by University Chaplain Mark R. Orten
Commencement is dedicated to the recognition of achievement within a place — in this case, Denison University. I lend my voice to the wonderful symphony of others who congratulate you, graduates, on your tremendous achievement. Congratulations to you and to your families, and to all those who made this achievement possible ... and happy Mothers’ Day!
Sometime before you go, I recommend to you one of the benches along the front drive at the main entrance to the college. The trees and all of the benches along that walkway were given by Barbara Sloat, class of ’63, in honor of her younger brother, Greg Furin, class of ’66. From one of those benches you can pause to rest on your climb up the hill to watch the world pass by, and the silhouette of the picturesque skyline along the hill with the stone archway and the chapel and the observatory makes for a contemplative and restful place. It’s one of many like it here that I could recommend.
It is precisely one of those benches that holds the inspiration for what I would like to say to you today. Baccalaureate is an occasion, among other things, to gain a certain critical distance from your experience here and, for a collective moment, to reflect on whatever meaning may be accumulating along the educational journey we are celebrating this weekend, and which will continue our whole lives.
On occasions such as this it is a place like one of those benches that inspires meditation on the significance of a thing for us. And so, for just a few minutes, I invite you to think with me about PLACE.
What does this place mean for all of us here who are in one way or another part of the extended Denison community? What does it mean particularly for those of you who have spent roughly four years of your life here and anticipate leaving this place very soon — some of you (let’s face it) for good; while others, hopefully, to return again and again as you find ongoing connections? What can we say about ourselves with regard to this place called Denison University?
Ultimately that depends on each of you, and how you both occupied and experienced this space: the space along the elongated hill which comprises part of the Welsh Hills west of the Appalachian range in the middle of the state called “o-hi-o” on the North American continent within the western hemisphere on a planet we call ‘earth’ in the Milky Way galaxy in a cosmic realm yet unnamed and unknown?
How have you occupied and experienced this space? How has this space become a place for you? For the sake of discourse how does any space that you ever have or ever will occupy become a place for you?
It can be said, fundamentally, that there is a difference between space and place.
Space may be said to be undifferentiated and, therefore, manipulable. Consider the different kinds of space that may be said to exist: foreign space, dedicated space, alien space, free space, safe space, reserved space, and so on ...
Space, therefore, may be politicized. At one time in this country there was “white” space and “black” space and to cross that boundary was to fail to know your place. To some extent our experience here, as it is everywhere, has been a negotiation of spaces wherein we share some competing and some mutual — if not common — aspirations. It is first an exploration and then a negotiation and then ultimately a constitution of what space we may claim as our own place. So, “place” is that differentiated and (socially or otherwise) designated space of belonging.
Place is that space where something or someone belongs. Intimate, personal and familiar. Known.
Greg Furin belonged here. He was, as I said, a member of the class of 1966, who later went on to OSU and then became a dentist in Kodiak, Alaska. He came to his 20th reunion on a motorcycle, and tragically was killed in a snowboarding accident the next year. While at Denison Greg was a member of Lambda Chi Alpha and was involved in varsity men’s athletics. He later volunteered for the college as a career advisor. Greg would have said he belonged here. As signified by the trees and benches along the front walk, we might say that this place belongs to Greg, even in his absence.
How might this be true of you, even as you prepare to leave this place?
Our readings for today were selected to signify that mystical way in which various religious traditions in all times and places have spoken of our simultaneous belonging and not belonging to any time or space.
The Hebrew text tells of an awesome place known eventually by Jacob as the very house of God, Beth-el, but only by a dream he had on a stone for a pillow that, in the morning, became the marker of a promise yet unfulfilled.
The Buddhist Dhammapada speaks of the “saints” from whom the fetters of life have fallen and who live in full freedom. They have no fixed abode and, freed from illusion and personal ties, they have renounced the world of appearance to find reality. They have reached the highest. They make holy wherever they dwell.
Mahmud Shabestari, the 13th-century Sufi mystic speaks of every particle of the world as a mirror in which we see the entire universe, an ocean of wonder, an endless heaven. Within the inner chamber of the heart, he says, the Lord of both worlds makes her home.
So continues the 15th century Hindu poet, Ravidas, who says “In the City of God the citizens are rich in the wealth of the heart, and they live ever free.” “All who live here,” he says, “are my true friends.”
Who here have become your true friends? Again I ask, how have you occupied and experienced this space, and made it your place?
Which lane in the pool at Mitchell has become yours? Which space by the window in Curtis dining hall? What carrel in the library? What discreet couch in that favorite lounge? What part of you belongs in Preston House and Knapp Hall? How do you now inhabit Swasey Walk, the Slayter Pit, the Roost, the Bandersnatch, and the BSU? What about Whisler, Doane Administration and the Burke Recital Hall?
What about the westward facing benches in Piper Stadium at dusk, or the long climb up the stairs from Stone?
Were there midnight telephone conversations with someone far away, trying to explain? Or midday confrontations in class or on the quad with those who might know all too well?
These have been only a few of your ‘habitations’ and experiences that will remain with you, and you with them in this place, wherever you may go, for as long as long may last.
This place, with all of its challenges and complexities, is your place, because you belong, according to your own naming. This place is yours, and you are its.
If you should take me up on my recommendation to visit the benches along the front drive dedicated by his older sister Barbara, you’ll find one about halfway down on which a plaque with a simple inscription in two lines reads:
Greg Furin ’66
He Loved This Place.
This place, he loved. This place, full of learning the limitations of our knowledge and the limitless horizons of our knowing, this place full of opportunity and affirmation that we have yet to realize if only we continue to think and to believe and to protest and to concede as we have learned to do in this place, which he loved, and we may come to sit upon that bench and speak with him of this place.
|May you become a citizen of your wandering,|
|claiming every space not that you inhabit, but that inhabits you,|
|and may you make holy every forest and every village|
|in which you dwell.|