Beneath the Surface

Prof. Stephanie PaulsellSermon by Professor Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School, August 23, 2020. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)



I moved into my freshman dorm in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1981. And one way or another, I’ve been in school ever since. That means I’ve experienced almost forty new school years: forty move-in days, forty orientations, forty first days of class. Every one of those new beginnings has been memorable — each one unique, special in some way. But in all that time, I never experienced a beginning of a school year like this one. I’m used to the headlong rush of these first days of school — throwing our arms around those we haven’t seen in a while, new friends huddling together as they stand in line for ID photos or food and crowding into each other’s rooms to talk and talk and talk. This beginning, with its careful gestures and its choreography of distance, is something new.

Still, beneath the surface of our Covid rules and protocols, the excitement of the new school year is stirring. Every year, this university is challenged and changed by the questions, ideas and aspirations that its newest members bring with them. Even in this strange time, with so few students on campus and so few buildings open, it’s hard not to feel the excitement of the new year school year and all the possibilities banked up inside each person, not only those here on campus, but all of our students, spread out across the world.

Of course. there’s not just excitement moving beneath the surface. There’s also grief. Some have lost have beloved family and friends to this dangerous virus. Some have had to say goodbye to those we love over the phone, or over zoom, or in our prayers. Some are mourning the loss of opportunities — canceled internships, opportunities to study abroad that evaporated as the world shut down. And we’re all feeling the loss of a campus in full swing — we’re grieving the serendipitous encounters in dining halls and libraries, the limitations of the zoom box. Believe me when I say that your teachers and your deans, your chaplains and your tutors and your proctors — none of us want this truncated experience for you. We want you to have the whole campus, the whole world in which to learn, in which to experiment with your life and practice being the person you hope to become.

Along with excitement and grief, I imagine some of you are wondering if you made the right choice to begin college this fall. There’s a lot going on right now in our country and the world —events and movements that demand our attention and make a claim on our lives. There’s a worldwide pandemic that has wrecked the economy and left so many people without jobs. There is a deeply consequential election only two months away. And there’s an ongoing uprising in response not only to the murder of George Floyd and so many others, but to the long history of racism in this country and the very real consequences it continues to have in peoples’ lives. Even in the midst of the excitement of the new year, maybe you’re wondering if there’s somewhere else you’re needed right now. Maybe with all that is happening in the world, you’re unsure of where you ought to be.

All of these feelings — the excitement, the grief, the uncertainty—reflect the things that matter most to us. And the things that matter most to us—who we are, what we hope for, what we love, what we fear, what we feel called to do and be in this world — are often hidden below the surface. We can’t always see what’s stirring within us just by looking at each other — we have to find a way to share our deepest questions and our fiercest hopes for them to become visible.

I love the way that Psalm 42, read so beautifully for us by Alex Grayson, describes the sharing of what is beneath the surface: deep calls to deep. God speaks to us from the depths where God dwells, the psalmist seems to say, and addresses us in our own depths. For the psalmist this is an overwhelming experience, akin to being underwater in the ocean and feeling powerful currents and waves moving above our heads. “Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me,” the psalmist writes. Psalm 42 moves back and forth between confronting God’s absence and hoping in God’s presence, seeking God in memory and in song, in mourning and anger and praise. A monk I once knew used to say that the psalms take us all the way in and all the way down, leaving no dimension of our humanity unexpressed. Psalm 42 offers language for the vulnerability of this moment: what it feels like when what is hidden is laid bare by the forces of history--the longstanding inequalities, the deep-seated prejudice, the violence—and how those depths call to us in our depths, asking how we will respond.

The passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians read so powerfully by Jeromel Dela Rosa Lara, also talks about depths: the depths of God’s wisdom, secret and hidden; and the depths of our own humanity. When those hidden depths go unacknowledged by those in power, Paul says, violence results — if “the rulers of this age understood” the hidden depths of God and humans, he writes, “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” What is the relationship between a refusal to acknowledge the hidden depths in ourselves and others and acts of violence? Toward the end of World War I, as the casualties accumulated into the tens of millions, the novelist Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary that our ability to kill each other must reflect a lack of imagination, an inability to imagine the possibilities furled up inside each one of us. This doesn’t just happen in war, of course. When a police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, he could not have been thinking of the all the possibilities furled up within George Floyd’s life, nor the invisible connections between Mr. Floyd and all those he loved and who loved him, nor the dignity of his humanity. In order to care for each other, we have to reverence the mystery of each other, the hidden depths we each contain. “For what human being knows what is truly human,” Paul asks, “except the human spirit that is within?”

To reverence the dignity of our shared humanity: this is what the Memorial Church is for. It is a place to “cultivate the human spirit that is within” that recognizes and honors the human spirit in everyone. A place to practice giving what theologian Howard Thurman calls “unhurried attention” to what is moving in our own depths and in the depths of others. To cultivate the capacity to search out what is most human in each of us, to cherish it and protect it. A place where deep calls to deep.

That’s what this university, at its best, is for, too. The philosopher Simone Weil once wrote that the purpose of our school studies is less about getting the right answers and more about cultivating our capacity for attention. Whether we’re studying languages or mathematics or literature or theology, she said, we’re learning to be present to what is not ourselves without trying to turn it into ourselves. And that capacity, Weil wrote, teaches us to be genuinely present to what is other than ourselves — to God, and to our suffering neighbor. It’s almost a miracle, Weil said, to be able to bring our whole attention to someone who is suffering — we want to domesticate that suffering, make it comprehensible, less painful to behold. We can practice resisting that temptation in our studies, Weil said; we can learn how to be patient as understanding unfolds; we can learn to reverence even those things that remain hidden, things beneath the surface that remain out of our reach.

There is so much that conspires to keep us drifting across the surface of our lives: the busyness that keeps us racing from obligation to obligation, making it hard to remember the questions and hopes that set us on our path in the first place. Distractions erode our capacity to know our own depths, much less the depths of others. Our fear about the future — our own and the world’s —can be so paralyzing that it keeps us from joining others to work for a different future.

But, class of 2024, you have entered college not only at a moment of profound difficulty, but also, perhaps, a moment of opportunity. So much has been laid bare, in ourselves and in our world. Amid the confrontation with our histories and the demands for change, amid the quarantine and the social distancing, we can hear an invitation to live more deliberately, as Henry David Thoreau, who entered Harvard College 187 years before you, once put it: to front, as he said, the essential facts of life. If we are to disentangle the future of this country from its legacy of white supremacy, we will have to make deliberate choices about all aspects of our lives, including our institutional lives, in places like Harvard, and places like the Memorial Church. In our desire to protect each other and the communities around us, we will have to make deliberate choices about how to spend our time, how to move our bodies through the world, how to reach safely across the distances between us. We have an opportunity in this time to slow down, to take the time to reach out to one another from our depths, from the place where the things that matter most to us are stirring.

This church exists to support you in this, as you seek to make your life in this new place, whether you are on campus this semester or not. It’s a place to engage what is happening beneath the surface — a place to be addressed in your depths, and to address the depths of others. A place to nourish and strengthen your spirit so that you can be your most creative, your most generative, your most deeply human self. Simone Weil once wrote about “experimental certainties”— things we can’t know unless we practice knowing them, things we can’t believe until we act as if they were true, things we can’t understand until we find out what they mean through practicing them with others. This church is a place to practice having faith: to pray as if someone were listening, to wrestle with ideas as if they might eventually bestow a blessing, to join others in service as if the world might be transformed. It is a place where no question is off limits—for, as Paul says, the spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. It is a place to practice living, as the Benedictines say, in conversatio morum — a continual conversion of life, a permanent openness to change. In this time of excitement, and sorrow, and uncertainty, this is a place to join others in going beneath the surface, seeking new possibilities within our humanity that help us imagine what the world, and we ourselves, might become.