A Service of Gratitude and Remembrance 2016 - Sermon by Charles Rousseau '11

A Service of Gratitude and Remembrance June 12, 2016


Some Reflections on a Spiritual Life at Williams College by Charles Rousseau, 2011


Good morning! I would like to thank Reverend Spalding, Cantor Scherr, Father Caster, and Chaplain Rosen for the opportunity to be a part of this lovely and important service. It is a special honor to speak with you today, in part because I’ve consistently doubted whether I could speak at such an event. I am very grateful for this opportunity, but I confess that as I stand before you now, I feel a very humbling discomfort. In matters of religious identification, I am, perhaps, an unusual kind of skeptic – the kind that would rather believe despite persistent disbelief. For most of my adult life, I have avoided an explicit language of belief, and that avoidance is directly proportional to how significant such language is to me. Today I make a modest attempt at recuperating my language of reverence, in the hope that it will connect with your own language for such experience, however sayable or unsayable that language may be for you.

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I’d like to begin by reading a few verses from the 27th Psalm:

One thing I have asked from the Lord: that I shall seek, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple […] I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord. Be strong and let your heart take courage. Yes, wait for the Lord [1]

Williams holds a special place in my spiritual life because I came here with deep spiritual wounds. To make a long story short, my family is intensely yet idiosyncratically religious. Everyone holds different views, and sometimes it can feel like the only thing connecting them is that each person believes their particular view to be the exclusive and absolute truth. I was raised to revere God above all else, but as I developed my own perspective, I found the competing certainties of my family oppressive and damaging. The God I was taught to love became increasingly unreal to me. To quote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, I eventually found that I loved my God “with a high hatred / for being so out of reach.”[2]

Upon arriving at Williams, I carried the 27th Psalm with me as a prayerful resolution against despair. I was determined to seek something like the beauty of the Lord and to bring my inquiries to whatever temple of God I could find. Slowly but surely, Williams became a place where I could begin to see the goodness of God. I celebrated Shabbat as few people in the world get to experience it, breaking bread with Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, atheists, and fellow skeptics. I found spiritual mentors who prayed with me, who listened to my story, who studied scripture with me, who spoke vulnerably about their own religious experiences, and who welcomed me into their homes and at their tables as a friend. Academically, I was inspired and instructed by the insufficiency of language to account for our deepest experiences, especially those experiences of the holy associated with religion. I felt liberated by the limits of my understanding, and the oppressive logic of certainty that had once troubled me, began to be replaced by the more reverent logic of wonder.

I would like to share one example of this wonder with you. In January of 2009, I had the extraordinary opportunity to go to Jerusalem as part of Cantor Scherr’s Winter Study course. It struck me as an incredible answer to my longstanding prayer. Here I was, a working class kid who had never left the country, who was still struggling with a spiritual identity crisis, and Williams was giving me the opportunity to live out the very words of the 27th Psalm: I was going to Jerusalem where I could seek the beauty of the Lord by visiting the actual temple. While the realist in me tried to temper my expectations, I could not deny that this trip rekindled a secret hope within me – the hope that I would experience an authentic encounter with the holy.

Authenticity is exactly what Jerusalem promises, but it is also what Jerusalem sells. When we arrived in the city, I was overwhelmed by the absurd pageantry of so-called holiness. The streets were crowded with trinkets and lines, crowds of people and flashing cameras. It felt more like an amusement park than a sacred place. Everywhere you turned, someone was ready to sell you something real, something truly holy. Thoroughly saturated by the sacred and the profane, Jerusalem places you in a tug of war with yourself as you debate what is and is not credible and to what extent that credibility matters. The holiness of Jerusalem is like the holiness of its Western Wall – both a tangible symbol connecting you to the holiness of the past, and a reminder of your separation from that past. As a result, the skeptic in me found Jerusalem disappointing. The authenticity I desired seemed entirely performative, imaginary, even idolatrous.

My frustration was most acute when we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I was standing in line to enter the goofy, rather ugly kiosk that shelters Jesus’ tomb. For Christendom, this is the holy of holies – a fact registered by the length of the line to get in. As pilgrims entered and left, there was ceremonial drama: the lighting of candles for the tray outside the door, earnest signs of the cross, kisses for the entranceway, final flashes of camera shots just before entering. Like these pilgrims, I also wanted to feel the gravity of what I was doing, where I was, and what this empty tomb meant. I wanted a meaningful ritual to help the experience feel holy, but the disheartening fact was that the scene struck me as more ridiculous than sacred. Pilgrims were shaking and crying as they prepared to enter the tomb, while a Greek Orthodox priest gave instructions and organized the queue with the cynical nonchalance of someone showing up to work when they’d rather have the day off. It was surreal. I knew the significance of where I was and what this place symbolized. I knew that this experience was precisely why I came to Jerusalem. Yet now that I was in one of God’s temples, I was amazed that my only inquiry came from a place of disbelief: how could this experience possibly be meaningful?

Waiting in the somber light of the antechamber, I decided I would try to pray for a meaningful experience, but my prayers were interrupted by the noisy rush of children moving past me in line. I was immediately annoyed. Not only did they interrupt my prayer, they were also going to make me wait even longer to get in. But the children hurried to the other side of the room and two lines began to form. Then the priest pointed to me, and asked me to join the kids in this new line. My annoyance deepened. I wanted to stay with my friends. The priest insisted. I left my group, and stood behind the children, not knowing what that would mean or how they would behave. I had been preparing myself for a serious encounter with this holy place, and though it was proving difficult, I was determined to make some sort of connection. But now that I was entering the tomb with these children, the whole thing felt entirely out of my control.

When we entered the tomb, I kneeled beside it but kept my distance. Now that we were inside, I had no idea what to do. I had no idea what I should feel, or what, if anything, to express. I got nervous. I anxiously looked at the tomb and felt nothing. To my surprise, I found myself wondering what the children were doing. I turned my head and immediately felt the force of their reverence. Their heads were bowed and their hands were gently folded on the marble tomb as they kissed it. When their eyes opened, they were shining with wonder, and as they looked up, their eyes caught mine, and their heads seemed to tilt to the side, as if to say, “what are you waiting for?” Almost involuntarily, I closed my eyes, bowed my head, and kissed the tomb – just as they had done.

I walked out of the tomb with tears in my eyes and old words ringing through every nerve in my body: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[3] The church was radiant with the sound of hymns, sung simultaneously by all six of the denominations housed within it, each set of voices singing a different language – none of which I could understand. As I listened to them I thought of those Christians who preceded vernacular translations of the Bible, especially the commoners who came to church weary from toil and hardship, those people who needed something to believe and who stood behind the rood wall of the church hoping for salvation in the words of a book they could not read, spoken in a language they did not understand. I thought of sighs too deep for words. I thought of Jacob wrestling with the angelic stranger, and of the fact that for Jacob, the unnamed thing with which he wrestles becomes the thing that names him. And then I thought of those children, those angelic strangers, and I realized that this was the authenticity I sought – that my most holy experience in Jerusalem was seeing the tomb of Jesus through the eyes of those children.

When I first came to Williams, I despaired over not knowing the truth. These days, I’m happy to say that I still don’t know it. My experiences in this community have made me more reverent toward all that I do not and cannot know. They have taught me that to dwell in the house of the Lord is to dwell in wonder. On our final night in Jerusalem, I sat on the rooftop of our hostel, which looked out over the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Dome of the Rock. As I reflected on the incredible range of my encounters with holiness in this city, I began to hear words from Williamstown, words in the thick Boston accent of a beloved professor reading from one of my favorite books, in a voice that many in this room would recognize. As these words washed over me, they seemed to foreshadow what I had just experienced on my pilgrimage to the holy and heartbreaking city of Jerusalem, and they struck me with the force of scripture:

The illumination out here is surprisingly mild, mild as heavenly robes, a feeling of population and invisible force, fragments of voices, glimpses into another order of being…[4]

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I would have despaired unless I believed I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. And I thank God, and I thank my beloved community at Williams, that I have.

[1] Psalm 27.4, 13-4 (NASB)

[2] Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy

[3] Matthew 18.3 (NIV)

[4] Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow