The Rev. Morgan S. Allen
May 12, 2017
Episcopal-Baton Rouge, Commencement
Grace and Peace to you from your brothers and sisters from across the Sabine River, in fair Austin, Texas! My name is Morgan Allen, and I bring you greetings and congratulations from The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Good Shepherd on the Hill, and Good Shepherd Episcopal School, communities who began this academic year with you in their prayers, and who, this Sunday, will close their seasons by holding you in prayer again. I want to thank Mr. McIntosh and Mr. Ferachi, Reverend Knight and Bishop Thompson, for the invitation to be with yall in this beautifully renewed space. I am humbled and I am excited to stand before you: I love this city, I love this state, and I believe that Episcopal education has no peer.
Now, graduates, I have done the math, and you will be the last class of high-school seniors whose majority will have been born before the turn of this century and whose birth years begin with a “19.” You know, little did your parents realize that for them to “party like it’s 1999” would mean raising you people as newborns. Nonetheless, from the list of accomplishments that Skully shared with me – from the speeches we just heard, to the college acceptances you all have achieved; from state championships to national awards – you have done exceedingly well for yourselves, and, clearly, your teachers and coaches, mentors and parents have done well by you. Therefore, be kind to them: they are excited and proud and ready for what’s next, and, even so, they’re still figuring it all out, too: going forward they will still need you, just as you will still need them.
Tonight, I bring three ideas for you to take into your new adventures, and the first is from Charles Baudelaire. A Nineteenth-Century, French poet, critic, and essayist, the academy credits Baudelaire with the term “modernity,” as expressed through art. Fond of fine clothes, prostitutes, and liquor, his writing often explores the paradoxes of progress and regress: in his city and in his soul. Tonight, we consider his short essay, “The Generous Gambler,” and I invite everyone to listen closely to see if you can identify the antagonist before he reveals himself.
“Yesterday on the crowded boulevard, I felt myself jostled by a mysterious Being whom I have always longed to know, and although I had never [actually] seen him before, I recognized him at once. He must have felt a similar desire in regard to me, for as he passed he gave me a knowing wink, which I was quick to obey. I followed him closely and soon, still at his heels, [we] descended into a magnificent subterranean dwelling of a fabulous luxury beyond anything the upper habitations of Paris could boast…
“Here were strange faces of men and women…marked with the sign of fatal beauty, and…By the time my host and I were seated, we were already firm friends. We ate; we drank immoderately…of extraordinary wines…[we] smoked several cigars whose incomparable taste and aroma made the soul homesick for countries and pleasures it had never known…
“We talked of the universe, of its creation and of its final destruction; of the big idea of the century, that is, the idea of progress and perfectibility, and…of all forms of human infatuation…
“He did not complain of the bad reputation he [suffers] in every corner of the world…and [he] admitted that the only time he had ever trembled for his power was the day when a preacher had exclaimed from his pulpit: “My beloved…never forget when you hear people boast of our progress in enlightenment, that one of the devil’s best ruses is to persuade you that he does not exist…”[i]
Now, be clear: I have neither interest nor belief in a red-complexioned fellow with horns and a tail, who lurks in whiskey bottles and heavy-metal records, and I am confident that neither did Baudelaire. Rather, here we encounter the beguiling deceits of our own world, personified in this character of refined taste. In his “subterranean” realm, guests need not await an assignment of punishment, for they select their own shackles: in the hell of their own excess, they (and we) choose ease before righteousness, and luxury before truth.
As in Baudelaire’s Nineteenth-Century Paris, so, too, we Twenty-First Century denizens subscribe to the same “big idea” that history relentlessly moves toward progress. We behave as though every day will be better than the one before without any deliberate effort of our own, and, further, we expect civilization’s perfection as an inevitability. Therefore, with such improvement assured, we, more personally, need not trouble ourselves with the world’s trifling inequities, for – in due time, in due season – such complications shall be resolved. In fact, we come to believe injustice was the burden of a different time – some distant past – but, thanks be to God, not of our own, post-modern day.
See, the stakes of either side assured The Beguiler of the narrator’s soul, for our friend’s desires and ambitions were themselves a concession: by wanting what the world wanted – ease before righteousness, and luxury before truth – the narrator had lost that truest and dearest mark of his Creator long before he shook to the devil’s deal.
“Even after several hours, it seemed to me that I was no more drunk than he[, however, gambling] had interrupted…our frequent libations, and…with heroic heedlessness, I had played and lost my soul in a binding pact. The soul is a thing so impalpable, often so useless, and sometimes so in the way, that I felt [little] emotion over its loss…”
“And this famous character…said to me: “As I want you to take away an agreeable remembrance of me, I – I, Satan himself – am going to prove to you…that I can sometimes be a good devil…[And so] To compensate you for the irremediable loss of your soul, I shall give you the same stake you would have won if chance had been with you. [Therefore,]:….Never shall you formulate a wish that I will not help you to realize; you shall dominate your [fellow men]; flattery shall be yours, and even adoration; silver, gold, diamonds without your [lifting] a finger to obtain them…”[ii]
So our friend, the narrator, meets this amiable stranger who invites him back to his place for a drink. As it turns out (and an unfortunate turn, admittedly), the stranger turns out to be the devil, and “his place” is hell. Then, our friend, drunk on excesses, gambles with the devil and loses his soul in a bet. However, because the devil is cunning and (regrettably) our friend is feeble, the story reveals that the game had been rigged from before its outset, and that the devil had won the wager before it even began. See, the stakes of either side assured The Beguiler of the narrator’s soul, for our friend’s desires and ambitions were themselves a concession: by wanting what the world wanted – ease before righteousness, and luxury before truth – the narrator had lost that truest and dearest mark of his Creator long before he shook to the devil’s deal.
So that’s the bad news – and it’s pretty bad – but there is good news that accompanies it, and the good news is this: the game is rigged in your favor. Hear that again: Graduates, the game is rigged in your favor. Now, that doesn’t mean that you won’t have to work for worldly success or put forth your highest and best effort in order to achieve the goals you now set for yourself. Rather, understand that what you have accomplished by graduating this institution has set you in a position of incredible privilege and precious few limitations. Not everyone could do what you have done, and far fewer even have the chance to try. Can you lose it all? Of course. But understand: the game is rigged, and it’s rigged in your favor.
“If I had not been afraid of embarrassing [Satan] before [his] vast assembly [in Hell], I would willingly have fallen on my knees at the feet of this generous gambler, to thank him for his unheard-of munificence…[However,] after I [finally left the devil], little by little, doubt crept back into my breast; I no longer dared to believe in such prodigious good fortune, and when I went to bed that night, idiotically saying my prayers out of habit and half asleep, I murmured: “Oh God! Lord, my God! Make the devil keep his promise! [Amen.]!”[iii]
Our friend now completes his failures to recognize his power and to measure his losses. Though he consents to play a rigged game, its unfairness can only be achieved with his complicity. Indeed, at any point, all our friend needs do to overcome his danger and to begin reformation of his world, is to refuse the wager. If only he will leave the table, he will make possible even greater rewards, but he has not the eyes to see his peril nor his privilege. Likewise, and in his blindness, he misinterprets the faint stirrings of his soul, and he snuffs his spark again and again…indeed, so desperately that he does not recognize even the contradiction of his praying to God for the devil’s integrity. He condemns himself to suffer this life of unending, unfulfillment.
Graduates, so the third and most important takeaway is this: you can change the game…you can change the game. You can walk away from the worldly table and refuse its stakes. Recognizing that, in fact, we do influence the course of history, and that as much as every day presents us the possibility of improvement, every day we do not labor for progress, we guarantee a procession in the wrong direction and move ourselves closer to destruction.
You, however, can work against the world’s most vulgar and dangerous momentums. Accepting your agency and choosing righteousness before ease, you can take your thumbs off the scale and use your privilege for the world’s good, rather than for your own comfort. You can risk your status and your position [which – oh, by the way – have absolute value only in that subterranean realm] and you can risk your privilege for truth and for justice; for reconciliation and for peace; for love and for mercy. For be clear, the cost of your luxuries attained without grappling seriously with the inequalities of this world will not be the sacrifices of time and talent that your financial or professional successes required…no, the cost of that ease will be nothing less than your very souls.
Hear me on this score: you can win on every worldly count, and, yet, discover that you have nothing. For though the trappings that tempt you will seem compelling – flattery and adoration; silver and diamonds and gold – it is with exactly those comforts that the world hides its injustices in plain view, and rather than fulfilling us, those rewards will only worsen that nagging in our spirits.
Even so, I believe in you – in your promise and with your privilege…what you have accomplished already, and what is now before you – and I remind you that you have known the greater reward:
The shared sacrifice of athletes laboring for a common achievement, only to discover – win or lose – one’s spirit strengthened? Graduates, that is righteousness and not ease.
The mystery and magic of more than 100 of you and your classmates partnering to present a performance with the scope and subject of Les Mis, offering and receiving one another’s graces and discovering your own? Graduates, that is truth and not luxury.
When you left behind your own flooded home to pull rotting sheetrock off the walls of friends’ and strangers’ alike? Graduates, that is love, and that is mercy, and those are the pursuits that merit the best of these gifts that you been given.
Now that you have been blessed, I encourage you to become a blessing. Believe in yourselves, as we believe in you: for that stirring in your souls, and for the sake of the world.
[i] Baudelaire, Charles. “The Generous Gambler.” Paris Spleen, translated by Louise Varèse, New Directions, 1970, pp. 60-61.
[ii] Ibid, 61-62.
[iii] Ibid, 63.