A sermon by Joan Richards delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, July 31, 2011
Hello, I am glad to be here! I really am! I am really glad to be here because I was away for most of the past academic year. It has been—today—just a month since I stepped off the Logan bus in Providence, and I am still in the glow of being home. My joy is not a surprise; I have been looking forward to coming home for months and months; I was anticipating joy that I when I answered Marilyn’s request for a title for this service with “Coming Home.” But since then I have begun to question whether my longing to be home was a perfectly justifiable desire or a fundamental spiritual challenge. And in the end I find myself wanting to inject a bit of the “uneasiness” that James likes to point out, into my joy at being home. Let me try to explain.
As a start, let me tell you a little bit about where I was last year. If someone were to ask that question directly, the most obvious answer would be “England,” but the more relevant one is that I was a “Visiting Fellow [Commoner] at Trinity College, Cambridge.” It is going to take some doing to explain what this means, but if I’m going to get to “Coming Home” it is important that I try.
Trinity College is just one of the roughly 25 colleges that make up Cambridge University. It was founded by Henry VIII in 1543. Like all of the old Cambridge (and Oxford) Colleges, it was basically a monastery that taught students; those religious roots remain unselfconsciously reflected in the divisions of the college year into the Michaelmas, Lent and Easter terms. We have colleges here, and the older ones—including Brown—were initially constructed as more or less faithful copies of English colleges like Trinity. To morph Brown’s campus, with its various buildings arranged within a surrounding railed fence, into Trinity, would be to make the fence a single building, that surrounds several large central courts. The difference is significant. You can’t see into Trinity College from the street, and its three or four gates are heavily guarded by the Porters. These Porters are very picturesque—their uniforms involve suit-coats and bowler hats—but they are relentless in pursuit of their main function, which is to keep non-Trinity people out of the college.
“May nothing evil cross this door. . .”
The footprint of the main buildings of Trinity College is, I would say, about 2/3 the size of Brown’s main green plus the other green with the horseman statue in it. If you add to that the rabbit warren of additional courtyards and passage-ways hidden behind other buildings whose commercial facades take up several blocks of the town of Cambridge, Trinity College would cover about the same area as Brown’s campus between Prospect and Thayer, Waterman and George.
Behind these buildings, the river Cam flows through the large open spaces of “the backs.” Various Colleges approach their shares of the backs differently; behind Kings College is a field with cows, behind Clare College a series of lovely—and closed—gardens. Trinity’s share lies visually open, though tightly Porter-policed; it features two mown, green lawns about the size of football fields, with lovely borders of ever-changing flowers and trees. And then, through the backs and across the ring road beyond, a small army of Trinity gardeners meticulously cares for several breathtakingly beautiful acres of the firmly locked Trinity College Fellows Garden. Beyond all of this, Trinity College owns enough land that it is said to be the third largest landowner in England, behind only the royal family and the Anglican Church.
Returning to the College itself, the serpentine buildings—parts of which date to even before 1543 when Henry VIII made them Trinity—house the approximately 800 Trinity Undergraduates— roughly half the number in a single Brown class—and a smattering of the 185 Fellows of Trinity, that is the faculty if you like. The rest of the Fellows live “out of college” but not far. The Elizabethan statutes—as in Queen Elizabeth I—still govern much of what is done at Trinity, and they specify that Fellows must live within, I think it’s 10 miles, of the main college gate.
Throughout most of the nineteenth century, the required daily morning and evening services in the college Chapel were a central focus of life at Trinity. I believe that some form of these services still takes place in Trinity’s elaborate Victorian “Chapel”—almost the size of this Meeting House—but vanishingly few attend. A few particular services draw larger numbers. I regularly attended Evensong on Sunday evenings, where black-robed Fellows gather in the highest pews and listen to a service sung by the Trinity College choir. Trinity prides itself on having a student—as opposed to boy’s—choir, which is one of the very best in the world.
Daily college meals have proved more lasting than daily College Chapel Services as a focus of live at Trinity. Every day, 365 days out of the year, Trinity Fellows can eat lunch and dinner in the huge Hammerbeam Dining Hall under a life-sized portrait of Henry VIII. Lunch is a three-course buffet; after helping themselves, Fellows take the next available seat at one of two long wooden tables on a raised dais at one end of the hall. Dinner is a more formal affair for which Fellows must wear their academic robes—black flappy affairs with slits cut through the armholes so the sleeves won’t get in the food. At eight o’clock sharp they march into Hall in double file behind the Master or most senior Fellow. There a series of rituals, including gongs and Latin grace and the presentation of elaborate silver urns, surround the progress of the carefully served three or four course meal. While all of this is going on, the undergraduates are eating below the dais at long tables set at right angles to the High Table; that candles supply the only light means that from October to March they are all but invisible in the gloom. Think Harry Potter.
Equally Harry Potter like—though of course the connection goes in the other direction—are the six or seven feasts that decorate the year. Feasts completely fill the Hall with black-tied or elegantly begowned Fellows and their guests: I have never owned a dress as formal as the one I wore to the Trinity Feasts and I did not particularly stand out.. All of the tables, both on and off the dais, feature place-settings with at least four forks, various knives, and spoons and on the order of seven wine glasses; over the course of three hours these are one after another filled with wines carefully chosen from Trinity’s massive wine cellars to complement wave after wave of food. In addition, Feasts include some combination of toasts, songs—both choir-sung and Fellow sung—and ever-longer Latin orations.
The Trinity College Fellows, who partake of these meals, constitute one of the most distinguished academic faculties in the world. On its website the college boasts 32 Nobel Laureates, and 4 Fields medalists—the equivalent in mathematics. (As a point of comparison Brown claims 5 Nobels and 1 Field’s medal.) Trinity College Fellows do not just have tenure. They have life-time appointments. While I was there one, who was at least 85 moved into college because his wife had died and he was not prepared to live alone; another was welcomed back after a stroke had left him mobile but speechless; another, rather more spritely one, determinedly climbed the stairs to the magnificently light—though chilly—rooms over the Great Gate, a privilege he had earned through the seniority established by living in college without a break since he was an undergraduate more than 50 years ago. When, while repairing the heating system under the floor of the chapel, workmen encountered some skeletons by the altar, it was quickly recognized that they were Trinity men, and that Trinity men would figure out the best way forward.
I speak of Trinity men advisedly. Women had absolutely no place in Trinity College until sometime in the 1970s or 1980s, but they are now make up a good proportion of the student classes. There are also female Fellows but their numbers are small; a quick glance at new fellow appointments for the last two years reveals a male/female ratio of five to one.
Families do not fit comfortably into life at Trinity. At least until late in the nineteenth century, getting married entailed leaving the College and loosing your Fellowship. Now, however, most Fellows are married and live within the 10-mile radius. Their families are still not particularly welcome, though. Although Fellows are allowed to bring a guest to High Table and to Feasts, it is generally accepted that those guests should not be spouses. Spouses are invited to the Spouses Dinner, an event that sounded so wonderfully apt that I gleefully invited Rick to attend; not until his plane reservations were irrevocable did we realize that at a Trinity College Spouses Dinner Fellows eat undisturbed under Henry VIII, while their spouses eat from a totally different menu in a totally different room.
As a “Visiting Fellow [Commoner]” I was completely embraced by Trinity College. The College gave me “rooms”—that is an apartment—in an Elizabethan oak-beamed building just two blocks from the main entrance to the college; in addition I had a wonderfully quiet and light study about ¼ mile away at the far end of the gorgeous, Fellows Garden. (For the record, I got a lot of work done.) In the college I could walk on the grass, check books out of the library, and was welcome to eat both lunch and dinner seven days a week if I wanted to.
When I did come, the Fellows gracefully accepted me into the Fellows Common Room which serves as a living room for those who live in college. They asked about my work and told me about theirs. After I had showed up at a couple of Evensongs they asked me to give a reading. And, at first, it was rather wonderful to be living not only far from all of the everyday demands of my life in Providence, but to be living in some kind of fairytale world.
But over time—and I was there for nine months—the wonder began to wear off. I did not want always to be in someone else’s house, adapting myself to someone else’s world. I did not want to introduce myself to one more new person, no matter how warm and/or intelligent that person might be; I did not want to be again corrected because I did or did not pass the vegetables to the person on my left. I did not want the Dean, who had asked me to read in Chapel to tell me that I “did very well! You spoke clearly and slowly enough that I think everyone could understand you, even through the accent.” And most of all I did not want to hear another word about robes!
The question of whether I should or should not wear robes to College functions, seemed to be the only one about which the Fellows had not come to a clear consensus. After several weeks of listening to people saying either that I MUST or that I MUST NOT wear robes, I committed myself to someone’s cast off robe from Oxfam (for 5 lbs) and flapped my way into dinners. This did not solve the problem, though; it just made it more complex. I can’t remember all of the issues that surrounded my robe, but there were lots of them: it had “strings,” it did or did not have “chevrons.” One thing that everyone could agree on was that it was not a Trinity Robe. To some this was alright because I did not have a Trinity degree, to others not alright because the only reason I could wear a robe at all was that I was a visiting Fellow at Trinity. Of course, these issues were never resolved, because they did not matter. I was just a visitor and would soon be gone. And that was the problem in a nutshell. I didn’t fit. I was a woman, I spoke funny, I was a transient. I was homesick.
As the year wore on, I could sometimes find some relief in the Cambridge Unitarian Church. The Cambridge Unitarian Church is to be found on a residential street about six blocks from Trinity College. On a Sunday morning, there is nothing to announce its presence except for the minister, Andrew Brown, who stands prominently on the sidewalk in front of its door with a cheerful smile and a handful of orders of service. The door behind him opens into a small but lovely sanctuary, with simple proportions, pleasing classical arches and a half domed ceiling. Wainscotted walls match the wooden chairs, there is an altar, fresh flowers, an organ, and often in a corner, the minister’s double bass lying on its side. A typical Sunday service draws about the same number of people that the Trinity Evensong does Fellows—between 15 and 20—but in the Unitarian Church the number is not swelled by a choir, some conscientious students and a smattering of tourists. The Unitarians do not wear robes. Nor does Andrew, but he does wear black leather pants. In addition, they sit where and with whom they like, make announcements, try to sing hymns (from a Unitarian hymnal, but not ours), collect an offering, and have a coffee hour (some tea but mostly coffee) with occasional cookies.
Andrew often turns the small size of his congregation into an asset by opening the group for comments after his sermons. Those sermons are highly literate; when not close textual analyses of Beattles’ songs, they are filled with references to philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein, theologians like Ronald Neibuhr, and more modern thinkers, like Thomas Ingold. Although Andrew likes to describe his parishioners as A B Cs—“anything but Christians”—he clearly comes from a strong Christian background, and one of his favorite texts is Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief. All of which I found very appealing as a contrast to the world of Trinity.
Finally the end of June was approaching and I began to get ready to go home. In my final weeks I went through a round of farewells to the many people whom I had met in my nine-month stay. Obviously this included Andrew and his congregation, so armed with a shopping bag of unopened food items for their food pantry, I made my way over to the Unitarian Church. But just as I was relaxing into the echoes of home to be found in that pleasant Unitarian space, Andrew jolted me out of my self-righteous happiness, with a sermon on the text from Tolstoy that was this morning’s reading; a text in which “a man said to Jesus: I will follow you wherever you may go” only to have Jesus reply “There is nowhere for you to follow me to: I have neither house nor any place to live in. The beasts have their dens and their lairs, but man is at home everywhere if he lives by the spirit.” Even as, with every bone in my body and every hair on my head, I was longing to come home, Andrew was telling me that to be Christlike, which for him—as for me—is to be enlightened, means not to have a particular home, whether that home is at Trinity, or in Providence, or in the Unitarian Church. Or, to put it more positively, to be truly Christlike, or enlightened, or wise, is to be at home wherever we may be.
Let’s be honest here; the message of Andrew’s sermon made little difference to my homecoming. On June 30 I was at the airport positively hours before I needed to be, and all but trampled my fellow passengers getting onto the flight. Six hours later I almost wept at the accent of the man who stamped my passport in Logan Airport and trembled with joy to be able to buy my bus ticket with dollar bills. I cannot tell you how often in the past month I have teared up at a familiar view, a well-worn place, or because someone has said “Hey Joan! Welcome back!” I am at home, in my country, in my church, in my house, with my family. I am at home, and very glad to be here.
But even as I open myself to all that is wonderful in this specific, Providence homecoming, I carry with me the challenge opened to me by a now far-off Englishman from Cambridge. It is, in my mind the challenge not to be judgmental in another’s home and not to be defensive or self-righteous in our own. It is the challenge of moving from the carefully circumscribed home of our opening hymn to that of hymn 159, with which I want to close this service.