'Creating from Fragments'

May 25, 2022
Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies Stephanie Paulsell in academic regalia speaking in Memorial Church
Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies Stephanie Paulsell speaking during the 2022 Multireligious Commencement Service at Memorial Church. Photo by Caroline Cataldo

Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies Stephanie Paulsell was the faculty speaker during the Multireligious Commencement Service on May 25, 2022. The following remarks were delivered by Paulsell during the service at Memorial Church.


To our hosts, Dean David Hempton and the Rev. Professor Matthew Potts; to our chaplain, Kerry Maloney who organizes this amazing gathering each year; to my dear colleagues, to the families and friends of our graduates:  good afternoon to you all. It’s such a joy to be here with you, in person, for the first time since 2019.

To the HDS class of 2022:  congratulations on reaching this milestone on your path, and thank you for inviting me to speak with you today.

Graduation is always a bittersweet time. We’re always so proud of our graduates, so inspired by their accomplishments and aspirations, and, every year, it’s hard to say goodbye.

But this class—well, you’re a bit different from all the other classes we’ve ever celebrated and bid farewell to.

Because you’re the ones whose faces we looked forward to seeing on our screens as we sat alone at our desks or our kitchen tables last year, waiting for class to begin. Your cats prowled with our cats through our virtual classrooms, we learned the names of your dogs and you learned the names of ours, your children and our children burst into the room from time to time and gave us a little break from whatever we were doing. The life we shared with you on Zoom was unexpectedly intimate. It revealed some aspects of our lives while keeping others hidden. But even when they remained invisible, we knew that your sorrows mirrored our sorrows, your fears, our fears.

It was your love of what you were studying that kept your teachers aloft on some hard days, and your desire to read more deeply and listen more carefully and write more truly that reminded us of why we got into this work in the first place.

This year, it was you with whom we nervously and yet excitedly reentered our classrooms. It was your voices we struggled to hear through your masks, as I’m sure you struggled to hear us. It was you who were sometimes so much taller than we had imagined you would be—Myles Garbarini!

And it was you, the Class of 2022, who brought the newly-renovated Swartz Hall to life and blessed it with your questions, your commitments, your devotion, your creativity. With projects like the library exhibit Professor Todne Thomas’s students created to document and interpret arson attacks on Black churches, Maisie Luo’s art installation that invited us to come alongside the animals whose suffering is a result of our ravaged environment, and Lindsay Sanwald’s rock opera that led us through the dark night of the soul and out onto the dance floor, you began to unlock the possibilities of the new spaces around us.

Not only will we miss you. We will never forget you.

But even with the theoretical language of many disciplines, the scriptural language of holy books, the literary language of novels and poems, the political language of social movements, to say nothing of the world languages, both ancient and modern, that you have studied, that we have studied together, it remains difficult to find the words to give an account of these times we have shared. What language will suffice to speak of what this ongoing pandemic has meant and will come to mean? What words are up to the task of comprehending the 1 million deaths from a disease that the last time we gathered in person for graduation, no one had ever heard of?

When we celebrated the class of 2019, George Floyd was living his life. Two years ago today, that life was taken from him in an act of violence that had the weight of American history behind it. The last time we were in this space for this purpose, Ukrainian towns and cities, now shattered, were intact. Our uniquely American catastrophes continue to repeat themselves, over and over, unchanged. In the days since Katie Caponera asked me to give this speech, a white supremacist murdered 10 people doing their Saturday grocery shopping in Buffalo, and yesterday, another gunman killed 19 little children and two of their teachers in their school.

How do we find the words we need to give an account of these events? To speak of them, to write of them, to respond to them in a way that creates the conditions for us to change course?

St. Augustine, the great fifth-century African bishop once wrote that, when he wanted to speak of his faith to others, he knew what we wanted to say inside himself, but “my words,” he wrote, “cannot suffice to my heart.” Thinking of all that has happened during our time together at HDS, I feel the same way. My words cannot suffice to my heart.

When the first lockdowns began, the historical society of my church sent out a letter encouraging us all to keep an account of these days and to archive it in their offices so that future generations could read about what it was like to live through this time. Perhaps some of you kept a journal of these years. I hope many of you did. Like Daniel Defoe and Samuel Pepys writing their daily accounts of life in London during the last surge of the plague, I hope many of you bore witness to this time through making an account of your days.

I wish I could say that I did, but I am, at best, an intermittent journal keeper, always struggling to find the right words.

But journals are not the only way of creating an account of a moment in time. Letters, sermons, sound and song, film, paintings, poetry, novels—there are so many way to explore a moment in time.

The one that rings most true for my own life I found in Valeria Luiselli’s novel, Lost Children Archive. One of her narrators, a sound documentarian, writes, “I don’t keep a journal. My journals are the things I underline in books.”

When I read this sentence, I underlined it. My journals are the things I underline in books. That feels right to me. And I think it might be a way of thinking about what we’ve been doing together, students and teachers, on Zoom and off, over these past two and a half years. The way we’ve been making a record of this time, together.

Medieval Christian monks created a form for this kind of record. When they were reading, or copying a manuscript by hand, if certain sentences shone with significance, and they would copy those down in collections they called florilegia, a word that means something like flower garden, a collection of the flowers, the fruits of their reading. Sometimes they would sort these portions of texts into further collections, thematically arranged around themes like friendship or justice or prayer. These florilegia weren’t inert collections of sentences, though—they were meant to be read and reread in order to change the reader, to change how they moved through the world, how they related to others. It’s an active way of reading, a way of creating fluidity between reading and writing and living.

Not only is the reader meant to be changed by reading and rereading florilegia, but the texts themselves are changed. A sentence from one text is placed next to a portion of another text, and a new text is made, one that speaks from the resonance or the friction between them. And from the generative encounter of one text with another, something new might be said.

Our ways of communicating often flatten out the possibility of this kind of generativity. Timothy Snyder, the historian of fascism, writes in his book On Tyranny, that one of the practices we need to cultivate in order to resist totalitarianism is to learn to speak in fresh ways, unique to ourselves, even about slogans we agree with. “Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does,” he writes. “Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying.” History has shown and continues to show that tyrants manipulate language by repeating the same phrases over and over. To resist the collective trance this can induce, Snyder says, we need more conceptual and linguistic freedom in how we express our convictions. One of the ways we can learn to do this, he says, is to read books.

This is not because books have all the answers. It’s because our engagement with other people’s words often helps us find our own. My journals are the things I underline in books, Valeria Luiselli’s narrator writes. If we were to go through all of our underlinings and marginalia over the past two and a half years, a portrait of this time would take shape, made out of the way our lives interacted with what we were reading. 

Last week, I heard Dean Hempton in conversation with Professor Thomas and Professor Carrasco about Dean Hempton’s Gifford Lectures and the writing of history. Davíd Carrasco quoted Carlos Fuentes as saying that “The unwritten part of the world is so much greater than the written part of the world.” And that’s true—if we want to offer a written account of even a small part of the world, our understanding of what counts as writing will have to expand. Todne Thomas helped us with this when she described her experience in the archive as she researched her project on arson attacks against Black churches. Professor Thomas said she wept in the archive as she read the accounts of the deliberate destruction of sacred places cherished by individuals and communities. I think that weeping is another form of writing and another form of reading—it’s a form that makes visible the opening that reading and writing can engender.

In the Christian contemplative tradition, tears are often the first step on the path to prayer. “Pray first for the gift of tears,” the fourth-century desert monk Evagrius Ponticus writes, “so that by means of sorrow you may soften your native rudeness.” Maisie Luo and Patrick Downes, in their final project for our contemplative prayer seminar this semester, worked with Evagrius’s exhortation to prayer as a medieval preacher might have done—that is to say, they quoted Evagrius, and then they kept going, following his words into our world and listening for their resonance here. Pray for the gift of tears, they said in their video project. By means of sorrow you soften your edges and open your heart. This prepares you for witness.

When we set our fragments—our underlinings, our marginalia—down next to each other, a third thing is made. A new possibility. An opening for witness, for action, for critique, for reverence. An opening for new forms of living that honor the complexity of human life, safeguard human dignity, and bear witness to the multiple possibilities our humanity holds.

A character in Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse, describes the vocation of the artist as doing just this. The artist, she says, is the lover whose work it is to take things that seem not to belong together and to put them together, fashioning from disparate fragments what she called “a globed, compacted thing, over which thought lingers and love plays.”

When I think of the work we did together during the difficult years of your time at HDS, class of 2022, this is what I think of. I think of the way you eagerly read from your Zoom box the passages that had sparkled up at you from your reading. I think of how we passed those bits of texts from hand to hand, turning them in the light of each other’s experience, weighing them in relation to the world’s sorrow, using other bit of text to interpret them further. Creating from fragments new histories, new images, new music, new ideas, new accounts of what we have lived through in ways that attract both thought and love.

And that’s what this multireligious service does each year. Everyone brings their prayer, their song, their drums, their sacred text, their poem, their blessing, their speech and puts it down next to everyone else’s. These fragments don’t complete, or cancel each other out, even when they describe utterly different worldviews, even when they disagree about reality. These fragments speak to each other, and to us. They read us and comment on who we are and who we might become.

In the spaces between them, may we all find a place to bear witness to what we have experienced, a vantage point to see beyond the way things are, and companions with whom to work for the way things could be.