Holy Harvard

Cambridge, MA. May 27 was graduation day at Harvard, a splendid ceremonial event as well as occasion of myriad smaller personal and family instances of celebration and thanksgiving, as a truly global community descended upon Harvard Yard for the main ceremonies. But of still greater interest to me, this year as in other years, was the Divinity School’s Religious Service celebrating Commencement, held as usual the day before (May 26 this year) in the Yard’s Memorial Church.

     This service is a marvel of organization, generous inclusivity and coherent ritual order — a mix of greetings, prayers, a faculty address, and readings and music from some at least of the various religious and cultural traditions present in the MTS, MDiv, and ThD graduating classes. It took about an hour altogether, and luckily so, since it was a steamy hot day in a Church mysteriously without air conditioning or open windows. Enormous credit is due to the Divinity School’s Office of Spiritual Life, and particularly to its Director, Rev. Kerry A. Maloney, and all those who worked with her.


     What is most memorable though is the deep interreligious diversity of the event, this year as in the past. The opening procession occurred to the rhythm of indigenous African drumming (with banner waving by students in the front of the church), followed by a traditional Christian hymn, Thaxted’s “For the Splendor of Creation.” After opening greetings, we heard a powerful Indigenous American thanksgiving song (chanted by one of our graduates, Kvnfvske Yvholv Marcus Anthony Briggs-Cloud), an Islamic call to prayer (azan), and a most lovely chant from the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad. Readings followed, in the traditions of the Society of Friends (Quakers), Tibetan Buddhism, the American Humanist tradition and, from the New Testament, Romans 8; after another lovely song, we hear a reading from William Ellery Channing of the Unitarian Universalist Tradition, and a rousing rendition of Leslie Bricusse’s “Gonna Build a Mountain.” Professor Stephanie Paulsell’s splendid faculty address followed, a call to courage in life and learning that was memorably woven around a story of Ulysses told in Dante’s Inferno: how Ulysses dared to pass beyond the Western gates of the Mediterranean Sea, to seek where no one had dared to go before, only to reach beyond the safe limits of human-being. (While Professor Paulsell was not proposing perdition for the curious, she was reminding the graduates and all of us not to stop short, play it safe, pull back.)

     The service closed with Jewish, Neopagan, Baha’i, and Mormon blessings — and indeed, last but not least, the Roman Catholic tradition (with a loving rendition of the Peace Prayer of St. Francis in Spanish and English). We processed out to Indigenous American dance songs, followed by Giuseppe Torelli’s Sinfonia in D.

     Of course, this is definitely a case to prove that indeed, “you had to be there” to appreciate the moment. I draw it to your attention because, just a few days after Pentecost, it placed before me the prospect of order in diversity, spiritual insight in and around the edges of religious traditions. It offered, for a moment, the creation of a way of celebrating religiously, praying together, that lies in uncharted waters, fashioned from the diversity of a student body that comes from many backgrounds yet remains comfortable in a Divinity School setting.

     Harvard, you may recall, is analyzed, criticized, mocked as both religiously shallow and religiously lost, but it is also an experimental, experiential site for spiritual quest in our century. But what does a service such as Wednesday’s mean theologically? Can Humanist and Baha’i and Native American and Roman Catholic prayers and readings and sounds cohere in some meaningful way? Is this good or bad? Those indeed are real questions, to be asked and answered outside of church, after the ceremonies, when we reflect on the truth and value of what we do. A well wrought ritual does not prove its validity simply by its success. Perhaps it was just a cultural celebration. Even a wonderfully orchestrated hour of spiritual celebration tells us only part of what we need to know about the inner truth of this or that tradition, or of traditions in encounter. But such an event — right at the heart of Harvard Yard — gives us a place for reflection, as we see the flourishing of ideas and practices and loves unfamiliar to our Church, as community arises from a great mix of backgrounds and purposes, a gathering visited by God.

     We Catholics rightly wonder about how diverse our prayer can be, whether we can pray deeply with the faithful of other traditions, how the Spirit moves with, around, beyond our Church. But perhaps we tend to wonder too much in the abstract, without just going out to see what is happening. Even those who think there is no salvation outside the Church might take a peek once in a while. A little less theory and a little more attentiveness will do us good, lest we end up being Catholics experiencing only Catholic religiosity and having only Catholic arguments with other Catholics.

     Or, as the first reading for Trinity Sunday, from Proverbs 8, reminds us, we might simply learn from God's wisdom: "Wisdom was daily His delight, rejoicing before Him always, rejoicing in His inhabited world and delighting in the human race."


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9 years 4 months ago
"...lest we end up being Catholics experiencing only Catholic religiosity"

Heaven forfend, Padre.
we vnornm
9 years 4 months ago
A great extension of the work of William James, Dean of American Psychology, who taught at Harvard over 100 years ago and wrote "The Varieties of Religious Experience." His work was just a starting point....and he emphasized "experience", not dogmatic dissension. bill
Jim McCrea
9 years 4 months ago
Oh, no, Father.  We are the One True Church!  What have we to learn of any import from anyone who is not one of us?  Those other people are all doomed to hell because they are not members of The One True Church, no matter what they believe or how they act. 
Catholic only means universal in the sense that all others HAVE to belong in order to be saved.
Now I'll remove my tongue from my cheek in deference to certain regular posters here who actually believe that claptrap.
9 years 4 months ago
Hey Jim -

If you don't believe "that claptrap," then why are you sticking around? To ridicule the faithful?

Sounds like you'd make a good Universal Unitarian: hedge your bets so you don't mistakenly pick the "wrong" church.


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