Blessings Around and Within

Remarks at Baccalaureate - May 20, 2012

“A land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper.” Deuteronomy 8:9

Gathered with the class of 2012, we enter this morning hour in the chapel with insufficient clarity about what we should properly feel. Strands of joy, threads of uncertainty, traces of relief, stitches of fear, and fibers of gratitude form the fabric of your commencement gowns. There are interior reasons for holding this baccalaureate service that go deeper than merely keeping continuity with a medieval university tradition.

It is the only campus tradition that an individual class will know but one time and not again. Baccalaureate, you see, invites you to reflect and celebrate, but in terms that are actually rather demanding. You probably did not expect that any of us in the university faculty or administration would dare ask you to do much today, except show up and step forward when your name is called.

Without meaning to place an undue burden upon your conscience, particularly on a day that from all appearances should call you to taste in full measure the sweetness of success, let me suggest that you first count your blessings. And if my gentle counsel is not adequate, then I remind you that where you sit at this moment has you surrounded by windows that ask for the same consideration.

The lower windows of Gunnison Chapel are each dedicated to the idea that men and women are called blessed because of particular attributes. This point is perhaps too subtle to have been noticed before, but today, in the numbing mix of feelings, even as a low-grade emotional dissonance, I remind you that every great faith tradition found at St. Lawrence and in the class of 2012, holds the equivalent wisdom that we should count our blessings in the great hours of life.

One of the oldest written instances of a people expressing for us the prevailing sense of a great blessing came at a time of knowing both want and plenty. Here are words that bring us up out of the earth itself, out of triumph, hard work, and disappointment, into “a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper.” Now, that is a first-rate example of appreciating your circumstances and opportunities, stating your dreams and ambitions.

And yet, we would be terribly mistaken to read that text or its kindred sentences in other sacred books as exclusively pertinent to material prosperity. It is a blessing, most certainly, that you have been well fed, have had ample margins of support, and lived in beautiful buildings of stone and steel. The blessings of knowing friendship, of possessing time for concentrated thinking, and of gaining confidence in your abilities, values, and hopes are the more important items of reckoning today.

There is reluctance, however, to count our blessings because quite simply it is so difficult to do. When you entered St. Lawrence in the fall of 2008, the global financial crisis signaling a long, deep recession was just beginning. One pundit summarized the cause of the market collapse as “no sense of enoughness.” (Calvin Trillin, NYT, October 14, 2009). It will always be hard to count your blessings if you believe they aren’t enough.

A second difficulty in the exercise of counting blessings is the human habit of worry. We can worry ourselves right out of a field of rich possibilities. My uncle was a man of simple pleasures; he never lived beyond his means; he was an attorney in the U.S. Customs and had many glimpses of imported, often illegal, luxuries. None of it made him anxious or covetous. If he had his recordings of the Cleveland Symphony and a few good books, then he had his version of taking time to smell the roses. One day when he faced surgery, my very conscientious aunt interrupted him from his repose in a hospital bed, “don’t you worry about anything?” He replied, “No, why should I, you worry enough for both of us?” With that wink, I knew a man who had the knack for counting his blessings.

A third problem we have with the effort to make a record of our blessings is gratitude. The 18th century, whether in the words of George Washington or Benjamin Franklin, was known, then and now, for imparting practical wisdom and rules of behavior to young people. One of the best known versions of this habit is in a famous letter Lord Chesterfield wrote his son (November 7, 1765). This phrase catches me every time: “Gratitude is a burden upon our imperfect nature.” We do not enjoy being obligated or beholden, so the chilly virtue of gratitude is complicated when people do us simple kindness. In some overly cautious minds, gratitude is often hesitant or attenuated because it might give up some ground. Rather, I think the feeling of being unburdened for saying thanks, even overdoing it, is its own release and blessing.

To count our blessings is very hard, especially when our laziness or rationalization allows us a little slack psychology because of desire, worry, or independence. Perhaps we never can dissolve difficulties, but we can displace them and clear the way. The text I quoted invites a clue about how to do this: “out of whose hills you can dig copper.” All the other blessings mentioned in that sentence are either promised or bestowed. The reference to copper is curious because it insists that you have to go get it yourself to be blessed by it.

All year, your senior year, I have watched the copper band at the base of the chapel spire transform itself in color from a polished red-orange tone to the patina that is gradually oxidizing to a faded green. It will soon all be one color as you are one with all Laurentians. The transformation in appearance, but not in its true substance, has reminded me of your development in so short a span.

You are like my image of the copper flashing—a metal that is malleable, durable, and protective. Each of you has those qualities in human terms—flexibility, stamina, and caring. This metaphor is vivid and local. As it turns out, copper is not only above us, but it is also in the ground of the North Country. And it was, in fact, once mined in Canton around the time St. Lawrence first dug its foundations.

When you know and declare the base of all your aspirations, like the copper band securing the copper spire that bears the rooster of the new day; when you look around you this morning and see that countless numbers of people have made it all possible; when you look up one more time to gaze upon the Adirondack hills, you will, I assure you, have counted your blessings.

And I, too, will also count. Each one of you in the class of 2012 is a blessing to me.