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Understanding is a lifelong quest

Fraser Smith Big


CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. – People, including me, struggle to define this American utopia, this place of humanistic reflection and civil discourse. Usually the conversation ends with hands thrown up and the universal cop-out: “You have to be there.”

It’s true, actually.

You have to start with the people you meet here.

They actually say, “Good morning.”

They rejoice in friendships established in a week and sustained for decades, lifetimes.

People you don’t know at all bid to be part of the larger family.

You pass them on the flag-decorated porches, flowers and luminous hosta-lined streets.

And they smile.

I think the smile comes as a signal, a reminder.

Chautauquans are secret sharers. We have “been here.” Year after year some of us. We smile at each other, not just to be friendly, but to re-affirm what we know, our special kinship. It’s a curious thing to me that many people I meet have no knowledge of the place at all.

Thus a wordless, head-nodding salutation reaffirms what we who have been here know more deeply than we can express.

This year we celebrate the opening of a new amphitheater, the 4,400-seat symbol of the place. In a single year, the old “tent” was torn down, made more accessible – and sound-loving —
than ever. Old Chautauquans wrangled and fretted and even sued to save the old building – just the way we do back home after something displeases.

In the end, the new, the future, would not be denied. My guess: Many were won over by the new building so clearly and faithfully honoring the old.

Nor are we disconnected – not at all, not possible – from the world around us.


 “I was sick and you took care of me Truly, I tell you just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it unto me.”

— Matthew, 25:36:40

And, according to the scripture, those who do not care for the sick, the hungry, the thirsty and the naked “go into eternal punishment.”

Those leaders who declare themselves good Christians – good humans even — might want to remember this admonishment as they decide how to vote on the now-endangered Republican health bill.

Some senators have already decided the bill abandons too many of the sick. They won’t vote for the measure as it stands how – or wouldn’t as of Thursday. Others, apparently, want to abandon even more of the Americans endangered by the bill.

This drama served as subtext this week for a series of sermons offered by the
Very Rev. Alan Jones in week one of the 2017 Chautauqua season in western New York. The theme of the week, Invention, explores the conditions for creative thinking in pursuit of better living.

Jones’ spiritual take on the question took the matter directly to the heart of who we are, what kind of world we want.

“The task of our time,” he said, “is to explore reinvention of the human. We need radical individuality and radical mutuality and communion.”

Too many of us, he said, have gone overboard with the idea of self and freedom – “the freedom not to give a damn about others.”

Jones urges us to remember: “Everybody matters. We’re in it together.”

We get to choose our storyline, he said. It’s an undertaking of great consequence – and people will choose in accordance with their view of the world as they have experienced it.

The rest of us should withhold judgement. We have no idea how life has been for others we meet.

If we say, “I understand,” as a conversational tic or with some conviction, we probably haven’t gotten all the information. Understanding is a lifelong quest.

The world is like a broken bowl, he said quoting a rabbi.

“We can repair it together,” Jones said.

He opened his morning sermons with this verse:

    “Ring the bells that still can ring

   “Forget your perfect offering

   “There is a crack in everything

   “That’s how the light gets in.” 

                                    — Leonard Cohen

C. Fraser Smith is a writer in Baltimore. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. He can be reached at

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