From the September/October, 2009 issue of Touchstone

Except the Lord Build by Anthony Esolen


Except the
Lord Build

Anthony Esolen on Education & Houses of the Lord (A Graduation Address)

Ladies and Gentlemen, parents, friends, and graduates, hear the word of the Lord as the Psalmist speaks it to us:

Except the Lord build the house,
     they labor in vain that build it;
Except the Lord keep the city,
     the watchman waketh but in vain.
It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late,
     to eat the bread of sorrows;
     for so he giveth his beloved sleep.

Lo, children are a heritage of the Lord:
     and the fruit of the womb is his reward.
As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man,
     so are children of the youth.
Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them:
     they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak
     with the enemies in the gate. (Ps. 127)

My family and I used to play a game sometimes as we went out driving on a sunny afternoon. We would see in the distance, set far away from a country road, a sprawling, low-lying, brick complex, looking as if the chain-link fences might be intertwined with barbed wire. The trick was to guess what it was before we saw the sign.

“It’s a prison!”

“It’s a factory!”

“No, it’s a school.”

Sure enough, it would be a school, more often than not. We concluded that the builders were wise to construct the vast, modern, soulless school to look like a prison or a factory, because the three institutions serve many of the same functions.

School Looks

It has not always been so. “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” Something of the wisdom of that magnificent verse, I think, stirred in the hearts of the old builders of schools. Look at what they did. They made the schools look like town halls, where the citizen of a free country could meet his neighbors, and, in the felt presence of what was greater than themselves and worthy of reverence, made manifest in a flag or a portrait of the Father of our country, they could discuss the common good.

Or the builders made them look like little churches such as this one, with a belfry, as if to suggest that the learning that went on in the rooms below derived its truth from, and found its fulfillment in, the God who endowed us with reason, and whose light penetrates the universe.

Or they made them look like homes, those smallest and most important of town halls, those smallest and most fundamental of churches, where children first learn to love their neighbor, because there they first learn to love God.

Why do they labor in vain, they who build without the Lord? They may seem busy enough; the Psalmist says that they rise up early and sit up late, and eat the bread of sorrows. They fret; they fling themselves from one all-promising program into another, hoping that only a little more sweat and a little more hard thinking will provide the order and the peace of mind and soul that they rejected when they shut the schoolhouse door against him who said, “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.”

But that peace and order they will not find. For where there are programs, programs will cease, and where there are plans, plans will cease. Without the Lord and his truth that endures forever, we are the playthings of time and chance. So it will be as true of those buildings and all they represent as it was true of Babylon, and even of the ancient Temple, that not one stone shall remain upon a stone.

Laboring Well

My dear homeschoolers, and my brothers and sisters in Christ, I know that you have not built that way. It is true, you may tonight feel the burden of time. If you shut your eyes and open your arms in front of you, mothers and fathers, you may well remember what you saw long ago when you gazed into the eyes of the baby girl, or girls, now so tall. You may even feel the weight and the warmth against your body. Since then, many years have passed by; years of patient instruction, and maybe sometimes impatient instruction, in our language and its poetry, in the history of our country and the world, in the ordered castles of mathematics and science. And you may well wonder, in a moment of human weakness, whether it will all have been labor in vain.

I would think that the persons of these beautiful young ladies should suffice to settle that doubt. I have known a couple of them a long time. From what I have witnessed, and from what I have read of all that they have done, these four graduates are high-spirited, but gentle, generous with their time in the community and at home, full of works, yet full of peace. They are young ladies to be proud of, who are themselves not proud, and whose greatest tribute to you parents will be that they hope someday to give their children the kind of home that you gave them.

But you ask, will they always be so? Will not time and chance happen to them, too? Trust in the Lord: It is he who says they are arrows in your quiver, and with a quiver full of arrows you may well confront the enemy at the gate. If the Lord build the house, they labor well who build it.

For through your labor, and perfecting your labor, the Lord has built the home. Maybe sometimes your T-square had a ding in it, or your level had a bump, or you troweled the mortar on too thin. I am sure that your daughters can think of many incidents to prove that their teachers were indeed human. But I am sure also that on this night they are filled with gratitude, and will not recall those times. Yet those times, too, have been redeemed. If your hand was shaking as it settled in place the next stone of wisdom and understanding, still it was the Lord who guided your hand, and his was the work.

Great Things from Small

Your homes, your schools—no prisons, no factories—were like churches, in this way at least: They all had spires to them, invisible spires, and invisible belfries. Your acts of daily duty and love, undertaken in the small rooms below—the babies to feed, the pictures to color, the stories to read—all took place in the shadow or the light of a spire that pointed beyond this lovely world that the Lord has given us for a time. And when you sang, or laughed on a birthday, or gathered for prayer, you did so in harmony with the bells of that belfry high above you, whose music no passerby on the street might hear, though an echo of it might be caught by a friend who was so privileged as to visit your home, and wonder at what God hath wrought.

And you mothers especially, you who have labored to teach these girls, as you once carried them in the womb, take comfort and confidence tonight from the Lord who works great things from small. Not in some great fiery tempest did the Lord dwell, as the prophet learned, but in the still small voice, and the prophet heard that voice, and he hid his face in awe. Not in some magnificent temple was the presence of the Lord first made manifest to the people of Israel, but in the Ark of the Covenant, a humble vessel of cedar; and the psalmist danced before it rejoicing.

And when, in the fullness of time, the Father began the dilapidation of all the world’s works, and the building up of his Church, he sent his only-begotten Son to the wife of a carpenter; and in all that noise and bustle she quietly carried in her womb the One who would redeem the world. I cannot know what that was like, but you mothers can.

Then, in your instruction of your daughters, under the watchful care and guidance of their fathers, those just and upright men named Joseph, you have brought to the light young ladies touched by grace. The world may not think much of that, but the world is wrong, has always been, and ever will be,

For the stone which the builders rejected
     has become the cornerstone;
By the Lord has this been done;
     it is wonderful in our eyes. (Ps. 118:22–23)

Remember the Home

Mothers and fathers, you will be asked, “Where will your daughters be going?” Then you may have to speak as the world speaks. “My daughter is going to the University of Nineveh, to major in Social Work.” “My daughter has been accepted to Babylon Polytechnic, where she wants to study City Planning.” “My daughter has won a scholarship to Memphis—not the one in Tennessee, but the one in Egypt. They have the finest program in meteorology in the world.” You may speak this way; it is hard not to. And you may have to shout and use simple words to be heard above the din of the prison, or factory, or school.

But never forget the home. I am confident your daughters will not forget it: that home like a church they will someday leave behind; the home they will one day, with their husbands, fashion with the help of God, a home with its own spire and steeple; and the home to which you have directed them by your love and your teaching.

For thirty years Mary dwelt in a small home with the Child, then the Youth, then the Man who was sinless. From her and Joseph, in his humanity, Jesus learned to pray and to love the law of the Lord. He grew in wisdom and understanding. And from her and Joseph the carpenter, and from his Father in heaven, he learned to build. His hands were skilled at the plane and the lathe.

But when it was time for him to be about his Father’s business, he did not leave that home so much as take it with him. When he suffered upon the cross, the woman who shared that home for so long, and who for a time was his home, suffered with him beneath. Then they laid him in a tomb hewn out of the rock, but that dwelling place could not long hold him.

Without the Lord, all we build are tombs, and the tombs themselves will turn to dust. In the Lord, not even a tomb can hold. Your daughters leave your home, and they do not leave. On this graduation night we will trust in the promises of God, and declare that they are now going forth, as Mary and Joseph went, as you are going, to the true home, whereof the Carpenter says, “In my father’s house there are many mansions,” whose walls are of jasper, and whose light is the Lamb. •

Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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