My colleagues, John Willis and Jerry Smith, have given better talks than I ever could about the historical situation of the University’s founding a century and half or so ago, and of course I always tremble to follow Jim Peterman. I have nothing of substance to add to their remarks. But I wonder if it would be alright for me to dig a little deeper into the past, our past, to see what insight is to be found there. As a classicist, I know one thing for sure, which is that long after the University of the South is a distant memory and together with it, the United States, there will still be people reading Homer and the New Testament in Greek. But let our archeology not stop there. As Henry David Thoreau writes in the chapter of Walden from which you read, “My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills.” So let me borrow his idea and burrow a little into these hills.
You will find, if you look into the etymology of the word foundation, that is related to the word profound. The Latin word from which they derive has to do with what lies deep beneath, and just how bottomless those depths very often seem to be. Yesterday my group went down into the caves just off Gate G7, and at one point Luke Padgett told me we were standing on a stratum of limestone about 400 millions old. If you’re courageous, you can burrow even further, but I think Solomon’s Temple was deep enough for me, and the wisdom that might be found in a system named for the Biblical king is sufficient, to my mind, at least for this weekend.
I hope it will be OK if, at an Episcopal school, beneath the images of all these bishops, on a Sunday, I quote from the Bible. You will maybe remember that Jesus, when asked what was required of us, said, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” In that two-fold statement Jesus asks us to cast our glance vertically and horizontally, up to heaven and across to the people of our community; in doing so, we trace with our gaze the form of a cross. In fact, there is a long-standing Christian tradition distinguishing religious vocation into the active life and the contemplative life, the life dedicated to working with and for others, and the other dedication to introspection and prayer. These are inclinations seemingly at odds, but in actuality believed to inform and support one another, although at times it is hard to see how. They appear to be at cross purposes (I use the term advisedly).
Even if you are not particularly religious–as I am not–it is not such bad advice, to spend some time thinking of things that are eternal and transcendent, things which rise, as Plato would tell us, into one immortal Form of Truth and Beauty, with a capital T and a capital B. It is easy to believe that “truth is beauty, beauty truth” (to quote Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn) here in so lovely a location. The bishops who founded the University, in situating Sewanee where they did, knew what they were doing, offering us in this place so many exquisite vistas to look out upon, and thereby encouraging in us the contemplation of heaven. “It’s a long way away, even from Chattanooga, in the middle of woods, on top of a bastion of mountains crenelated with blue coves,” Will Percy writes in Lanterns on the Levee. “It is so beautiful that people who have once been there always, one way or another, come back. For such as can detect apple green in an evening sky, it is Arcadia—not the one that never used to be, but the one that many people always live in; only this one can be shared.”
I really love that passage, and I will admit that it brings an involuntary tear to my sappy Irish eyes. I worry, though, that it forms part of the “symbolic complex” that Walker Percy talks about in Loss of the Creature that prevents us from having an authentic experience of place. Sometimes this Arcadian vision of Sewanee is a bit much for me, particularly when I travel into the poverty-stricken areas of Grundy, Marion, or Franklin Counties. It’s so alarming when you read thing like I did in this week’s Winchester Herald-Chronicle that, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Franklin County (this county) had reported over 100 cases of human trafficking over a 24-month period. “It is not uncommon,” the paper reports, “to see cases of children being traded for sex in drug cases.” Facts like that make my heart heavy, and make me wonder whether I should quit my navel-gazing and all that “detecting of apple green in an evening sky,” and get up off my ass and do something to help out the least of my brothers and sisters.
This reaction is correct and human, I think, to want to reach out and to offer what help we can. Let me say that my colleagues Deb McGrath and Jim Peterman possess that deeply ethical impulse to a great degree, although they are too modest to talk about it. It is possible, however, in looking at human misery simply to become bitter and jaded about human nature. By losing hope in transcendent ideals like Truth, Beauty, or Justice, we might be tempted to make an escape into despair, self-indulgence, and cynicism. In this way, we really lose our way, and lose our selves.
The tension between the contemplative and active lives is a hard one to manage, and always has been. I thought of this tension yesterday afternoon, when some of us watched the documentary, You Got To Move, about Highlander. In the film, Bernice Johnson Reagon spoke of her work inspired by the Highlander group, saying, “Now I sit back and look at some of the things we did, and I say, ‘What in the world came over us?’ you know. But death had nothing to do with what we were doing. If somebody shot us we would be dead. … And we went and did the next thing the next day, because it was really beyond life and death. It was really like… Sometimes you know what you’re supposed to be doing, and when you know what you’re supposed to be doing, it’s somebody else’s job to kill you.”
Bernice Johnson Reagon, later the winner of a MacArthur Genius grant, would go on to be the founder of the a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, whose inspirational music I recommend to you, perhaps to be listened to in the wonderful Raulston Listening Room in duPont. “Music is the first thing to cross borders,” Richard Tillinghast writes in Sewanee When We Were Young. “What lucky dogs we were to be there when jazz / Crossed the mountains and reached the Cumberland / Plateau.” What lucky dogs we are to live in a place where a charming neo-Gothic building or a well-timed sunset can remind us of the things beyond us, or to have neighbors like Laura Willis whose book Finding God in a Bag of Groceries some of you will read, or one-time neighbors like the Highlander School, where the song “We Shall Overcome” was first heard by Martin Luther King. All such things offer sustenance to our minds and souls when they are run ragged by the things of this often cruel and awful world.
It’s important, then, to remember when our spirits are all but crushed, when our heads are too heavy to lift them, to draw strength from what we know to lie beneath us, for much is there. Beneath us are layers of sandstone and limestone, from which our splendid buildings have been wrought and awesome caves been formed. Beneath us are layers of history encompassing the Civil Rights movement and the Civil War both of which offer images of nobility to inspire us. Beneath us are the rich roots of musical traditions embracing Memphis and Nashville and the mountains of east Tennessee (as well as invasive species like jazz); beneath us are literary giants like Allen Tate, Tennessee Williams, or Flannery O’Connor, whose work who was so often published in our Sewanee Review. Underlying us, too, are the traditions of liberal education that extend back through Oxford and Cambridge to the Christian Middle Ages and from there way back to the schools of Athens where Aristotle and Plato taught, those old Greeks whose statues you can see here in a courtyard in Woods Laboratory, not so far from another statue of Charles Darwin.
These then are the foundations of the University, our University, or to be more precise, your University. Remember, foundations are laid to be built upon, and cornerstones are set for capstones eventually to rest on. Let me be clear. This place was made for you students, for you to derive joy and strength from, knowledge and wisdom, foundation and profundity. All that remains now is the answer to the question, What is that you will build upon this rock? Here endeth the lesson.
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Great read. Thank you and best of luck throughout the school year!
Many thanks, Trey! Hope all’s well.
I went to Highlander as a young early 70s activist, listened to Honey in the Rock sing and harmonize among the beauty and with people I did not even know at the time we’re carrying on the force and reputation of the Center. But I learned that day .
What I did NOT know was that it was the Second Highlander Center…what is now going on at the original sight?