On August 28, 2017, we welcomed the newest cohort of students to The Seattle School. The first day of orientation was filled with excitement and curiosity, readiness and hesitation, hope and doubt. In the midst of complex emotions for all involved, Dr. Keith Anderson shared a timely charge that provided both invitation and grounding. Here, we share his words so that we can remember and live by them.
Welcome to this day of a new beginning. You are coming in the front door just as I am about to finish a dozen years here and try to sneak out the back door in retirement. It makes this a historic morning for both you and me. But Welcome. It is also a historic day for Houston and many friends there. Let’s take a moment to be silent and pray.
Well, I arrived early this morning when the building was quiet. It was a time to orient myself to the day, to pray for you. I was here long enough to spill coffee on my new first day of school shirt but then to get coffee with one of our alumni. That’s the best orientation. To remember the telos, the goal, the purpose for our work here.
It is a beginning and you’ve had beginnings before. You’ve been to the start of a new school year before but maybe not like this one. You don’t know me but I love words, the meaning of words, and especially the etiology of words—their origin. It’s a graduate school kind of thing. If you talk about something a bit obscure or out of the ordinary, people think you’re smarter than you might be. So, the word begin comes from an Old English word, “to attempt or to undertake” but it also has background in this powerful notion: it may have origins in compound forms “to open or to open up.”
What do we open as we begin? And, how do we open as we begin? The origin of the word insists that to begin matters. In the ancient world of the Roman Empire, there was a greeting that was used by Rome to keep people in the conquered nations in a posture of submission, feeling small. They were required to greet one another on the street with these words, “Caesar is Lord.” You understand the symbolic meaning of that requirement. The victor nation demands a public act of allegiance to the crown. The Fortress of Antonia, headquarters of the Roman military towered above the Temple site in Jerusalem. We have the power. We have the control. We are “over” you. But the Christians did what Christians always do. The Christians created a subtle subversion by creating a counter greeting which came to be known as the dominium vobiscum—the first person would say, “The Lord be with you” and the second would respond, “And also with you. It is a small act of subversive faith. It is a way of saying—we are not defined as others might be. We know there is Another lord to whom we turn. It was a way of identification, of saying, we’re in this thing together. It’s a way of saying, I did not come to this moment on my own. There are others who carried me to this time and place. There are others who mentored me, challenged me, called me forward, encouraged me, and even pushed me. I did not come to this moment on my own. There is something of the past that walked into the door with me this morning—and with you.
So I’d like us to begin with that today as our own act of faith, our own act which declares our commitment to our God and our own reminder that what we do here today is something we do together. In the presence of Another. The Lord be with you. (And also with you.)
That’s where we begin this morning. And that matters. We open with a subversive act in a world that is very challenged right now. We begin with a declaration of faith. We open ourselves—or re-open ourselves, perhaps, to the possibility of something of mystery encountering us in this place. I will warn you—this is a place of mystery and voice and presence. Too much of higher education no longer believes that. It believes that learning is a matter of cognition only. We believe that learning is an invitation into the deepest places of mind, heart, spirit, and soul. The spiritual life, after all, is a way of being in the world that is open to God and to others. So, you begin today, but we’ve been at it for awhile.
We’ve been busily preparing for your arrival. A couple of weeks the staff spent an entire morning cleaning, dusting, and preparing for your arrival. My task was to vacuum every place in the building that has carpet. If you find a spot I missed, please tell me. We prepared for you to come into the sacred space that is 2501 Elliott. If you thought you would just show up to take classes, this morning is meant to help you know otherwise.
I have wondered and taken seriously the question: “What can I say to you as you walk into the front door of this next part of your life?” Or, better, perhaps to ask, “What are you ready and willing to hear on this morning as we welcome you to this place that has become holy ground for so many who walked into that front door before you?” We all keep a journal of some sort. Some of you write it down in a book. You write things down that seem to matter or at least things you want to remember later. “What will you hear today or this week that you will want to remember enough to return to the words again in your future? What is noteworthy for the journal you will write in your mind, heart or soul today?”
I wrote some words in my journal on an unnamed date and without a reference. I wrote, More is going on that you can see and hear. I don’t know if those are my words or someone famous and important. Since they’re in my journal, I suppose I can claim them. But they suggest a way of entering time and space with an openness, a readiness to see, hear, and, thus to know.
For many years I used to lead a student retreat for undergrad student leaders which we started at the Villa Maria retreat center in Red Wing, MN. The average age of the sisters who ran Villa Maria was about 84—truly. I was in the chapel one day getting things ready for a communion service when one of them came in—hobbled actually. We talked and then she said, “Is there anything I can do to help?” “No,” I said “I’ve got it all prepared.” She started to walk out and then turned back and said with a kind but knowing smile, “Well, you’re right, the place is prepared. We’ve been praying for your time here for many months.” She understood what I was only beginning to see. If you are open to it, this is a holy place, sacred space, and for us all, even a place of prayer.
This space we inhabit right now is called “the commons.” We used to call it “the student space on the Elliot Street floor that is really the 2nd floor between the bookstore and the coffee maker or the room we change from a dining space to a sitting space to a party space that is between the bookstore and the front desk, but near the coffee maker.” We got better with names. It’s now “the commons.” You might be able to tell that I like to pay attention to the meaning and origin of words. They tell us more than we might otherwise see or hear.
Common spaces are, on the one hand, ordinary places. Places where life gets lived every day. Places that aren’t extraordinary. Places that don’t usually stand out in a way that you notice, they’re just…common places. In this space lots of people eat lunch or don’t eat lunch but is a place where they pause and sit every day. Common places are also community places where people meet together, congregate and gather, a kind of neighborhood we inhabit together. The word commons came from circa 1300 AD from Old French and originally meant, “belonging to all, general.” It also meant public from the Latin word for in common, shared by all or many, and interestingly familiar, not pretentious.
The word doesn’t exactly create a lot of pride in something as ordinary as that, does it? Common, ordinary, not pretentious, public, not specific, just familiar. What of great importance could possibly happen in ordinary time or in ordinary place—in something labelled as unpretentiously as “the commons?”
You already know I’m leading you down a rhetorical path to somewhere I think we should go together. I want to say to you that it may turn out after all, that the most important things that you will hear, the most life transforming things that will present themselves to you will happen in ordinary time, in common space when you’re busy on your way to something else. In the commons we come to understandings that we did not have before, or did not know them until we came to meet them on familiar chairs in ordinary time. In the commons we might even be met by a voice and presence we took for granted, lost along the way, or thought we might have grown beyond.
What if it’s true that “more is going on that you can see and hear.” What’s going on? We won’t know until understanding meets us when we need it, but, here’s the point, what we share in our commons is now our story, as Wendell Berry says, “It is the story of our place in our time.” And, most profoundly, it is a story that began long before we came to this time, one that will continue long after we are gone.
The mystery that God is here in voice and presence in the commons: it is infused with the unseen, the extra ordinary, and the enchanted. North Americans like to think either rationally or interpersonally; those from the global south also think about what cannot be seen but what is present nonetheless. I have 7 grandchildren who still believe the world is enchanted, infused with spirit, and a place where remarkable things will appear. When I see them they put things in my hand with solemn sobriety because they are important. Zachary is 4. Just before we had pizza a few weeks ago, he said, “Baba…baba…and he showed me a precious artifact that he carried with him from the deck of the house to place in my hands.” “What is it, Z, I asked?” He simply smiled and gave me a small stone. But it was a smile that said, “Now, you and I both know because we have seen it together.” What is it? That was my adult question. His look told what he knew—more is going on than we can see and hear. In the commons.
Of course, it’s not all joyful enchantment. Flannery O’Conner wrote, “You have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.” There is honesty in those words that come from the hard experience of life. There is wisdom in those words that is more than wry irony. To Cherish and struggle.
In the commons of this building and in the common places of the year ahead for us all will be times to cherish, worship, honor, celebrate, laugh, rejoice, laugh some more and practice hilarity. But you know the rest—in the unfolding of time, there will be moments to struggle, grieve, lament, shed tears, and suffer in order to endure even those times when you feel out of place or lonely, or even ashamed or afraid. And, because this is a place of education, it is a place where your mind will be stretched, your thoughts will be too many, your ability to process new ideas will seem to be at its capacity and you may even wonder—“what happened to the world I used to know—the ideas that I brought with me into the door on August 28?” I need you to know this as you begin: it takes courage to enter the front door of a new beginning in graduate education—it takes courage to stay in this place. If you came to simply stay as you were, I can promise—you will struggle mightily in this place. If you came to simply get a degree and move on to something next, I can promise—you will be surprised everyday that this work is so demanding. It takes courage because you join a community that believes deeply—learning is too important to let it be easy. Your mind is engaged, your soul is encountered, your spirit is asked to grow. William Yeats, the Irish poet once said, “Education is not the filling of a bucket; it is the lighting of a fire.”
So, welcome. I am glad to greet you in this place, this room, this commons. I invite you to practice the suspicion that something more is going on than we can see and hear. I invite you to practice holy listening in this, our story of our place in our time. And, I pray most deeply it will be the story of how we learned to say thanks in the commons, for the commons in community. And one final word of orientation from Jeremiah the prophet.
Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 9:23-24)