My favorite speech in all of Shakespeare is one that very few people have ever heard. It comes at the end of the "The Two Noble Kinsmen", the last play that William Shakespeare had a hand in writing. It is very probably the last thing he ever wrote to be said on a stage. This speech is given by Theseus, the Duke of Athens. As he addresses the gods whose inscrutable will has been worked out over the course of the play’s events, Theseus steps forward and says this:
O you heavenly Charmers,
What things you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh, for what we have, are sorry: still
Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful
For that which is, and with you leave dispute
That are above our question. Let's go off,
And bear us like the time.
To paraphrase: Calling the gods “heavenly Charmers”, Theseus laughs at the myriad ironies of life. What things the gods make of us! We laugh about the things we don’t have, we take for granted and regret the things we do. All of us always are in some respect children.
And then he prays for three things. First, for grace to “be thankful/For that which is”; second, for wisdom to leave off disputing things “that are above our question”; and third, for courage to “go off,/And bear us like the time.” In some sense, this speech, more than any other in Shakespeare, is a true valedictory to his career in the stage. As we gather together on a night which celebrates 150 years of history and looks forward to an uncertain future, what might Theseus’ entreaty to the gods have to say to you and me?
First, “Let us be thankful/For that which is.” As a community of faith, learning, witness, fellowship, and ministry Seabury has served the Episcopal Church for 150 years with a constant commitment to excellence, faithfulness, and compassion. There are so many profound ways in which this is a wonderful place: a seminary which educates men and women for the church’s ministries, a supportive collegial atmosphere for faculty and staff to work in, a residential community for seminarians, spouses, children, and partners. These hundred and fifty years have provided countless occasions for grace and blessing, and the seminary’s time in Evanston has provided a setting of incomparable natural and architectural beauty. Whatever comes next, we have been given this gift of what we have had. “Let us be thankful/For that which is.”
Theseus’s second prayer is for grace to leave off disputing things “That are above our question.” That the currents of history and economics, the change forces in both education and the church, have brought residential theological education to the crisis point it occupies in our church right now is a cause in many quarters for consternation and grief. All of us who were educated in this residential educational model value it dearly, but let’s remember that it’s only 150 years old. Jesus never went to seminary, nor did any of the great Christian leaders in the earliest centuries of our church. The model of education we prepare to leave behind is a construction of 19th century ideas responding to 19th century realities. Leaving it behind is like saying goodbye to the vision of the church portrayed by Anthony Trollope in Barchester Towers. Beautiful as it is, this nineteenth century model no longer speaks effectively to current realities.
We must all resist the temptation to assign credit or blame. We are standing at the confluence of forces bigger than we are. Our job is less to explain them than it is to respond creatively and faithfully to them. Let us leave off disputing things “That are above our question” and instead be about the work that God is calling us to do.
And that, I think, is what Shakespeare means by Theseus’s third entreaty, for courage to “go off,/And bear us like the time.” What does it mean to “bear us like the time?” It means being alive in and responsive to the challenges and gifts of the present moment. We are, together, the custodians of a glorious and noble history. We are the stewards of that history, being asked right now to help envision what it might look like to live it out in the years ahead. But, right now, we are being asked to “bear us like the time.” We stand in both grief and glory. We weep at the loss of a way of being together in this place and in the dispersal of a community which has meant so much to so many. And we glory in the possibilities of responding to God’s call to live and love and organize ourselves for mission in ways we haven’t even imagined yet. There is no way to stand in both of those realities but fully to be present to them. Let us go “off/And bear us like the time.”
As we express our thanks for 150 years of ministry, education, and witness, let us together pray Thesus’s prayer: for grace to “be thankful/For that which is”; for wisdom to leave off disputing things “that are above our question”; and for courage to “go off,/And bear us like the time.” If we are faithful in being present to the gifts and challenges of the present moment, the God in whose name we gather will give us grace, wisdom, and courage to transform the blessings of our common past into the emerging glory of God’s promised future—not only for ourselves or Seabury or the church, but for all God’s creatures in this beautiful yet broken world.