May 19, 2002
They were all gathered in one place.
Amazed and astonished, we heard them speaking about God’s deeds of power,
each in her own language and all were understood by all.
And, again, suddenly standing among them in a locked room,
God breathed on them and said, receive the Holy Spirit.
There are indeed a variety of gifts but the same spirit.
To each of you is given the manifestation of the spirit for the common good.
Today we incorporate the ancient ritual of baccalaureate within our liturgy on the great feast of Pentecost, the feast that celebrates the wonderful diversity of God’s people; celebrates the assurance of God’s spirit within, around, behind, above and among us; celebrates God’s people sent forth in mission.
What pointed and lovely synchrony with our own purpose today as we send you forth — equipped with degrees, of course, and with all the knowledge and wisdom that comes from your education here — but more importantly, we send you into a world that needs your very own spirit, the one only you can bring — the one touched and intertwined with God’s, the one God is clearly counting on to renew the very heart of the world!
Like the wildly diverse community in the first reading, your class is beautifully diverse. You are young and not so young, from city and farm, mountain and flatland. You are quiet and exuberant, confident and shy, methodical and spontaneous — people who claim roots on many continents, people whose mother tongue is English, Urdu, French, Arabic — still, women able to speak with each other from the deep places of your hearts. You are artists, writers, scientists, social workers, teachers, nutritionists, accountants, healers — sisters.
Together, you reflect our best imagining about liberal education — our best examples of the Pentecost fire, ablaze as you are with talent and energy — of the Pentecost wind, powerful as you are in determination and commitment — of the gentle Pentecost breath of God, compassionate as we have seen you move and be, within sadness and struggle.
Goethe says that only what proceeds from our gathered strengths can be called beautiful. If beauty does indeed stem from the ensemble of our strengths, then looking at you — knowing you — I wonder how we can possibly take in, absorb so much beauty, so much beauty.
I thought about that yesterday with great hope, reading as I did in the “Strib” article about the Red Hat Society and realizing, quite joyfully, it was talking about a group of wise, very engaging old women, and not aged cardinals. Women who wear red hats — that is what you are.
But — individual and collective gifts notwithstanding — doesn’t each of us still have something that makes us so like the disciples locked up in a room for fear? Huddled, waiting with weak hope, worrying that they had missed something, hadn’t really understood, misjudged potential, relationships, capabilities? Remember that, in John’s gospel, only ten days had lapsed since Jesus died, eleven since the Last Supper with them, a week since the inexplicable experience of resurrection. Only two weeks before they were all in a joyous parade entering Jerusalem. Their leader, Jesus — triumphant, then dead — arisen, there and not there — going away so he could be closer — some pretty confusing stuff. So much change and confusion — wrenching emotional yanks, from exuberance and tugs toward arrogance, despair, bewilderment, abandonment. Into all of that, God — who is, as Thomas Merton says, “mercy within mercy within mercy” — entered, stood right among them, breathed spirit into them. And so it would remain for the long haul, for us, for the world.
So surely with us — you graduates especially — God can and will do it all over again.
You may think this pretty esoteric — beyond you — or that you are somehow not included, not good enough. Let me use a story, though, to convince you that you are wrong about that. I have a friend — a gifted musician and calligrapher. She’s a little eccentric and hard to pin down; in the eyes of some, unpredictable, perhaps stubborn. Often misunderstood, she is, nonetheless, a jewel of a human being, reflecting facet after facet of the creative spirit of God. She is a spirit-filled, a Pentecost woman. She wears red hats.
She can play music in a nightclub — and does — with as much ease and skill as she accompanies a Mozart Requiem rehearsal or a chapel liturgy. Well into her sixties, she indulged a lifelong desire to study voice. Two weeks ago, she sang the role of the prioress as the women’s choir performed the Dialogue of the Carmelites on tour at Carnegie Hall and in the Church of St. John the Divine in New York City. She is now 74 years old.
Rosie’s entire life is one uninterrupted act of improvisation and creation, underscored by the kind of discipline, contemplation and hard work that marks the true marriage of God-given talent and human achievement. Rosie has a T-shirt that speaks something about who she is. In addition to red hats, everyone says she is spirit-filled. In lovely calligraphy in a progressive rainbow of color on the shirt is one word — Breathe. That single word — so connected to the Pentecost story — reveals the simple secret of her wonderfully engaged life.
But on this beautiful feast of Pentecost, it is difficult for us to think about the Holy Spirit in any sustained way, given as we are to immediacy, to what is concrete — and afraid as we are of what we cannot see, touch, hold onto. So think about Rosie’s shirt, and breathe. That is what Rosie does. She breathes, then she stretches outside of herself, beyond where she thought she could be. That is all it takes to be spirit-filled. That is everything it takes.
Start by becoming conscious of your own breath. Slow your self down and go into the sacred space of your own breathing. Think about what it means that God already did choose to leave the spiritus — the one who animates — among and within each of you. Think about God breathing love around, behind, within and among you. Let the power of that fill your lungs, your heart, your whole self.
Recall how wonderful it is to watch a child or someone you love sleep and breathe; how comforting it is that life sustains itself even when we are doing nothing to help it along; how slow, deliberate breathing restores energy, calms struggle — gives rise to new thoughts, brings pleasure, peace.
Think about your breath quickening when one for whom you wait finally appears; when you push your body to its physical limits; when anxious anticipation gives way to relief, joy or tears. Think about the power of a single breath. It keeps you alive — propels you into the future — repetitively and rhythmically marks your humanness.
My flute teacher told me more than once that we use far less than half of our lung capacity. Shallow breathing diminishes the beauty of sound produced, allows far less graceful weaving of melody and phrase, never approaches the limits of potential, leaves possibility out of reach.
These are ways in which the spirit of God works in us. When you allow yourself to be filled with the Holy Spirit, you become a courageous architect of change, a lifter of spirits, one who does indeed renew the face of the earth — a creator, one with intimate knowledge of God.
First comes breath, and then imagination — then determination, then great effort and energy, and finally a result — art, beauty, work, goodness, love. The stuff of your life.
“What I do is live,” Merton says, “How I pray is breathe.”
So, like Rosie, may you breathe well.
May a good wind catch you. May a benevolent breath take hold of you and move you. May a deep and full spirit come over you and burst open around you. May a luminous vision inform you, enfold you. May you awaken into a story that surrounds; and may you breathe there, and breathe well. May you look forward to living every day in the world; delight in your own vibrancy and resilience; marvel at your ability to imagine; stretch to feel the emotions of the heart; shape words and work and visions not yet dreamed.
Such is the way of the spirit of God. Such is God’s ardent hope for you. So, put on the T-shirt that admonishes you to breathe through every challenge, struggle and opportunity of your life. Know God’s spirit breathes with you. Then you will understand who you already are, like Rosie — a jewel of a human being, reflecting facet after facet of the creative Spirit of God.
We are here together in this room. God is here. You don’t have to be afraid — the doors are open, not locked, and the world is outside waiting for you. Etch this experience into your memory; because at some time in your life, you will know what it means to be barricaded in a small room from which there is no apparent way out — a place locked off from the rest of the world. That experience may come from a broken relationship, a dream dashed, the loss of one you love, or the cold iron of betrayal. You will find yourself hiding, turned in on your own fear; staring at the futility of a locked door, the hard walls of whatever is pressing in on your very soul.
But learn this lesson well: you may lock the door — God still wants to find a way to enter. Expend whatever energy it takes to live in that belief; rely on the power of your own determination, the hand of someone who loves you, or the need of someone who depends on you. After that door opens — as is the way with grace and God’s spirit graciously given — the power of your intellect, your talent, your commitment, your heart will take over.
Denise Levertov’s words describe a day like Pentecost, one very much like this morning. “A certain day became a presence to me; there it was, confronting me. And before it started to descend, it leaned over and struck my shoulder as if with the flat of a sword, granting me honor and a task. And what I heard was my whole self saying and singing what it already knew: I can.”
From these words, breathe … then take heart.