2005 May 25: Graduation lecture to Victoria University Graduates by Dally Messenger III

Flinders St Melbourne
on Thursday May 25, 2005 at 5.30 pm.

Graduates and Colleagues,

Wayne Butson
Kerry Ryan
Bill Peacock
Jason McCheyne

I feel privileged to be asked by Bill Peacock and the staff of your course to address you.

We celebrants have been 32 years on a Journey, an Odyssey, if you like. And I often reflect on what a journey it has been.

And now you new graduates are starting on your Journey as celebrants.

One of the great privileges we have as celebrants is that we have the opportunity to read poetry to people. As far as I can work out, we are the only group of professionals in the world, who are paid to read poetry in public.

So perhaps it is appropriate if I read you C.V. Cavafy famous reflection on the Journey. It refers to Odysseus and the famous hero’s ten year journey back to Ithaca after the fall of Troy.

In doing so I want to honour our Journey from 1973 to the present.

I also want to honour the start of your journey as the new generation of celebrants. The quotation is called:-

The Road to Ithaca

When you start on the journey to Ithaca,
then pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.

Do not fear the Lestrygonians
and the Cyclopes and the Poseidon.
You will never meet such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty,
if a fine emotion touches your body and your spirit.

You will never meet the Lestrygonians,
the Cyclopes and the fierce Poseidon,
if you do not carry them with your soul,
if your soul does not carry them within,
if your soul does not raise them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.
And that the summer mornings are many,
And that you will enter ports seen for the first time
with pleasure, and with joy!

Stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and corals, amber and ebony,
and pleasurable perfumes of all kinds,
buy as many pleasurable perfumes as you can;
visit hosts of Egyptian cities,
learn and learn from those who have knowledge.

Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you more riches.

Ithaca has given you a beautiful voyage.
Without her you would never have taken the road.
But she has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor,
Ithaca has not defrauded you.

With the great wisdom you have gained,
with so much experience, you must surely
have understood by then
what the journey to Ithaca means.


As time is limited I simply want to tell you about the start of this Journey, because I think it is important that you know your origins.

And then I want to reflect on what we find ourselves doing now, challenged with the responsibility of enriching a post-church secular culture. A culture is measured and a described, to a great extent, by how we mark and celebrate the important milestones in our personal and public life.

Friends, it was Attorney-General Lionel Murphy who made us celebrants. Let me tell you the story of how, on July 19, 1973, Murphy appointed the first independent civil marriage celebrant in the world, my beautiful friend, Lois D'Arcy.

I'll tell it to you as Murphy himself told it to me. Appalled by the legal dryness, the lack of beauty, and the sheer indignity of the Sydney Registry Office at that time, Murphy explained his notion of a marriage celebrant to his friends in the Labor Party. They were appalled.

Said his ALP colleagues:-

"As if we aren't in enough trouble already, Lionel, would you bring all the churches down on our heads as well?"

He discussed his idea with the Public Service. To a man they all shook their heads and looked the other way.

He raised the concept with his own staff, who figuratively went on their knees and begged him not to do it.

But Murphy lived by a simple principle: -

"If it adds to the sum total of human happiness,
you do it,
and if it doesn't,
you don't."

So one night when his staff had all gone home he sneaked into his own Parliamentary Office, took a letterhead off the shelf, rolled it into the typewriter, typed the first letter of appointment, signed it, and put it in an envelope and sealed it. He found a stamp, put it on the envelope, locked his office, cat-like treaded to the nearest post box, and posted it.

The next day he told everyone what he had done. They wept and wailed but it was too late. We, the marriage celebrants of the world were in our boat, we had left the wharf and our journey to Ithaca had begun.

If you think Odysseus had a rough time of it, take note that he was not on his own. Homer was so damn smart. The history of celebrancy has been beset by difficulties and problems, attacks and misunderstanding, maladministration and opposition. But somehow or other, like Odysseus then, we are still here. And, as your achievements, and my presence, testifies, we are going strong.

Wouldn’t it be good if I had the time to lay you in the aisles for several hours giving you my version of our history. Instead I want to cut to the chase on one important aspect – understanding. At the beginning point we had no understanding of what we were on about. We really didn’t.

Over thirty-two years we have gained a certain depth of knowledge. We asked ourselves some very basic questions. What is ceremony? Do we really need it? What do ceremonies achieve? Does the journey towards a ceremony have any practical relevance? Why should a celebrant do her best to create a good ceremony, when it seems that a mediocre one will do?

You recall the story of John Nash; the brilliant mathematical genius dramatized in the film A Beautiful Mind. John Nash was played by Russell Crowe. Nash was beset by mental illness, by schizophrenia and, despite his genius, became somewhat of a degraded and disdained individual within his university. I saw an American 60 Minutes program on Nash in which a close friend was interviewed. When, asked the interviewer, did Nash turn his life around and emerge from the torment of his schizophrenia? The moment, said the friend, happened during the ceremony, when he received the Nobel Prize for mathematics. The recognition in the ceremony seemed to refocus the chaos of his mind.

CONCLUSION: A good ceremony can turn a life around.

Let me tell you the story of young Rupert, who told me about his adolescence ceremony. When Rupert turned thirteen, his family organised a Becoming a Teenager ceremony for him.
Rupert decided his own symbols of transition — the toys he would leave behind as symbols of childhood — his teddy bear, some kids books and so on, placed on the under twelve box in one corner — and he took with him what he needed into teenage life — his iPod, his skateboard and so on They were placed in the other corner.
Outside the house, as part of the ceremony, he lit a token fire unaided, to emphasise that he now accepted a new level of responsibility. One by one, friends and family told him what they loved about him and what they hoped for his future – they each told him what they wished for him, what they wished they would have known when they were thirteen. Various ones told him they knew he was going through a time of change, that they remembered it as difficult, and that no matter how troubled he felt, they were always there to support him.
Overall, it was a powerfully supportive event — at a time when young people need to feel supported. Rupert, as a result of this ceremony, had a great boost to his self esteem, felt closer to his family, and very much more connected with a network of friends.
His teachers and others, who knew nothing of this, remarked to his mother that Rupert was much more self assured these days — and had a spring in his step, he didn’t have before.
Now we are in Australia have one of the highest, if not the highest, youth suicide rate in the world. Teachers and social workers constantly state that young people feel disconnected from school, family and community.
Let me ask you the question – do you think after a ceremony like that – could young Rupert ever feel disconnected?

CONCLUSION: Ceremony can communicate connection, recognition and support.

About twenty-five years ago I officiated at marriage of young woman to her new man. Her ten year old son from her first marriage was very confused – his father had left the house – the new man had come into his life. I talked to her, I talked to the boy –let’s call him Michael, I talked to the new stepfather – let’s call him Merv.
I worked out a sub-ceremony, whereby I explained clearly to Michael and everyone present that this ceremony in no way threatened Michael’s father’s place in his life. That his new stepfather would promise to always respect Michael’s father’s place, and would promise further to treat Michael as a stepfather and friend with kindness and fairness. Young Michael, for his part, undertook to accept Merv as his mother’s new husband, to accept that Merv was his mother’s choice, and to treat him with kindness and fairness also. They then made simple promises to each other expressing this, and we moved on to the rest of the marriage ceremony.
Twenty-five years later I received a phone call from the mother. She wanted to tell me what an enormously good effect this sub-ceremony had had on everyone present, and that twenty five years later Michael still had a wonderful relationship with his father, and his stepfather, Merv, with whom he was the best of friends. She put down the smoothness and happiness of their family life to the deal struck that day within her wedding ceremony.

CONCLUSION: Ceremonies have the power to clarify roles and bring deep reassurance.

I had another epiphany moment some time ago after a funeral. When you create a really good funeral, people queue up to tell you how wonderful it was. Well, I tell you immodestly, this is what I did for the woman who had died. I did a really good job.
After the funeral, an elderly lady who had stood back until everyone else had finished, came up to me. She held out her hand and said to me:
“I was Elaine’s bridesmaid.”
She said it with such assurance that I knew she was saying something more to me. As I read it ,she was saying to me —
“when Elaine came to get married, she had to work out who was her closest friend in the entire world, the one who would stand by her at her most important moment, and I am that woman.”
She was a really special person in Elaine’s life and that choice reinforced their friendship for all those many years.

CONCLUSION: Ceremonies have the power to forge deep and lasting relationships.

I notice this about rehearsals for marriage ceremonies. I think it is quite superficial to see rehearsals as just a practice for a wedding. I always insist on site rehearsals. My main reason is that the rehearsal is an important psychological event on the journey towards the wedding,
It is a Rite of Passage in it own right. What happens, as the wedding ceremony comes closer is that a dynamic of union occurs. This is not only between the bride and groom, not only between both families, not only between both networks of friends, but between the groom and his best man and groomsmen, and the between the bride and her maid of honour and bridesmaids. Rehearsals nearly always take up much more of my time than the wedding. People are relaxed and happy, mostly in a jocular mood. I let them go as much as I can, because you can almost see the processes occurring. All around the place there is a dawning realization that everyone present has been honoured by his or her chosen place in a serious life event.

CONCLUSION: Ceremonies have the effect of creating communities of families and friends.

Now I can tell you the story of my daughter. I am sure she won’t mind. But my daughter studied at La Trobe University and gained her degree of Bachelor of Arts. She received due notification in the mail that she had passed, and some six months later she was invited to a Graduation Ceremony. A long discussion ensued with various members of the family as to whether she, and indeed others, should attend the Graduation. For heaven’s sake, she had her degree, what earthly difference would a ceremony make? Here you are at your graduation ceremony – what are you here for? You’ve passed the course, you’ve got young Billy’s or Kerry or Wayne’s signature on your bit of paper.
Been there, done that. Would you not be having a much better time at the movies, or home making love to your husband? So what are you doing here?
Well back to my daughter. She and most of the family attended the Graduation. She donned mortarboard and gown. She processed in, she listened to the occasional address, and she had her name called out, and processed up to get her bit of 200-gsm parchment. She processed out with faculty colours, and had her photo taken, and her mother and sisters wept with emotion. What is going on here? Why?

CONCLUSION: Ceremonies are the way, my friends, that we communicate recognition of achievement, that we confer status, that we tell someone that they have done well. Ceremonies are the way we infuse self-esteem, we infuse a sense of self worth. The psychologists tell us that to maintain sanity we need the esteem of significant others. In a graduation ceremony we tell you we esteem you for starting something and for finishing it. Ceremonies are a way we maintain sanity and a conviction of self worth.

I’ll give you one other example. Two nights ago my friend Graham Kennedy died. I say that with some pride, as he once asked me to ghost write his life story for him. I was co-author of a book Being a Chum was Fun which meant a great deal to him. But that is another story. Graham died and has left in his papers that there be no funeral no ceremony for him. He won’t get away with it. Watch this space.
Because funerals are necessary. Grief has to be expressed otherwise long term physical and mental illness, the psychologists tell us, almost certainly follow in its wake. Those who do really well prepared funerals— I am not talking of the rubbish celebrants now — I don’t want to even mention them — but the good ones will tell you that it is the best work, they have ever done. I have created many funerals but one of my best was for the last fruit barrow man of Richmond. I was brought up with fruit barrow men. They commanded the streets. They knew everyone, they knew everything that went on in private and public life, and they usually were great personalities.
Well this man died, and I did my interviews and my research, I did my careful checking, I waxed moderately lyrical, and, with due modesty, I created a good tribute. When the ceremony was over, I went over to the man’s wife, and I asked her how she was. She looked me in the eye, and said four words to me, which became one of my greatest moments as a celebrant.
She said, “I felt so proud.”

CONCLUSION: Ceremony can take the edge off deep sadness, it can create a memory that eases pain, and it can commence a healthy healing grief.

Now you are celebrants, you will sense ceremony and people’s need for ceremony all around you. Most of you want the status of being marriage celebrants. You may have to wait a while, and this could be a good thing because out society is crying out for a whole range of ceremonies in human life.
We need ceremonies for
For leaving a home
For dedicating a new house
For Menopause
For re-affirmation of vows
For same-sex commitment ceremonies
For Croning
For Winnowing
Fro opening Businesses
For all the important birthdays
For getting rid of Buck’s nights and replacing them with Men’s Nights
For Changing a Name
For all sorts of milestones — large and small.

People don’t realise it, but the church used to have all sorts of ceremonies for people. As church attendance declines, and the number of professed secular people increases, there grows a great cultural vacuum that needs to be fulfilled. You have heaps to do before you become a marriage celebrant.

I haven’t got the time to argue it here. You will find out in the market place a number of celebrants who race form marriage to marriage to marriage. They don’t have rehearsals. Quality can’t mean anything. I met a person form another state the other day who boasted that he officiated at thirteen funerals in a week.

Ceremonies only work for people, if they are done well, prepared for properly, have your soul in them. If you are not going to do this job properly please get out now. Badly done ceremonies can do life long harm. Ask anyone who has had their mother’s funeral stuffed up.

You are graduates of a University which was the first one in the world to commence a course for celebrants. I lectured here in 1997. There are dodgy courses around, which are not much better than no courses at all. But you bear the ticket of Victoria University, and you carry the name of this institution on your Journey, on your Odyssey, into every ceremony you do

Dally Messenger III (standing) with Bill Peacock OAM