To Be or Not to Be Late to Class
A homily delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
April 5, 2016
Gibson Memorial Chapel
Blue Ridge School, St. George, Virginia
John 15: 12-17
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
Hamlet is my favorite thing to teach, and since we’ve been back from Spring break, my juniors have been awash in that masterpiece’s magic, the poetry, the plot, the characters, the countless themes and interpretations. Just yesterday we were studying what is without a doubt the most famous speech in all of Shakespeare, and maybe in as much in all of literature: Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” where he ponders suicide, ponders the cost of action, the cost of actually making the decision to act, he ponders how every decision we make as human beings creates a new world, and one that causes the old world to fall away. It falls away because we can never go back. He says, To be or not to be, and many people have sought to figure out what he means by that, to make sense of it, to paraphrase that so simple and yet so multilayered sentiment. I’ve come to think, after years of studying the play myself, and teaching the play with my students that the phrase “To be or not to be, that is the question,” can best be paraphrased to. . . Who am I, and what am I supposed to do. . . that is Hamlet’s question. Do I take control or do I let it all unfold naturally? Is the world created FOR me or do I create the world I live in? These questions truly make up the sense of my class from beginning to end, from The Iliad to Hamlet. . . because I believe it is the root of what we each as human beings must do in life. . . we must discern who we are and what we are called to do and be, and then we must resolve to do and be that, and since I am a believer in Christ, and the love he represents and teaches, in the command to love he makes in what was read this morning from the Gospel of John, I believe we need to figure out who we are so that we can then give of ourselves fully to others. To me that is the substance of love.
I speak this morning because it is part of my very being to teach, and to make young people begin to ask these questions, and to see the world they live in, and begin to discern how they, you, each fit. I want to share with you a poem that I wrote just 4 days shy of two weeks ago, on April 9th 2014, on a morning very similar to this. I was walking back from chapel next to Miss Benshoff and we had remarked about how just how peaceful and beautiful it was. I went right away and wrote this poem, which I entitled, “To Bottle the Breeze.” It is there printed in your bulletin. I want to read it through and then work to explain some of the images afterward.
The cool lingers longer in the mountain breeze
Like an embrace when loved ones have to leave,
Holding to the peace of last night, an extra moment
Stolen. The Sun’s sleepy rise brings light later here,
And the slow morning wakes gently. Shadows loom,
But in the gathering light, the night bugs sing
In harmony with the bird’s of morning, and I,
Likewise, feel composed in heavy-eyed industry.
As the morning air fills my lungs, restoring,
Giving life, just like the first breath breathed,
I am, at once, awash in more than self, and see
The world around me with greater perspective,
From this height we can just see more of it,
Though some would say we see less, but if
I could somehow, someway, bottle this air,
Capture this moment, package this feeling,
And give it to the world, much would be healed.
Is it the slowness, or merely the cool comfort
That fills the soul, or is there something more,
A closeness to heaven, in the natural rhythms
Of sunrise and set, unfettered by ticking time?
Ahh, but there is the bell, it calls us to task,
Its toll for me, and I go with others to start
My day, thankful for the prelude, an antecedent
Reminder of myself, as I am, before I must do.
I try to build in this poem, tension, the juxtaposition of two different ideas that seem to be battling against each other, and how this conflict permeates and comes to a head with the tolling of the bell. Look at some of those images of tension: the cool is lingering, because it is morning, but the day will be much warmer, so hot versus cold. . . in that struggle is day versus night. . . the morning is the transition, but the night is not quite ready to let go. . . and I use the simile of parents, loved ones not being quite ready to let go and leave. . . here at boarding school we all know that so well, as your parents drop you off, or your friends visit comes to an end, or that girlfriend departs and you know you won’t see her for some time, you just don’t want to let go. . . you want to steal one extra moment. . . . because since it is going away, you treasure the moment just a little more. . . Next is the Sun. . . even it is sleepy as it slowly rises over the mountains, but the light of the sun is late here because of the mountains and the shadows that slowly disappear, do so, later here, than places where the world is flat. Both the morning birds and the night bugs are singing. . . again transition. . . and in the changeover, the passing of the baton, there is a moment, again a moment of harmony, and then I bring myself into the conflict because I too am fighting a battle. . . I long for the sleep of night, but yet we are starting our day, just one extra moment in bed would be a moment treasured, but alas no, it is time for work, and though my eyes are heavy, it is time for industry. . . heavy eyed industry. . . oxymorons are effective in selling tension. But it is this tension, that seems to awaken my senses. . . the cool air fills my lungs. . . and it awakens me, it restores me, it gives me life, and I find myself connected to the very basics of being human. . . feeling the simplicity of a breath, as people have all the way back to the first breath every breathed, in that prelapsarian world of eden, paradise before the fall, where Adam walked with God, as Genesis says in the cool of the day. . . again there is an image of the tension. . . paradise versus the fall. . . relationship with God versus sin and hiding. . . wholeness versus brokenness. . . being reminded of that tension, reminded of the basics of life. . .connects me to a world much larger than myself, and I achieve in that moment, perspective. . . to see more. . . different angles, different viewpoints. . . real sight. And I’m brought back to the literal, yeah we are up high, we see more. . . if you’ve ever been up on the practice football, the upper one, you can just see forever through the valley. . . but that brings up another tension as well. . . urban versus rural. . . cosmopolitan versus simplicity. . . skyscrapers and cultural elitism versus trees and backwater wisdom. . .we have both here represented in the diversity of our students. . . many strangers would say that here in paradyke we are cut off from the world, and therefore cannot see, but I find if I could show them this moment, I could cure so many of the problems of the world. . . that this beauty could humble the arrogance that causes so much strife in our world.
The last movement, wonders what it is in the moment that inspired me to feel that spiritual connection I feel that has given me this insight into the greater world. Is it the slow, that I lingered long enough to notice. . . or is it just the cool comfort, the fact that the air just feels so refreshing. . . that this wind, the cool breeze, is actually a manifestation of the Hebrew word, Ruach, breath, wind, spirit. . . pneuma in Greek. . . or something more, something close to heaven, something touching nature, the natural morning, the sun’s rise, the light slowly awakening, the harmony of the birds of day and insects of the night. . . is there something to the natural rhythm of life that we miss in our artificial world, the world measured out by the ticking of the clock. . . fetters are chains, but morning still comes with no alarm clock, no measurement of time, instead just the coming of the light. . . it is a question I do not get to answer, because like Hamlet is interrupted by the sweet Ophelia, the bell rings, and the natural moment ends. . . the clock, the chains of the clock, the responsibilities of the day, the requirements of life in society, in community, pulls me back in, calling me to task. . . I call the bell’s ringing a toll, alluding to John Donne. . . ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee, the tolling of the bell is the tolling bell of death, but also the reminder that no man is an island, we are to live in community with others. . . and so we must live in that world, too. I join the others and together we start our day, but no bell can erase the moment, it may end the moment, but it cannot erase it. . . instead the moment becomes like a prelude, the music played at the beginning of the worship service. . . it calls us in, it sets the mood, it centers us so that we may worship God. . . it is an antecedent. . . like the idea that the pronoun refers to. . . the pronoun is the not the noun, at least not fully, but it takes its place. . . representing the whole. . . such are we called. . . and our jobs our duties, define us, but not fully, and it is good to be reminded of that at the start of a day. To be reminded of who we are, so that then we can can do what we are called to do.
There is that tension. . . I worked hard to bring it out in the images. . . between the self of being, and the self of doing. . . many people compartmentalize. . . they have two selves. . . they divide themselves, they live parallel lives, and they are never reconciled, broken and not whole. . . but if you can do what you are called to do in life. . . then you can be what you are called to be in life. . . if you can live as if life were a prayer. . . an act of worship. . . then moments like these can be preludes of forming wholeness. . . and they can give you strength. . . that if rest of the world could just experience such things. . . much indeed would be healed. Who am I and what am I called to do. . . go find out, and be strong enough to resolve to follow that path to the end.
I want to close with one detail of this poem that I have yet to explain. . . and that is that the bell had rung in the poem. . . and I was not in class. . . I was on the way certainly, but I was outside when the bell rang. . . and so was going to be late. Sometimes, such is the case. . . . sometimes things are more important than being on time. . . wholeness and discernment of who you are is always more important, but never let philosophy allow you to gild over your crimes. . . like Hamlet. . . being yourself, your full self is not a path that is of guaranteed ease. . .usually it is quite the opposite. . . so if it is you, you being you, the real you, and you are late, own it, without excuse, without explanation. . . and take whatever consequences come. . .only you would know the difference, but to do otherwise is to hide, to rationalize, to cheapen yourself. . . to return again to brokenness. . . You are on a quest to come to know who you are. . . learn, by any means necessary, and then give of yourself completely, hold nothing back, for this is love in its very fullness. Amen.