We are now moving toward the final stages of the 2015 graduation season. When we talk about commencement programs, most of us immediately default to the undergraduate population, women and men finishing up an undergraduate degree and launching out into the world of full-time work for the first time?or back to live in their parent?s basement.
Graduate education is its own thing. Graduate students are not only delving more deeply into a topic and developing a certain level of expertise in a field of study, they also are bringing to their studies complicated life experiences: dreams realized and dreams dashed, hearts broken and hearts mended, ideals framed and ideals disillusioned. In recent years, the media?s interest in both undergraduate and graduate education has been obsessed with how a particular degree will change a career and bolster a graduate?s salary options. There has been less interest in the role of education to shape character and personality, to expand our options as human beings for living well ? what Mary Oliver has called this ?one wild and precious life.?
In the great river of university educations, graduates of a school of theology and ministry are salmon swimming upstream. ?Going against some important Western cultural values, seminary graduates pursued their degree choice for something other than fortune and glory. Most of them chose based on an important, unavoidable descriptor of life that Mary Oliver left out of her poem. It is not only singular, wild and precious, it is also very short. Realizing the road from the womb to the tomb is a brief one, these students decided on a future path based not only on potential benefit for themselves, but also benefit for a suffering and desperately seeking world.
Seattle University?s School of Theology and Ministry holds together a lot of differences. We have six separate degrees, and students, faculty and staff arrive from a wide assortment of religious backgrounds and social locations. The mission of the school began with a sense of commitment to bringing difference under one roof?it is our defining characteristic in some ways. But, in my experience, nearly everyone associated with the school has something in common?a thread that unites us: ?somewhere, somehow, sometime, everyone affiliated with this school has been grasped by Something bigger than ourselves. Call it Lord, God, Allah, Ultimate Mystery, Ultimate Concern or the many names the human race has used in an attempt to understand and respond to the Divine Presence that we have encountered at the core of reality. We all have felt called to submerge ourselves in a place and a community that would allow this Divine Presence to form, re-form, sculpt, and re-align our Interiority the way a potter would work on a piece of clay or a master carpenter would carve a piece of wood. In another time in Western culture, people would have said that we felt a call to enter into a process of ?ordering our soul.? This process is always messy and incomplete, and it very much swims against the tide.
When you gather a group of theology and ministry graduates from Seattle University?s School of Theology and Ministry you find an intriguing mix. Some of those celebrating will leave their studies to assume roles as pastors and chaplains in congregations and faith-based organizations. Others will hang out a shingle as a mental health professional or a spiritual director, and still others will launch into non-profit work or bring a new kind of ?ministerial? consciousness to industry or government positions. A few will begin something entirely new as a social entrepreneur, finding fresh ways to meet the needs of the world. All will be involved in trying to alleviate suffering and to impart meaning to a world in need of both.
And, so now, these healers of the broken human heart and condition come to the end of their journey as students eager to pursue these vocations. Our graduates have become infected with this school?s charism. They have felt its pull on their hearts and minds and want to make this characteristic a primary principle in the ordering of their own soul. ?In this process, however, they also contribute to helping the school develop this charism, which not only makes all of us unique, but part of something critically important to our world at this moment in history. As they ?commence? onward toward what lies in store for them in the next chapter of their lives, our school loses another piece of what makes us a great institution. But, we also set loose on the world a different breed of faith-inspired, spiritually-led humans, and the school charism is re-vivified with our next generation of student practitioner-scholars. ?
Each time we graduate students, many of us at the school are left with a sense of wonder: for our students? bravery in pursuing this kind of study that requires such a deep personal transformation; for their steadfastness in expanding their intellectual, emotional and spiritual capacities; for the many ways they have touched others and each other with kindness, compassion, understanding, and deep honesty; and for hanging on to their religious particularity and difference, but not so hard that they could not make room for people from other religious and spiritual traditions and values orientations.
Some of our graduates know exactly what is coming next for them. Some are pointed in a direction for their next chapter, but the details are sketchy and there is a level of anticipation and anxiety about the specifics of the next phase of their life. And, some graduates are probably gripped (like I was after completing a master?s degree in systematic theology) by a ?state of radical uncertainty,? asking the perennial existential question that one day we must all face: OH MY GOD, NOW WHAT?
Whatever our graduates do, and however long it takes them to get there, know this: because they took the road less traveled, because they are made of something different than the average graduate student celebrating a degree this spring, the world around them can become different. Those other graduates will make contributions that the world needs: engineering expertise, medical diagnosis and treatment skills, business savvy, technological creativity and computer wizardry. All of this is important and has helped us maneuver through a world of many challenges and surprises. However, at this troubled time in human history, perhaps the world is yearning all the more for people like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr, Jane Addams, the founder of Chicago?s Hull House and the grandmother of the social work profession, Mohandas Gandhi, and Malala Yousafzai, the courageous Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban for her bold call for the education of young girls. Each of these transformers of the world had a strong theological grounding for their social action.
The graduates of the School of Theology and Ministry are different?they have made it through a challenging practical theology curriculum and they embody their learning in a way other fields of study cannot. ?Their learning is a deep part of their identity, their perception of reality, and the urgings they have to make a contribution to a more just and humane world. ?They offer something different?in their being, not just their knowing. ?
Not all of us will change the world in dramatic ways, and most of our graduates may not make headlines with their work, but, perhaps it is those of us who change it in small ways that are more important, anyway. The scholar Evelyn Higginbotham has researched thoroughly the story of the African-American women who shaped the social agenda of the black church in the late 19th and early 20th century. ?One person at a time, one congregation at a time, one neighborhood at a time, these women not only changed the world around them, but set the table for the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950s and 1960s. Their work, hidden in the shadows for decades and only visible to those with the eyes of faith to see it, changed the world.
So, whether our graduates do things that get the notice they deserve or not, in this Commencement season all of us at the school stand in awe at the ?greatness? that is their destiny.
I am reminded of Stephen Spender?s poem, ?The Truly Great:?
I think continually of those who were truly great
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul?s history
Through corridors of light, where the hours are suns,
Endless and singing. ?Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit, clothed from head to foot in song ?
Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields,
See how these names are feted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire?s centre.
Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honour. ?
All students who graduate from the School of Theology and Ministry will ?leave the air signed with honour,? and they have already done so through their presence with us. They have been part (and will always remain a part) of a school that is committed to becoming an oasis of unity and collaboration in the desert of the world?s divisions and competition. For this we are eternally grateful and pray them Godspeed as they enter the next phase of their life with new tools to work for a more just and humane world.