"Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." 1 Samuel 3:10
Seniors, thank you. This is a homily on voices.
And the Lord said, Let there be light, and there was light. And it was good. Samuel said, Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening. Elijah knew that the Lord was not in the wind, nor earthquake, nor fire, but in a still small voice. As Jesus emerged from the Jordan river, the voice said, This is my son in whom I am well pleased.
Poets speak of voices. As a child in the woods, Wordsworth heard voices in the water and in his head. Sharon Olds speaks of today’s voices racing to towers, into the atmosphere, and on to satellites. AR Ammons speaks to all of you who write: say what you have to say and let your voice find itself. Walt Whitman asked us not to forget who the shower was, for the voice of the rain said, I am the Poem of the Earth. And in his old age facing death, my favorite poet WB Yeats said, O Sweet Everlasting voice, be still.
And then my friends soon to graduate, you have heard our voices here at St. Albans.
“How you doing? If I were any better, I’d blow up.”
“The fun never ends.”
“Get out to that.”
“One team one heart.”
“Here we go.”
“Win the points you have no business winning.”
“Everybody on the wall.”
“That’s just show biz.”
“You will get your clocks cleaned.”
“Do it for the crest on your shirt.”
“HASFOB, S(C)BORFF, TBAT.”
“Time passes. Will you?”
“Power off and give it to me.”
“I can’t resist …”
“Let’s unpack that.”
“Do you think, or do you feel?”
And best of all:
“There are donuts in the refectory.”
And then there are these voices:
“Men of the future ….”
“We just don’t do that here.”
“Character is who you are when no one is watching.”
“The hard right over the easy wrong.”
“I’ve lost my jacket. It’s a Brooks Brothers blazer with a slight rip on the left elbow. If you find it, please give it to me or Ms. Spaulding.”
“Who are you?”
“I am Vance Wilson, 7th Bobble-Head of St. Albans School, 1999-2018, soon to be Nobody. Who are you?”
“Yes. Who are you?”
This question—your identity—has to do, essentially, with voices. The voice of God is Creation. The Voice of Samuel is acceptance. Of Elijah, stillness. Jesus speaks of compassion. The voices of St. Albans are exhortation. Your identity is now determined, and will be determined for the rest of your life, by the voices you choose to disregard, and those you listen to, and by the voices within yourself you find, create, nurture, and speak with. One of the few wisdoms that come with age is the realization that this dialogue with voices never ends. There is never one determination. One very wise man once told me I should be an apprentice for the rest of my life, listening to the voices of my mentors, the ones who are alive, the ones whom I knew and now are dead, and the ones who lived in the distant past but who still speak to me. So seniors, apprentice until you die.
In contrast to the voices of our mentors, realize how many bad voices, even evil voices, will speak to you. They want something from you. When someone in the next years says, “The fun never ends,” I hope you know that we can amuse ourselves to death. When someone says to you “Big Money,” know that Big Money doesn’t want to share. It wants your money. If you don’t know who’s providing the donuts in the refectory, don’t eat them. False voices want to suck your body and soul dry. I cannot warn you strongly enough. Most voices care nothing for you.
Please note again some details about our scripture. The boy Samuel lies still in bed. First observation: you cannot listen for a voice if you can't listen to and love silence. Our world fears silence. Samuel assumes the voice he hears is Eli’s, his guardian. He sees Eli as an authority. Crowd-sourcing is not an authority. Study, reason, history, myth, experience, and wisdom make for authority, and sometimes it resides in only one individual. And God called three times. If these kind of voices persist, you should listen.
So, Seniors … you’re leaving us?
The American novelist William Faulkner, who was wise about the changeableness of life, was very fond of using the metaphor of Greek masks. He often writes about characters putting on the different masks of Greek drama to portray themselves one way in one chapter and another way in the next chapter. This is natural. You will shed this person you now are. From now on every time you return to St. Albans you will be different. This does not mean you’re inauthentic, only that you’re living in time. Time by necessity brings change. Each time you return, the school too will feel different: this fact is true. You will never recover what you have now, and you should not try to. If you try, you’ll get stuck. You’ll rot. Have the courage to press forward, to risk a new life. If nothing else, show the courage to fare forward.
So, Seniors, … you’re leaving us?
How about an Irish voice? You might remember this one.
May the road rise up to meet you,
May the wind be ever at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
And the rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.