Morning Prayers address by Benjamin J. Schafer '19, Oct. 29, 2018 in the Memorial Church. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
Today’s text comes from the walls of this very sanctuary. A reading from the Memorial Church of Harvard University, the Memorial Room, Epigraph.
“While a bright future beckoned, they freely gave their lives and fondest hopes for us and our allies that we might learn from them courage in peace to spend our lives making a better world for others.”Courage in peace. Courage in peace.
I consider it one of the greatest blessings of my Harvard career that somebody in the Freshman Dean’s Office three years ago assigned me to Canaday Hall. Why, you ask? Because whether I wanted it or not, I was awake every day at 8:40 am, the bells from Memorial Church startling me from what was, too often, insufficient sleep and signaling the start of one of Harvard’s most enduring traditions, the service of daily morning prayers.
I decided to use these bells to my advantage, and Morning Prayers and Memorial Church quickly became a part of my daily Harvard existence, ensuring that my friendships were intergenerational and that my soul was bountifully nourished.
At the end of freshman year, I decided to become more involved in the church. I started reading, serving as a student deacon, and, beginning my sophomore spring, heading up the now-defunct Wednesday morning coffee hour known as MemCafe. For three semesters, I marked the mid-point in my week serving coffee to many of the people in this chapel, to Harvard’s faculty, students, administrators, and staff, and to tourists from around the world.
On too many Wednesdays, rain, snow, wind, and maintenance pushed MemCafe inside, and after the brief rush following Morning Prayers, I was left to keep watch over a vacant room, the Memorial Room. That vacant room, however, was far from lonely—the memories of 372 Harvard alumni and faculty who died in the first World War kept me company. It was in their honor that this church was erected, and it is to their legacy that my chosen text for this morning refers. “While a bright future beckoned, they freely gave their lives and fondest hopes for us and our allies that we might learn from them courage in peace to spend our lives making a better world for others.”
At the time this church was built eighty-six years ago, no one expected more names would be added to the sanctuary walls. We all know such hopes were not fulfilled; in fact, there have been few years since 1932 that America was not at war or engaged in military exercises in some far-reaching corner of the world. But the facts of history do not diminish, preclude, or obscure the original clarion call of this church: courage in peace.
That call, my brothers and sisters, is desperately in need of our attention and our action. It is no secret that the coffers of courage in our country are running dry. But I did not come here this morning to remind you of the state of our republic; No, it’s too easy to use the enormity of the current national crisis as a scapegoat to abdicate our responsibilities to the people alongside whom we walk every day. I deeply worry that there are too many people in our own community whose need for our courage we have met with self-righteousness.
Courage is using our power to stand in front of the camera, behind the lectern, and in the pulpit proclaiming that God is love and using that power not to isolate and alienate our colleagues but to lift them up. Courage is preserving the best of our rituals and transforming to meet the needs of those around us, no matter how they address their God. Courage, my friends, is invoking the teachings and spiritual wisdom of other traditions and making sure that no students who practice those traditions have to pray in a boiler room.
The memories of fallen Harvard affiliates whose legacy will endure as long as this church stands remind us that the alternative to courage is bleak. If we cannot meet the challenges of our time, no matter where they are, with courage, how can we expect peace? If we are not courageous in thought and action, how can we expect to make a better world for others?
In his 1956 Pulitzer-prize winning book, Profiles in Courage, then-Senator John F. Kennedy, Harvard Class of 1940, wrote, “In a democracy, every citizen, regardless of his interest in politics, ‘holds office’; every one of us is in a position of responsibility.” Perhaps, my brothers and sisters, it’s time we take that responsibility more seriously.
Will you pray with me?
Creator God, with courage, you set the universe into motion, and with courage, you gave humanity dominion over a small slice of that universe. Grant us a sliver of that courage, O God, that we might sow peace and make a better world for others.