John G. Sullivan, Inaugural Distinguished University
To Love the Pilgrim Soul in Elon
A response given on occasion of being named Elon’s first Distinguished University Professor.
Elon is an institution that I love. I am in it and it is in me. In words adapted from William Butler Yeats, I have “loved the pilgrim soul in her and loved the sorrows of her changing face.”
The older I get, the more I listen to love songs. The older I get, the more the strands of my life intertwine.
This evening is, for me, a love song in which many strands intertwine. A love song for my wife, Gregg, who has also co-taught with me the Quest class for ten years. A love song to my family — those here, those at a distance like my daughter Heather and my sister Elaine, and those like my parents and grandparents who have gone before. A love song to the philosophy department — those here and those who have gone before. A love song for Elon — for all of you — for those here and not here, those who have gone before and those who will come after.
I have discovered that you become what you love. I think of Elon under four aspects — “the work, the place, the people, and the dream.” Elon — so understood — has become part of me. Its unfolding, part of my unfolding. Its yearning, mine. At times such as this, I glimpse my life and its life spreading out in four dimensions over space and time. I see Elon over time — a particular place, yes. But people more — students and staff and faculty. When I think in four dimensions, then Elon is all of us and all beyond us — all who have shared this work. We who have struggled and loved here will always be a part of what we love. And what we love will always be a part of who we are. For me, a fall day in 1970 and the sounds of Jack White’s marching band. Spring symposia for the Liberal Arts Forum. Faces in time. Students and colleagues and those who support the work. Struggles like the one that unified the tenured Elon teaching faculty. Births and deaths. Common tragedies and common joys. The ongoing work of reinventing ourselves and our calling. Three presidents and three colleges. Throughout, I have “loved the pilgrim soul in her and loved the sorrows of her changing face.”
At this juncture, we struggle to balance community and excellence. Or perhaps more radically, to discover a new form of excellence — an excellence that is itself a community achievement. We struggle to rethink profoundly what community is and can be, to rethink profoundly what excellence is and can be. We seek to do this in the context of a faculty deeply devoted to its students. A context where the excellence co-arises from faculty and students through their common work. For us to see this, I believe we must think of our connectedness in four dimensions — over time as well as in space.
On the occasion of Dr. Fred Young’s retirement, I read these words from one of China’s greatest poet, Li Po:
The birds have vanished into the sky and now the last clouds fade away.
We sit together, the mountain and I until only the mountain remains.
And I said that, in this image, what remains for us is Elon. Yet Elon also is us — because all that has been done from the heart — in the spirit of service — remains always — like the threads in a quilt, like the veins in the rock face of a mountain, like the sound of events echoing still.
Tonight, I want to read another poem from the Chinese — this one a love song of a man for his wife. It is also a love song for myself and all of you. It is by Kuan Tao-Sheng. It is called “Married Love.”
You and I
have so much love
burns like a fire,
in which we bake a lump of clay
molded into a figure of you
and a figure of me.
Then we take both of them,
and break them into pieces,
and mix the pieces with water,
and mold again a figure of you,
and a figure of me.
I am in your clay.
You are in my clay.
In life, we share a single quilt.
In death, we will share one bed.
In such a viewpoint, reconsider the work — the place — the people — and the dream. They do not stand apart from us, over against us. We do not wait for them to give to us or us to them — as if we were two things. Rather we are a dance within “relationships of relationship” with a new sense of community and new possibilities of excellence. Not “power over” but “partnership with.” We are changed by our interactions. We are in one another’s clay.
When thinking about this honor, I wondered what it meant to me and I to it. I thought of myself in Thomas Aquinas’ phrase as “one who has the care of the community.” I remembered that in the mythic way of thinking such a one has three functions: (1) to remember what is important, (2) to encourage creativity and (3) to bless the young. If I do that — supporting and supported by you — then that will be my service.
Other words return to me, words from my own Celtic tradition, again words from the poet William Butler Yeats. The poem is called Vacillation. And we do vacillate between hope and despair in times dark with the threat of all that opposes community and the excellence of collaboration. Here are the words of the poet:
My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great a happiness,
That I was blessèd and could bless.
Tonight, in this work and place and dream I love, with people I love, I am grateful and profoundly blessed. In this place with all of you, I believe that I can bless.
So let it be this way: May Elon be blessed at this time in history where the planet’s fate for humans is to be decided, where we are being asked to change our lives. May Elon-the-work be blessed — the work of learning so as to serve all life. May Elon-the-place be blessed and remind us of our rootedness through place in the web of nature. May the Elon-the-people be blessed — all of us — at our central core. And finally may Elon-the-dream be blessed — the dream that links us to the Great Work, the Great Love and the Great Calling.
I thank you all from a place deeper than words.
John G. Sullivan
October 24, 2002