It is a cherished campus tradition to gather in Appleton Chapel for Morning Prayers each weekday during the term. For hundreds of years, Harvard students, staff, faculty and neighbors of the university have met to sing, to pray, to experience the profound musical offerings of our Choral Fellows and to listen to a brief reflection by a member of the community about topics ranging from the most urgent issues of the moment to thoughts on how to meet the day ahead more mindfully.
On the first day of the first semester, it is our custom to listen to a reflection by the president of the University. Although we cannot meet together in Appleton Chapel, President Lawrence Bacow has kindly shared his opening reflection with us on video and in writing. President Bacow meditates in this talk on how ritual can deepen our life in this time, how even the simplest acts of attention and kindness become meditations on our shared humanity.
The MemChurch Daily Newsletter will share creative offerings by members of our community six days a week during term-time: musical offerings on Mondays, reflections by students on Tuesdays, instructions in a spiritual practice on Wednesdays, meditations by clergy, staff, faculty and others on Thursdays, and the prayers of our community on Fridays. And as always, on Saturdays, we will share the audio and text of the previous Sunday’s sermon as well as publish a list of upcoming events.
Every Thursday evening at 7 pm, a member of our community will reflect for a few minutes on a practice that is sustaining them in these days on Instagram Live. Please follow us @memchurch to watch these live broadcasts.
We are grateful to President Bacow for his challenging and hopeful words. And we are grateful to all of you, wherever you are, for joining us on this daily journey of reflection on who we are called to be in these days and how we might help each other practice being the people, and the community, we hope to become.
Blessings to all as the new year begins.
Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies
By Lawrence S. Bacow JD '76, MPP '76 PhD '78
President of Harvard University
So, how did you spend your summer vacation?
That’s a question that most of us would be answering this time of year—fresh off a season meant for rest, relaxation and renewal.
I’m sure that—like me—you gave it your best shot. In August, Adele and I tried to get away for our annual summer cruise on our sailboat. One of the many things I like about this ritual is that we have no itinerary. It’s actually one of the very few times in our lives that we are truly unscheduled. Each day we get up; we look at the weather report, focus largely on the wind, and try and decide where we are going to go on that day.
When I cast off the mooring, almost everything else goes with it. It’s close to a spiritual experience for me. And when Adele and I are on the boat, it’s just us together with the elements. And, as we started our annual summer cruise, I was looking forward candidly to a kind of peace that I haven’t experienced since last February.
But Isaias had other plans for us. Forecasts and projections quickly overtook our aspirations for a pleasant summer cruise. We had to find a safe harbor. We secured the boat and then we had to go ashore to wait out the storm. Our annual tradition—and all of its peculiar and delightful rituals—yielded to forces far greater than the two of us.
So, how did I actually spend my summer vacation?
I spent it—in part at least—thinking about ritual. So much of what we find comforting, uplifting, and affirming about religion is a familiar action—or a set of actions—repeated over time, connecting us to one another, to those who came before us, and to those who most likely will come after us. Back when Adele and I were still traveling abroad, we always made it a point of visiting synagogues throughout the world. It was comforting to encounter familiar rituals even in countries and cultures where we could not otherwise understand the language.
Even outside of faith traditions, we mark and measure the passage of time in ritual. In birth and in birthdays, we welcome and celebrate life. In marriage, we recognize and encourage commitment. In death, we remember, we gather, and we grieve—together.
The thing that I found most disquieting about this pandemic is that it has stolen from us so much ritual—even the simplest act of a morning walk into Harvard Yard—for me, into Massachusetts Hall—greeting familiar friends and colleagues is no more. These things that anchored us in countless ways have been swept away. We are unmoored, adrift, and—in far too many cases, I fear—alone.
It’s tempting to despair—tempting to relinquish hope and to turn inward. But things that sometimes take from us also give us something in return. And as we enter the uncharted waters of a semester unlike any that any of us have ever encountered before, I offer a morning prayer in praise of new rituals.
Waking at home instead of on campus—working at home instead of on campus—these are actually commitments to keeping members of our community safer than they would otherwise be. They are our new ritual.
Wearing a mask—enduring a testing regimen—these are daily celebrations of life—yours and the ones that you will save by being cautious and vigilant. Also a ritual.
Offering kindness—practicing patience and understanding—these are meditations on humanity. Who are we? What are we doing here? How are we helping—how are we serving—one another?
May every moment of this most unusual year be a moment for finding new ways—for discovering grace in unexpected places and for renewing our faith in one another by creating new ritual.
Together, I’m confident we will weather this storm until we reach familiar ports once again—stronger and better for all we have endured—filled, I hope, with gratitude. Thank you.