As part of The Seattle School’s 19th Commencement ceremony, a student from each degree program was nominated by their peers to share reflections on their time at the school and the transition into the next season of life. Here, Carrie Cates, who received her Master of Divinity, invites her class to keep singing with the song of the spheres. She speaks of home and the return, now that the adventure has come to an end.
If you know this song, will you sing it with me? My voice is going to crack, and it’s okay if your voice cracks too.
My life flows on in endless song,
Above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear that music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
The ancients used to speak of the music of the spheres, the music of Universalis, this cosmic ringing—the song of the cells of the planets and of the stars and of all the things that we cannot see. What does dark matter singing sound like? What does a black hole sound like? What does the sun sound like? It has a sound.
And they said it fell noiselessly on human ears. Or did it? Because if that sound and that song was ever silenced, we would know it immediately and our own silences would be put to shame. And of course, in response to this sound, there came the music of humana—the music of humankind, the necessary reply: voice to voice, heart to heart, song to song—that way for humanity to participate in the things that are bigger and greater and beyond us.
When we reach out through song in that way, we touch the eternal. We touch the unseen. We touch those things that are around us that we simply cannot perceive and yet are so very there. And I bring you this song today — “How Can I Keep from Singing?” — because I ask you: how can you keep from singing?
You have come to this place with your broken and silenced voices. And the voices who were off-key. And the voices who rang out clearly but had no heart. And the voices that were intact and were pure and were good. You have come here with those voices, and they are good voices. You have done so much work, and through it all you have gone singing into the dark night. You have gone singing into the work of the spheres, the unseen cosmos of yourself, the music that is within you, the music that is irrevocable that cannot be ignored and cannot be denied—because you have heard what the unseen sounds like and begun to know your own voice. You are doing this, graduates.
And I think now about the story we are telling. Beau has spoken to the call to adventure, the call to swim, the call to the unknown. And Mary has spoken of the descent and the holy Saturday and the silence. And so now it would be appropriate to speak of the return. Where are you returning to? Really, where are you going home to? And where is home? Is it a place? Is it a person? Is it coming home to yourself? Is it that small voice beckoning inside of you to come closer — that small voice ringing out, waiting for your harmony? Where is home? Where are you returning to?
And when I ask where is home, it makes me think how indefinable that is. We long for that home that is almost as wide as the cosmos — in God, or others, or the relationship between us. It’s something we can’t quite see or feel. And yet, we are called to participate in this earth, in this time, in the realm of the visible. We are called to follow the homecoming song that we are hearing with our own voices and respond with our broken hallelujahs.
I remember the verses from Hebrews, sometimes called “the hall of the saints.” It says that by faith, all these people of God (unassuming, strange, peculiar), all them responded by faith. And you have done the same: in faith you have done the same. Well done, good and faithful servant.
But I think of Hebrews 11: “All of the ancients died in faith without having received what was promised to them, but from a distance perceived and greeted those promises. They confessed that they were strangers and refugees on this earth. For people who speak in this way make it clear; they are seeking after a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land they had left behind, there would have been a season for them to return. But as it is, they burn with longing for a better country that is a heavenly one. And therefore, God is not ashamed to be their God. Indeed, God is preparing a city for them.” Indeed, God is preparing a homecoming for them.
Now what do home and song and the music of the spheres and the music of you have in common? I contend that there is a song that is calling you forth. Keith has reminded us time and time again that vocation is from “vocare:” to call out. It has to do with the voice; it has to do with calling and responding. And you graduates, you are being called home. And it may not be a place you arrive at soon. You may dream of a far country without reaching it yet, or maybe ever. And yet you have to do this. And yet you have to go singing into the dark night because you believe. Help your unbelief. You must do these things because you have been blessed and you have been prepared and you have done the work.
And when you sing the song only you can sing, you join the symphony of the spheres — the song only God can hear right now. And you join the unfolding music that we will someday hear in the land of the living. The heavenly country is not the country in a celestial, faraway place. The country of heaven is the new heaven and the new earth here, that you are being called to create.
As you go singing into the night, as you go singing towards your homecoming, I hope and pray for you that you will hear tiny voices, muted voices that say, “Are you there, and will you sing with me?” And I know you will know when you have come home. And I suspect that, like the hero’s journey, this is but the beginning and ending of a cycle. This repeats and repeats and repeats. There are always beginnings, and there are always endings. We stand on that strange threshold where this is an ending, and yet it is a beginning.
And you are pilgrims. You are singing pilgrims going forth into the land of the living. And when God asks, “Son of man, daughter of man, can these bones live?” you say “yes” and sing with the Spirit over them. You will do these things.
You have done such great work, and I urge you, I exhort you, I encourage you, please keep singing. We need your voice. We need your cracked and broken and beautiful voice. And as you sing into the void, there will be responses. We will answer you back. And in this, we sing with the music of the spheres and the music of humankind and the music that no ear has heard. Create a new sound. Sing the song that is only known to God and yourself, and you will come home again and again and again. You will begin again and again and again.