On the day when they arrived, the Freshers gathered for one of the few services in our Chapel that is not open to the public. Together with parents, siblings and friends they filled the space between the organ and the Rubens. The organ played, the choir sang, the Provost read the lesson, and the Chaplain prayed a famous and beautiful prayer of Benjamin Whichcote, Cambridge Platoninst and Provost in the seventeenth century. A wonderful occasion.
This is what I said in my address:
Our reading (Philippians 4. 4-9) gave a clear instruction. Rejoice! And although there might be some other feelings in your heart at this time of transition, it is surely right that here in this most remarkable and iconic College Chapel you should be encouraged to be joyful.
The long journey of preparation with all its many phases and troubling steps is now concluded. You have arrived! And here you are sitting in the Chapel envisaged and planned by King Henry VI all those centuries ago, and being being addressed by a Dean who is, in fact, just as new as you are.
The instruction to rejoice, while appropriate, is not always welcome. Rather like the suggestion that we should cheer up when we are sad or tired or stressed. It can be a bit annoying.
It might help to know that when St Paul wrote those words about rejoicing he was stuck in prison. We shouldn’t draw any parallels of course, despite the necessary security arrangements here, but it does help me at least to see that there is nothing cheesy or superficial about the instruction to rejoice. Paul is not, I am not, inviting you to be jolly or even happy, but to rejoice.
To rejoice, to be joyful, is something deep. I think of rejoicing as the resonance of my soul with all that is good. Such rejoicing is ethical and spiritual before it is emotional. And we can only rejoice when we have the attentiveness to notice, and the inner space to resonate with, things outside ourselves that are truthful, honourable, beautiful or good.
Unsurprisingly, our reading invites us to think about just these things. But it is clear that in order to rejoice we need to think about them in a certain way. And it is that way of thinking that I want to commend to you today. For it is this kind of thinking that led to the foundation of this College and lies behind the design, construction and life of this Chapel.
It is thinking that is fundamentally long-term and expansive.
It is thinking that is generous and open-hearted.
It is thinking that cares about the big issues but attends to important details.
It is thinking that is based on a spirituality which says that while I am determined to play my part, I know this is not all about me.
It is thinking that accepts that however bright I am, the brightest thing is to learn from others.
It is thinking that knows that every person of genius only achieves their full potential through teamwork and collaboration.
It is thinking that is marked by humility before facts and the perspective of others, and is yet passionate to know and articulate the truth.
It is thinking that is restless, ‘hungry and thirsty’, for justice.
It is thinking that comes not just from the training and focus of the mind, but also from the engagement of the whole person.
It is thinking that is realistic, even when facing the most intractable problems and the most disturbing realities, and yet resolutely hopeful.
It is my prayer that this is the kind of thinking in which you will become proficient and adept here; not only through your studies, but through your whole life. For this to happen your life will need to be integrated and integrating, healthy and balanced, intellectually high-flying and yet deeply grounded in reality. You will need wise teachers and good friends, and you will need to connect deeply, albeit in a the way that makes sense for you, with all that this Chapel represents.
And behind all that, there needs to be aspiration to the blend of excellence and humanity that is the DNA of this College.
For the opportunity to embark on such a venture, in such a place, with such a heritage and in the company that is now gathered we should indeed rejoice; and we do rejoice.
Thanks be to God.