Touched by 'sacred fire,' from Lincoln's time to our own

February 19, 2011|By Thomas Boudreau

Each semester, Thomas Boudreau, chairman of the Department of Conflict Analysis and Dispute Resolution at Salisbury University, welcomes new graduate students with brief remarks exploring the inspiration and passion that have driven many Americans, including Abraham Lincoln, toward reconciliation and peacemaking. The following, titled "Lincoln's Light," is an excerpt.

If we are fortunate, once or twice in our lifetimes we are touched by a sacred fire.

By a sacred fire, I mean the living inner flames of illumination and inspiration that reveal the deepest hope of the human heart for a better world, especially a world without war. At its best, a sacred fire forges our connection to the whole of humanity: past, present and those yet unborn.

A great love can be a sacred fire. A parent or grandparent, for example, can transform the soul. Their warmth expands and burns us. It burns because we eventually learn that life and light are accompanied by the devastating loss of the ones who gave us love. Yet the flame of their loving example may shape and guide us throughout our lives, long after they are gone. We then have the duty of passing on this love to our young.

A great idea is a sacred fire. In his Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln stated over the newly dead that we are a nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Lincoln's speech articulated an ideal that we are collectively devoted to dual and almost incompatible goals: liberty and equality. The two are not synonymous; the creative tensions between them uniquely define what it means to be American. Every new generation must engage and nurture this tension, this sacred fire. The living light that results renews Lincoln's vision of what we stand for as a people. His words seared the American soul, helping mobilize us to, as he later said, "achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations." This ideal is now symbolized by the eternal peace flame that burns night and day at Gettysburg.

Peace is a sacred fire. Some of the greatest thinkers of our civilization have shared hopes and ideas for a world without war. Students often are moved when they read of the dreams and sacrifices of Martin Luther King Jr., Lech Walesa and others, finding their own passion to eradicate violence and injustice. The aspiration for a more just, peaceful and beautiful world connects us to these great minds and souls.

Education is a sacred fire, especially for those devoted to studies of conflict analysis and dispute resolution who will, at times, wonder if the sacrifice is worth it. The work involved may be overwhelming and heart-rending. Fire consumes as well as illuminates, and it will not leave you, as students here, the same. It will, I promise, challenge and anger, wound and inspire.

Because your lives may be profoundly transmuted by this sacred fire, you will have the highest responsibility. In this place, the university, as you are seared by new experiences, you will be called to understand and live what it means to be a peace builder and to teach others to welcome the heat and light, the despair and joy.

If you persevere to the end of your studies, you will learn to be not only "caretakers or keepers" of the flame. If you persevere, you will learn to be "creators" of a sacred fire. This is what the inner light of great ideas can do, if you allow them to ignite your life.

Thomas Boudreau may be reached at teboudreau@salisbury.edu.

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