Wednesday, September 5, 2012
“The Mountaintop and The Level Place of Wisdom”
Opening Service for Faculty
The Reverend Jonathan A. Voorhees
St. Joseph’s Chapel, Kent School
4 September 2012
I, like many of you, experience a profound and unsettling awakening to every new school year. It’s not very pretty, this personal preparation, and every end of summer is slightly different. I certainly won’t bore you tonight with some of the more neurotic elements, especially the truly bizarre school dreams that come to me as the days of August peel off the calendar. It is a strange time of reentry where feelings of inadequacy are normal, even though I’ve been doing this for a while. It’s just that I really know what I’m getting myself into. I think it was easier when I didn’t. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t hope and beauty and idealism in my reentry to my vocation as an educator. There is. It’s just all wrapped up together.
This summer I watched the inner battle as a dialogue, or argument, specifically between idealism and realism. My inner dialogue is usually not so well-defined, philosophically. For instance, the founder of Kent School, Father Frederick Herbert Sill, wanted the boys of Kent to experience the monastic ideal of spiritual discipline and contemplation. For much of its history, Kent had chapel eight times a week, sometimes as early as 6 AM, including on the girls’ campus beginning in 1960. As chaplain, I am responsible for exposing students to the Transcendent, the Otherness of the holy, ancient mysticism, the Bible and Jesus, ethical teaching and how to choose the good, and, well, let’s call it the existence of God. Wow, that’s amazing. The reality is that we are teaching teenage students who are, actually, addicted to their i-phones, who expect instant gratification, and are totally saturated with technology and social media in a culture that is much less religiously defined. Despite the beauty of St. Joseph’s Chapel, this is not a home field advantage.
Idealism and realism. Father Sill wanted the boys of Kent to retreat from the world, in a way that mixed Sparta with the rule of St. Benedict, the result being something called muscular Christianity, if you can imagine that (of course, this condition had nothing to do with girls). I learned from Jesse Klingebiel’s chapel talk last year that Father Sill purchased the land for his ideal experiment very cheaply here because the iron industry had devastated the environment of Northwest Connecticut. The ideal and the real do strange dances together. When I first arrived at Kent eight years ago, the monastic ideal was dramatically more present because there were no cell phones. The students had them, but they were useless, wonderfully useless. Kent, Connecticut, did not have a cell tower then. If I were an anarchist priest, I know the first thing I would do. If I were Don Quixote, I know where I would find my first windmill.
During a Theology class last spring, my students were responding to the themes of realism and idealism in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. Terrible people did wonderfully in life, and the idealists were the sore losers in the end, with incomplete philosophies and broken dreams. Also, the realist got the girl. Yet the realists of the film were not worthy of emulation; they weren’t remotely heroic. During our discussion, a student brought up the question of who are the realists, and who are the idealists, among the Kent faculty. I took a step back and waited for the fascinating discussion that was about to flow. This was going to be interesting. Who are the realists among us? It’s going to be the Math Department, right? But they’re always in chapel, very idealistic. Not the Science Department, they’re too ecological. Maybe someone from the History Department, possibly Mr. Ober, a faculty member with realpolitik foreign policy. Instead the students were completely stumped. We had a long but thoughtful silence. Don’t be afraid of those in class. They were interested--they understood the terms of the question, but they could not proceed. Until John Dong explained the problem this way: “Think about it. You’re all teachers. That means that you’re all the idealists. We’re the realists, the students.”
With John Dong’s explanation in mind, I did something new as I prepared for the new year; as I prepared for tonight. I did something very idealistic. I started making trips to the Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York. The founder of this school was a priest and a monk in the Order of the Holy Cross, where they still pray five times a day. So I went looking for Father Sill. I really didn’t need to, realistically, since he’s buried right outside my window—he and I have some interesting talks. The Holy Cross Monastery is only 42 minutes away by GPS, and I have made cell phone calls from the monastery grounds, so I might be more of a realist than you thought when I began this sermon.
As the idealist and the realist in me bickered over the last weeks of August, I came across a book whose title shut up both of them: The Pope Who Quit. Subtitled, A True Tale of Mystery Death, and Salvation, by Jon M. Sweeney. In the two thousand year history of the Church, there has been only one pope who quit—just quit, who simply walked away from the job after only fifteen weeks. The man was Pope Celestine V, formerly Peter Morrone, or Peter the Hermit, and he didn’t want the job in the first place. The people who knew him found him to be holy, courageous, simple-minded, naïve, physically powerful, spiritual, out of touch, and saintly. The truth is that Peter was a lot like Jesus, and he found God more in nature rather than in conventional church buildings. Today we would certainly call him an introvert. His time as pope is a little like the movie Being There with Peter Sellers. Or there is the recent Italian movie from 2011 called We Have a Pope, about the election of an unlikely spiritual cardinal as the new pope. The newly elected pontiff begins to suffer panic attacks, and a full-time therapist is brought in to bring the reluctant pope to his throne despite his fears, anxiety, and overwhelming sense of inadequacy.
But the story of The Pope Who Quit is an unbelievable true story. When Peter Morrone was elected pope in 1294, he lived in a cave on the top of a mountain in Italy. Though he lived as a hermit, Peter was not without administrative experience and ecclesiastical accomplishments. He had founded dozens of monasteries in his lifetime, but he always retreated to his mountaintop to worship God; to actually be with God in the moment, not just in the afterlife. His entire existence was about a sacred play with his God, and a pitched spiritual battle with the demonic forces of the world. Though in perfect physical condition, he was also eighty-five years old when he was elected pope. It took the Vatican party ten days of hiking and climbing to reach Peter the Hermit. I like to imagine what was going through the minds of these cardinals, bishops, priests and acolytes, as Peter made them all into Appalachian Trail section hikers, going straight up. Peter had been notified of the climbing delegation by one of his monks, and he was absolutely horrified with the news they were bringing to his high perch on the top of the planet. Because of the arduous journey to reach him, Peter had time to think about his options. So Peter did the only reasonable thing as the ecclesiastical and political leaders of the world were climbing towards his cave. He hid. Peter played hide and seek with the world. Peter not here. Go home. For me that was the perfect image of the idealist-realist war in August. Part of me wants to hide; part of me is still hiding tonight. When Peter was finally located, he did the next most reasonable thing he could think of. He turned down the job. But the Church, the world, was not going to take no for an answer. They were taking the wild Jesus figure back to St. Peter’s, whether he wanted to go or not. The man who would not be pope was brought back down to earth by the realists.
Now Peter had a really big problem. He was now called Pope Celestine V. Despite all of his protests that went unheeded, he really was an administrative nightmare. Peter/Celestine (there’s irony there) absolutely hated the job, and he returned often to his work strategy of hiding. Though he mystified everyone, especially those who were trying to help him with his duties, we would now say that Peter was depressed. He was also having what we would call panic attacks. Someone might diagnose him with Asperger’s Disorder. After fifteen weeks, as Peter headed towards a full-blown nervous breakdown, a realist came to the idealist’s rescue. Now the question of whether a pope can actually resign is an extremely complex question of canon law, and most ecclesiastical experts would say no. It’s impossible. But the realist on the scene, Cardinal Benedict Gaetani, showed as much finesse as Chief Justice Roberts on national health care. He found a way for Peter to resign, and the idealist Christ figure was relieved beyond words. Cardinal Gaetani would also finesse his way to become the next pope, Pope Boniface VIII. The time of idealism had passed; it always has a short window.
Though I like the static image of realist Cardinal Gaetani helping to find a way out for idealist Peter, I have to share how the story turns out. The realists in the crowd demand it. Peter wanted to return to his mountain--to live out his live praying to God on his mountaintop. Instead Pope Boniface VIII put him in prison, where he eventually died in questionable circumstances.
While listening to the beautiful Plainsong chanting of the monks at Holy Cross Monastery in 2012, I knew that I needed something more than idealism to begin this year. That I needed something more than realism has always been patently obvious to me. I’m a teacher, remember? What I needed was wisdom. Wisdom about myself and the world. The truth was the papacy was a step down for Peter Morrone, the Don Quixote of the papacy, and he knew it at the time. Wisdom is the dialectic between idealism and realism, the spiritual guide inside you. It is how you live out your ideals in your daily life. It is the most important thing that you possess. When you write a chapel talk, which can be a challenging task for faculty members who talk all day, you impart something more than knowledge. You convert knowledge into something golden, something meaningful and worthwhile, with a heartbeat. When you counsel a student in crisis, as every one of you will do this year, maybe even this week, you are the wise woman and wise man for that student, that child of God, in the teachable moment. When you help a student sort through the madness of the college process, you share your treasure of wisdom. You give them courage to find their own wisdom despite everything their culture is screaming at them from all sides. This can be a very difficult time for our students. High school is still an awkward time for me. And for Joe McDonough.
So I don’t want to leave you hiding with Peter Morrone on the mountaintop. It’s time to come down to a level place, a wise landing, to work for the common good. Welcome back to Kent. My God bless you in your teaching and wisdom ministry this year.