by Victoria Aschheim
Give of your best to the Master;
Give of the strength of your youth;
Throw your soul's fresh, glowing ardor
Into the battle for truth.
− Said to be the favorite hymn of Rev. Peter J. Gomes
"Truth is deeds."
− Said to be the inscription he wanted on his tombstone
It is only fitting that the the Harvard Office for the Arts blog, dedicated to the arts at Harvard, remember the life of the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and former president of the Signet Society, Harvard's oldest literary society, for his life and ministry were works of art. There was an artfulness in the elegant dress of Rev. Gomes, in his exquisite life style at Sparks House; there was artistry in his silver-laden, generous and legendary weekly Harvard tea table and the tradition he thereby perpetuated. There was artistry in his use of words, and in his sense of wit, as in his brilliant reference to himself − the great son that he was of Plymouth, Massachusetts − as an "Afro-Saxon."
The poet Seamus Heaney said of Rev. Gomes: "He embraces the old-fashioned grandeloquent style in a manner that is always on the edge of carnival. His style is full of cadence, roguery, and scampishness, which is itself redemptive. With Gomes there is always an element of masquerade as he tempts his audience into complicity." After Rev. Gomes's passing, his dear friend Henry Louis Gates, Jr. confirmed this acute observation, remarking in The New Yorker that Gomes "was a large, warm, and mischievous soul, who contained a multitude of identities each worn with a certain roguish sense of irony."
Rev. Gomes's love of Harvard was also a work of art in its verbal expression. In The New Yorker, he said there will always be a spectral presence hanging over you here, and it is not the Holy Spirit − it is Harvard. Rev. Gomes reminded first-year divinity school students that the university was founded by Puritans fleeing England to create a new world order:
They hoped that the world would reform itself in the light of New England: the light of New England was Boston, the heart of Boston was Cambridge, and the center of Cambridge was Harvard, therefore Harvard is the light of the world, and you stand in an unbroken apostolic procession stretching all the way back to Moses who would himself have come to Harvard had he had the chance ... Harvard is my City of God. We are different from the rest of the world, and we ought to be...I have given my life to Harvard, and I have a wonderful sense of the great continuity ... I can see the Puritans sailing in, I can see Henry Dunster's first commencement, and the incredible thing is that I can see me in it! People sometimes say, 'Well, in those days, you wouldn't have been there.' Please, you don't have to tell me that. The glory of Harvard is that I might not have had a share in its past. That past now belongs to me! Now that is an extraordinary transition.
When asked by Charlie Rose what was the greatest achievement of his life, Rev. Gomes responded: "Lasting at Harvard."