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President Michael E. Hill Delivers Annual Closing Three Taps of the Gavel Address

Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill addressed Chautauquans gathered for the season's final Sacred Song Service with the traditional Three Taps of the Gavel to close the 2018 Chautauqua Assembly. His remarks as prepared for delivery, with light edits, are provided below.

Tonight we share an evening surrounding a Pilgrim’s Hymn. As pilgrims, immigrants all to this sacred place, please pray with me:

Eternal Friend,
grant me an ease
to breathe deeply of this moment,
this light,
this miracle of now.

Beneath the din and fury
of great movements
and harsh news
and urgent crises,
make me attentive still
to good news,
to small occasions,
and the grace of what is possible
for me to be,
to do,
to give,
to receive,
that I may miss neither my neighbor’s gift
nor my enemy’s need.

A colleague gave me Methodist minister Ted Loder’s poem “I Need to Breathe Deeply” early in my tenure as a symbol of what was to come in my first season at Chautauqua, and I tucked it away in a folder for occasional inspiration. I have come across it a least a dozen times in the 20-plus months that I have served as Chautauqua’s President.

It’s been there, like the friend that calls you out of the blue, just because they sense you may need a reminder of a deeper truth. It’s been there, in many ways reminding me of the promise of Chautauqua’s mission if fully realized.

We ushered in this 145th Assembly only nine weeks ago, sharing stories of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Voices were lifted up as a prelude to what we hoped to explore together. As we close this season with added thinking and reflection that will inform that tomorrow, we celebrate that miracle of now.

We celebrate a miracle of now in which Yo-Yo Ma reminded us what we must do together because we cannot do it alone. That our sounds, symbols and images of the season create shared meaning. That we must practice going back and forth from the edge to the center in our culture, and that all of this naturally starts from a place of discomfort. He called us to turn the “other” into “us” by using culture to seek a universal truth, a truth that ultimately erases the notion of “them” as we journeyed into a universal “we.”

We bristled at the din and fury of great movements and harsh news as "The Ethics of Dissent" collided with our definition of "American Identity." We asked anew hard questions about something we’ve aspired to for decades: the answer to unlocking a more diverse and representative Chautauqua. We pushed each other a lot this summer, to the point that some said that they just couldn’t hear the word “diversity” any more.

But our pursuit of a Chautauqua Experience that invites a broader range of voices to share at our bountiful table needs to be a preoccupation if we’re going to get anywhere. It needs to be at the top of our list of priorities, not an afterthought or a “nice to have.” We cannot claim to convene some of the nation’s most important conversations if the voices of half of the nation — or more — are not present and participating.

Conflict will arise from seeking our better angels, but so will beauty, and enlightenment, and maybe even something as dramatic as solutions to the world’s intractable problems. And our better angels are certainly needed on a day when we learn of a shooting that killed four in a video gaming conference. Do we need further evidence, as Bishop Gene reminded us this morning, to get out of our boats of fear and division and seek the healing balm of understanding?

Part of that understanding must come from looking at our own history. Our week on "The Forgotten" reminded us to heed the lessons of the past: from civil strife to the demise of a civilization itself. Chautauqua’s remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in the 50th anniversary year of his death, brought to our stages not only the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Bryan Stevenson, but also Clara Ester, eyewitness to Dr. King’s assassination. And just this week remembering the lessons learned from Sen. John McCain, a patriot who called us to be better than ourselves.

Through these vessels of remembering, we learned new lessons through whispers from the past, present and future.

We felt the tension and rancor of the world on the grounds, as our weekly journey asked us tough questions, as the debates that communities across the nation struggle with showed up in our daily conversations. And, like most communities, we sometimes got it right and we sometimes got it wrong. And throughout it all, we sought the elusive notion of balance that seems absent almost everywhere.

We were reminded that Chautauqua is not about being an escape from the world, but rather a place to which we bring the world in an effort to better understand the complexity of that world, with an eye toward impacting that world in meaningful ways.

We felt the harsh news and urgent crises in our timely and thought-provoking week on Russia. From U.S. senators to diplomats, descendants of Russian royalty and activists, we were knee deep in intellectual diplomacy at the same time, the very day, the president of the United States was in Helsinki meeting with the president of Russia.

There was the good news delivered by prophets like Fr. Greg Boyle … and Skye Jethani … and David Shirey …and Joan Chittister … and Diana Butler Bass, who joined others in reminding us in their own ways to be grateful and to give thanks.

There were the reminders of goodness itself from Arthur Brooks … and David Brooks … and Tyehimba Jess. And the lighthearted, irregardless moments from Kory Stamper and Laraine Newman … and in our own playful times spent on Bestor Plaza, watching films, navigating inflatable obstacle courses, and enjoying delicious food.

And we proved that the young and the young at heart could all love the same concert, when the Avett Brothers gave us a moment to simply be joyful, to dance and to feel alive. When a combined CSO and MSFO lifted us off our seats at the Amphitheater with their forceful and nuanced Shostakovich.

We created poetry from prose — capturing our leaping thoughts conjured from the day’s engagements in our new Poetry Makerspace.

We celebrated small yet important rituals and occasions, whether it was an ice cream cone from the Brick Walk Cafe, a moment on the lake or at Club, a visit from 5-year-olds to the President’s Cottage, celebrating Old First Night, and for some of us, joining the ranks of CLSC graduates in one of the largest classes in recent memory.

And now, as we close our Assembly, we are asked to consider the grace of what is possible. 

We spent a lot of our time “listening” this summer. In strategic planning sessions, in porch chats, at dinners and in informal encounters on the brick walk, we asked you to dream with us about the future of this sacred place. We will now go about the work of distilling all we’ve seen and heard as we write the next chapter of Chautauqua; as we ensure its relevance for the future.

And getting it right matters more than ever before. Our mission of seeking the best in human values is essential if we are to maintain our democratic civil society, just as finding ways to talk to one another and to bridge the differences are critical agents in solving all great challenges of the day.

The future of Chautauqua is only limited by the lengths of our imaginations and our reservoir of courage to have Chautauqua be the answer to the question of what is needed in the world.

Goethe reminds us, “Whatever you can do or dream, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

And former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, advised: “If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.”

When we gather again, we will have a newly passed strategic plan and clarity on our future direction. As we await that plan, we can ask: What is it…

for me to be,
to do,
to give,
to receive,
that I may miss neither my neighbor’s gift
nor my enemy’s need.

A wise Jesuit, Peter Byrne, boils it down for us: “We are simply asked to make gentle our bruised world, to tame its savageness, to be compassionate to all, including ourselves, then — in the time left over — to repeat the ancient tale and go the way of God’s foolish ones.”

Or as Rumi offered: “Let the beauty we love be what we do.”

May you take the beauty of Chautauqua — in all of its imperfection — out to this bruised world. May you let the beauty we love be what we do … until we meet again.

I tap the gavel three times …

Chautauqua 2018 has concluded.

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