May I speak in the Name (+) of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The American Trappist monk Thomas Merton once wrote of his monastery in Kentucky that it was ‘the only real city’ in America. The rest, he said, was a landscape of ‘wilderness’. It’s a statement, like so many of Merton’s, that seems initially implausible – we tend to think of remote abbeys, removed from the day-to-day bustle of urban life as anything but real – yet, on the other hand, it’s a statement, again like so many of Merton’s, which demands, and rewards, a second glance. For Merton, the monastery is ‘real’, because it is a space consecrated to looking at the world with honesty, which includes looking at the interior landscape of each and every human person engaged in the act of looking; it is a place set aside for humans to resist and disrupt any number of two-dimensional assumptions about ‘the way things are’, and to make themselves available to receive a richer and fuller perspective on their environment. The monastery is ‘real’, because it allows us to see the extent to which our environment refuses to be completely domesticated, or subordinated to our functional use; what confronts our minds is always more than we make of it, always being made ‘other’ to us, thereby forcing us to gain a deeper appreciation of our ‘locatedness’ and finitude, and compelling us to acknowledge, as St Augustine put it, that ‘the mind is too narrow to contain itself’. We are always being drawn deeper into the inexhaustible depth of the world that confronts us. This is a world always infinitely engaged in what is different and not just ‘for me’ – a world, for Merton, always already engaged by the infinite life of God. And this conviction gives Merton ever greater confidence to look at the world in all its messiness, and indeed in all its suffering. In his commitment to being real – that is, being in accord with the ultimate ground of all being, which is the inexhaustible and infinite life of God himself – Merton takes up the challenge to be the one who looks with patient attention on what there actually is, without feeling the need to flatten or contain it.
Well, no-one has yet attempted to defend the place of universities in British society with reference to the argument that they are ‘more real’ than, say, the Houses of Parliament (though many may have wished this to be straightforwardly the case). Yet we do make such judgements: somehow, we all seem to think that the cut-and-thrust of finance in the City of London, or the vast military power of the modern state, is just more ‘real’ than, say, a child’s first glimpse of the moon. We would, however, struggle to argue why this should be the case, beyond a crude and circular appeal to ‘the real world’, couched as a termination of conversation, rather than a generous and expansive opening. So perhaps it is not too difficult to see the resonance of Merton’s insight to our purposes on this auspicious occasion, on which we celebrate the life of a community whose commitment ‘ever to excel’ is surely premised on a belief that what we are actually engaged in – from Art History to Astro-Physics, and from Mathematics to Modern Languages – is a contribution to the human quest for reality, exploring and inhabiting our environment with ever greater integrity, honesty, and, perhaps, competence.
Merton’s vision might be more clearly couched in the negative, in looking at our equivalent of what he termed ‘the wilderness’. For Merton, the wilderness of absolute unreality was made manifest in row after row of ‘little boxes on the hillside’, which provided their own parody in post-war America. Laughable as they were, the scores of identical middle-class houses were the outward sign of all whole host of inward assumptions shared unthinkingly by society at large: wealth, materialism, ‘success’. More troublingly, Merton found a flight from reality in the language of mechanism and technique that took American imaginations away from the human cost and the ideological fantasy of the Cold War. Here, the parallels with a writer like George Orwell are enormously suggestive – though I’m absolutely certain that Merton and Orwell were not two guests to be seated at the same table at a dinner party, if you could help it. But reflect, for example, on that famous sentence, ‘it became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it’, and you’ll have some idea about what both Merton and Orwell meant when they talked, in their very different ways, about reality as the first causality of conflict, and poetry and humble speech as the only remedies. The lure of comforting fiction is always waiting around the corner, ready to silence and simplify; we need writers, poets, and contemplative monks to expose its phony foundations by taking the time to let true reality unfold.
Recent events suggest such dangers are no less present in today’s political climate. Families fleeing persecution and the death of their children have been described in distinctly sub-human terms: ‘hordes’ and ‘swarms’. And we’ve been living for some weeks with that pervasive political epithet, which I take to be a spin-off of ancient gnostic heresy: ‘take back control’. It’s not quite as bad as Orwell’s parodic example: ‘the fascist octopus has sung its last swan song’, but it’s surely getting close in its sheer intellectual and moral vacuity, and its attempt to capture the mind and encase it in a web of simplistic, black and white fiction, removed from the diversity and difficulty of the world in which we actually find ourselves all the time, if only we would look. As for ‘Make America Great Again’, well, Merton would have had some purple passages in store for Donald Trump, no doubt. A good number of today’s politicians – and the public at large – could do with reflecting on the readings we’ve heard this morning: on the one hand, says our Genesis narrative, we are made in the ‘image and likeness’ of God, that is, our diverse identities are made possible by, and given a first principle in, an image of inexhaustible, infinitely gratuitous and excessive love. On the other hand, says our reading from First John, we, as children of God, are charged with making this love manifest, with modelling God’s love for creation within our own lives, because each of us as a child of God bears the potential to be a source and fount of love, an icon of God, and a wellspring of creative generosity. We are made for infinite, inexhaustible love, and made to love infinitely and inexhaustibly, and this – says the Christian – is the most ultimately real thing going. We are made for life, because we are made for love; in living we learn to love, and in loving we begin truly to live.
So it seems that Merton, as ever, knew what he was talking about. We are made to be instruments of God’s beatific self-delight, but we are very good at forgetting and fictionalising; we already see ‘through a glass darkly’, but we’re very good at leaving that glass for several months on a window ledge, so that it goes mouldy and positively opaque to what we should glimpse through it. Not that any St Andrews graduate would neglect their hygiene – literal or moral – in any such way, I’m sure, but that just goes to show that we enjoy within these streets a degree of clairvoyance, a commitment to reality, that we should never take for granted. St Andrews is a community which exists to look at a world with its own integrity, depth, and complexity, not to simplify, straightjacket, and label, but to reverence, delight in, and explore. And this ‘exploration’ of a world always just a bit more interesting than we could imagine, always just a bit fuller and richer than our minds could at first comprehend, is not just the stuff of linear technical accumulation, but rather the result of a kind of inward ‘deepening’, in which more and more people from diverse perspectives are enabled to ask more and more interesting sorts of question, and thus to engage and commune with an ever greater degree of honesty with the environment that confronts us. This is a community which rejoices in diversity, and wills the flourishing of each of its members, confident in the knowledge that by the flourishing of each, the benefit to all will be increased. As the American author Marilynne Robinson puts it, ‘it is very much the gift of the community to enrich individual lives, and it is very much the gift of the individual to enlarge and enrich community’. The splendid array of gowns bejewelling the academic processions which have taken place throughout the last week are an outward testament to St Paul’s idea of human gifts: many members, one body, with each member challenging all of the body to show forth its love and broaden its imagination in new and deeper ways.
This ought to cause us to reflect critically on one or two stereotypes with which university communities typically find themselves confronted. It may be a commonplace now that the word ‘intellectual’ means someone who couldn’t boil an egg, but who has probably written ten monographs on the subject, yet, in fact, for most of its history, the word has meant almost precisely the opposite. For Augustine and Aquinas, the ‘intellectual’ was the one who saw things ‘from the inside’, who exercised not only the discipline of attention, but also the empathy and imagination necessary to inhabit what is apart from me, in order to enlarge my understanding of who I am, and the world I am always already immersed in. To quote Marilynne Robinson again: ‘community…consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly’; in this respect, the intellectual is in fact engaged in a movement of love, committed to attending to a world which always exceeds our capacities to describe and contain, and which urges us to ever greater fidelity in our attempts to convey and make available for others something of its wonder and luminosity. For some of us, that endless generative capacity in all that we see may point to theistic horizons; for others, perhaps not. But all of us can surely agree that in our shared commitment to looking at the world, to being a ‘real city’ where the comforts of stereotype and half-truth are eschewed, we begin to open the possibilities of a greater world for all to inhabit.
The nineteenth-century Lutheran theologian Isaak Dorner coined a phrase that I think sums up the spirit of this understanding, and of this occasion: ‘love is also a lover of life’. Today we give thanks for a community which is interested in, and which loves, life, which is comprised of so many varied and gloriously diverse lives, each of which help us to reflect on the extraordinary world we inhabit and seek to comprehend. That enterprise of understanding is, for many of us here today, underpinned by the confidence that in our dispositions of commitment and love, we will fulfil our proper end as children of God. In loving life, we discover what glorious lives of love we are meant to live.
Perhaps Gerard Manley Hopkins put it best:
GLORY be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as brinded bow;
For rose-miles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finche’s wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough; 5
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: 10
Our world is all too often shrunk under the shadow of hate, all too often reduced to a wasteland of cliché and stereotype. But the world is more, and we are made to be more, to ‘have life abundantly’. I’m not sure that the glorious Scottish landscape could ever be described as a ‘wilderness’, but we ought not to forget that St Andrews has a vocation, in the midst of the changes and chances of this troubled life, to be a ‘real city’, to the glory of God, the lover who made us to live and to love.