Return to Program and Remarks
Donald R. Eastman III
September 8, 2010
There is no more challenging audience for a serious talk than this one, which ranges from the youngest freshman (who is 16 years old, by the way) to the most wizened faculty member (you can debate who that is). My subject today is ceremonies, and why we have them.
Let us take as our texts for today, these three:
First, from Deuteronomy, 6:4-12: The Book of Deuteronomy is a series of addresses by Moses to the people of Israel as they emerge from their journey in the wilderness and are about to enter Canaan, the Promised Land. After giving the Israelites the ten commandments, Moses admonishes them to remember and be grateful for all that has been provided to them by the work and virtue of their ancestors and prophets:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
Secondly, from W. B. Yeats's great poem, "A Prayer for My Daughter," in which the poet is wandering the moors of western Ireland, excited and terrified, as everyone who has just become a parent for the first time is, or should be:
Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
But Gregory's wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack- and roof-levelling wind,
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.
I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come,
Dancing to a frenzied drum,
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.
The poet's howling storm is emblematic of his troubled mind, his hopes and dreams and worries and wishes for his infant daughter – the kind we all have for our children and others we love. He prays for a number of things for her future and culminates in this:
And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all's accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
And third, this, from John Updike's magnificent story, "Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, A Dying Cat, A Traded Car," which ends the story as a kind of benediction:
My father traded in many cars. It happens
so cleanly, before you expect it. He would
drive off in the old car up the dirt road
exactly as usual and when he returned the
car would be new, and the old was gone,
gone, utterly dissolved back into the mineral
world from which it was conjured,
dismissed without a blessing, a kiss, a
testament, or any ceremony of farewell.
As you may quickly surmise, each of these vastly different forms of narrative art proclaim the essential human need for remembrance, and for custom and ceremony as essential elements of not simply individual happiness, but of what it means to be fully human.
At Eckerd College, our essential ceremonies are the Ceremony of Lights; Convocation; Baccalaureate, and Commencement. In each of these ceremonies, we try to do two things: We mark the pivotal points of the school year for our students, and we grapple, one way or another, with the ancient conundrum of faith and reason so dramatically posed by the church-related liberal arts college: "What does Jerusalem have to say to Athens?"
As a child of the 1960s, when the world began to fall apart with the assassination of President John Kennedy in 1963, through the deceptions and debacle of Vietnam, and the murderous resistance to civil rights for black Americans which enveloped all of the South and much of the Nation, I came late – as no doubt many of you did as well – to an appreciation of either "tradition" or ceremony – having lived with so many "customs" that served to deaden rather than enrich the human experience. In those days, our country seemed so often to have forgotten its bounty, to have taken its riches so much for granted as to have no recollection of the patrimony provided to us by not only Abraham and Issac and Jacob, but also Washington and Jefferson and Franklin. Let me read the Biblical admonition again:
When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
And this College, also a child of the Sixties, for so many years asserted that its primary tradition was not to have any. Our College culture was in a formative stage when the disappointments of Vietnam and Civil Rights and Watergate led to Abby Hoffman's dictum not to trust anyone over 30, and for some of us that meant not to trust any institutions at all.
As our alumni age and our students change, we have softened our stance on that a bit, but I understand fully the impulse to mistrust the paralyzing potential of ceremonial routine.
And yet . . . and yet . . . though it has taken longer than it should, I have slowly learned the virtue of those markers we call ceremonies, in both our individual and institutional lives, whether they are baptisms or bat mitzvahs, weddings or funerals, birthdays or graduations or anniversaries, and what I have mostly learned is this:
Families and institutions have a story to tell – as the old hymn puts it, "a story to tell to the nations." We have, as families and as institutions, a story to tell of our values, our beliefs and our goals – and it is at our ceremonies through the words we say and the songs we sing and the awards we give and the character of the people we honor – that we have explicit occasion to tell those stories and proclaim those values. What those ceremonies not only induce us, but require us to do first, is tell those stories and proclaim those values to ourselves. Ceremonies require us to remember (Elie Wiesel's first mandate of the educated mind), to witness, and proclaim.
You will see – once again – our values on display today as we honor staff and faculty for their exemplary work, and as we introduce new members of our community who we believe will share not only our workload but also our vision of providing the best possible educational experience for our students.
But tradition, in its best sense, provides not simply the occasion of ceremony or the discipline of custom. It is tradition that saves us, if anything can, from the tyranny of impulsive response to the immediate, the momentary, the transitory. W. B. Yeats's line about "arrogance and hatred are the wares/peddled in the thoroughfares" has never been more apt, and his question, "How but in custom and ceremony/are innocence and beauty born?" has never been more compelling.
The bagpipes that led us to this annual Convocation celebrate the tradition and heritage of the Presbyterian Church, established in Scotland in 1572, and recognized as an unparalleled force for universal education and democratic governance ever since.
We celebrate in this Convocation not only our coming together on this day in 2010, but our coming together with our past, founded by the Presbyterian Church as Florida Presbyterian College in 1958. We celebrate each year at this ceremony, simply by marching in to the skirl of the pipes, the vision of our founders, Kadel and Bevan and Lee, and many others, in their white polyester short-sleeve shirts and skinny black ties and heavy black-framed glasses, standing on the thin layer of sand and sand spurs over mud and fill-dirt, we celebrate their updated version of what the Reformation was all about – which was to take God out of the closely protected monastic cloister and put him in the streets and homes and classrooms of everyday life. This is what Jerusalem has to say to Athens, and it is still what we stand for and have worked to do, every day, ever since.
We celebrate at this Convocation this faculty, and this staff, and these students and those who support us through philanthropy and service – but we celebrate also the faculty and staff and students and supporters who have come before us here, and will come afterwards. We celebrate our corporate life with those who have made this College a place we revere for the values it teaches and lives it enriches, and we renew our pledge to add – and not subtract – from the heritage and the story we now have for our own. Eckerd College, as Updike says of America, needs ceremonies to remind us of the full sense of our great enterprise together.
Robert Frost once described poetry as "a momentary stay against confusion." At their best, our ceremonies provide at least a momentary epiphany about our work, our purpose, and our community.
Welcome students, staff, faculty and other friends: Welcome to the 51st Convocation of Eckerd College. Today we begin our second half-century of work together. May you find here, as others have before you, a community of scholars dedicated to education in the service of building a better world.