Centenary College of Louisiana Founders' Day 2007
Comments by the Rev. Dr. Carole Cotton Winn '65
Director, The Academy for Spiritual Leadership, Louisiana Conference, United Methodist Church
January 25, 2007, Brown Memorial Chapel
Comments by the Rev. Dr. Carole Cotton Winn following her introduction by Dr. Virginia Kilpatrick Shehee, Class of 1943
Leaving my home in south Louisiana and driving here was something of a pilgrimage for me. Crossing the miles took me back in my memoriy to this place so formative in my own journey. It brought back the words from the book, Pilgrim Heart,
We measure our lives year by year, from birthday to birthday, from childhood to youth to adulthood to old age. But our memories do not store away years or months, or even weeks or days. They catch images or scenes, or snatches of conversation, maybe only moments when we receive a brief glimpse of our place in it all.*
When I was sitting where you are sitting, I was an unlikely candidate to be called out to speak at Founders' Day. I didn't even have a major for the first two years. I was in the land of U — for undecided. All those forms we had to fill out by hand kept asking for my major. And every semester I'd write in U. And the truth is — I was going along my merry way. I was having a great time — even if I had gained 10 pounds in the first six weeks and slept through my first class. I'll always be grateful for the grace with which Dr. Guerin allowed me to 'make up
the essay I had missed writing my first day of class. I never lost the ten pounds — but I had a great time. I just kept writing undecided on all those forms.
Finally, one day I had a message from the registrar asking me to come see her. I was so clueless I didn't have any notion as to what she wanted. As I sat down she said, "Carole, let me show you something. I see a pattern in the classes you've been taking." Then she used this big M word on me. "I know you want to matriculate with your class." Sure enough there was a pattern — and she had a way of getting me a major that worked with all these classes. It was like a light had been turned on. I could keep taking those courses I was drawn to. They weren't going to make me major in biology under Dr. Warters! I can't for the life of me thing of the name of that registrar, but what I remember is this, her tone of voice. She went through all this without ever getting in her 'parent' voice. She never made me fell put down. She was figuratively and literally opening another door for me.
I was in the place Paul spoke of in I Corinthians 13 when he wrote, For now, we see through a mirror dimly. To be honest — it was the '60s, which in our southern culture translates more into the '50s. I had expected to go to centenary, graduate in May, get married in June. That was the model for women my age. But then — this amazing blip on my journey — I didn't get married. I had to decide. I had to make a defining decision about my own life. That led me to Robert Ed Taylor's office where he told me about a program for service with the United Methodist Church over a two-year period int he United States. It followed a similar pattern as the Peace Corps. During those years I began to think seriously about seminary. Listen, no professor at Centenary ever came up to me and said, "I think you should consider graduate school." It was a huge leap of faith. But there I was down the road in Dallas at SMU — and I was holding my own in those classes. And I realized, I can do this. Everything to that point had prepared me to do thins. My undergraduate years here had given me the foundation I needed for seminary.
Today, I look back on my years at Centenary as one of my treasures, as a thin place. A think place is described as where the separation between the holy and the everyday becomes so near, so close — it is as though they are separated by only the thinnest of veils. Sometimes they are known universally as thing places — like a small island off the coast of Scotland called Iona. I spent a week there this summer with 42 other pilgrims. It is separated from the mainland by the sea. To get there we walked onto a ferry and come onto a place that takes you back in time to the middle ages and the monastery that has been carefully restor4ed by other pilgrims for others who would follow in their footsteps. While there I could feel how thin the boundary was between the sacred and the everyday.
Looking back on it, I can see now that Centenary was for me a thin place. It brought me a glimpse of a vocation that was far beyond my first reach. It gave me the grounding to keep moving forward. It provided the challenge and the space to goro. And it gave me a community that still brings me joy and a deep sense of gratitude.
Marcus Borg says a thin place is any place that opens your heart.
It can be place of geographical location, but it can also be a hymn you sing in chapel, a moment in class when your heart soars, or the sense of gratitude you carry in your soul when you hear yourself saying Thank you, thank you, thank you.
There is one other snatch of conversation that lingers with me around Centenary. It was several years ago when I was serving as the District Superintendent in New Orleans. John Winn, my husband, and mother and I went to hear the Centenary Choir sing a concert at Mulholland UMC. This was at a time when my mother was moving deeper into Alzheimer's. She rarely spoke in complete sentences. At the end of the concert the singers came down and circled the congregation. For years she had heard the choir sing and kept students in our home. As they began the familiar benediction, The Lord bless you and keep you..., she turned to me and said, "Look, Carole, it's the Centenary College Choir."
You will walk away from this place one day, but you will take with you the moments, the memories that have conspired to make you who you are. Taht is why I send a check every year to the Great Teachers and Scholars Fund, because I never want to finish my relationship with this thin place.
How does T.S. Eliot say that?
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.
I will forever be knowing Centenary for the first time.
I will forever be saying thank you, thank you thank you.
Pilgrim Heart, The Inner Journey Home. Sarah York, page 16.