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Kimberley C. Patton: Orientation Week Noon Service
With the greens of summer beginning to die, autumn is upon us. In the otherworldly, golden light seen only in September and October, and most astonishingly in New England, we prepare to begin again. For every scholar—that's each of you, by the way—who was once "only a student," the early fall I imagine still conjures that primordial back-to-school complex of excitement, nerves, and fresh notebooks. For us professors, I will share with you that it is all that plus a lot of seasonal anxiety dreams about teaching, vivid and unpleasant, some of them much worse than the basic one about having to lecture with no clothes on.
A few of the world's great religious traditions actually start their liturgical calendars in the fall, not in the spring: Eastern Christianity on September 1, Judaism on Rosh Hashanah, which begins this evening—the New Year, a time of apples and honey, of the shofar's call before the purification of Yom Kippur. With its colors of red, gold, and fire, fall seems to summon the energy of the phoenix—Dumbledore's beloved Fawkes, for example, who weeps on Harry Potter's basilisk wound and heals it; Fawkes who envelops his master in flames and saves him from the plots of the wonderfully named Professor Umbridge. The phoenix is a noble bird, which Herodotus tells us the Egyptians believed lives for 500 years, until it begins to deteriorate and the time comes to fly to Heliopolis. There, the phoenix self-immolates in its funeral pyre of spices, burning itself to death. The pyre is also the nest out of which the same phoenix, now tiny and brand-new, is born. This is a threshold time, when it feels as though anything is possible.
New beginnings are necessary for the human soul. We need, periodically, to re-make ourselves. This is how we avoid being dragged under the river of our own history with its all loves, losses, myriad memories: its powerful patterns of habit or perhaps of bad behavior, its midnight buffets of shame or nostalgia. For many of you entering Harvard Divinity School, this time might be an especially thrilling new beginning: a time to become part of the roster and life of a great university, to embark at last on the study of the interests dearest to your hearts, freed from college curricular requirements, to begin your vocation of ministry or of university teaching. For others, it is a chance to fulfill a life dream long-deferred and now realized at last, like finding the Hesperides, the garden of bliss at the far reaches of the world, where the great river of Okeanos flows in an endless circle. But new beginnings like this one, the hour of the phoenix, also have a seductive quality, something beyond mere hope. There is an ecstasy that carries with it the deception that this time, with this new era, everything is going to be different: "when I paint my masterpiece," as Bob Dylan sang. Perhaps this time, we subconsciously think, everything is going to fall into place. Perhaps this time there will be no obstacles and no disappointments—or at least none that can truly impede us. Perhaps we will beat our wings in glory, make only wonderful new friends, write only brilliant, coherent term papers which we will finish in time to revise in multiple drafts. Right. This time we will impress our professors while staying true to our own visions, worship together in peace and mutual understanding, undertake meaningful assignments in area churches and mosques, minister to the suffering in area hospitals without stumbling once or suffering any injury ourselves. We will keep up our yoga and hip-hop and running, eat only organic foods, and always tell the truth. We will consistently speak out against racism and homophobia inside and outside the School. We will self-actualize at HDS, finishing the course to graduation in health and triumph, with our parents glowing and proud grandmothers dabbing their eyes.
This noontime, I want gently to remind us all, including myself, that this is not how life works. Ever. As my funny brother Geoffrey loves to say, "Every project has six stages. First, enthusiasm. Then, disillusionment. Then, panic. Followed by: Search for the guilty. Blame of the innocent. Finally, honor and praise for the nonparticipants." Ain't that the sad truth? The phoenix does not live forever in glory after its wonderful birth. Instead its cycle of vitality is followed by sad decline and smoky destruction. The Buddha knew this, and asked us to contend with the fact that all is in flux, that it is our caring desperately about things staying the same or "working out" that brings us so much pain. Islamic, Jewish, Zoroastrian, and Christian teachings remind us that everything happens in God's time, often in ways that are unrecognizable to us as we strategize, set sail on our projects, and are rudely thrown back by the waves, wondering what on earth God is doing. "My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways," says the Lord in Isaiah 55:8. Native American traditions testify that true healing powers are born only from the hardship of illness, the sorrow and starvation of widowhood, the loneliness of "crying for a vision" on the butte or on the ice floe. It is only then, in extremis, when one is stripped of power, that the Powers are sure to pay attention and grant their gifts.
Every new beginning, no matter how full of ecstatic promise, whether wedding, baptism, or first noontime service of the fall, is eventually tarnished by the complexity of real life. Seduction is always followed by betrayal. Real life must be lived in these perishable bodies we indwell, acted out by these byzantine personalities we all possess and do not even ourselves understand. Real life must be dealt with in this imperfect institution of which we are all now a part, as well as part of a greater world that is at best precarious and at worst downright dangerous. Soon enough our phoenix feathers will begin to droop and fall out. The golden light of the autumn will give way to the dull grey of November and the bitter darkness of winter. Sooner or later this year, something will rise up in each of your lives and in my own to cause disillusionment, panic, frustration, or worse, despair. You may be let down or misunderstood. The professor you came to work with may turn out to be cold or difficult. You may get a grade the likes of which has never tainted your transcript before. The MDiv review committee may not see things your way and you will have to take that semester in Hebrew Bible instead of the third course on the Upanishads you were hoping for; you may find yourself gnashing your teeth as you read about Leviathan and Armageddon instead of about Atman being Brahman. Your CPE assignment might be a nightmare. Your roommate may be unbearable. Your long-time relationship may disintegrate—and this, by the way, will definitely take place during exam period. The magnitude of the break-up will be in direct proportion to the amount of academic pressure you are under. Racism and homophobia at HDS may not be so easily eradicated as you had thought. You may decide you do not want to be a minister or get a PhD after all, to your family's bewilderment. You may fall ill, or worse, someone you love may fall ill and you will be torn between pursuing your degree and love's duty. God forbid, the one you expected would be there cheering at graduation may pass away, and you will come to your bright moment with a hole in your heart.
I say these things not to wreck the party, but only to remind myself and you not to burden this new beginning with expectations it should not have to bear. It is true—I can promise you—that your time here at HDS will not unfold exactly as you expect or hope it will. The past may reassert itself or the unexpected occur, and you will find yourself continually adjusting your course across the waters, unsure why this is being asked of you or why you came in the first place.
But I can also promise you that before you are done at HDS, you will feel satisfaction and even wonder. You will encounter the in-breaking of grace, as well as intellectual and spiritual experiences of depth. You will meet persons who themselves are revelations, maybe the very ones you had written off the first week or month as having nothing to offer you. I can promise you that you will look back on your years here and understand how you were being formed as a scholar or a minister or a human being—how strange angels were shaping you and forging your consciousness. What you thought was so important at the outset was in the end not at all why you were here. You will see that it was something else entirely, something so precious and integral you cannot imagine yourself without it. You will find that you were part of a purpose far greater than yourself, "a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one," as George Bernard Shaw wrote. To borrow a well-known Sufi image, I promise that one day you will contemplate the messy back of the carpet that was your time at Harvard Divinity School. You will notice all the threads that are knotted, frayed, disconnected, or criss-crossing one another to pick up dropped colors. But, you will also see, on the other side of the carpet—the side now visible only to the Great Spirit, but that one day will be shown to you, too—that there was, all the time, an intricate, marvelous pattern being woven of your struggles, your ennui, your self-doubt, and your triumphs, a tapestry of rich color and symmetry. So I say to you, do not dread these messy threads in the rug; expect them to appear and see them without fear. On the other side, there is grace and purpose being woven out of all you will experience here, ongoing and quite unknown to you. The hidden design is your own, unique, salvation.
Let me close with a poem by D. H. Lawrence, who, it turns out, wrote much more of note than Lady Chatterley's Lover, although that was surely his most fun work. This poem has been stalking me for some months, popping up in unexpected places, so perhaps through my reciting it now, it will give me some peace. It is called "Song of a Man Who Has Come Through." This is what each of you will be by the time you are finished here, men and women who have come through. And you will be splendid.
Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!
A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.
If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!
If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!
If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed
By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world
Like a fine, an exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted;
If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge
Driven by invisible blows,
The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides.
Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul,
I would be a good fountain, a good well-head,
Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.
What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.
No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them.