Chapel Talk

September 14, 2010
Acts 9:1–19

I have been thinking recently about journeys and the impact they have on our lives. My thoughts turn this way at the beginning of every academic year, prompted by the peregrinations of our students and faculty. In August I was able to be at several of the summer send-offs that we held in cities around the country for our first-year students and their families, and it was fun to listen to the conversations. One family was going to make a vacation of it, throwing all the kids in the van and driving from San Francisco, stopping at tourist sites and visiting family along the way to dropping off their student. Perhaps all that family time in the car made the drop-off easier for everybody.

Other families who were planning to fly out were trading hints on how best to get all of their student’s things out to Minnesota most efficiently. It turns out, by the way, that Bed Bath and Beyond has a service similar to wedding registries, where you go to the store in your home town, pick out the things you need for college, and then pick them up half-way across the country in your college town. Who knew? Other families were deep in a discussion about how much winter wear to get, where to get it, and when you would need it. I was asked several times, “How cold does it really get in Northfield?” I replied that there’s no such thing as bad weather: only bad gear.

And then there was move-in day, when the campus was replete with cars with luggage pods on top and vans stuffed to the gills with boxes and crates and bedding, some also pulling trailers. All manner of conveyances could be found on campus, some from far away, some from nearby — but each of them containing a new student and the family that would soon be driving home minus one kid.

Priscilla and I welcomed all of our new international students at a lunch at our house a couple of weeks ago. Now there are some folks who made a serious journey to college: from China, Norway, Costa Rica, France, Ecuador, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, Sweden, Poland, Taiwan, Germany, the Dominican Republic, Ghana. Imagine the leave-takings that occurred in their families on their home soil, the logistics of settling in to a new school, a new country, a new culture, another language.

Last week the Office of International and Off-Campus Study sponsored a dinner to welcome back our students who studied off campus last semester and who have journeyed back home to St. Olaf to share what they learned and to offer us visions of the world through new eyes. There were 63 students there who had been in 16 different countries last semester.

But not all journeys point toward campus. This semester there are 138 Oles studying in 35 different countries. They have journeyed there in these past few weeks, and at the end of this semester or Interim they, too will journey back to Manitou Heights. Nor is it only students who take to the road this time of year. Our faculty who are on sabbatical this year will be traveling to England, India, Norway, Italy, Ecuador, Ireland, Antarctica, New Zealand, Costa Rica, and Tanzania.

The beginning of a new academic year prompts me to think of inward journeys, too. Whether you journeyed to St. Olaf this fall from Oslo or Owatonna, your movement across the face of the earth was merely the point of embarkation on a much greater journey. The poet John Keats knew about this, and he wrote a famous sonnet about it.

Much have I traveled in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which Bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

These lines aren’t about physical travel: they’re about reading. Poetry opened Keats’s eyes to new inner worlds, “goodly states and kingdoms,” that he would never otherwise have seen. When Keats first read Homer in the translation of the Elizabethan poet George Chapman, it felt to him as though he were an astronomer or an explorer:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when, with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific . . . .

I wonder what new world each of you will journey to without leaving campus during the course of this semester. Will you encounter it in a person totally unlike yourself? In an idea whose power makes you sit upright and rethink everything? In a speaker you hear at a campus lecture who introduces you to an entirely new intellectual paradigm? In a musical performance, or a poetry reading, or a dance recital where art speaks to you in a new way? In a realization of what your gifts and talents are that coalesces into a plan for your future after St. Olaf? In a profound moment of spiritual insight that deepens your faith and gives focus and new meaning to your life?

Of course, not every journey that leads to new vision goes as smoothly as the one Keats imagined in his poem. In fact, the roads we take don’t always lead where we expect them to. Saul of Tarsus, for example, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” was en route to Damascus to ferret out Christians there and bring them before the religious authorities for punishment. He may have thought he was on the road to Damascus, but he wasn’t. God had planned a different itinerary for him that included a flash of light from heaven, a fall to the ground, blindness, a name change, and — crucially — an infusion of the Holy Spirit that opened his eyes to the Gospel, transforming him from the persecutor of Christians to God’s instrument, chosen “to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel.” The road to persecution turned out instead to be the road to vocation.

If you are searching for something on the St. Olaf Web page and you type in the wrong URL, you get a message from our friends in IIT that says, “Not all who wander are lost.” (I think that most people who encounter that message are, in fact, lost, but that’s beside the point right now.) The story of Saul of Tarsus exemplifies the truth of that statement for Christians. The ancient metaphor of the journey is an apt one to describe our lives, and our paths on those journeys, though often circuitous, are not uncharted. Christians walk in the care of a providential God who has chosen us. Like Saul of Tarsus, even when we are unaware of it, we journey toward God’s vision of what we have been gifted and called to do.

You are very likely while at St. Olaf to travel from one place in the world to another, if you haven’t already. That’s an outer journey. You are also on an inward journey. You may have a vision of where that journey at St. Olaf will lead you. And, indeed, it may take you to that place. Or not. Perhaps, like Saul of Tarsus, you will head off in one direction, fall off your horse, end up in a completely different place, and realize that it is where you belong. There’s a name for that experience: discernment. It’s the ability to see clearly, with “eagle eyes,” as Keats put it, what your gifts and talents are and how you can best use them for the good of the world. We are watching with great interest, we are eager to assist as best we can along the way, and we look forward to greeting you at your destination.

Amen,

David R. Anderson ’74