Sermon for Encaenia 2012admin | 16 June 2012
“In the world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer,
I have overcome the world.”
At last, the last chapel, the last day, the last year! Encaenia. Graduation. What does it mean? Simply this. You are on your own, kid! At last, I hear you say! At last, I sense your parents saying, with a sigh too great for words, Yes! Today, you step up and step out! In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, you will no longer be students but alumni of King’s-Edgehill School, “pure and prepared to leap up to the stars,” as it were. You are on your own, kid!
That may be a frightening idea! No one to prod and push you, no one to coddle and carry you! And it can be altogether frightening especially in the face of a rather fearful and uncertain world, economically and environmentally, socially and politically. But that would be to lose sight of everything that has gone into this moment and milestone in your life.
Because, fortunately, it is not just about you. So much that has been accomplished and done is wonderful and worthy of note, to be sure. It enrolls you in a company of hundreds and hundreds of others in the parade of generations that have gone before you. You are not so much alone now as part of a much larger company. That is the profounder reason to rejoice and give thanks. It means to give thanks for what you have become through what you have embraced and made your own. It is only possible through what has been set before you. And that is altogether about the formation of character, about the ‘you’ that you are becoming.
There is a paradox to this day. Encaenia is the word for this service, even as commencement is the word that belongs to the ceremony that follows. Both words speak of beginnings rather than endings. Both words point us towards the honouring of principles that last, the principles that inform the life and purpose of the School. Encaenia is a Greek word (εν & καινο), referring to a dedication festival, to a renewal of a sense of purpose and identity, that came to be used at “the annual commemoration of founders and benefactors at Oxford University in June”(O.E.D.) and, by extension to many other schools and colleges throughout the world, such as King’s-Edgehill. We are all part of something much larger than ourselves. And that is part of the poignancy of our gatherings today. It all begins to come home to you and to us on this the last day of your high school experience.
You are on this day the pride and glory of your parents and your grandparents and, to be sure, of your teachers and coaches, your Headmaster and Chaplain. We who are about to die salute you. Oops, that’s not quite what I meant, at least not literally. We are simply both glad and sad to see you go. We have been through so much together whether it has been one year or seven. And, marvelous to say, even if it has been 35 years! It is your graduation day, to be sure, but Esther Mosher is graduating with you, in a sense, after 35 years of teaching. Make no mistake, no teacher is a teacher unless they are also students, constantly learning. This the Mosh knows! For sixteen of you, this has been your home of learning for more than a third of your life!
You are on your own, kid! And, yet, what you take with you is what makes you. And that has very much to do with what has been set before you in the life of the School. We have laughed and cried, danced and run, prayed and sung together. We have listened and shouted, prodded and pleaded with you. There have been the tough times and the fun times, the agony and the ecstasy, as it were, artistically, athletically and intellectually, whether it was on stage in Grease or in concert band and choir, whether it was on the rugby pitch, on the basketball court, on the ice, on the soccer field or in table tennis, whether it was ‘IB out of here’ or ‘IB forever’, whether it was English or Math, History or Physics, whether it was in debating or public speaking. There have been lessons learned through sheer determination, through disciplined application, and through trial and error, constantly learning from our mistakes, itself one of the conditions of learning, as Simone Weil reminds us.
There have been the stupid times, too, but let’s not go there! Suffice to say that there are always lessons that are yet to be fully learned. Lessons ultimately about yourself. To say that you are on your own is to say that you have made the grade, that you are ready to step up and step out and to take your place in our world and day. It is about self-mastery and respect.
It requires education, an education that counters the natural narcissism of youth. Growing up is not easy, especially in a culture of adults wanting to be adolescents teaching adolescents who are becoming adults, the culture of ‘look at me looking at you looking at me’. Self-mastery can only happen when we get beyond our self-obsessions and absorptions and find a way to face the fearful uncertainties of our world and day. No one ever said it was going to be easy. It means coming to terms with yourself in an honest and reflective way.
Education is transformative, or at least it should be, “a sea-change into something rich and strange,” as Shakespeare puts it in The Tempest. He uses the word, strange, repeatedly not in the modern sense of alienation and separation but in the sense of awe and wonder, a change into something more and better which happens in part through the encounter with ourselves in our sins and follies. It is a kind of marvel, even a miracle of grace. Alonzo, coming to terms with his betrayal of Prospero, remarks that “this is as strange a maze as e’er men trod,/ And there is in this business more than nature/ Was ever conduct of. Some oracle/ must rectify our knowledge.” I would like to think that is what this School too is about, the constant challenging of our assumptions and the constant rectifying of our understanding. For “there is in this business more than nature.”
It means the encounter with strange things – the things of awe and wonder that are opened out before you. The lesson which Clara read is the wonderful story of the encounter between Abraham and Sarah under the shade of the Oak of Mamre with the Lord in threefold aspect as three angels or three men. An exquisite scene of oriental courtesy, Abraham hastens to prepare a feast for his guests, and stands by and serves them. It is the scene of the promise to Abraham and Sarah that they will have a son, the promised son, through whom the generations of the world will be blessed. Abraham and Sarah, of course, are quite old. Sarah, hiding in the background, overhears the promise and laughs. Hers is the laughter of mockery at what seems utterly preposterous. The laughter of Sarah reverberates down the centuries in all of the forms of our cynicism and despair at the possibilities of transformation and change, of learning. The encounter brings out the power of ideas that have in them “more than nature.” It challenges the shallow cynicisms and cheap mockeries of every age. Confronted by God about her laughter, however, she ultimately conceives.
The lesson which Fede read, too, signals a change and a new outlook, a way of facing the fears and uncertainties of every age. “In the world ye shall have tribulation,” Jesus says, but then goes on to say, “but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” It is a wonderful phrase but I fear we easily misinterpret it. It does not mean we are released to a mastery and domination of the world, manipulating nature for our own ends as if it were so much dead stuff and all of it there simply for us and for our consumption. No. The overcoming of the world here is about how there is something “more than nature” at work in human lives and that the material world, too, is only thinkable when it is seen as part of something greater. It is, simply put, God’s world and that is itself a counter and a check to our technocratic hubris. It means, too, that we are something more than the slaves of nature. The world and our humanity are found in God. Once again there is something “more than nature.” “You raise me up … To more than I can be.”
If self-mastery does not mean the mastery of nature in this modern sense of destructive dominance neither does it mean mastering or beating up on one another. Perhaps you know the story of the two archaeologists, the one Greek and the other Egyptian, who were arguing over who came from the more advanced ancient civilization. The Greek says, “While digging in Corinth, we found copper wires buried under the village. This proves we already had telephones in the sixth century BC!” To which the Egyptian replies, “That’s nothing. In Giza, we dug under the ancient village and found no wires at all, thus proving we had already gone wireless!”
As if technology defines advance; as if absence is evidence! How easily we deceive ourselves.
“Some oracle must rectify our knowledge.” Amin Maalouf’s marvelous novel, Balthasar’s Odyssey, set in the context of fears about an impending end of the world in 1666, deals with the interrelation of Jews, Christian and Muslims, involving respect and knowledge of one another’s religion. At one point, there is a marvelous conversation between the Christian and the Jew about what is the most beautiful precept of Christianity. The Christian says it is “Love thy neighbour as thyself”, to which the Jew replies that before it was taken over by Jesus it is found in the Jewish Scriptures, in Leviticus. He goes on to say, that he is dubious about that saying since he has heard it quoted more often by wolves than lambs, such is the hypocrisy of man. The most beautiful saying to be found in any religion, he says, indeed the most beautiful that ever issued from the lips of man is one spoken by Jesus, not from the Scriptures but issuing, he says, from his own heart. “Let him who is without sin, cast the first stone.” Such a statement and such insight belong to self-mastery and respect.
Through the strange and wonderful things that have been opened out to you, we hope that you attain self-mastery. Like Virgil to the pilgrim Dante, we “crown and mitre you o’er yourself” and pray God’s grace upon you, hoping that like Caliban, you’ll “be wise hereafter and seek for grace.”
You have all become quite dear to us. Adios, Adieu, Grüß Gott; in short, Go with God. “But be of good cheer,” for come what may, “I have overcome the world.”
(Rev’d) David Curry
Encaenia, June 16th, 2012