May 21, 2011
Elon University Baccalaureate Sermon May 20, 2011 Fr. Andrew More O’Connor
Introduction by Philip Craft , Director of Communications, Elon University School of Law
Reading from Jeremiah
Address by Fr. Andrew More O’Connor
Elon University Baccalaureate â€¨Introduction of Father Andrew More O’Connorâ€¨May 20, 2011
My first encounter with Father Andrew More O’Connor involved origami. My wife Betsy and I attended Holy Trinity church in Manhattan for the first time in 2004. We discovered there a kind of priest and a level of engagement in spiritual inquiry we had never before experienced.
Father Andrew’s homily that day was based around a sculptured piece of paper, each time unfolded, presenting a new image, a new message, a new entry into spiritual life. We left that afternoon intrigued and excited, having been invited to explore the mysteries of our faith through the arts. This is a central theme in the life of Father Andrew.
With parishioners, he created and shipped to the victims of Hurricane Katrina artistic bags that could be filled with basic goods useful to disaster victims, but also inscribed with scripture; bags that could be connected together as large tapestries, celebrating community resilience.
Among dozens of artistic projects across a range of mediums, he has used video installations within and on the facades of cathedrals to project religious symbols, inviting interpretation and drawing communities together.
In addition to serving as a parish priest in New York City, Father Andrew is the creator, director and fashion-designer for Goods of Conscience, an organization that creates and sells well-made and well-designed garments that benefit skilled workers in impoverished communities - both in Guatemala and in New York City.
Goods of Conscience provides inherently fair wages for clothes that have evolved out of an ancient craft, preserving cultures, and connecting the makers of goods more closely to those who use them. The organization has a strong environmental mission, using sustainable practices and rare, hand-grown organic cotton.
Forbesmagazine, the New York Daily News, Catholic New York, and American Craft magazine have featured Goods of Conscience endeavors, with American Craft writing, “at the heart of this philosophy - local production and local consumption - is Father Andrew’s concern with individuality, that ‘the hand of the maker is there in the artifact.’”
Fr. O’Connor’s work bridges a troubling gap in American society between commercial and spiritual life, raising provocative questions about the meaning and meaningfulness of work and the relationship that consumers have with the products they purchase and with those who make them.
His work reflects many of the core values of Elon – global citizenship, leadership and innovation in service to society, and an abiding focus on the relationship between one’s values and one’s endeavors in work and civic life.
Father Andrew has said that every generation needs to find its own means of articulating a tradition of faith and that the use of new mediums breaks down barriers and opens new lines of communication. I am pleased to introduce to you Father Andrew More O’Connor, who will reflect upon these words from the Hebrew Scriptures, found in Jeremiah 29:11-14.
By Philip Craft, Director of Communications, Elon University School of Law
B. Jeremiah 29:11-14
For I well know the plans I have made for you, says the Lord, plans for your good and not for ill, plans for a future full of hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me and I will hear you. If you seek me with all your heart I will let you find me, says the Lord. And I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
C. The Currency of Bees
My dear brothers and sisters of the graduating class of 2011 of Elon University, in the presence of those who gave birth to you, in the presence of those who have listened to you deeply, who both taught and learned from you, who in turn transformed you by an alchemy of praise and who live for your good, I ask the Lord to grant you great wealth. Many of you will have college loans to pay off and a future to fund. You could use the wealth. I am speaking about another kind of wealth, however, which you have received and which we need from you. More precisely like bees that are not diminished in sharing the sweetness they have won from light this type of wealth is a kind of knowledge lodged in doing and making, a currency of insight that turns into a way of life. I would like to mint this poetic notion: a currency of bees. From the beginning of civilization bees and bee hives were more than an occasional image that urged us to live by our higher nature, what we might today call “living sustainably.” Bees make wealth generously, prodigiously and without being opportunistic. How unlike another ancient image, that of the golden calf, which reminds us of the human obsession with derivative wealth. This false god of wealth unmoored from being and purpose perpetuates only homelessness and poverty. This false worship results in unrelenting restlessness, a need to be important that cannot be quenched. These two images of wealth-making-- of the bustling bee and the worshipped golden calf-- bring me to my plea to you: to consider a fresh return to the spiritual origins of wealth-making.
To direct our attention, I am invoking Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles, arguably the defining moment of the cult of Hebrews, a religion born for being lost. At the time of the exile, Jeremiah had been dumped in a probation pool under the Jerusalem palace with a ration of bread. He had railed out alone against the self-serving nationalist agenda of the priestly class. The priests had convinced Zedekiah the king to resist the Chaldaean siege. Jeremiah experiences betrayal from God whom he says “duped” him into his lonely role (scholars claim the translation should read “raped”). Having survived the siege and witnessed the forced exodus Jeremiah writes through his secretary Baruch from an abandoned and desolate Jerusalem. Jeremiah makes the remarkable claim that the Lord promises to restore the fortunes of the dispossessed community of Israel in exile. While he promises to gather his people back from the place of exile, we are meant to understand that something other than the literal place is inferred. We know that the ancients preferred death to exile. Even so, Jeremiah writes to the community in Babylon to flourish there and not to wither and pine. In essence he is asking them to accept communal and cultic death in faith. “Mingle with the Babylonians, take wives from them and bear children,” he instructs.
I remember first hearing this passage in graduate school in Texas while writing a master’s thesis on a similar topic: the Irish lyric voice and the poetry of Seamus Heaney which I called “The Language of the Dispossessed.” A priest on campus gave the Jeremiah passage to me as a penance which led me back to choosing a vocation to the priesthood. The hook that got me was this: “If you seek me with all your heart I will let you find me, says the Lord.” The Everest effort of “if you seek me with all my heart” and the Margaritaville ease of “I will let you find me” is the contradiction that encompasses poor “duped” Jeremiah’s alienation from the probation pool to the intimate calling he experienced as a child. The two are related. Earthly alienation cannot exist without the antecedent of heavenly ecstasy. The French philosopher Simone Weil described her relationship with God as prisoners in adjacent cells, “the wall that divides them also unites.” I was so enamored with Jeremiah’s words that I inscribed the phrase “If you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me” on my chalice, which I commissioned to celebrate the ordination of my priesthood, a common practice for new priests. I worked with the British silversmith Chris Knight to make a cup and paten that fit the perfect metaphysical contradiction in the phrase. He created a twelve pointed star on which the cup pivots. The cup will not stand up straight unless it is held. We christened it the Twelve Disciples’ Cup. It is considered by Christie’s in New York to be one of the great works of silver of the 20th Century and the British Arts Council commissioned a film about Chris Knights’ work and in particular our subsequent collaborations. From the beginning I have taken to thinking of the resting of the cup on the points of the star to signify Christ placing the weight of the church on the untrustworthy shoulders of the disciples. I need these physical, tangible works to think and pray about incontrovertible issues such as the intrinsic holiness of a church that seems so fallen and therein lies the insight in the role of making and doing to the speculative work of thinking. Jeremiah’s cry to form community as the means of seeking God is a radical blending of the practical and speculative intellects that is foundational to the history of religious revitalization. I cherish in particular the Benedictine commandment ora et labora (pray and work) synthesizes this bee-like industry that is both simple and contemplative. Ora et labora is a wealth-making principle that is dynamic because it seeks to be, as the creed says of the Church, one, holy and universal. One might also describe this wealth as “democratic.” Holy could be more accessible as sustainable and universal or catholic could best fit into mimetic, that is that it can be imitated and reproduced. This wealth is interior and particular to a person, but not private property. The happy thing about the currency of bees is that it can undergo its dissolution. The worker bee is born and dies in six short weeks. Loyalty to the queen last at least 30 generations of worker bees.
You will need this wealth. You will need to be magnanimously generous with it, even prodigal, because the ego is bound to suffer defeat. You will doubtless encounter the tragic limitations of life as rooted in your own failures. At some point you will find yourself at the juncture where you will be forced decide to act upon your genius or your being. The choice toward being requires immolation, a genuine death of the self, a turning away from the golden calf. It is the better choice. Genius will establish its own importance, Leadership and substantial change issue from the terrified littleness of our beings. One of the prophetic duties of a liberal education is sifting through the rubble of the old order to find a directive to commence a new order. It is a dubious process and potentially soul-quenching considering the odds. Robert Frost suggests in the 1947 poem Directive that at the juncture where you might feel discouraged “make yourself up a cheering song about how this someone’s road home, who may be just ahead of your with a creaking buggy-load of grain.” This hopeful interior voice is a donation of being. Others have gone before me. I can do this too. The poem concludes with a broken goblet taken from the children’s playhouse and nearby is a source “too original to rage” for which the poet instructs “drink and be whole again beyond confusion. In its most simplest terms this too is a non-literal place for Frost, an exilic repose in a “town no longer a town and a house no longer a house.”
Six years ago, during a retreat in the mountains of Guatemala with fifteen other diocesan priests from the United States, including the priest who gave me Jeremiah as a penance, I encountered the small study where Fr. Stan Rother was brutally stabbed and shot in July, 1981. I remember having reading about him on the front page of the New York Times in August of that year. I had taken a year off between high school and college and got lost in Ireland and had just returned. Encountering him so many years after made me revisit my original intentions on choosing the life of a priest which I was beginning to think about at the time. I was 18 then. On the retreat I walked into the room where he was killed. My impression at that time was that I could smell him. The sense is less strong after subsequent visits. A photo of his face on the wall about the height he really was was placed next to the bloody wall, the blood stain covered in glass, where the assailants wrestled him to pin him and finally managed to stab him. He wanted to resist above all being kidnapped and therefore erased among the bodies that disappeared. Son of an Oklahoman corn farmer who drove down to Guatemala in 1968 in an Olds, Stan intrigued and challenged me. The more I began to know him the more American became to me. His bishop called him “the beautiful American” at his funeral in the 16th Century church built under the volcano Atitlán where he served and where the T’zutuhil demanded at least his heart and got it. My response was as an artist. I wanted to make him incarnate in cloth. His dedication to the Mayans and to the earth uncovered a missing component of our own indigenousness as North Americans that he really lived out of simplicity. He promoted weaving and making and wore simple white shirts the locals made for him. Reproduced throughout the parish is a black and white photograph of him with a child in the village gazing up at his towering angular frame in one of these white shirts. It looked like he is wearing the soiled shirt Henry Fonda wore in The Grapes of Wrath that glows in the sepia like a halo. It is the antithesis of the Hawaiian polyester shirt that blares the infernal trumpets of the pharmakos, thick-fingered jailer of things beautiful, reducing the sublime to an item on sale.
The beautiful side of us honors our peace with this place of exile, this America. And so, I started a line of clothing in New York City by developing a cloth that I felt worked in both worlds. I dubbed the cloth “Social Fabric.” My parishioners on the Upper West Side entered me into a contest at Columbia University. I reached the semifinals and was directed to switch from religious goods to high fashion. I did that and in 2009 Cameron Diaz was wearing a pair of my shorts in the cover story of Vogue and Anna Wintour wrote me up in her editorial. That was good.
My idea is to create a system of small workshops in needy parishes in the United States and pair them with like parishes in the third world in order to use the existing parish system as the next step in the world of globalization. I believe along with the Maryknoll religious that guided us, that we should think of globalization as an opportunity for communication and not exploitation. Last year we put bee hives on the roof of the old convent where we have our workshop in the Bronx. I am enchanted with the presence of the bees and it has caused me to consider anew this metaphor of bees and the logic of creating a local economy with global order. I feel “the currency of bees” should encourage you as graduates to think how your particular inspirations can be sacramental, that is to say transformative. Let me conclude with a final image of the wealth-making of bees.
My undergraduate and graduate studies were sealed respectively in Rome and Dublin. I happen to get back there with some frequency over the years. My brother Peter secured my help teaching art at a Rome program he developed for his students at Portsmouth Abbey, a Benedictine boarding school in Rhode Island. For the few years I participated, the first day involved a march from the ancient Roman neighborhood of Trastevere where we always stay, to St. Peter’s Basilica. I have the students draw the Piazza. The white colonnade has big arms gathering in pilgrims, but never making them feel too small. Once we make our way into the Basilica I gently let them know it too is so big but never to the point that you feel too small. We make our way at last to the high altar and I point out the bees covering Bernini’s bronze baldicchino. Images of women‘s facesin various stages of child birth circumnavigate the perimeter recessed in the bases of the columns.
â€¨I take the occasion to tell them about how in Jonathan Swift’s Battle of the Books there is a parable about the spider and the bee. The scholar and poet Seamus Deane, childhood friend of Seamus Heaney, pointed this passage out as a favorite of his generation that, at that time when I studied under him, was waiting for Chernobyl’s cloud to pass over Ireland. I think the impending doom felt just right to the Irish, comic and liberating more than tragic and inhibiting. Swift championed the bee as superior to the spider as a means of knowledge and enjoys favor as the icon of the Anglo-Irish of how the University should be constituted, rather than the technical German model then in ascendancy and dominant today. The spider, says Swift, is a kind of mathematical knowledge that spins a web of filth and air in order to catch its prey in darkness, poison it and suck out its life. The bee on the other hand is a standard bearer of knowledge that is not diminished in being shared. The bee follows an errant path of light and beauty and gathers in sweetness from it. The sum of the bees on the baldacchino, a structure believed cast from the bronze portico of the Pantheon, a bee-hive of classical cosmology, spiral toward heaven. No matter what little part you think you may play in the great scope of things avoid calculating its worth. The destination of your path and your destiny’s in Him who made you. If you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord.
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