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HEADMASTER BURKE DELIVERS OPENING REMARKS ON "HARMONY"

During the first Corporate Chapel of the school year, Headmaster Burke delivered his Opening Remarks on this year's theme - HARMONY.


Good morning! We offer a special welcome to our outstanding Board of Trustees President, Mr. Jim Elcock ’77, father of our beloved Arrow and fabulously gifted musician Jimmy ’08, and to our new trustees who are engaged in their orientation program.

Trustees are exceptionally bright, talented, devoted people who, like you and your families and our faculty and staff, devote themselves to advancing our School’s mission. In governing our School, the trustees hire and support the Headmaster, they oversee the School’s strategic planning, and they maintain ultimate fiduciary responsibility for the institution. Largely unsung, they are our true heroes. Let us express our tremendous gratitude to them.

I often proclaim that I have the easiest and the best job in America – serving a Catholic independent day school for boys with a clear, important mission, a unified, focused board, a gifted, devoted faculty, a talented, dedicated staff, a loyal, engaged alumni, and truly great young men from wonderful loving families. Each of us plays a vitally important part in this symphony of love we call St. Sebastian’s School. We are one.

We exist for the glory of God and for you students and your families. The rest of us are here to serve. And what an honor and a joy it is do so.

Our mission:

A Catholic independent school, St. Sebastian’s seeks to engage young men in the pursuit of truth through faith and reason.

By embracing Gospel values in an inclusive, nurturing community and by inspiring intellectual excellence in a structured liberal arts curriculum, St. Sebastian’s strives to empower students for success in college and in life.

The ideal St. Sebastian’s graduate will be a moral and just person, a gentleman of courage, honor, and wisdom, a lifelong learner who continues to grow in his capacity to know, to love, and to serve God and neighbor.

Our order of the day:

Love God. Work hard. Take good care of one another.

My purpose this morning is to help us launch our 2021-2022 academic year, which we plan on making the best year of our lives – until next year, when things will just keep getting better – and to offer some reflections on our year’s theme, Harmony,  which I have selected at the suggestion of my colleague and friend, Mrs. Helen Maxwell, mother of four wise, just, balanced, and brave Arrows from the Classes of 2006, 2008, 2009, and 2015.

But before we swing into harmony, let me tell you a little story, which I heard two weeks ago during our new faculty orientation. Mr. Chris Lynch, who runs this program exceptionally well, told us about his day number one as a first-year student at the College of the Holy Cross. After leaving his Economics class in which the professor droned on and on and on about every minute detail of the syllabus, Mr. Lynch proceeded to his Calculus class, which was taught by an elderly Jesuit priest, who simply offered this advice: “Say your prayers and ask for help.” I don’t think any of us can improve upon that wisdom.

Say your prayers. A favorite definition of prayer appears in The Cloud of Unknowing, an extraordinary book written by an anonymous fourteenth century mystic. Here it is: In itself, prayer is simply a reverent, conscious openness to God full of the desire to grow in goodness and overcome evil.

That really is our job here and everywhere today, tomorrow, and forever and ever. To grow in goodness and overcome evil. And may we do so in harmony.

Say your prayers and ask for help.

I recall us gathering in the Church twenty years ago in the somber wake of 9/11 and praying together. And I remember sharing the last sentence of St. Paul’s 12th letter to the Romans: “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” 

In those days immediately following the murderous terrorist attacks on our nation, a Jesuit priest named James Martin found himself ministering to the rescue workers in New York City. In a recent newspaper article, Father Martin shares: “My experience at Ground Zero was one where the Holy Spirit was present. It was a place of generosity and love, community and union, charity, concord, and service. I believe the Holy Spirit impelled those people to listen to their conscience. 'Go and help,' it said. And they listened. That’s the active spirit I’m talking about. The sense of the Holy Spirit drawing people together.”

What a great example of responding to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and cooperating with grace! May we continue to pray for the victims and their loved ones, may we thank God for inspiring so many heroes to seek and to serve those in need, may we resolve to overcome evil with good, and may we embrace the truth that we always and forever have access to the two most powerful loving forces in the universe: God and people of good will through whom our Lord works.  And, praise God, our St. Sebastian’s family is filled with such people.

Say your prayers and ask for help.

Earlier in that 12th letter to the Romans, St. Paul offers these words: “Live in harmony with one another.”

Doesn’t that sound nice!  Isn’t the word harmony beautiful! Harmony… harmony…harmony. Euphony. Poetry. Harmony. So comforting. Nary a negative connotation. All good, true, and beautiful. All charm. Only harm is in the first four letters of the word.

Harmony comes to us from the Greek word harmos, which means joint, and from the Latin harmonia, meaning joining and concord.

Dictionary definitions include: the combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes to produce chords and chord progressions having a pleasing sound…a pleasing combination of elements or arrangement of sounds… agreement, accord, tranquility, balance, coherence, consonance, symphony, unity.

And how jarring the antonyms: discordance, disunity, imbalance, asymmetry, cacophony, violence.

No thank you. Give me peace. Give me joy. Give me harmony.

I came across this translation of a sentence in St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor 13:14): “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the harmony of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” In other translations of this sentence, the phrase harmony of is replaced by these phrases: fellowship of, communion of, communing of, and joined together by the Holy Spirit.

Harmony is all about joining, adding to, being in sync with, enjoying togetherness, living in the zone. With harmony is agreement, bonding, community, joy, order, peace.

As I mentioned on Friday, in describing our community, I often use the image of a tapestry with each member of the St. Sebastian’s family weaving his and her unique thread into our fabric. Harmony moves me to opt for the image of a symphony with each person contributing notes that only he or she can add to the music.

Remain in constant harmony with nature commands ancient stoic philosopher, Epictetus, who along with fellow stoics such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, believed that all of the forces in the universe call us to live in harmony with nature and with one another. And the stoics believed, as we do, that every human life has purpose.

Marcus Aurelius asserts: “Your purpose is to be a good human being. Get straight to doing what nature requires of you, and speak as you see most just and fitting – with kindness, modesty, and sincerity.” He adds: “Good fortunes are a well-tuned soul, good impulses, and good actions.” And he asserts: “Kindness is invincible.”

All of which is consonant with our faith which informs us that we are made in the image and likeness of our gracious and loving God. We are made to seek and inspire all that is good, true, and beautiful. We are made for love.

May we forever strive to live in harmony with God and with one another.

We have shared that Tommy Amaker, head men’s basketball coach at Harvard, has hung a banner in his locker room emblazoned with these words:   

Good teams have good players.

Great teams have great teammates.

The best teammate might be the manager or the last person on the depth chart. What matters is not a player’s athletic ability, not minutes played – if any, but heart, soul, attitude, positive energy, total commitment to the greater good of the team’s harmony. Such a person is invaluable.  May each of us strive to be a great teammate, to be a great friend, to be a great person of faith and honor. If we choose it, we will have it.

Say your prayers. And ask for help.

In the sport of crew, the highest form of harmony is called swing.  I’m about to share how swing is defined in The Boys in the Boat, which was our All School Read a few years ago.  Settle your spirits, pay attention. This is great stuff coming at you. Here we go:

It only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of synch with the others. It is not just that the oars enter and leave the water at precisely the same instant. Sixteen arms must begin to pull, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must bend and straighten all at once. Each minute action—each subtle turning of wrists—must be mirrored exactly by each oarsman, from one end of the boat to the other. Only then will the boat continue to run unchecked, fluidly and gracefully between pulled oars. Only then will it feel as though the boat is part of each of them, moving as if on its own. Only then does pain entirely give way to exultation. Rowing then becomes a kind of perfect language. Poetry, that’s what a good swing feels like.

Wow! Talk about being in the zone! Give me swing. Give me harmony.  Let me see our offensive line fire off at the snap in harmony.  Let me see our shortstop scoop up the ground ball and fire it to second. Let me see our second baseman appear at the bag and in a dance of elegance catch, pivot, and hurl. Let me see our first baseman stretch and catch. Bang. Bang. Double play. Poetry in motion. Harmony. 

Let me see our debaters alternate, each seamlessly offering his well-planned gift at just the right moment. Harmony! Let me see a stage full of actors speaking and moving in time and space in natural grace, stirring us with words and motions they have rehearsed so well. Harmony.

Let me hear our drummer drum, our trumpeter trumpet, our singer sing in harmony! Let the band play on.

Let me hear a student offer his brilliant insights and elevate the class. Let me see our Arrows serve the young, the old, the challenged and all who need them most. Let me see and hear all of us laugh and cry over the same things together in perfect harmony.

In his wonderful book, A River Runs Through It, Noman Maclean, channels his father, a Presbyterian minister preoccupied with humankind’s unredeemed state since our fall in the garden of Eden. He writes:“Well, until man is redeemed, he will always take a fly rod too far back, just as natural man always over-swings with an ax or a golf club and loses all his power somewhere in the air.”  

Do I ever know the devastating results of over-swinging a golf club! And I’m often guilty of under-swinging, too. I am perpetually hungry for advice on how to improve, as I devoutly wish to feel, on a much more consistent basis, the harmony of a well struck ball.

Many years ago, I played golf with a most gracious southern gentleman who had only one leg and no prosthesis.  He would move up to his ball on crutches, toss them aside, and, standing on one leg, draw back and drive through with the most gorgeous sweeping swing every single time. On the greens, he would tuck both crutches under one arm to brace himself and stroke a remarkably beautiful putt. The man was an artist, and the club was his brush. He shot in the 70’s that day on a very difficult course.  I kept asking him for tips, but he demurred until, toward the end of our round, he acquiesced: “As long as you got the tempo, you’re never going to hit one real bad.”  And that was it: tempo, timing, rhythm, balance to achieve harmony!  Best advice on a golf course I’ve ever received. The gentleman’s name is Bob Montague, Sr.

Years later, I took a phone call from a young man who wanted to work with us. He gave me his name and told me that he had heard about me from his father, a man I might remember from having played golf with him, a man with one leg.  Well, I was sure feeling the tempo that day, as we soon hired Bob Montague, Jr. to be our Director of Technology. He worked harmonious wonders for us for many years, and we all love him for it. Eventually, the call of the South beckoned him home, but we remain in close contact. The essence of life is in relationships, and ours are eternal. We don’t lose anybody. Arrows forever.

Sister Thea Bowman, the beautiful subject of our All School Read, Thea’s Song, shares this thought on harmony: “…differences should not cause conflict; they should complement each other. And so it is wise that we do not destroy what is good in Negro culture, but develop it, harmonize it with other traditions. In that way we could build a new and better way of life.”

And she challenges us with this rhetorical question: “Cannot Americans, many and different, join hands in unity, live in celestial harmony, establish a new and better world?”

Our answer must be a resounding YES! It’s a tall order. But we can do it. Let us choose to join hands in unity. Let us choose to live in celestial harmony. Let us choose to establish a new and better world.

It really does come down to choice.

Leo Tolstoy shares: “Everything is in heaven’s power except our choice of whether to serve God or ourselves.”

As I ponder this assertion in this year of harmony, a line from a song made famous by Frank Sinatra comes to mind: “I did it my way.”

I believe the song we should sing – in harmony with God and with one another – is not “I did it my way,” but, rather: “We did it thy way.” 

We shall grow in goodness and overcome evil – if we obey this message of St. Paul: “Put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col 3:4).

It really is all about love. Know that we love you, that we’re here for you, and that we will be forever as together we strive to achieve happy, healthy, holy, harmonious lives of love and service in this world and eternal joy in heaven.

Say your prayers.

Ask for help.

May God bless us all.