By Dr. Jerry Miller, SU Philosophy Department
SALISBURY, MD---President Dudley-Eshbach, Provost Buchanan, Vice President Neufeldt, parents and friends of the University; dear fellow faculty, dear fellow students. I am grateful that I was asked to speak at convocation only last week because this has afforded me no time to obsess about what to say, and provides me an excuse for speaking from the heart. I begin by dedicating these remarks to my colleague and friend, Dr. Tony Whall who is retiring at the end of this semester. I do so because it is a way of honoring our friendship and, more importantly, because, during his thirty-six years of teaching English, he has exemplified with unwavering constancy what I will be trying to describe.
The word “convocation” comes from Latin words which mean a “calling together.” Today, the faculty, acting through the President, has called our community together to honor those students who have responded with impassioned commitment to a call which we have issued to them. But we, the faculty, who issue this call do so only because we have ourselves been called. The university is our vocation. It is a living reality only because the faculty and students respond together to a call which summons us beyond ourselves.
What is calling us? What is it in us that is addressed by this call? What is it that the call summons us to do?
I imagine Andy Pica, one of our astronomers, looking through a telescope as an eight-year old child, and feeling, from the tips of his toes to the hair on his head, an astonishment which left no part of him unmoved. I imagine the future historian, Don Whaley, in Vietnam, looking into the beautiful face of a Vietnamese child, and hearing a summons to understand how the war happened– and how, perhaps, a repetition of it might be avoided. I imagine Dawn Chamberlain, our field-hockey coach, during her own playing days, experiencing, in the synchronized movement of her body with the movements of her teammates, the same beauty which our art-historian, Ursala Erhardt, experienced when she followed the lines in a Raphael painting and saw how they somehow converged together in her own heart. According to Tony Whall’s own account, he read, during one of his sober undergraduate moments, a lyric poem which cut through his heart like a deadly arrow and so produced a wound which was irreparable. Beauty, Yeats says, is terrible. He meant, I think, that, once it pierces us, we are irrevocably altered. It ruptures our everyday lives open to realities which summon us to explore them.
What part of us is addressed by this summons? The Latin word for “heart” is “cor,” and the heart, which is the core of our being, is not a part of us; it is the center in which all our parts come together. To be pierced in one’s heart by a reality of overwhelming importance is to fall in love, but falling in love, contrary to what we often suppose, is not an irrational experience. It is precisely what awakens our intelligence to a mystery which transcends it and summons it. We are here together because there exists a universe of meaning which has moved us to fall in love with it, and called us to enter it, explore it, become participants in it. The university which this universe of meaning has summoned us to create is itself meant to be a portal into it. To live inside this universe is to live meaningfully. To live in it together, as we do here at the University, is, Aristotle says, true friendship; it is, we might even say, a kind of marriage.
This friendship, this marriage, like any friendship or marriage, is fruitful only if we bring to it the passion which the universe of meaning itself evokes in us. When one’s heart is ruptured open by a Dylan or Dvorak song, by the sight of a baseball diamond in the afternoon sun, by the lyrical harmony in which one participates by solving an accounting problem, the point is not to find a tourniquet for it. The point is to pour out one’s heart. As Coach Wood and choral director Bill Folger know, the tackle who plays his heart out and the singer who sings from the core of her being have this in common: they hold nothing back. We live in a culture which does not help us distinguish passion from desire. But passion, which is all heart, is donative. It gives without inhibition, without restraint, without holding anything in reserve. This is why, at the end, there is nothing left. Whereas desire is acquisitive, passion is spendthrift. Desire always asks “What can I get out of it?” Passion is wholly concentrated on getting into it. Desire hopes to reap something beneficial to its own self-interest; passion is extravagant self-expenditure. Our purpose here is not to teach in order to earn a salary. We accept a salary because it enables us to teach. When Jill Caviglia-Harris leaves her small children in the morning to teach her Economics classes, when Mike Lewis leaves his children to go to his History classes, they are not leaving behind those they love to come to a place of employment. They are shifting places in the universe of meaning, and moving from one sphere of love to another.
What we do here, in this sphere of love, is invite you, our students, to join us–to become impassioned collaborators with us in the universe of meaning. Today, we honor students who have accepted this invitation. You depend on us to give you intimations of the universe of meaning. You need us to inspire in you the passion to give yourselves to it. But I suspect you do not appreciate how profoundly our hearts depend on and need your own. A long friendship, like a long marriage, is difficult journey. There are times–we have had one here recently–when we are tempted to divorce each other. But when we see in you the passion which the universe of meaning can inspire in the human heart, when you ask questions we have never considered, it helps us to realize that, in spite of our failures and our betrayals of it, it is still possible for us to be faithful to our vocation. When you labor with us to give birth to an idea, you make the universe once again become for us what it was when we first looked through a microscope, when we first experienced, in the theater, the awful beauty of tragedy, when we first realized that the stars move together with the same exquisite grace as ballet dancers. It is your response to the invitation which we offer that keeps inspiring us to make it.
You, unlike us, are here for only a few precious years. What makes these years precious is precisely the fact that they give you the best opportunity you will have in your life to discover what is truly precious–to explore the universe of meaning and find in it a niche reserved for you and you alone. The purpose of the University is not to prepare you for a job or help you begin a career. Its purpose is to rupture you open to realities of overwhelming importance, to awaken in your hearts a passion for participating in the universe of meaning. A vocation is not a career. It is a summons. A value is not a goal to be achieved. It is a purpose to be served. Life is not a problem to be solved; it is a mystery in which we are called to participate. I do not wish you success in achieving your goals. I hope you fall in love and lose sight of them.
I hope it will happen to at least some of you, as it did to me, in more ways than one. Having fallen in love, first with poetry, then with philosophy, I met, in my senior year, a woman, Cathy Killoran, who had, until shortly before I met her, held a well-paying job at one of the nation’s leading pharmaceutical companies. On her way to a successful career, something summoned her. She resigned her job and became a VISTA volunteer, a volunteer in service to America, assigned to work in the poor neighborhood adjacent to University I attended. Her friends and family were aghast and thought she had lost her mind. She had not lost her mind; she had found her heart. What summoned me to her was the fact that she answered with such ardor the call which addressed her. Responding to the call makes all the difference. A wedding vow is not a plan. It is not possible to know when one makes it where it is going to lead. But planning one’s life is a way of killing it because it makes one deaf to the call which comes to us from, and summons us to participate in, the unfolding drama of life itself.
Thirty-six years ago, that drama led us, as it led Tony and Carol Whall, to this community of lovers. Those of us who came to this community then are now starting to retire from it, just as those seniors here today will soon be graduating. Such leave-taking can be grievous because it is, in its own way, a kind of death. But something worth living for is also worth dying for. Passing, dying, can itself be joyous if one can make one’s dying itself an act of love by passing on to others, especially to those still young enough not to have yet rejected it, the possibility of living a life of impassioned appreciation. In a few moments, you who we are honoring today will hear our applause for your achievements. We will not be able to applaud loud enough to make it thunderous. But imagine it as a thunderclap of gratitude and praise. Though it will not be musical enough to be beautiful, it is the only way we have today to summon you. When you hear your name called, answer with all your heart. "