Divinity School Dean Advocates for Peace at Morning Prayers

As live organ music filtered through Holden Chapel on Wednesday morning, about 50 attendees greeted the usher, accepted a program and hymnbook, and sat in silent contemplation, waiting for Morning Prayers to begin.

Harvard affiliates of all kinds—including students and administrators—addressed the audience at Morning Prayers, and the morning’s speaker was Harvard Divinity School Dean David N. Hempton. While the prayers are held every weekday beginning at 8:45 a.m., Wednesday’s event was special in honoring the International Day of Peace, observed annually around the world on Sept. 21. The day was the centerpiece of Hempton’s address.

“Is peace just the absence of war?” Hempton asked. “How many of us think that life is just the absence of death? Or that love is just the absence of hatred? Yet the question needs to be asked because I’m not sure, as a species, we’ve yet come up with a very compelling answer.”

Hempton pointed to the proliferation of violence online as one obstacle to the human capacity to envision peace.

“Thanks to the horror of the photos we see everyday on social media, we have no trouble imagining a war,” Hempton said. “But we seem to have a great deal of trouble imagining peace. What is it really? Peace has come to be a soft word associated with flower-power and drug-induced hallucination. It’s a flakey concept for flakey people.”


Hempton challenged each member of the audience to take an active role in building peace.

“In the words of Psalms 34:14, ‘seek peace and pursue it.’ These are active verbs. Seek it, pursue it, cultivate it, work for it, insist on it, devote your talent and resources to it,” he said. “It’s a practice, not an aspiration.”

While typically the prayer services are held in Memorial Church, they have been relocated to Holden Chapel during Memorial Church’s year-long renovation.

“It felt to me that this is a moment that could be disrupted as they do the work in Memorial Church. But in fact, this wonderful tradition carries on,” Freshman Dean Thomas A. Dingman ’67, who attended the service, said. “I think all of us benefit from a moment of reflection, listening to somebody opine thoughtfully, and listening to the choir, which is always spectacular.”

A choir of 16 students sings a variety of psalms and anthems for every morning prayer.

“It definitely sets the tone,” choir member Andy J. Troska ’17 said. “I’m not particularly religious, but even for me, it’s a really great way to be centered at the beginning of the day and have a moment of calm before everything gets started.”

—Staff writer Bonnie K. Bennett can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @bonniekbennett.