Making Places and Creating What is Next: A Cum Laude and NHS Induction Speech

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Good Evening!

It is a pleasure to welcome parents, friends, and most importantly, students to the Cum Laude and National Honor Society Induction Ceremony.  The students here this evening have distinguished themselves in many areas of school life from the classroom to the stage and from community service to the athletic field. They have earned this recognition. In myriad ways, Seniors, members of the class of 2015, you have done more than simply pass through Westminster. In real ways each class and each student within it, participates in making the school, creating the school.

Indeed we are not just passing through any of the places of our lives: our school, our city, our home, our work-place. No, we are not simply passing through places, we are all creating them. Underpinning our celebration of your achievements this evening is our belief in each of you that you will go into the world and go about the business of creating the world to come. This belief is born of another one that is that your education is not simply about you but it is also about the communities where you will lend your voices and your labor.

This summer my wife, daughter and I travelled to Northern Italy for several weeks in order for my wife to complete research on a remarkable place called, the Sacro Monte Di Orta—or the Sacred Mountain of Orta, a Renaissance era pilgrimage site where twenty chapels are dedicated to St. Francis. My wife, Katie, along with a couple of colleagues, is writing a book about this beautiful place set atop a small peninsula on Lake Orta, which sits at the mouth of the Ossola Valley not far from Switzerland. My job was to provide photographs for the book, so I spent many days shooting inside these captivating, dimly lit sacred spaces. Over our time there I realized that I was being given a rare glimpse into another time and place during which people dedicated significant portions of their lives creating the world around them. Like each of you they were doing far more than simply passing through.

Created over the course of almost two centuries, each chapel features a different scene from St. Francis’s life. While the walls are rich with remarkable frescoes, the scenes in the foreground draw the most attention as each is made up of life-size and often unbelievably realistic terracotta figures acting out the most dramatic moments of Francis’s biography. In order to get the photographs required for the project, I spent a great deal of time crawling, edging and tip-toeing under, beside and between these figures, many of which are well-over 400 years old, and I began to wonder about the people who must have been the models for this array of figures. The kiln in which these figures were made is adjacent to one of the chapels, making it clear that the models for many of the figures were likely people that lived in the area, almost inevitably as close as the ten minute walk down to the very small town of Orta San Giulio.

After spending so much time with the figures, I began to wonder what we can know about these people. What were they trying to tell us through this fascinating place that they created on a bucolic hilltop? While we know they didn’t have anything like the educational opportunities you have had, I believe they have some relevant advice for us:

  • They encourage us to live lives of civic engagement. They were participants in, not simply observers of, their community. They helped create their world, as opposed to simply commenting on it.
  • They encourage us to value the future, and they encourage us to believe in legacy. The Chapels were always intended for permanency. The commitment necessary to design them, build them, complete them was extraordinary. Our world often seems to value planned obsolescence over and above permanency.
  • They encourage us to see our lives among others as acts of devotion and as expressions of faith. In many of the chapels there is stunningly beautiful and ornate ironwork. There is enough of it in fact that it seems clear that talented artisans likely spent huge portions of their lives working just in this one site. Working on the Sacro Monte, which is completely focused on St. Francis, was in and of itself an expression of both faith and devotion. Their life of faith was inseparable from their professional lives.
  • They encourage us to welcome the entire world community to our shared work. The figures in the chapels are not visions of ideal form nor do they represent one ethnicity or background. Many types of people are represented—African people, European people, Near Eastern people young, old and in between people, as well as disabled people—a man with a goiter examines Francis’s stigmata in one chapel, while a multiple amputee stares off wistfully in another. The scenes in the chapels seem to invite the world to the story of St. Francis.

In a cultural moment when we cannot walk down a sidewalk without seeing people lost in their phones (and indeed I have been often guilty of this as well), I worry that our touch on the places where we live is becoming lighter. The danger is that we will become less engaged, that we will be seduced too easily by short sighted thinking, that we will lose our sense of gratitude and our commitment to faith, that we will narrow our view of world and fail to chaff against examples of corrosive polarization that pulls neighbor from neighbor and nation from nation.

Our wish for you and for the communities in which you will live, work, and lead is that you will be the ones who look up from virtual lives that can distract us and into the world that needs us to be participants, partners, and leaders. Our wish is to graduate many of the people who will help make and create what is next.

This evening is one of a number of markers in an eventful Senior Class calendar, and along the way much of the celebration will be and should be about all that you have accomplished to bring you to this point in your lives. My hope is that we reserve a portion of that celebration for the amazing things you will do after you leave here. So, Seniors, congratulations on this recognition. You are not simply going to pass through the places of your lives, no, you are going to make them.

Thank you.

3 thoughts on “Making Places and Creating What is Next: A Cum Laude and NHS Induction Speech

  1. georgelamplugh November 17, 2014 / 4:06 pm

    Ross, I’ve really enjoyed your talks to student groups over the past few years. You have a gift for speaking to them (and their parents) in a way that engages them (or should engage them, if they’re paying attention).

  2. J Ross Peters November 17, 2014 / 7:42 pm

    George, thank you so much for this. It means a great deal. I look forward to the next time our paths cross.

  3. J Ross Peters August 14, 2016 / 5:32 pm

    Reblogged this on Ross All Over the Map and commented:

    Working on my comments for our opening chapel of the year at St. George’s Independent School tomorrow, this blog entry from a couple of years ago came back to mind…

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