Wednesday, March 2, 2011
As you no doubt have heard by now, the Reverend Professor Peter Gomes, a veritable institution at Harvard's Memorial Church, the Divinity School, and the broader University, died Monday evening from complications of a stroke he suffered last December. As tributes have poured in, story after story written, the sheer magnitude of his life and legacy overwhelms.
In this seismic moment for the University more broadly, and for religious life on campus in particular, the loss is keen for members of the Episcopal Chaplaincy because of our longstanding connection with both Memorial Church and with Reverend Gomes. A statement from Bishop Shaw of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts in this morning's Boston Globe says it well: “I always liked to call Peter the bishop of Harvard...I’m so grateful for his ministry, particularly to the Episcopal Church, and the way he encouraged so many in their vocations. He was a singular man, and I’ll miss the example of his deep commitment to the Gospel, his keen mind, and his outrageous sense of humor.’’
Meanwhile, as we wrestle with this loss, I am mindful that the Harvard community also recently lost senior Ilya Chalik, a History and Science concentrator and leader in the Hillel community who was also known to and mourned by members of the Episcopal Chaplaincy. It has only been two weeks since Ilya's death, and now this.
If you are wondering how to make sense of it all, you are certainly not alone. And at times like this, one of the most important things we can do is to bring our grief, our bewilderment, our numbness-- whatever it may be-- into community, particularly into spaces of worship, where it can be gathered together with that of others, collected and offered up. There is a moment in Thomas Cranmer's Eucharistic prayer that reads, "and here we offer and present unto you, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice." That self-offering is an invitation to bring forward and lift up to God all of ourselves, all of the burdens we bring, our sorrows, our anxieties well as our triumphs and joys. All the complexities of who we are in the intensity of moments like this.
That kind of self-offering is certainly a major part of Peter Gomes's legacy. Article after article stresses not only his learning and articulateness, his courage and integrity-- particularly at coming out as a gay man in 1991 as the Harvard community grappled with a spate of homophobic harassment-- but especially his complexity, his uniqueness as a human being. As Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. put it on the New Yorker blog, "Gomes was a large, warm, and mischievous soul, who contained a multitude of identities, each worn with a certain roguish sense of irony....In an era of sometimes confining identity politics, Gomes continued to insist on his own freedom. Cape Verdean and Jewish; Virginia and Massachusetts; gay and Baptist; slave and free; a counselor to the powerful and to the powerless: Peter Gomes smoothly navigated his own Mayflower through this sea of identities, because he anchored himself to none." Or as Reverend Gomes himself put it, as quoted by the New York Times, , "“The oddest thing about being an oddity is that there are very few oddities like you.’’
So bring yourself-- all of yourself, however you feel-- forward, take your place alongside one another as we grapple and grieve together.
Tomorrow the Memorial Church gives us that opportunity with a vigil in memory of Reverend Gomes. After morning prayers at 8:45 a.m., the vigil will take place from 9am to 10pm. Throughout the day, the University Chaplains of all faith traditions will take turns keeping watch, carrying out this ancient tradition of presence. My turn will be at noon. The day will end at 10pm with a service of Compline: a peaceful night, and a perfect end.