Burns Banquet

For your enjoyment, the following is a shortened version of this year’s Robert Burns Memorial, the keynote speech and toast at Saint Gregory’s annual Burns Supper.

I lang hae thought, my youthfu’ friend,
A something to have sent you,
Tho’ it should serve nae ither end
Than just a kind memento:
But how the subject-theme may gang,
Let time and chance determine;
Perhaps it may turn out a sang:
Perhaps turn out a sermon.

All right! Noble and illustrious drinkers! To you thrice precious and pockified blades, to the rantin,’ rovin’ Robins all, and to you who are such a parcel of rogues in the nation (for it is to you, and to none other that I dedicate my speech)–I’d like to propose that Burns shines most in celebrating the common, humble, and very much fallen nature of man in his songs and poems of love and war, and food and drink. I would like to speak some to fallen man as being the object of Burns’ lines this evening; but would like to introduce first a term that provides a bit more hopeful image of man than what the word “fallen” suggests.

See, with the image of fallen man, there is the object, the person who has fallen (that’s us). There is the state from which he has fallen (and that’s paradise, the perfect man). And, with the phrase fallen man comes as well the itinerant focus on the things that have caused the differences between perfection and human beings.

Rather than an image that emphasizes the differences between above and below–as we find in a fall–I think it’s profitable to examine the implications of an image that what I term “dangling man” presents. In dangling man, there’s the image of the object, the danglee (that would be the human being), as well as of the subject, the dangler (and that would be God). These two things are similar to the first two aspects of the fall, which we might characterize as man living in Eden, and man living in the world, fallen from paradise. But the term dangling forces a focus, not on sin and what separates man from perfection, but rather on what is sustaining man, the things that keep man dangling, dependent, dependentes, ye Latin students might say, from God.

Burns has it thus in an “Address to the Unco Guid:”
O ye that are sae guid yoursel,’
Sae pious and sae holy,
Ye’ve nought to do but mark and tell
Your neighbor’s fauts and folly!
Burns concludes his address:
Then at the balance, let’s be mute,
We never can adjust it;
What’s done, we partly may compute,
But know not what’s resisted.

When man is dangling, and doing things that resist the pull upward of God, we can understand something of those things, but we never really will understand that strange force of God that impels us upwards from those things. And God’s mercy gives us this: that the weight of humanity that offers resistance to God is the very thing that allows us to be drawn upward to the Lord.

What I mean is, it is only when man falls that he is redeemed. This is basic stuff: as Mr. Davidson teaches in physics class, you can only hit an object as hard as that object hits you. For example, Mr. Gaetano in full flight may cremate a stock-still freshman, but most of Peter’s power is expended into moving that freshman backwards; whereas, if Mr. Gaetano collides with an object like a swiftly moving Pat McNeely, the power and force of Peter’s hit is transferred into Mr. McNeely himself.
Likewise, when man is struggling to move himself upwards towards the dangler, God, he robs God’s pull of its force. It is when man abandons his struggle, gives himself over to the weight of his humanity, renounces his self, depends on God–the Latin word means hangs, or dangles–that God’s pull is strongest.

I’d like to return to those lines from Burns that you’ve already heard from Mr. Macik this evening:
“For there’s nae life like the ploughman’s in the month o’ sweet May.”

Burns lauds the simple life of the ploughman, praising the plow, that coulter, ye Latin students, the knife of the earth, that turns winter’s dead gatherings and exposes fresh virgin soil; freshly and sweetly showing like a lover to be undone, done again. But to love requires this: that the month of sweet May be waiting to impregnate the upturned earth.

Final Toast
The life of a ploughman, who works with the soil
Is by many standards a weary one;
But the human life, in love and sacrifice
Is by Burns’ standard a merry one.

So trusty feres, fill your glass, as all sighs and tears pass
With the vulture devouring the carrion;
For Burns is alive: by swaggering let’s thrive
And the culture of Burns ever carry on.

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