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Present in Specificity, and Well Poised at the Threshold
The following words are an address to HDS's graduating class of 2006, presented at the Commencement Worship Service in the Memorial Church on June 7, 2006, by Stephanie Paulsell, Houghton Professor of the Practice of Ministry Studies. Her text was Augustine's Confessions, XII.15, 18, and Psalm 84.
What a very great pleasure it is to greet you and to receive with you the offerings of our graduates in music, word, and dance. It is typical of the class of 2006 that, even on the eve of their commencement, they continue to show us what is possible when a community of diverse commitments and practices takes shape around the study of religion. Arriving here just as we were beginning to grope our way toward curricular change, these students quickly became our collaborators—not only by sitting on committees, responding to drafts of new curricula, and speaking up at town meetings, but by doing the work they felt most necessary to do. I think of the MDiv student whose understanding of God's hiddenness was profoundly shaped by her work with incarcerated men and women hidden in prisons at the edges of our society. And the MTS student who pursued field education every semester because he believed that learning to learn in more than one kind of context would make him a better teacher, a better scholar. And the doctoral student whose long and disciplined attention to a particular question opened countless paths toward new questions not only for herself but for the MDiv students she accompanied through the writing of their senior papers. Members of the class of 2006, we have watched you breathe in what this school has to offer and exhale it transformed, having passed through your bodies, your lives, your questions, your hopes. Time and again, you showed us that there might be even more to what we call "theological education" and "religious studies" and "learned ministry" than we had yet imagined.
One of your lasting contributions to this community, I believe, is born from the critical attention you gave to the place of worship in our common life. Unsatisfied with attempts to pray together that tried to smooth out the differences between us, but impatient with the idea that we ought to give up on gathering for prayer altogether, you pressed us to risk being present to one another in all our specificity. From the weekly Wednesday noon services to occasions like this one, you have urged us to be who we are: to offer undiluted words and gestures from our many faiths and to receive with gratitude the words and gestures of others. You helped us learn to sit patiently with discomfort in the face of unfamiliar beliefs and practices and to open ourselves to the beauty of faithfulness in all its forms. We are Muslims and Christians and Jews and Buddhists, we are Unitarian Universalists and Hindus and humanists and atheists and more. There is very little in the way of shared religious belief or practice that can be counted on among us.
But despite all the complexities of gathering such a community in a religious space with religious words and gestures, we still seem to feel that our life together ought to marked by religious language—indeed, multiple religious languages—both in the ordinary mid-week moments of the semester and extraordinary moments like this one. I am glad of that. Where else could we find language—and I include here the language of the body with which Harshita has so eloquently addressed us—rich enough to honor the questions by which we have been possessed here and the relationships by which we have been blessed? Where else could we find words and gestures to regard the mystery of human beings transformed through study, through conversation, through service, and through love with the awe it deserves? Language, of course, is a fragile bridge from which to reach out to one another, and religious language perhaps most of all. But I am honored to stand with members of the class of 2006 among the words and gestures and music of the traditions they cherish and to offer something from my own.
When I thought of what Christian words I might set down next to a grateful prayer to Lord Shiva for the privilege of learning and teaching; a modern Buddhist exhortation to remember that even the most intellectual practices are material, embodied; and an American poem about the way shattered fragments of light seem to draw us toward a new kind of wholeness, I thought of the great African bishop, Augustine of Hippo. He, too, lived among dazzling fragments; he, too, believed our thinking and our living were inseparable; he, too, had his life changed by a teacher who, if he didn't exactly teach him to dance, did teach him to move uninhibitedly among the many meanings the practice of attentive reading can produce.
Augustine also knew what it felt like, after years of study, to have more questions than when he started—which is perhaps a feeling you also know well. At the end of this semester, I read a paper by a member of this class in which she admitted she would leave HDS with "questions and questions and inexpressible circling contradictions." I don't know if the admissions office will want to advertise this, but let's be honest. Our studies in religion are risky. They don't always bring us to the kind of clarity we came to our studies seeking.
What Augustine wanted out of his studies was nothing less than to see the face of God. He looked for God everywhere—in philosophy, in friendship, in conversation, in the rhythms of the natural world, but especially in the words of scripture. And the words that most preoccupied him—at least for a time—were the opening chapters of the book of Genesis, the story of God's creation of the world. He held those chapters in his hands, turning them over and over, holding them up to his ear like a seashell, lifting them up to the light. He ran his fingers through their verses, picking at the knots, separating strands, braiding them together with other bits of scripture, trying to find among the syllables of time something eternally true.
The face of God remained elusive. But Augustine did find, as he sifted through the days of creation, an image that I think speaks to our work together as students of religion. When he reads that, on the second day of creation, God stretched out a firmament between heaven from earth, he finds there an image for scripture itself, stretched out like a skin over all of us. And when he reads that, on the fourth day, God created stars and set them in the firmament to shine, Augustine thinks of us: students, teachers, readers, clinging to the firmament of scripture with both our hands, trying to see through its veil.
The angels live above the firmament; they have no need of books, even holy ones. God's face, Augustine says enviously, is their book. We human readers, though, need that firmament, need to cling to it, find a foothold in it. But no matter how holy our books, no matter how carefully we read, no matter how many meanings we unearth, we can't read like the angels. The firmament of scripture helps us draw near to God, but it also separates us from God. It brings us to the threshold of the place we hoped to arrive, but it also stops us there, suspended at the place where heaven and earth meet.
As your teachers, we hope you've had experiences like Augustine's experience of reading Genesis while you've been at the Divinity School. We hope you have found yourself possessed by a text, a question, a politics, a project—something that kept you up late talking with your friends, something that called you out of sleep in the morning. Something you've held to your ear like a shell and looked at in every kind of light.
And if you feel, as you prepare to leave HDS, that what you came here seeking still eludes you—whether that be the face of God or a vision of ministry that illuminates your own vocation with perfect clarity, or a politics that will make it easier, as Dorothy Day once put it, for people to be good, or fluent reading knowledge of Sanskrit, or a pedagogy that will allow you to reach every child in your classroom, or even just that one methodological move that will make your theory of religion click into place—if you feel that you only made it as far as the threshold of what you hoped to discover in your studies, we hope you have also come to feel that the threshold is a good place for a student of religion to be: a public place, where your hopes and aspirations and your expertise meet the hopes and aspirations and expertise of others. On the threshold, our questions, and our answers, are still likely to catch on the jagged edges of the world.
"Let us break our bread to the hungry and bring the homeless poor to our house," Augustine writes. "Let us clothe the naked, and despise not those of our own flesh. . . . Let us appear like lights in the world, clinging to the firmament of your Scripture." In the interests of full disclosure, I must tell you that the ellipses in this passage mask the fact that what Augustine actually says is "Let us feed the hungry and shelter the homeless and clothe the naked" and then let us move from what he calls "the lower harvest of action toward the delights of contemplation." All this really proves, it seems to me, is that Augustine did not do his field education with Dudley Rose. Because, as those of you who did study with Dudley know, it never works like that. We don't finish our work of caring for others and then ascend to higher study. Nor is it helpful to descend with what Anne Monius famously called from this pulpit our "fancy-pants Harvard education" to straighten everybody out down below.
Working at the threshold of our deepest questions and the world's fiercest hopes, our faith and the faith of others, the study of religion and the practice of religion, this nation and other nations with which we share this earth—working from any of the many thresholds at which you find yourself poised is much more difficult, much more complex, much more vulnerable and infinitely richer work than moving in one direction only, up or down. Don't give up.
The pilgrim we hear singing in the psalm Nathan Williams read for us also has something to teach us about arriving at a threshold and finding one's lifework there. Like Augustine, this pilgrim longs to see the face of God, to enter the courts of the Lord. This pilgrim sings to us of whole bands of pilgrims converging on Zion, traveling on roads that are not only beneath their feet but in their hearts. They get stronger and stronger with every mile. Water springs from the earth where they pass; they renew the land itself with their desire. "The God of gods," the pilgrim sings with confidence, "will be seen in Zion."
But in the midst of all this vigorous striding across valleys and highways, the pilgrim introduces the possibility that this pilgrimage might not take him all the way into the presence of the glory of God. Possibly, he will end up, like the stars in the firmament, at the threshold, neither wholly inside nor wholly outside. If so, the pilgrim won't complain. "I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God," the pilgrim sings, "than live in the tents of wickedness." Even the most longing of pilgrims may find that the threshold, a place of movement, of coming and going, of change, is destination enough.
It is traditional, at the end of this service, for the faculty to meet you on the threshold of this church. Usually, we meet you just outside the door, at the intersection of everything that is inside this place and everything that is outside it in the great, struggling world. Because of the rain, I think we will not even make it as far as the threshold! But once we've offered you our blessing of applause, we will walk back with you to Andover Hall underneath the great firmament of the sky, stretched out like a skin over everyone, everywhere.