smile, unable to keep talking on the phone. Somewhere right now, a music teacher or a history teacher or a physics teacher or a gym teacher or an English teacher is reading an e-mail from your family about how you’ll graduate on Sunday. Somewhere right now a little cousin or brother or sister has no idea what’s going on except that “We have to get in the car right now or we’ll miss it!” Somewhere right now, that aunt or uncle you always thought was so cool, thinks you’re so cool. [pause] Somewhere right now, a grocery clerk is helping pack road-trip snacks. Somewhere right now, a last toll before Indiana is being paid. Somewhere right now an airport official is checking a passport and telling your family that the flight is on time and all is well. If we could but isolate the sounds that are being made right now all over the planet for the sake of this gathering we would hear car doors slamming, airplane seatbelts clicking, children squealing, suitcase wheels dragging, grown-ups calling out over their shoulders, travel bags zipping, lipstick cases snapping shut, ties being straightened, breaths caught, sighs rendered, “I love you” and “She did it” and “He’s graduating, honey” whispered.
According to your faith tradition or your metaphysics, we can pan out even farther, to those who will be gathering in spirit – your ancestors, those who watch over you, those who love you so that they are only a thought or a prayer away. If you’re a physics major who deals with time/space continuums, you may even be able to imagine future gatherings of your descendants cheering you on. You are very loved indeed. You are deeply believed in. You are gathered unto. You are worth all the effort of this gathering. And, standing up here, I’ve been seeing you gather unto each other: moving a chair, clearing some room at the table, gladdening each other with a hug or a smile. You are generous in your gathering.
And so to end with a gift. If your smartphone entertains QR codes, you can scan the one on the table, or go to "Medieval Meets World." That’s my blog, my resting place, where I go to gather my thoughts, and where I have an image waiting for you. It’s by a painter named Pieter Bruegel, and it’s of an enormous canvas (5’ by almost 4’) of the Tower of Babel. [Try not to scroll down to the details – let’s walk it through together.] Bruegel painted it around 1563 and it’s in Vienna today – but it’s also right under your fingertips, right beneath your eyes. It’s of one of the most ambitious and, to me, important and poignant, gatherings in the history of humanity. It’s of a time after the flood that Noah and his family survives, but before God’s covenant with Abraham and the declaration of Israel and religion as such. It’s of a time before linguistic difference: when everyone spoke the same language. And an attempt is made to build an impossible structure, to lay brick upon brick, building upon stone crag and cliff, to reach the very heavens themselves – and the story (in Genesis 11) goes that God is unsettled and so says “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
And if we had world enough and time, I’d share with you all of the great philosophical musings on Babel and babeling and on how it isn’t a cause only of tragedy, it can become a claim that our differences ARE our humanity. And I would tell you of what a dear friend told me, that it isn’t always completely something to mourn (this loss of a common language), but rather that it invites our greatest moments of humanity as those in which we seek each other out and gather to create our own common language; that the difficulty of difference is met in the generosity of gathering.
And so I won’t dwell on the unfinished state of the Tower of Babel (closure is over-rated anyway) – instead, we can scroll through to images of gathered efforts.