How readest thou?
How do you read? What, reading? You mean, like books? I thought that was all over and done with, you might be thinking, as in Alice Cooper’s 1972 hit song “School’s Out”:
School’s out for summer
School’s out for ever
School’s been blown to pieces…
This was long before such things as the shootings in Columbine, Colorado, and its sad and continuing legacy right up to Parkland, Florida, and more. The song includes the old familiar jingle of uncertain provenance:
No more pencils
No more books
No more teacher’s dirty looks!
Out for summer
Out till fall
We might not go back at all!
Well, you will not be coming back here in the Fall, for you are done.
“Accomplished and concluded so far as in us lies,” as an ancient Eastern Orthodox prayer at the end of Mass puts it. Finished. IB done! High School’s over! Or, at least, almost. In just a few hours, you will step up and step out no longer simply as students but as having made the grade. You shall be, quite literally, graduates and alumni of King’s-Edgehill School. Today you are the pride of the School and of your families and friends. You made it! “You shall go out in joy,” as Isaiah puts it, in the passage which Arturo read, and even “the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” All wonderful metaphors that belong, well, to our reading.
So does this day really mean that you are all over and done with reading? I hope not. Because what we have so often talked about is reading as living, about thinking as a way of being. As a 13th century tutor at Oxford advises: “study as if you were to live for ever; live as if you were to die tomorrow.” My hope is that you will always be students, that is to say, those who are always eager to learn.
You have come to the end of certain stage of your life but such endings are equally beginnings. As Heraclitus wisely notes, “the way up and the way down are one and the same.” It is all about being recalled to the principles that define and guide us in our living. That is the point of this service called Encaenia, which is a Greek word referring to a renewal of purpose and identity. Originally a annual dedication of holy places, it has become associated with “the annual commemoration of founders and benefactors at Oxford University in June” (O.E.D) and, by extension, to academic institutions derived from the medieval universities of Oxford and Cambridge throughout the English speaking world; even such places as King’s-Edgehill School here in Windsor. We are recalled to foundational principles and ideals that remind us that we are part of something greater than ourselves.
How do you read, then, is the question, the life-long question, raised in the passage from Luke’s Gospel which Meredith read. It follows immediately upon the question, what do you read? “What is written in the law?” Jesus asks the lawyer. How you read is inescapably bound up with what you read but it also has an extended sense. What did you read at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, King’s, Acadia, Dalhousie, Queens, etc., etc.? meaning what did you study? Reading here takes on a much greater meaning.
The word actually refers to our knowing as in ‘how do you really know or understand?’ Oh no! Not a ToK question! Well, not just a ToK question but a question for the institutions that concern our intellectual and spiritual well-being. In other words, a reading or a knowing that is about our thinking and our doing. Nowhere is that better concentrated for us than in the celebrated and familiar parable of the so-called Good Samaritan. I say ‘so-called’ because nowhere is the “certain Samaritan” in the parable actually called the Good Samaritan, yet that has become the common term and I think rightly so. In a way it is all about the Good, about how we think the Good. A reading that is about ethical living.
Can you be taught to be good? It is an ancient question, one raised by Plato in The Meno and elsewhere and by Confucius in The Analects. “Can virtue be taught?” Meno asks Socrates who replies, “how can I know if it can be taught when I don’t even know what it is?” The Greek word, ‘arete’, signifies virtue, a quality of excellence of character that belongs to the truth and dignity of our humanity, to goodness. Confucius uses the term ‘ren’ in much the same way as a quality of what it truly means to be human. “Is Tzu-lu ren – good?” he is asked, to which the Master replied, “I do not know.” Another person named Yu might be good at military matters, “in a country of a thousand war-chariots,” he suggests, “but whether he is ren, I do not know.” Qui might be good at political matters “in a city of a thousand families,” he says, “but whether he is ren, I do not know.” Ch’ih might be good in matters of hospitality and courtesy, “but whether he is ‘ren,’ I do not know,” the Master said. Ren or arete, being good, is not simply about having this or that skill set. It is more a question about character. And like the parable of the Good Samaritan, ‘ren’ implies benevolence, a willing or a seeking the good of others. The love of God and the love of neighbour are inescapably intertwined, bound up in the idea of the Good. “This do and thou shalt live,” Jesus says. It has to be alive in us in our thinking and our doing.
We can be taught about the Good, it seems, but to do the Good always rests with each of us individually and collectively. At best we have the illustration of benevolence and compassion towards one another which leads to the ethical imperative: “go and do thou likewise.” The parable shows us the ethic of compassion required in our lives with one another. We are all near to one another, neighbours, especially in our global world. But what does that mean if we ignore what is inescapably local?
The challenge is always how to do good for one another. How you think the Good is the question that is always present in the nitty-gritty of our everyday lives. It is the pressing and necessary question for our world and day. It is very much about how we think about one another and ourselves. That has been an integral part of your education and experience at King’s-Edgehill and I hope that such ideas will stay with you and grow within you. Gentleness and learning are very much about humanitas, our humaneness or ‘ren’. It is about our participation in the goodness of God.
And books? Well, “of making many books,” the most philosophical book of the Hebrew Scriptures, Ecclesiastes, reminds us,“there is no end;” just ask Amazon – “and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” But they mark, too, the beginning of the quest for wisdom as Gilgamesh, in the oldest literary work known to our humanity, The Epic of Gilgamesh, shows us. He brought us the story of the time before the flood, a story engraven on clay tablets, a story that he learns only from the death of his dear friend Enkidu that moves him to reject hedonism, the philosophy of physical pleasure, in order to pursue wisdom in the quest to question Utnapishtim concerning life and death. That is how the whole journey of reading really begins. It is altogether about the discovery of the things that belong to humanitas, to a sense of our humanity found through friendship, both human and divine. “Fear God,” Ecclesiastes bids us, “for this is the whole duty of man,” the whole truth of our humanity. “I have called you friends,” Jesus says, in one of the greatest passages about our participation in the Good.
Closing times are bittersweet times, perhaps more than you realise. We have been through so much together as students and teachers, coaches, headmasters, and chaplain. We have laughed and sung, prayed and cried, run and danced, shouted and screamed with and, no doubt, at one another. We have read together. Many of you have stepped up to read in Chapel, some of you for the first time, others more often, like Michael Hilborn, who has read so powerfully and with such understanding. And so many others of you who, as Chapel Prefects and servers under Korolos’ outstanding leadership – Cameron, Michael, Tessa, Ella, Meredith, Cesar, Liam, Humberto, the list goes on, not to mention the three amigos at the altar of Gregorio, Ignacio and Jorge – all of you have made the morning miracle rock and roll. We have all been very much in one another’s faces; at times, perhaps, too much! Just so, you have become very dear to all of us. We are at once glad and so sad to see you go.
It is not just you who are stepping up and stepping out and leaving the school. With you are leaving certain members of our faculty who have read and laughed and cried and sung with you. We shall miss Mr. Paul MacInnis and Mr. Manny Avila and not just in Chapel where their voices shall greatly be missed, particularly Mr. Avila’s, but also Mr. MacInnis’, especially ever since a headmaster once told PMac that he never wanted to see him not singing in Chapel! How readest thou as singing no matter how badly or well! We wish them all the best in their future endeavours and thank them for their labours.
“What happens on the road stays on the road,” you have frequently been told about sports trips and other ventures. Not so with our studies and our classes; not so with chapel. How readest thou is precisely about how your reading and thinking carries over into your actions and life. Such is the burden of this great parable and the burden of your years here at King’s-Edgehill, whether it has been one year or seven. What you have ‘read’ and thought here is part of who you are in one way or another and will continue to shape you even in times of adversity. Such is the nature, as Shakespeare in As You Like It puts it, of “the good in everything.”
We wish you adieu, adios, auf wiedersehen, Gruße Gott. Go with God, engaged in the reading and thinking that shapes an ethical way of being and doing. Have a good summer ‘reading break’! You knew I was going to say that! And think the question:
How readest thou?
(Rev’d) David Curry