The Realm of Soul Building
S-SM Commencement Address delivered 28 May 2005

Thanks, Claire. That was pretty swell; you should have invited that guy.

  Seniors! I know what you're thinking: "What's this? Another teacher to sit through before I graduate?" I feel your pain. But here we are, so let's see what we can say about...graduation day.
  I taught mythology for years, and mythology says today you are at a crossroads on the magic journey. And always at a crosswords, in mythology, there's a death to undergo. Today you die! Today you die to your childhood and adolescence, and today you are resurrected as fully responsible adults. That's the hope, anyway. But what were those first eighteen years all about? We know the business of childhood is to explore the tangibles. For eighteen years we grow to physical maturity and learn all about the physical world and how it works. And here you are. The keys to the physical kingdom are now yours. You know all about sex. You know all about computers. You know all about the electric guitar and the hockey stick. Congratulations. But don't start singing, "What a good boy am I," just yet, "or good girl" either. There's more journey left, and now comes the tricky bit. Now, mythology says, you enter The Realm of Soul Building. The rest of the journey is more spiritual than physical, whether you believe it or not, because you are more a spiritual being than a physical one, whether you believe that or not. And the quest and the question is: can you enter the darkest regions of your soul, meet the trials the gods have put there, find the sacred character which is your destiny, negotiate the deaths and resurrections you will surly have to before the final one, and effect your own apotheosis?
  "Oh, God, Mr. Schuster, that sounds like a load!" In both senses. But that's the journey. And my fear today is that popular culture does not prepare young people well to undertake this journey. Not, at least, if you are like I was at eighteen. So let me tell you briefly my pathetic story.
  I grew up in a family of high energy, no-nonsense types and never heard the name of God mentioned once. No religious training whatsoever...which was fine with me. Just enough Sunday School to scoff at, perhaps, and I was good at scoffing. And off to college I went. In college the literature professors seemed pretty smooth, and I decided to study with them. And they too were good, skeptical Humanists. This was the 50's, remember, and the great literary movement of the 50's was existential Humanism. "GOD IS DEAD," said the cover of Time magazine in big letters. Empirical science had come of age, and looking at the universe, empirical science had to conclude the highest form of being anywhere was the human brain, man himself, hence Humanism.
  We were on our own in a godless universe, which, when you came right down to it, couldn't be said to have any meaning at all. "Meaninglessness" was the big catch word of existentialism. And we all just had to admit that, yes, there were some beautiful moments in life, but it was essentially a train wreck at the end, and you just had to accept that finally they'd put you in the ground and throw dirt in your face, and that was the end of you. But that, at least, was being mature and clear-headed and realistic.
  And we all had to read the popular French Existentialists, Camus and Sartre, and the rest, who wrote these terribly gloomy stories really: The Plague, for instance, by Albert Camus, a story about a walled city, quarantined and ravaged by plague brought in by rats. And nobody was allowed to leave or enter, and they all began to die horribly, and they all knew they were doomed. Which was, of course, a metaphor for the world at large: little hope here and absolutely none hereafter.
  But the seductive thing was supposed to be the nobility of the hero, a doctor in this case, who went about trying to help the dying and soothe the suffering, though he knew full well it was hopeless. And he wasn't even very effective at helping the sick, because, of course, he was the new existential anti-hero, one who tried and tried his best, but was facing insurmountable odds. And the message was supposed to be: Well, yes, we're doomed, but isn't it, really, even more noble to try to do right, without hope of reward or fear of punishment: to do the right thing, just because it's right to do. Doomed, of course, but free at last from the tyranny of the great Bible of behavior modification, which worked us, like little children, in a system of cosmic rewards and punishments. Doomed, but facing our fate like clear-eyed adults, at last.
  And because these swell professors I had seemed to believe all this, I graduated a good little Humanist myself and marched off bravely chanting, "Free at last, free at last." Trying, of course, not to think too hard about the doomed part. But you can't NOT think about the doomed part very long, because you're supposed to think about it. Literature keeps rubbing your nose in the theme of Death. And so finally I just had to ask myself, "Do people really act as nobly as these fictional anti-heroes?" And I had to put myself back on that doomed train speeding faster and faster toward NOTHINGNESS, and say, "Slade, if you know the train wreck is near, and believe it, as the Humanists say you must, are you really going to wander the aisles of that doomed train, among your doomed companions...What? Passing out jelly beans, maybe, and soothing words: 'There,There,' and 'Try not to fret,' and, 'Oh, Look at the pretty cow out there.' Or will you be screaming your guts out like a little kid?" Well, you know the answer I got. So there I was, left with a big load of shame and disillusionment. Here I couldn't even be trusted to behave decently like the heroes I'd been taught to admire. And if I couldn't trust myself, I was certainly not going to trust you either. And that was the low point. The Humanist world was bleak enough, but a world full of failed, cowardly Humanists was really the pits.
  Well, the poets can help here, I found. And in this case it was Shakespeare who finally set me straight on the Humanists, when I came to teach Hamlet. In Hamlet we meet this wonderful character named Polonius, who appears at the beginning of the play, you recall, doing what all good fathers should do, passing moral wisdom on to his son Laertes who's going off to college. All fathers must do this. I know you're going to do it, dads, this summer.
  "And these few precepts in thy memory look though character," says Polonius to his son. "Precepts," little rules to live by, to avoid trouble in the nasty world of college. And it's a wonderfully poetic list, as only Shakespeare can do it. Many of these precepts we quote today without remembering where they came from:
  "Neither a borrower nor a lender be."
  Dress well, "for the apparel oft proclaims the man."
  "Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy." You know, live within your budget.
  Pick your friends carefully, then, "Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel," etc. etc. And then the big, marvelous zinger at the end, often quoted as the height of wisdom, "This above all, to thine own SELF be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man."
  "Pretty good list of rules is it, kids? Good practical advice?"
  "Oh, yes sir, Mr. Schuster."
  "Nothing missing here?"
  "No, sir. Looks pretty good." Until you just about want to scream at them, "I hope...I hope to God...you don't really believe that life is so simple that a few rules about balancing your check book and keeping a crease in your pants and your drinking buddies lined up is going to get you through. Life is more complicated then that.
  "Now, look again! What's wrong with this list!?" And, of course, it's always the girls that see it first.
  "Well, sir, he doesn't say anything about women."
  "No, that's right, he doesn't." And, dads, can you think of anything your sons need more as they go off to college than a little moral guidance on how to value and honor women? I've seen your sons for 37 years, and mine too. They need this lecture! I had four sons of my own, and I only taught them two things: respect women, and patricide is a terrible crime, and off they went. Well, I hope this is not beyond the fathers here, but it was beyond Polonius. Although, as it turns out, he has all sorts of harsh advice for his daughter Ophelia about boys in the next scene. Which begins to look like standard male chauvinism: it's all the girls' fault.
  "Well, what about 'To thine own self be true,' Mr. Schuster. That's pretty good, isn't it?"
  "Well, I don't know. Tell me what it means." And finally you get everyone to agree it means something like: "If you just follow your own best moral principles, you'll be a good guy."
  "And will that work for you, kids, do you think?"
  "Sure. Why not, Mr. Schuster?"
  "Well, why not? Because what if your own best moral principles SUCK! That's why not? What if the great superego we're given to police ourselves is only used to justify our greedy, lecherous, avaricious, selfish desires, which is a good description of most of us, most of the time? What then?"
Well, I'm sure you can see where this is going, because Polonius has nothing to tell his son about women, or God either. And what Shakespeare is giving us here is a nice snapshot of our old friend the Humanist. He may not have called him that, but he knew the type, the man who finds nothing higher to call upon for guidance than SELF, "to thine own self be true." And as final proof, after his son goes off to college, we see Polonius, acting fully on his own best moral principles, sending agents to spy on his son, stealing his daughter's love letters to read to the evil king, and generally setting in motion events that end in the death of both his children! So much for, "our own best moral principles." And Polonius turns out to be a senile, old busybody. So the next time someone advises, "to thine own self be true," remind him he's quoting one of the great fools of the Western stage.
  So anyway, if Shakespeare was going to mock Humanism, that was good enough for me. But the corollary is: we now have to find something other than SELF to guide us. And what's that going to be?
  I've always liked Sophocles on this point. At the end of one of his great tragedies, he boils it down to this: life's journey, he says, is really about, "Man's encounter with More-Than-Man." That's what the Humanists seem to have lost somewhere. There must be something more than faulty SELF to call on in the universe. Sophocles wrote 400 years before Christ, but we know he meant the gods. So where do we hear God in Christian times, if we're going to get beyond the voice of SELF and Humanism?
  We know Jesus came 2000 years ago and left the great command to love our neighbor. And he taught us how to heal each other with miracles of compassion and forgiveness, resurrecting powers that run deep in our personal relationships ... powers that run deep, but apparently, not wide. These are personal miracles, and they do not seem to collectivize well. Whole churches that rise up chanting, "Follow us, let's heal the world," begin to look more like social movements, and these can be politicized and then demagogued. So it must be a very personal trinity between you, God, and your neighbor. Jesus did not say, for example, join together and build Communism, or Capitalism, or grand theocracies of any kind. He said, "Love you neighbor." It's a local miracle if it happens, or it doesn't happen, which is probably best because it empowers us all.
  But where do we hear God's voice today?
  We're warned to beware of false prophets, so let's be sure first where not to listen for God. God does not speak to us over the radio or on the Television. God is older than TV; He must be using some other medium. When the radio says, "Send $1000 and we'll build a water slide for Jesus in Tennessee," that is not God. That is snake oil. But you knew that. Further, God does not speak to us through national leaders, not through ayatollahs, not through mullahs, not through congressmen, not even through presidents. When you hear politicians and men of power telling you what God wants, that is not God speaking. That is Caesar! That is Caesar. And render unto Caesar as you will. So where do we hear God?
  Jesus spoke to this: He said His Father does not dwell in churches of brick and mortar, but only in the hearts of men and women. So listen for Him there. And we all hear this Voice, but we may misidentify it, and that's a serious mistake. It is, of course, the voice we commonly call compassion, the voice that calls us away from self toward our neighbor when he's hurting in body or soul. We hear it when our hearts are touched by the suffering of others, but even when we act upon it, we must not claim this voice as ours. The one thing it cannot be is the voice of SELF, because it's not a selfish voice. It is totally antipathetic to self. It says, turn away from your own needs, and tend to the needs of someone else. And if you claim this impulse as your own, it's like saying, "What a good boy am I," and that never works. So whose voice is it then? Well, of course, I'm suggesting it's the Father reminding us of the rule of His Son, because compassion always does seem to speak the same message, "Go. Help your neighbor." And the amusing thing is, if you hear it long enough, the voice begins to sound like the voice of what mythology calls a "familiar." In other words, God uses a voice appropriate to you.
  God: "Slade, you great lump! Have you forgot the rule? Push away from the dinner table! Get off your fat butt, and go to your friend! He's hurting, and he needs you now!"
  Slade: "Yeah, OK, I hear you, Lord. I'll get right on it. In a minute. Maybe tomorrow. Pass the gravy." OK, we're all works in progress, so are you.
  Now if you ask students what they want most in life, the answer you get most often is a vague one: "I just want to be happy," which is fine. We all want that, but how to get it? Well, we have a wonderful phenomenon here at Shattuck-St. Mary's, that I think is unique to our school. If you ask this question at any other school, you'd get many answers, but when you ask it here: "Who's the happiest person you know in our little community?" there's never a hesitation. It's always Mr. Whistle-While-You-Work, Henry Doyle, whom we all know has made an art and career of serving his neighbor. All students here know that if Father Doyle is not bringing them pizza in the evening or driving them to the mall in his personal vehicle or writing his daily fifty birthday cards or preparing Sunday service, he's out in Rice County stocking food shelves or visiting poor families and nursing homes. We're commanded to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless and comfort the widows and children, but surely that's just an ideal. Nobody could do all that. And then you look around, and here's a guy doing it. It just makes the rest of our tiny efforts look pathetic. It's a very annoying thing you do, Henry, but I don't suppose you're going to quit now. And yet he's the happiest man we know.
  Can it be that Father Doyle has found the secret path to Happiness and isn't telling us? Well, of course, he can't tell us because that would be saying, "What a good boy am I." I've never heard him say it.
  And we're told if we give ourselves away, the gift will be returned tenfold, but it's absolutely counterintuitive. To enlarge our own lives by turning away from our own lives? In a materialistic world, who can be sure of that? One thing we can be sure of, however, is: we die, the final cancellation of SELF. But what is it that happens to SELF when we turn to help our neighbor. You can't focus on both, so SELF, which is just a thought anyway, is consigned, briefly, to NOTHINGNESS. SELF undergoes a momentary cancellation, a momentary death.
  Can it be that if we play by the rules here in the great practice field of life, we will find that death is not a fearful thing at all, but a wonder and a glory returned a 100-fold perhaps? Is that Father Doyle's big secret? I think maybe so.
  Victory over SELF is well understood in mythology anyway. The medieval stories of knights riding forth to slay monsters and dragons turn out to be stories by wise old poets for the instruction of the young, who understand perfectly, in time, that the dragon to be slain is the dragon of SELF.
  Thomas a Kempis, medieval theologian, says,"Know that the love of self doth hurt thee more than anything in the world. If you seek your own will and pleasure, you shall never be free of care. If you would have inward peace, you must lay the axe to the root, pluck up and destroy that hidden inordinate inclination to self. On this sin, that a man inordinately loveth himself, almost all depends."
  In Hebrew mythology, Leviathan, the great sea monster, when pressed as to his true identity, finally announces he is: KING OF THE PROUD. And that's you and I. And these are the monsters that swim up from our psyches, chew us to bits, and gulp us into darkness. And there we have two choices: we can stay dead, if we can't figure it out, or we can struggle to be resurrected and have another go at the beast, which, if we've learned nothing, will just chew us up again. But when we finally slay the monster, the dark sea holds no further fear, and we rise up and walk upon the waters unharmed. And that's the meaning of that story. But you don't get an infinite number of tries. Heroic action, mythology teaches, must be timely action. You don't get forever. And whether you die tomorrow or live to be a hundred, life is short enough. So start now.
  Happiness, salvation, and glory through the death of SELF, which we can practice here? Let's hope so, anyway.
  And that's another miraculous organ we find in the Realm of Soul Building: Hope. "Keep hope alive," says Jesse, who can be a little busy at times, but the thought is a good one. Sam Johnson who saved the English language with its first dictionary in 1755, said, "We are creatures of hope and strong enough to survive its many frustrations, but never its extinction." So keep hope alive, by all means.
  And there are other godlike capacities in the Realm of Soul Building, and one is the ability to dream. All things begin as dreams. Your whole future is just a dream when you're young. If you're going to be a doctor, you must first be able to dream of yourself as one, or you will never be a doctor. How could you? But these are just career dreams. They're important when you're young, but we can dream far beyond career dreams. Dreaming is a sacred gift Shakespeare says God did not give, "to fust in us unused." We can dream of things that never were in this world and never will be, like the New Jerusalem we sang about in chapel, the righteous city of God on the golden hill. We may never realize it here, but we can conceive it and dream it, and then, as they say, we can tend toward the light. But we can dream even higher than that. We can dream of perfect Being itself, which is never seen on earth. And what is perfect Being? It is Being without the possibility of NOT being, and that's our definition of God.
  So dream those dreams too. Dream the dreams of the gods. Why? Because you can! And mythology says that the dreams of men are often just dreams, but the dreams of the gods are real. The dreams of the gods are real.
  "The world stands out on either side
  No wider than the heart is wide," says Edna Millay.
  "Above the world is stretched the sky,
  No higher than the soul is high."
  Heart and Soul, for Edna, are coextensive with the whole world. But Hamlet does her one better than that. Hamlet says, "I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself king of infinite space." The nutshell he means, of course, is this nut shell (his head), where he locates more than just the universe. That's only finite space, but he says "infinite space," and that includes all the gods and heaven and hell too. Right in here. And he can be "king" of it, which makes him one with god, a dream all religions have of the hereafter. But you must dream the dreams of the gods while you're here. It all begins in dreams.
  A good course in poetry would help science and the Humanists and the religious fundamentalists too, it seems to me. A basic device of poetry is the metaphor, a simple comparison which invokes a concrete image to help clarify an abstraction. "SAIL ON, OH SHIP OF STATE", says the poet. So what is a nation/state like? Well like a great ship, perhaps, with an authority figure like a captain in command (be it a president or God, if you wish) and a crew to man the rigging and obey orders. It has charted a course it hopes to follow and sails on perilous seas, etc. etc. You fill in the details. Concrete images are a nice shorthand way of clarifying more difficult concepts. Well, the universe is a very concrete thing; it only took you eighteen years to master it. Can it be that it too is a metaphor for something beyond itself, something far more abstract and wonderful if we could only read it correctly? I think maybe so.
  Finally, Shakespeare puts this in stark terms for us in the person of his evil hero Macbeth, who leads a totally greedy life of SELF and SELF promotion, murdering and murdering his way to power. And when it all collapses, as such lives always do, Macbeth, with only minutes to live, concludes that life is just, "A tale told by an idiot...signifying nothing." Clearly Shakespeare is warning us away from such a life and such a conclusion. You must not come the end of your journey saying it signified nothing. So write it down! LIFE MUST SIGNIFY. LIFE MUST SIGNIFY. It must signify something more than dirt thrown in your face at the end. Life is more glorious than that.
  My advice, however, is not to argue with science or the Humanists on this. It's seldom productive. If Science insists the universe is just a meaningless, random flux of groping energies, go ahead and grant the point. But the universe has groped mightily for a million eons to give us birth. So perhaps it's our destiny, as the creature that lives by meanings, to thank the "meaningless" universe that gave us birth, by turning back and giving it a meaning after all, one it never had, perhaps, but was groping for. And if that's our job, make sure you give it a good meaning, a glorious one, because it's a pretty fancy random flux, at least...as random fluxes go. End of lesson. Time to graduate.
  Some of my colleagues would be disappointed, however, and I would be remiss, if I did not finally pass on what my own mother told me at graduation many, many years ago, Humanist though she was.
  "Slade," she said, "As you travel down life's great highway, always carry a litter bag in your car, because it doesn't cost much, it keeps your car nice and neat, and when it gets full, you can just throw it out the window."
  But we don't want you to do that. What we want is for you to come back and see us. We have swell reunions here every June, and we'd like to see you there too, every year if you can. But if you can't do that, come every five years, and if you can't do that, come every ten. And if you can't do that, send a check. And when you do come back, we will sit down together as old friends and remember the good times we had in these grand old buildings. And then we will test conclusions and dream together the dreams of the Gods. And then happily, perhaps, we may anticipate the Last Grand Reunion when we cross to the Golden Shore.
  "Do you really believe that, Mr. Schuster?"
  Hey, kids! It beats a train wreck. Peace.