A month ago, as the world watched gasping and horrified, the fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris nearly consumed a thousand years of inspiration. When the soaring spire fell to the flames, observers realized in a sudden bolt of deep heartbreak that the whole structure and all its contents could be forever lost and never seen again. Remarkably, though damaged extensively, Notre Dame survived the worst with many of its historically significant sculptures and artifacts preserved.
This recent event in Paris, momentarily uniting nations and faiths in sorrow and relief, brought back the most vivid personal memories of a similar fire at St. Lawrence University in Gunnison Memorial Chapel two years before the class of 2019 arrived on campus. We also witnessed the fall of our own glorious spire crowned by the chanticleer weather vane. It was a defining moment that posed an all-important question to the university community—will this be the end of an era, a passing vital presence in our lives, or will it be the beginning of a new day? That question is also in front of each of you in this hour.
Our baccalaureate service is one of those essential moments in the cycle of moving on after three years of moving up finally to become seniors. One of our best traditions is the final gathering as a class in the chapel, sitting together beneath its restored tower, its remade spire, enjoying the light of its wondrous windows that speak and teach.
Ever since you entered St. Lawrence University, only months after the chapel reopened, you would represent the new day as the class of 2019 when the shining copper of the spire had not yet weathered. And this special hour, connecting Notre Dame and Gunnison Chapel, calls to mind the song of an ancient prophet who sang “In all their affliction…the angel saved them…lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” (Isaiah 63:9)
While you were graduating from high school, the copper spire of this chapel was lifted up, four and a half tons of metal sculpture taken to a height of nearly twenty stories, and installed upon the bell tower, as if bolted down by permanent memories and deep feelings. We witnessed the burning down and the raising up; we saw the spire tumble to the earth, we watched a new one arrive and then saw it lifted to the highest point of the campus horizon. Up close, the base of the spire is not round as you may expect, but rather it is eight-sided. On each of the eight panels in three-dimensional relief are identical depictions of angels, their wings poised, their gaze absorbing all the possible compass points.
The fire that had a fair chance of destroying the entire structure brought down the spire, though much of it was already melted or incinerated while still vertical. And yet, the walls stood firm and the bells held their place among the timbers. In the debris and ashes, the crew had hoped to recover the pinnacle rooster completing the weather vane, but even that was beyond saving. One piece, however, miraculously survived intact; it was an angel at the base, where the hottest part of the fire burned. Today, the current spire is made up of seven refabricated copper angels and one from the original work. The new unites and begins with the old. I think there is something of added meaning for you today in this footnote to the story that began just when you arrived. The “undamaged angel” has somehow always been with us—even in your going in and your coming out from this university.
I’ve never written or spoken about angels before. I’m not sure if they’re real or if they exist unseen, but if they do exist, the empirical method has so far fallen short of proof. Besides their appearance in the stories of almost all faith traditions, modern authors have dabbled in the angel motif from best-selling Dan Brown to the great Canadian writer Robertson Davies. I’m not advocating belief or the suspension of disbelief. I am confident that the idea of the angel is worth thinking about, but not as the potentially disembodied spirits that Florentine painters made visible and alive as beautiful figures on fresco and canvas. The idea of the angel is that it bears an important message, and I will leave it at that; for I’m not going to venture into celestial sources or other speculative questions about who sent the messenger.
My interpretation of the message is that the “undamaged angel” is another way for you to remember what we stand for. Let’s take the text, however, on its own terms and ask what’s the job of an angel? “In all their affliction…the angel saved them…lifted them up all the days of old.” The job is two-fold—the angel saved and the angel lifted up. The angel, therefore, has preserved something of value, such as a tradition or life itself; and the angel, by lifting up, offered hope and a path from affliction.
I contend that by belonging to the St. Lawrence community of experience, you each have been touched by a particular kind of message, found undoubtedly in the words and classrooms of your professors, but also as a lasting message discovered here in varieties of experience. The undamaged angel represents whatever it is that brought best friends to first meeting, created relationships of immense depth, or inspired a confident solitude when feeling alone.
The undamaged angel says to us that St. Lawrence has preserved a moral tradition to live by. It is expressed three ways—getting it right, doing it right, and doing right. Intellectual honesty is an important piece of this message—getting it right means we listen carefully, gather all the facts we can, and then keep asking, is there more to the story? Doing it right means we will have a work ethic that will exceed the finite capacity of our own impulses to hurry. As your grandparents may have said to you growing up, the shortest way home is the long way around. And, then, doing right is the inner core of the responsible self that will not turn away from another person’s affliction.
The story of the chapel fire still teaches us that there are often surprising remnants from a setback that can survive, even undamaged. The message of the angel is to know that somewhere in your most deep-down place there is always room for lasting hope.
At St. Lawrence, I believe you have seen time and again the qualities of a larger human confidence than you may have realized is possible, but which also can exist inside of you; you have seen examples of conviction, endurance, and courage. By now, you know how it feels and what it means to be lifted up—you have had that happen while on this campus. You have seen or experienced adversity—and through it all someone has said to you: be strong, now persevere, there is sufficient bravery in your hand and mind.
In a little English country church built in 1652, when there was a fierce civil war upon the land between Royalists and Puritans, there is an inscription above the door which reads:
“When all things sacred were throughout the nation either destroyed or profaned, Sir Robert Shirley, Baronet, founded this church whose singular praise is to have done the best things in the worst of times, and hoped them in the most calamitous.”
This is another way of saying what the angels implore—do your best and never, no matter the affliction or calamity, let go of hope. On this commencement day, my own wish for you is that you will somehow carry “through all the days of old” the idea and the image of the undamaged angel close to your heart. The fire could not destroy what this angel, what St. Lawrence, must always mean to each of us. What lifted up the spire, as if on angel wings, holds us up, then, now, and ultimately.