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An Episcopal, co-educational 100% boarding school in Middletown, Delaware for grades 9 – 12

The Advantage of Curiosity
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Amy Kendig

Trustee Sis Johnson P’11 gave this talk on Friday, September 29, during Trustee Weekend

Thank you for the kind introduction and for inviting me to speak today.  It’s truly an honor to serve as a trustee of this special school and to represent the board at this chapel.  Unlike many members of the board of trustees, I am not an alumna of the school, but a parent of an alum.  In fact, the rural county high school I attended was not remotely like St. Andrew’s, and unlike St. Andrew’s graduates, I was ill prepared for college. Despite having worked hard and made good grades, my school simply didn’t offer a college preparatory curriculum. I had never heard of AP, and more importantly, I had never written what you and I would call “a paper.”  We were assigned a “term paper” our senior year, but our grade was based purely on using the correct form for footnotes and bibliography.  What we had to say was completely irrelevant.

So, when my freshman English professor at Vanderbilt on the first day of class said that our assignment for the following week was to read a short story and to write “a paper,” I was absolutely clueless.  I had read many short stories, but I had never written “a paper” about one.  I couldn’t even imagine what you might say other than giving a plot summary or perhaps explaining whether or not you liked the story. 

Here at St. Andrew’s, you would have the good sense to talk to your teacher, but I was far too intimidated to go to the professor and ask for direction, so instead, I went to the library.  Even in rural Tennessee we had libraries.  After some browsing, I discovered that there was a whole category of books that were called literary criticism and that they all contained essays about works of literature—amazing.  Perhaps this “paper” that I was being asked to write might resemble those essays. 

I eventually managed to pull together something that looked like “a paper” but felt on tremendously shaky ground.  To my surprise and delight the professor returned my paper with an encouraging comment.  More importantly though, the curiosity that drove me to the library paid off.  And it has stuck with me.

Just as I was ill prepared for college writing assignments, my religious education was also sadly inadequate.  Despite attending Church and Sunday School every Sunday of my childhood, I learned very little about important figures in Christianity.  So, when Ms. McGrath pointed out that today, September 29th, is the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, I felt a lot like I did in freshman English—clueless.  But also, like then, I was determined to find out what that meant.  Thanks to modern technology, satisfying my curiosity did not require a trip to the library, and I learned that Michael is not just an angel but an archangel in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic tradition.  It was Michael who prevented Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis, cast Satan into Hell in the Book of Revelation, and who in Islam weighs an individual’s good and evil acts on the Day of Judgment. 

While angels play a crucial role in the heavenly realm, their role for us mortals is that of messenger, and it is their communication with us that makes them figure so prominently in our art and literature.  One vivid representation of angels occurs in the play Dr. Faustus, by Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe.  Even if you haven’t read Marlowe, you are probably familiar with some version of the Faust legend wherein a great scientist contemplates selling his soul to the devil.  In Marlowe’s play Faustus is visited by both a Good Angel and a Bad Angel. Each speaks to Faustus as he decides whether to exchange his soul for greater knowledge and power.  The Bad Angel tempts Faustus by appealing to his pride and ego, while the Good Angel exhorts Faustus to love God and read Scriptures. 

Though you and I may not receive such a direct visitation, we are all familiar with that sense of being torn in opposite directions when making a decision.  Thankfully, most of our decisions don’t determine whether we will go to heaven or to hell, but we often know that one course of action is more righteous than another.

Curious to know how angels are faring in contemporary literature, I discovered a work of nonfiction called The Rigor of Angels, a book that turned out to be as challenging as it sounds.  The author William Egginton explores the relationship between the works of philosopher Emmanuel Kant, physicist Werner Heisenberg, and writer Jorge Luis Borges.  Reading even the introduction, I knew I was in over my head, but once again, the library goer in me was determined to figure out what this book was about.  Though I couldn’t begin to give you a clear analysis of this extremely dense text, what I can say with certainty is that reading it made me think about the cosmos in ways that I hadn’t in a long time.  How can we creatures of time and space understand the infinite?  How can we even begin to comprehend the nature of reality?  Alas, we have a fundamentally incomplete picture of the world and are reminded that mysteries remain.

How then are we to cope?  I would suggest that we be on the lookout for angels.  They may not speak to us as directly as Marlowe’s characters, but the spirit of others can guide us in important ways.  You may not know who the angels are in your own life until long after the time of their impact.  Right now, you probably have a teacher or a friend here at St. Andrew’s who will prove to be an angel.  In my own life, one angel was my mother, more the rigorous type than the sweet cherub you see on a Hallmark card.  She showed me that books and libraries are windows to understanding.  And yes, that freshman English professor who eventually gave me an A and inspired a lifelong love of literature was definitely an angel.

My husband and my daughters have also served as angels, leading me to challenges and adventures that I couldn’t imagine on my own. Without them I would never have run a half marathon, never skied a double black diamond, and never have tiptoed into the world of immersive theater.  They whispered to me to be curious and to say yes to new experiences and new ideas.

Even when you are pressed for time and eager to simply get the assignment done, I encourage you to indulge your curiosity.  It will undoubtedly lead you down a more rewarding path. 

As I felt the pressure of time to make this talk better, my husband, playing the role of the Bad Angel, suggested Chat GPT, a temptation you may have felt or will.  He entered a prompt for a chapel talk about St. Michael and curiosity, with humor.  The bot’s version was funnier than mine, but its answer also had some inaccuracy and was at its core small-minded.  But most importantly, it didn’t reflect the journey of my life and the way in which curiosity has been key for me—in short, it wasn’t my paper.

Curiosity may or may not have killed the cat, but I can assure you that it leads us all to a richer and more enlightened life.  It can be your secret weapon in the face of ignorance and uncertainty.  Without it, I wouldn’t be standing here today. 

Thank you!

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