The following was delivered by Jeff Aper, Provost, Blackburn College,
as the Homecoming Chapel Message on October 2, 2011.
What is home? A refuge? A place of origin? A structure to shelter and protect us? There was a time when houses were commonly passed from generation to generation. They carried with them the history of a family, and the memories contained within those walls made a home a sacred place, a place to be cared for and protected; cherished as a place of origin and sanctuary, a foundation from which forays to confront the challenges of the larger world could be undertaken.
Though we live in a culture that is constantly on the move, where attachment to place is often seen as stagnation, where virtual places have become as important as physical places, there is still a profoundly deep connection we feel to those special places that we call home, that are our places of origin, that reflect and embody our core values. We take pains to preserve and interpret the history and significance of a variety of special places - the homes of former presidents, sites of natural wonder and beauty, battlefields, settlements, churches, and the like. At a more modest and personal level, adults [like me] may feel an odd sense of discontent over a once empty lot where they played baseball in childhood that now holds an apartment complex. Human experience is filled with recognition of certain places as important and meaningful. Such understanding of place shapes both individual and group identity and orientation to the world. The disconnection from real place, from real community, impoverishes our lives and can never feed our hearts in the same way as what can come from the deep well of experience in a place that carries personal and shared meaning.
Almost a century ago (1915) the great sociologist Emile Durkheim observed that all religious traditions classify the world into two categories – the profane and the sacred. Profane space would seem to me to be those places that are not respected or cared for. They hold no particular meaning and are undifferentiated in human thought and action. Much of the space we encounter in today’s world is profane, because we have made it that way. We deny the sacred and turn the world into vast tracts that are at a minimum neutral and meaningless in our view or worse, despoiled and even dangerous. Sacred places, though, are typically set apart, protected, venerated. Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has called such spaces “fields of care” – places invested with emotional energy that carry a sense of meaning and purpose about human existence. Our experiences, our identities, our relationship to the seemingly limitless space of the universe are shaped by our sense of meaningful place. Such places become sacred through our ties to them, our commitments, our reverence and care for what such places tell us and tell about us.
Sacred places have been identified by human beings for as long as human beings have been around. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, these places begin with the story of Eden, the ideal garden where human existence is introduced. Places are frequently noted and given significant names by Biblical figures (e.g. – in Genesis Jacob dreams of a ladder between heaven and earth and in the morning names the place Beth-El, or House of God). In Exodus Moses is instructed to remove his shoes because he is standing on holy ground. These kinds of stories are frequent in the Old Testament.
In the New Testament, in the second and again in the third chapters of Mark’s gospel Jesus is described as at home in Capernaum. At one point his family comes to take him home because they believe he is behaving strangely. The message implied in Jesus’ response to this is that home is where the community of believers assemble (Mark 3 – 34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” – so that the sacred place is defined by the shared values and purpose of those joined by their commitments).
In Jesus’ famous parable of the Prodigal Son, after the prodigal in question dissipates his wealth and is left miserable and penniless, his thoughts turn to home – the place where he grew up, where he imagines some comfort, acceptance, even if he must eat with animals. He finds that his home is still home; in spite of his foolishness in squandering money and goodwill, he is again welcomed. Home is the place where his highest and best values and self are still expressed; a sacred place that he turns to as a foundation of his being. The places we see in this way tell a great deal about who we are as human beings. And so in our second reading the Gospel according to Luke tells about the boy Jesus, who is missing from the group traveling home after making a trip to Jerusalem for the Passover observance. Jesus is finally found in the Temple, having a good class discussion. His parents are flustered by all of this, but Jesus states matter of factly, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” The sacred place, the Temple, is the logical place to find Jesus – it is home, the place of origin, to which he will later return with great consequence. “His Father’s house” tells a very great deal about Jesus, his meaning and purpose.
Today’s reading from Ezra recounts the return of Israelite exiles to Jerusalem, a city revered for millennia as a sacred place to adherents of three of the world’s great faith traditions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
The passage in Ezra is notable because of the power of emotions it describes about a homecoming. The people returned to a home, a sacred place imbued with deep emotion, attachment, and meaning. The chronicler of these events states “…many …who had seen the former temple, [who knew this sacred place] wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise.” That’s a powerful statement, and I’d guess that anyone who has experienced a long sojourn away from home, the sense of loss when disconnected from places sacred to them, places that embody and reflect their identity, that rise as green hills of meaning in a world of wide reaches of profane, empty space, can understand those words fully.
As writer and environmentalist Tom Bender has observed, “the places we make act as mirrors to our lives.” The power of sacred places, he noted, “lies within their role in marshalling our inner resources and binding us to our beliefs.” Sacred places are recognized, valued and protected for the history they hold, the stories they sustain that help us make meaning of our existence.
As an example to bring this idea closer to home, at Blackburn we have 9 buildings constructed entirely or partly by students, and every building here bears the memory of students building, cleaning, repairing, or maintaining it. This is a profound story of devotion to an ideal of community and shared purpose that helps make this place sacred. Again quoting Tom Bender, “The most mundane building can be transformed through the spirit with which it is used… What counts is that someone has done the best, not the least, they could. And that comes not from necessity, but only from love.” As a student here over the course of four years I ran water lines, laid brick, replastered walls, tuck pointed buildings, dug ditches for footings for new walks or driveways, and helped remodel buildings still in use. Thousands of alums could tell a similar story. I don’t know if I loved all of those tasks, though in retrospect I think maybe I did. I do know that all of this was supervised by a man who loved this college and the students in his charge. The meaning in that resonates in everyone who has grown up at this institution.
For so many of us, Blackburn’s campus is such a sacred place – a place where we found ourselves, found our life partners, our vocations… a foundation, a firm center from which to step forward into the challenges and disorder of the larger world. It is hard to fathom that online learning could ever shape lives in the same deep ways. In fact, I was recently talking with a fundraising professional who told me that he had an opportunity to talk with successful alum who had completed an online degree program at the institution he represented. The alum told him that he had no interest in his alma mater because he felt no connection to it whatsoever. I suggest that we lose our connections to real places at peril to our sense of connection not only to each other, but to our sense of what God calls us to be as members of the human community.
Since their beginnings, many American colleges and universities have sought ways to create special places, special landscapes, believed to be conducive to, perhaps even essential to, their fundamental purposes and objectives. Western societies have historically established special, or designated, places for the purposes of higher learning, reflection, preparation, or training. The earliest university campuses in Europe were built as places of unique qualities of space and power, often aimed at recreating Biblical themes of the Garden of Eden or the life and passion of Christ. In these ways the universities were understood as places of transformation, a kind of pilgrimage and rebirth as a person of greater learning and authority.
Students came to these places as pilgrims, recreating the journeys of their ancestors to the sacred places; journeys intended to challenge and change them. Pilgrimage reproduces the epic journey of trial and transformation captured in ancient stories from cultures around the world. Pilgrimage has traditionally been understood to involve a separation from “regular life” – a journey to a place that is sacred, so education would be a kind of allegorical experience of the journey through life from immaturity to maturity, from ignorance to knowledge, from foolishness to wisdom, from doubt to faith. Challenge, even severe challenge, was understood to be important and meaningful.
Let me return to writer Tom Bender, who captured these ideas so well. He wrote – “What is significant about sacred places turns out not to be the places themselves. Their power lies within their role in marshaling our inner resources and binding us to our beliefs. Our act of “holding sacred” is the root, not the place where we choose to carry out that act. It is in that act that we give places power to affect our lives. In holding a place sacred, we grant power to a place and acknowledge that power of the place. … Sacred places … forge and strengthen bonds between us and the universe in which we believe. They empower us by affirming the wholeness of the universe we see revealed about us, and by reflecting our chosen places and role in that universe. The inviolability of sacred places is essential. Through making them inviolable, we affirm … our beliefs [in] the values … they embody.”
This, Blackburn College, is a sacred place. Every building, every playing field, every open space reminds us of who we are and what our commitments are. Let’s carry with us every day the greatness of spirit that has animated so many professors, work supervisors, fellow students, and others who have shown us the way to go forward into that greater world. Blackburn is our alma mater – the nurturing mother – that has prepared us and shaped our values. Let’s work to preserve and protect this place that anchors us in a world of uncertainty and challenge; a place we’ll pass on from generation to generation; a place of origin and sanctuary; a foundation.
Blackburn forges and strengthens bonds between us and others, between us and our greater calling to do something real and meaningful. When we return to this home, we are reminded of where we began, where our journey has taken us, and that we can trust in the One who has ordained that we will live this life. Let Homecoming here always be that time when “No one [can] distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping,” because of the depth and goodness of the memories and the joy of returning home.