Headmaster Jason Robinson delivered this homily at the Opening Cathedral Service on September 13, 2021.
A Reading from the Book of Isaiah 58:11–12
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
Good morning. And a warm welcome back to the 2021–22 school year. What a blessing it is to be together—in person—in the Washington National Cathedral, one of our community’s and our nation’s most sacred spaces. It is so wonderful to see all of you. I want to extend an especially heartfelt welcome to those who are new to the St. Albans community. We are so glad you are part of our school family.
Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that we gather this morning at a moment of celebration for our school as we begin the new school year, but also a solemn moment for our city and our nation, as we mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11. I would ask that we all pause for a moment of silence in memory of this day, of the lives lost, the sacrifices made, and the transformations this event wrought in our lives.
Even as we remember 9/11 with reverence and humility, we also turn expectantly and hopefully to the school year ahead of us.
There was such a wonderful sense of energy and possibility on campus last week as we reopened school—such a joy to be back together, such a yearning to reconnect—and perhaps also a bit of fatigue—a “good tired,” as many of our boys commented that it had been quite some time since they had experienced a “regular” school day, with all of its excitement and busyness and fullness of activity. But how uplifting it has been to hear our hallways and classrooms filled with the sounds of boys at work and at play—to be enjoying family style meals in the Refectory—to hear the cheers of the Beef Club at football and soccer games—and the feeling of a community in the process of healing and restoring itself.
I recall last year giving this opening Homily in a much emptier Cathedral—missing all of you, missing the opportunity to observe this wonderful tradition of gathering together in community at the beginning of each school year. I especially missed the beloved St. Albans tradition we just witnessed—where our oldest boys, our Sixth Formers, walk into the Cathedral holding hands with our youngest boys, our C Formers. How inspiring to see this tradition restored, this rite of passage that carries so much meaning and significance for our community.
What a road we have travelled during the past 18 months. A time filled with challenges and adversity, but also extraordinary moments of grace and resilience and redemption, as we worked together to safely reopen school for every boy last spring. I am so proud of what we achieved. I am so thankful to our families for keeping faith with us. And I know the lessons learned and the wisdom acquired will serve us well as we embark on what I truly believe will be a more normal school year, with a more fully restored St. Albans. We have worked hard this summer to consolidate all that we learned last year in the crucible of COVID—where we need to show continued caution, as well as where we can be more forward-leaning—practicing humility while also embracing opportunities to do more for our boys and for ourselves, knowing how important it is to restore community and connection after a year when so much of what is sacred about St. Albans was not available to us. Reclaiming those foundational experiences, those rituals of togetherness—all in a way that continues to protect the health and safety of our community—is the great work before us this year.
So it is with a full heart and a deep sense of optimism that I stand before you this morning at the beginning of this school year.
I’ve been thinking a great deal this past summer about how to think about the year ahead of us, how to get our heads and our hearts in a place that feels aligned with what is before us, so we can receive what this year has to teach us and can approach it with a readiness to take advantage of the opportunities it affords.
I have often said since my arrival at St. Albans in 2018 that “leadership is about knowing what time it is.” It’s a truth we’ll be reminded of often this coming year as we reset our clocks to a normal school day and live back into former rhythms and routines.
But when I speak of “knowing what time it is,” I mean this in a more fundamental sense—not just knowing when classes meet and assignments are due (what the Greeks referred to as “chronos” or chronological time), but about being attentive to time in a deeper sense, what the Bible refers to as “Kairos”, as we try to “feel” where our school community is in the spiritual arc of time—to attend to what the present moment is calling us to do—what opportunities are being readied for us if we have ears to hear.
The past 18 months have been ones of enormous strain and adversity. It has been a period of disruption on so many fronts, testing the limits of our adaptive capacities.
Even before COVID, as I look back at the three-year period since my arrival at St. Albans, it has been a time when the world and our community has faced a series of profound challenges and displacements, in many cases caused by larger social, cultural, political (and in the case of COVID, epidemiological) developments that we did not ourselves create but that we have been called to respond to.
I am proud of the way we have responded; and I am proud of the way we have continued to educate our boys and deliver our mission in the midst of these crises. I believe St. Albans continues to provide a “still point” in a turning world, to quote the wonderful T.S. Elliot phrase.
But I am also aware of how much has been asked of this community since I arrived—how many formidable projects and challenges we have undertaken—how an atmosphere of disruption and adversity has in some ways hovered above us and around us for far too long. Like Martha, the Biblical character in the Book of Luke, we have been trying to educate our boys in a world “worried and upset about many things” (Luke 10:41).
We of course cannot control exogenous forces or the macro environment in which we teach our boys. But we still have agency. And we can still do our best to “know what time it is”—to ready ourselves for a moment of possibility—an opening—when an opportunity presents itself to bend the moral arc of our school’s universe in a different direction, as I believe we now have.
Periods of disruption are often followed by periods of restoration.
The Reading for today from the Book of Isaiah speaks to precisely this theme of “restoration,” of “rebuilding,” of “repairing the breach,” of raising up “the foundations” established by the generations who came before us.
The work we are called to do this year is about precisely this: about restoring and healing our community, re-establishing connections and relationships, reclaiming traditions, rediscovering familiar rhythms and rituals of togetherness, knitting the fabric of our culture back together. About finding stillness in our sacred spaces. Stability in the strength of our community. About paying attention to the most important things, the first and most fundamental things, from which all of our community’s blessings flow.
It is about being together in the Little Sanctuary, in the Refectory, in our common spaces and shared experiences. For it is through the restoration of these sacred traditions, these rituals of togetherness, that we will renew our moral foundations and bind the fabric of our community back together. Everything else we seek to accomplish—all of our work—flows from this. Let nothing distract us from it.
Importantly, the stillness and stability I am encouraging us to find within our sacred spaces does not equate to stagnation or passivity.
The Reading today from Isaiah reminds us that these moments of opportunity that open up before us—these moments of Kairos—point to a divine ordering in our lives—a moment prepared and readied for us, but one that requires our active engagement to bring into being.
And we at St. Albans are an active, engaged school community, grounded in enduring values that will never change, but always aspiring to live more fully into the promise and possibilities of our mission. We have just released our new strategic plan, the central theme of which is “St. Albans as a Sacred Space for All.” And I know from talking with many of you how much excitement is building about the work ahead of us—reinvesting in our school’s traditions, foundations, and sacred spaces, while also continuing to grow and challenge ourselves—to draw strength and purpose from our history, while also enlarging the story we tell about ourselves—to remain active and engaged with the great issues of our time, but always in a way that aligns with our mission, values, and traditions.
I will work very hard this year to avoid disruptive, disorienting changes (as we’ve surely had our fill of disruptions over the past 18 months). And I commit personally to being present with all of you this year—teaching, learning, sharing meals together, rebuilding our community one conversation at a time, affirming our remarkable faculty and staff in their work and their value, knowing each family, and knowing and loving every boy entrusted to our care.
And I believe there is a powerful connection between the essential work of restoring community and the thoughtful pursuit of mission-affirming changes that bring us together as a school family, that unite us around our shared ideals, that affirm us and transform us at the same time. At St. Albans, we reject the false choice that says a school must choose between tradition and transformation. At St. Albans, tradition and transformation are not opposing forces but are two parts of the same process. By strengthening our traditions, we create the foundation for the transforming grace at the heart of a St. Albans education.
And it all begins, as everything must at St. Albans, with the first things, the most important things—with the sacred bonds we form as a community in our sacred spaces and with the relationships and rituals of togetherness that are the heart and soul of this special place.
Gentlemen, let us remember what time it is. It is our time and our moment—to be repairers of the breach, to rebuild the great foundations of our beloved school, to take this beautiful legacy that has been handed to us by past generations and, with God as our guide, pass on to those who will come after us a school even stronger and more luminous than the one we have inherited.