Under Repair

Remarks at the Baccalaureate Service - May 18, 2014

The class of 2014 has distinguished itself in talent, intellect, good humor, and community-mindedness. The quality of your closeness to each other is exceptional and lasting. You have stood apart from other graduating classes in defining your experience, even in the fact that we gather in our campus theatre instead of the chapel for this baccalaureate occasion.

You stand apart because of accidental circumstances that we will always remember together. Your senior year will be marked by the October fire in the chapel bell tower; and it was one of your classmates, a volunteer firefighter, who stood in the aerial bucket aiming a water canon at a blazing inferno for two hours. A member of your class did that. Your year is the only class that has not gathered for Baccalaureate in the chapel since Calvin Coolidge was the U.S. President. This distinction in our university history gives you particular status and responsibility.

In many ways, the circumstances of completing your senior year absent the chapel spire and perched rooster that stood almost 20 stories above the Quad, while still disorienting months later, gives you an important clue about your life and your life’s work. Coincidentally, while our St. Lawrence horizon is missing a much-loved landmark of inspiration, other more famous places are at the same time adjusting to unexpected changes.

Almost three years ago, an earthquake in the piedmont of Virginia rippled through Washington, DC damaging the tallest features in that city of majestic distances. The Washington Monument, which took almost 40-years to build, was until this week shrouded in scaffolding of metal mesh to repair over 140 cracks in its structure. The Washington Monument looked like a difficult orthopedic solution to a compound fracture. Our campus is not the only instance of a temporarily altered landscape that is missing something familiar.

Most years at Baccalaureate, the graduating class will naturally express itself in the spirit of sustained creativity. In other words, after “trying on” a variety of ideas and possibilities while at St. Lawrence, our graduates possess a desire to build something new, a truly fresh enterprise, or a road different from other generations. There is no reason now to deviate from that ambition to be builders, to be the instigators of something new, to be brave enough for unmapped paths. But you, unlike other recent classes, have an added turn of reflection because you witnessed the collapse of the chapel spire. The world will always have its builders and people of big ideas, but it also, more than ever, needs its repairers when things tumble down.

The class of 2014 has potentially learned something more than other classes. The unexpected happens, often to break our hearts. A fire in the night comes unannounced. The symbol of a thousand dreams vanished. And it will be important, with all the positive skills developed as a St. Lawrence undergraduate, to know that fixing things is major part of life. The voice of a prophet speaks to us again, perhaps too often, “And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt… you shall be called the repairer of the breach.” (Isaiah 58:12).

The place where Jane Austen is buried in England was nearly lost to the world about a hundred years ago. It is Winchester Cathedral, southwest of London, which was first constructed about a decade after the Norman Conquest of 1066. It’s been around a long time, but was placed upon unsteady, fragile ground from the beginning. In fact, the ground was a peat bog, not any more secure than wetlands.

The original designers of Winchester Cathedral could not reach bedrock because the water tables were so high. Instead, they filled the area with the logs of beech trees, and then built the stone structure on top. The cathedral, in effect, was a barge floating on a bog, a kind of massive riverboat with marble spires and finials. The plan worked for many centuries, but over time the weight of the building and the decomposition of what stood between it and bedrock threatened to break the spine of the cathedral. To avoid imminent collapse, every trick of drainage and reinforcement was tried. Nothing worked.

One man made the difference. William Walker was a deep sea diver whose skills actually crossed with a desperate need. Holes were bored around the cathedral’s perimeter, instantly filling up with about 25 feet of water. Walker, in a diving suit weighing 200 pounds, went down into the dark depths every day for nearly six years, first to clear the rotting timbers, then to shore up the foundation with over a million bricks and blocks. It worked. If you visit Jane Austen’s tomb, as thousands of literary tourists do every year, you will also find a small statue of William Walker nearby. The inscription bears his name and the phrase “who saved the cathedral with his own hands.”

What will each of us repair with our own hands? What will each of us help put back together in our lifetime? We will have our equivalent opportunities to strengthen a foundation, repair broken walls, or restore a tower of inspiration. I hope for each of you, because of this year, and symbolically because of the toppled chapel spire, you have understood the great responsibility of the repairer. Your hands shall one day be upon the new pinnacle. Your hands shall soon be upon the tolling bells. Your hands shall one day touch the shoulder of a St. Lawrence friend who needs you. You shall be called the repairer of the breach.