Headmaster's Study

Headmaster’s Study

A Rough Coming

There is a voice that cries: Prepare a road for the Lord through the wilderness, clear a highway across the desert for our God. -- Isaiah 40:3

The first snowstorm of the season and Winter hasn't even arrived. In thirteen days, however, it does. It blows rough winds that roar around the West Front of the Cathedral and threaten to lift us, literally, off our feet. It dumps heavy snow. It dumps the flu. It piles up black slush. We rise in the dark and go to School; we work all day, sometimes in the faintest of light, and we go home in the dark.

Feel what happens to your spirit when I describe winter weather. Winter can be, for our spirits, a season of discontent. "Every mile is two in winter," George Herbert says, and classes in fact sometimes seem twice as long, bodies ache twice as intensely, tests feel twice as hard, and the distress of mind and soul and heart appear twice as threatening. I obviously don't want to depress you even more than I have by keeping this homily headed in the same direction, but I do want us to acknowledge a truth. During this season we begin on the shortest day of the year, December 21st, winter monsters we prefer not to come calling -- depression, self-pity, despair -- knock all too often on the doors of our souls. For some of us, these monsters can become a disease as ferocious as cancer and can be cured only by therapy and medicine. But all of us, regardless, must deal with these monsters.

How, then, do we keep those monsters out?

This afternoon I offer you four spiritual exercises. We exercise our minds and bodies, we must exercise our souls or, quite simply, our souls die. As in all things, each exercise has a positive and a negative side.

The first I call comparison shopping. Everyone knows what that is, especially this time of year. We look around until we find the best deal. A beginning spiritual exercise simply asks us to look around the world and compare our deal with other people's. Who has been given the most advantages? Who doesn't have to worry about the next meal, about freezing to death, about a warm place to sleep? If I were preaching a sermon and not a homily, I would document the overwhelming advantages given to those of us worshipping in this space, but I think you're well educated enough to know.

As I said, there are positives and negatives to each of these spiritual exercises.

The success of the first exercise depends upon the spirit we bring to it. If you are prideful, the exercise can reaffirm your pride and make you believe, just because you have material advantages, that you are better than those who have less. People who live in a desert of material goods might have a richness in their hearts, and those of us who lived in material luxury, might have deserts in our hearts. Also, conversely, if you are depressed and you approach any kind of comparison exercise with a negative consciousness, you will eventually be able to find someone better off than you are. He has more stuff, he makes better grades, he is a better athlete or actor, he is handsome and I am not. 99% of the rest of the world could not have our advantages, and yet our dark negativism might focus only on the one percent where we fall short. The final disadvantage to this exercise is that it is primarily intellectual, and if sadness and depression attack the mind first and foremost, it's hard to talk ourselves out of it solely by the force of mental will.

And yet there is a great positive to this exercise if you can muster the right spirit for it. Many of us in this sanctuary today are list-makers. The lists we make usually are the tasks we need to accomplish -- usually our homework assignments -- and the purpose of making the lists is to insure that we don't forget our homework or errands and that we accomplish them all by a certain deadline. Make a list of assignments. Draw a line through. Make the deadline. Make another list tomorrow. A second spiritual exercise, arising out of the right spirit about the first, is list-making, but the list is not the homework you need to do, but the blessings you have been given. The difference between this exercise and the first is that you are not thinking about your advantages in life -- income and material goods -- but about special objects with a super-material power, or relationships: teachers and friends that mean a lot to you, that make you who you are, that help you find meaning in life and feel some kind of self-worth and satisfaction. Notice that the mental activity of the first exercise is not enough here. You need to feel inside what your blessings are.

In both the first book of The Iliad and the eighth book of The Odyssey, Homer tells us that laughter is a gift from the gods. Ancient literature also emphasizes how important it is in life to be hospitable - to open the door to your home, build a fire, share food, sit together, tell stories, and laugh together. This communion doesn't happen without working at it, and this is our third exercise.

Think about this maxim: he who laughs, lasts. The great comic writer Max Beerbohm says, "Strange, when you come to think of it, that of all the countless folk who have lived before our time on this planet not one is known in history or in legend as having died of laughter." Freud has taught us that the motivations behind laughter can be complex, and I acknowledge the negative side of laughter. Boys' schools are notorious for cruel humor; in fact, one famous British writer today, Clive James, said he learned to make people laugh only to protect himself from all the fun that was made of him when he was a boy in school. Nevertheless, we need to exercise our laughter together, and we need to build it around being hospitable to one another and telling stories together. If we sit down and eat and tell funny stories and laugh at our own foolishness and the sometime absurdity of life, nothing can better make us feel the light coming into the darkness. This last point is a transition into my final exercise, for one of the great theologians of the twentieth century, Rheinhold Niebuhr, once wrote that "Laughter is the beginning of prayer."

By prayer, as the fourth exercise, I mean being still, quiet, listening. For the next three weeks, especially for those of us who are Christians, we live in the most ironic time of the year. The Season of Advent is a season of repentance and waiting for the visitation of the divine into the everyday, not as we expect to be visited, but in some kind of surprise - a baby born in a manger when we expect a powerful king, an innocent when we expect a warrior son of David. But the preparation not for the Savior but for Christmas instead -- the final tests before vacation, the sports requirements, rehearsing for Lessons and Carols, other music gigs, shopping -- are anything but a time of quiet waiting. I encourage you to understand that furious activity doesn't safeguard us against depression or despair. I encourage you, on the other hand, to know that quiet prayer doesn't guarantee happiness. But the exercise of the spirit -- through mental comparisons of our existence with others, through listing our blessings, through laughter, storytelling, and prayer -- better prepares us for however God will come into our lives. God will come. He doesn't ask permission -- He comes. I cannot tell you how that will happen. I can assure you only one thing, and that is that you will be surprised. God grant us the courage to prepare a way for the Lord through spiritual exercises and the wisdom to notice God when indeed he comes.

Now go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

Headmaster Vance Wilson delivered this homily on December 9, 2003.

St. Albans School, Mount St. Alban, Washington, DC 20016, 202-537-6435