Saturday, June 30, 2007

Three Taps of the Gavel

Earlier in the week I wrote about going to the Chautauqua Institution for last week's Opening Sunday. Although people had been milling around the grounds for days and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir had performed twice the day before, the season officially opened, as always, with the President's Three Taps of the Gavel speech at the beginning of the Ampitheatre worship service on Sunday morning.

A few days later, I participated in a small group Presbytery discussion on church revitalization issues. One of the topics I raised was the difficulty we seem to have in telling our story -- a difficulty brought home to me by the power of 5,000 people gathering at Chautauqua to hear our story there retold, as it is in countless ways year after year. I was so moved by what Tom Becker, the President of the Institution had to see, that I am including much of it here:

Three Taps of the Gavel: 2007

“To come to the knowledge you have not
you must go by the way in which you know not.”
…St. John of the Cross

“There once was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job.” So begins the Book of Job, today’s source for liturgical lessons. These lines evoke the opening lines of other stories and fairy tales. “Once upon a time…” Early in the story, as the tragic consequences of the devil’s attack on his life and family unfold, Job is visited by four messengers in quick succession. Each includes with his tale of woe the lines, “I alone have escaped to tell you.” Like many of you when reading these lines, I am transported to the story of Moby-Dick, where Ishmael, floating amid the wreckage on the coffin that Queequeg built, declares that he alone has survived to tell the tale. I am reminded of the fundamental human need for storytelling. We have a need to relate to the themes of almost all literature – contest, struggle, suffering and the disparities between the apparent and the real.

Today we open the Chautauqua Season for the 134th time. A presence in three separate centuries, this Institution has opened its gates to those like you who approach these grounds to create a community of the mind and spirit.


Whether found in the ancient text of Virgil’s Aeneid or the recent memoir by Donald Antrim, The Afterlife, the opening and closing selections in this year’s CLSC program, the message of meaning within suffering and even death is constant. Job tells us that despite our best moral intentions, our devotion to family, community and the sacred; despite our applied ingenuity, the creative forces of our intellect and imagination; despite our sincere attempts to walk a righteous path; despite all of this, things happen. Our businesses fail. Sicknesses visit our loved ones. Senseless violence grips a university campus like a mad dog indiscriminately extinguishing youthful dreams and ambition. Where is God in all this?

The covenant we celebrate in this service is a covenant of faith. We gather here precisely because we know full well that this remarkable gift of life is essentially mysterious. We affirm that the task that runs through all other tasks is love, a sincere and compassionate love of our own andthe lives of others.

Our language, our social, governmental and economic systems, our science and technologies: these are the wondrous gifts of human development. Indeed, these gifts are so astounding that they often cloud the very reality of their limitations. Our satisfaction with the benefits of these accomplishments can lead us to think we have completed the task. And yet, our world remains beset by hunger, poverty, injustice, and environmental and human degradation. There is much to do. And in this place, at this service, we acknowledge that the endless nature of the exploration for meaningful discovery carries with it a moral responsibility directed both at the world in which we live and toward our inner landscape.

I had always understood the story of Job to be one in which Job was humbled by the devastation inflicted on him and the subsequent knowledge that God remained with him. But I was struck during the last reading by the muscular quality of Job’s humility. Humility was not a default condition that Job fell to. Rather Job exhibits an active humility before God throughout the story even in the most abject and painful and angry of circumstances.

“I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me which I did not know.” These are Job’s words near the end of the story. An enlightening quotation on this subject comes from St. John of the

“To come to the knowledge you have not
you must go by the way in which you know not.
To come to the possession you have not
you must go by the way in which you possess not.
To come by the what you are not
you must go by a way in which you are not”…

We must be willing to open ourselves to the unknown; to take risks; to acknowledge that despite all of our applied energies we do not know all of our inner and outer worlds. And so we come to Chautauqua.

In 1874, two fabulously accomplished people – Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent – came together to form this endeavor. They were men of faith whose commitment to lifelong learning was driven primarily by a reverence for the mystery of life and a sincere sense of obligation to make the world a better, more just place. They never declared this place nirvana or trumpeted its perfection. Instead they honored the effort. The annual trek to this lovely grove is about that effort to at once examine the conditions of our politics, economics, science, technologies, humanities, arts and theology, and to speak to one another of our lives;to relate our stories.

I noted at the beginning of this statement that we are here for the 134th time. In effect, we come to the surface of Chautauqua each year and write the story of our season: our sense of the world around us, the choreography of our public exchange, and the narrative of our inner lives. When we do it right, we write that tale with humility, aware that there are layers of stories laid on this surface before us and stories yet to tell, many of them.

In olden times, when parchment was scarce and valuable, transcribers would often scrape off the text of parchment to reuse the surface. When the original image could be brought forward, these doubly used pieces of parchment were called palimpsests.

Think of the texts residing under the palimpsest that is Chautauqua. In some ways, this image helps us understand that with each new beginning we return to the original story that formed us. Welcome to the beginning, to the continuing, to the story of and by Chautauqua.

I tap the gavel three times. Chautauqua 2007 has begun.


Ruby said...

"Indeed, these gifts are so astounding that they often cloud the very reality of their limitations."

Thanks so much for sharing Tom Becker's remarks. I have always been comforted by Job's awe before God, whose creation is so vast and mysterious that it overwhelms Job's suffering.

Diane said...

this is so awe-inspiring. I can hear the three taps of the gavel. Thanks for sharing this, especially the image of the pampliset. that's such poetry.