Somewhere Over the Rainbow (by Dr. Greg Roper)

Somewhere Over the Rainbow:
An Appreciative Look at the Spring Class of 2009
Final Convocation Address
University of Dallas Due Santi Campus
8 May 2009
Dr. Gregory Roper

[sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”]

When, on the steps of the Bari basilica, Dr. Hatlie, without any democratic consultation at all, and, in a fit of dictatorial coercion equal to the Thirty Tyrants, declared you the Rainbow Class, I was at best unsure about the label. It seemed too facile, and definitely too early to know this group’s collective moira. But as I overheard a student proclaiming just minutes later as we queued for the ferry, “No, we can’t change it now; our fate has been assigned.” And indeed the Three Fates of Hatlie had, it would seem, measured you out and cut your thread.

And no matter how un-rainbow-like you attempted to look on that day in the Basilica of San Clemente, you really were, and have become, the Rainbow Group. May I just say here parenthetically that you answered that day just a few weeks later, in what I found a frightening fashion, with the 80s dance; for every Flusche-inspired stylish black outfit the first day, there were multicolored leggings and bad eye shadow during the later evening, and I still shudder when the image comes to my mind of Mr. Aaron “Richard Simmons” Tucker flouncing about in Shakespeare Alley that evening.

We really do have a veritable rainbow of people, in one of the most diverse groups I can remember on this campus: we count among our number a Pakistani Muslim, a well-traveled Jew, a Vietnamese-American, a Polish-American, a Lebanese-Latina, a Peruvian-American, a Phillippina-American… among the faculty we have a North Dakotan-Minnesotan director, an expatriate small-town Texas art history professor, a post-Anglican married Roman Catholic priest with a family, and (may God help us all), a philosopher who throws away his commitment to rationality by being a Dallas Cowboys fan. (He honestly seems to think the Cowboys’ owner, Jerry Jones, has a soul… or at least some kind of “dispositions.”)

We also have a panoply, a rainbow of skills and abilities on this campus. We have speakers of Spanish, French, Dutch, Syriac, Arabic, German, Greek, and Latin among us; we have people who can say the word “rainbow” as teçza, regenboog, arco iris, ouranio toso, qaws quzh, and I’m just talking about Dr. Hatlie’s wife Dr. Roggema here…; we have musicians and dancers, athletes enough to take on the North American College in soccer; a knitter; a boot-maker; we have gentle souls and fierce competitors. Destined for Broadway for their ability to connect with an audience and bring out smiles in all, we have had on campus two of the sweetest little girls, Hannah and Kora, you will ever meet. We have a ten-year-old engineer and a seven-year-old artist-athlete, both of them black-belt Lego Masters. We have someone who can, if you trust his words, do incredibly unpleasant things to your body with his bare hands in three seconds, or, in thirty seconds, using the same hands, cause you to moan in so much delight that others present might think you are doing something rather private in a public place. (That was a heck of a back rub…!) We have a superb set of RAs who can balance thirty tasks at once: get you around foreign cities, bind wounds, teach Latin and Rugby, play the piano, set up Renaissance games, take photos, organize your housing, and fix you a cappuccino, all without breaking a sweat. We have dedicated, scholarly, fascinating faculty members, as you heard in Dr. Hatlie’s thanks to them. Perhaps bearing the most complex and valuable set of skills and talents, in two of the more unrecognized members of our community, a psychological tester and an artist/singer, we have two moms, who show these stunning talents in ways small and large, who care for all of their children, the little ones to the twenty-year-olds, with cookies and cakes, band-aids and a caring ear, hugs and encouragement. (Let’s take a moment to give it up for Mrs. Blue and Mrs. Roper…)

Soaring above perhaps even these is our multitalented Dean and Director, who is, I can say without qualification, the best leader I have known in eighteen years of working in academia. A terrific scholar who is not lost in a world of foggy footnotes, a fine classroom teacher, he is at once a superb administrator and a caring leader, exhibiting the virtues of courage, temperance, fortitude, and justice in his every action, and binding these together with a generosity of spirit that is boundless. He is a veritable rainbow himself, all of the colors bright, and I have been humbled to serve with him, for him, and under him four of the past six years of my life.

But it is not enough to simply list, like Book Two of the Iliad, a catalog of rainbows. As UD students and professors, we have been taught to go beyond mere listing of accidents to the substance of the matter.

And to do that, I suppose I must follow my own advice and scratch an itch.

Which itch? Well, it is the one first voiced by a little green philosopher-actor who, coincidentally, has a disordered love for his pink girlfriend.

I’m talking about Kermit the Frog, of course, who asks, “Why are there so many songs about rainbows? And what’s on the other side?”

Well, let us begin by looking at the nature of reality… of rainbows. And then see if they can teach us how to live our lives.
Of course for a rainbow there first must be rain… and we’ve had our share of that this semester, literally and metaphorically. We could almost summarize this semester by quoting the beginning of one of my favorite chapters from Winnie the Pooh: “It rained, and it rained, and it rained.” It rained and snowed on our way to Bari; it rained in Olympia; it rained a bit in Delphi; it poured in Nafplion. The Easter Triduum had its share. There was wind, and there were storms, this semester: need I say more than “If the devil was a ferry…”? finish it with me, guys: “he’d be the Blue Star!” When Carl cannot, because of the rain, even stage a simple bocce ball tourney, you know something is up. We’ve had our share of metaphorical storms and rain, also. We’ve dealt with facial disfigurement in the Circus Maximus, socialist Acropolis employees depriving us of an up-close-and-personal with the Parthenon, and obnoxious Italian students at the theatre in Epidauros. You had your own literal and metaphorical storms over ten day. And it occurs to me now that, during our most dangerous part of the semester, as Kara and Gayle and I called up to, and Dr. Hatlie and a really angry Greek police chief called down to, and were repeatedly answered by, a strangely calm disembodied voice tucked a few hundred feet above or below us, that perhaps the reason our group’s leprechaun was on a ledge in Nafplion was that he had been searching for a pot of gold up there, and the faeries had bewitched him…

But rain isn’t enough for a rainbow to appear: we must also have light. And in fact what occurs to me is that for every one of those moments I just mentioned, a glorious day followed: a beautiful cool day for the race in Olympia, a stunning walk up the site in Delphi, the cleansing of the temple in Epidauros by Mr. Gibula’s judicious use of the national anthem, the gorgeous day at the Palamidi Fortress after the great wash of relief we all felt when Mr. Wilder was safe. Even our trip back from Greece, on a beautiful new ferry on glass-smooth waters, had a way of erasing that demonic trip to Patras.

So we are getting closer to the nature of the reality of rainbows, but perhaps we should look a little further.
A scientist might say a rainbow is the result of refracted light. A romantic might say that robs a rainbow of its poetry, but I would disagree; I think, as I often think about scientific knowledge, it actually enhances the beauty and wonder of rainbows.
For when we combine water and light, as we could all see on a wonderful afternoon at the villa in Tivoli, you get spectacular results. And you get deep symbolism of our greatest needs and deepest aspirations.

A rainbow is of course NOT an illusion—we’re not dealing with one of Mr. Padgett’s splendid card tricks here, where we are cleverly deceived—no, in refracting, a rainbow tells us the TRUTH about light, that light is made up of an infinite number of colors and parts of the spectrum; it tells us that, as Roberto Benigni might say, Light is Beautiful, and that much of the time we do not even really see it for what it is.

But a rainbow also teaches us that at times we have to be bent, refracted, to reveal our true beauty. That is, troubles do come, and, as we’ve seen here, they often don’t just “melt like lemon drops”; we’ve seen this in King Lear, in the Book of Job, in the late Roman Republic, in the difficult struggles of the early Church, in your own occasional homesickness and stress over grades. What we have learned as well this semester is that suffering does exist—ankles twist, mensa lines are long, toilets run endlessly and fire alarms go off at strange times of the night; friends struggle, uncles die, Dachau did exist and has happened again—and that there are Iagos out there, people who will seek to destroy us, or deny us the use of our talents. Think of Michelangelo’s opponents who tried to ruin him by getting him the contract to paint the Sistine Chapel and work for the obnoxious Julius II. They tried to bend him, even to break him, and instead, he refracted all of this into one of the world’s great wonders of artistic beauty and truth, which no amount of crowding, and guards calling “Silencio,” can diminish.

So if a rainbow teaches us anything, it is that it is through our very brokenness, and the unbidden grace that comes to shine through that, that we discover the marvelous. And that this marvelous reveals the beauty and grace of creation.
It would be presumptuous, and I suppose redundant, for me to catalog all of the marvels we have seen and read and experienced here this semester, and you know better than I your own catalog, from Sacre Couer to Fatima, from Hagia Sophia to a Khang Tran topspin, from Rebecca and Nick singing in the tholos tomb at Mycenae to a quiet walk in the vineyard, to Mr. Kelsey transforming into one seriously dangerous pick-up artist. I think you would agree we have seen a plethora of marvels this semester.

But what the marvelous requires of us is appreciation. Appreciation means to stand in awe and pleasure, to seek out the good of the thing, and to respond to its goodness. I confess that what irked me (just a wee bit) about Dr. Hatlie choosing a label for you is that Michele and I already had from the earliest weeks of the semester our own name for you: the Appreciative Group. Rather than carping and whining about what you didn’t have, from January 21st you truly appreciated what you have been given here, and we saw it in ways small and large: the way you appreciated the stunning sites and fascinating history of Rome, or the mensa ladies’ care of you; the way you responded to lectures; the attention you gave to us on site; the joy with which you took to Kora Blue climbing a tree, or a Stephanie Stoeckl twinkle in the eye; the way you appreciated each others’ personalities and gifts and quirks and talents, the way you saw, if I may say so, the radiance of the divine in the art and architecture and concepts and men and women on the streets. You knew there were things more important than yourselves, and you sought and appreciated the good in them.

And appreciation, rightly ordered, leads to wonder, which is what cracks open our ability to see truth, to bathe in beauty, to pursue the good. A few times in other semesters I’ve just felt crushed by a student who looks at the Acropolis and says, “Yeah, let’s go get a gyro” or finds Rome tiresome or spends all of her semester longing for Cheetos and not appreciating a good hearty bowl of penne alla vodka. But that didn’t happen this semester; you all understood the secret of appreciation. It was there the day I saw two very different guys, Senor Herrera and Mr. Burton, walk out of the Scavi tour wiping tears from their eyes; it was there in your excitement to be at the Hill of the Pnyx, where democracy was born and Socrates sentenced to death; it was there in the reverence and calm of so many of you at Mass, even when it was held in a crowded lobby in Delphi where we had to move the exceedingly illegal-looking hookah from behind the altar.

If there is something I think the Rome semester is supposed to do for you, it is to give you this chance to appreciate, to move to wonder, to crack you open with Thucydides and Hamlet and Athanasius and Ryle, with Augustine and the “Apollo and Daphne” and a quiet talk in the pergola with a friend, to have you open yourselves to truth and beauty and goodness, to see the beauty in the refracted light of a new country, a new culture, a new set of experiences in your lives. For if you have that wonder, we don’t have to worry about how you will be as students; all of your studies will be a part of your wonder, the Core will come alive, your majors will widen and deepen. For if you have that wonder, beauty will come to you, you will be humbly open to truth bigger than yourself, and you will seek out how to act with goodness.

Finally, what we know about rainbows is that they quickly fade . . . and we must take a moment, when they appear, to pause and notice them, to appreciate their grace and beauty and meanings for us, or we will miss them. As Doctor Hatlie told us in the opening convocation, as he spoke about the Greek word ekomeny, we on the Rome semester are aware at once of living in the best of all possible places and that it is, at this very moment, passing away, and while this may give us pause, and perhaps lead to a bout of Rome Sickness next semester, it should not lead us to despair, for it reminds us that so much of the good around us is pure gift, and the only response is gratitude. And if you have learned that, that all is gift, on your Rome semester—from the sunshine and rain, the basilicas and temples, the texts and images, the crowds and the moments of solitude—then you will have something not ephemeral as a rainbow, but as solid as Peter’s rock, the deepest and most enduring secret of life.

So at the end of this intense experience in a world of Oz, as you begin to crave fajitas and good Texas barbecue, a beer and a braut in Wisconsin, or an In-and-Out burger in LA, as you head back to the other side of the rainbow, you may be tempted to see this semester as a singular experience, a strange illusion, a fading ephemeral moment in your life that will not be replicated back in the hum-drum world of Irving. But I think, as the Rainbow Class, you know better, and can turn your appreciation for these marvels into permanent parts of your soul. For the Rome semester does its best work when it is not a one-time event, but when it irradiates your life back in the rest of the world with the truths, the beauty, and the goodness you have experienced here. So as you prepare to click your heels tomorrow, saying quietly (and correctly), “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home”, and as you then fly “where lovely bluebirds fly”, I hope you’ll take a piece of the violet, or orange, or blue, or green, and splash its color upon everything you see.

Thank you.