My youngest recently graduated from Tufts University, marking a rite de passage and the turning of a page for both us. The day before Commencement, we attended his Baccalaureate Service. In the sea of caps and gowns, he was nearly indistinguishable from his 1,250 colleagues. In the audience, among the dewy-eyed adults, so was I. It was hard work to catch each other’s eye as the processional sped past. This was not a personal, private setting to mark a journey from one stage of life to the next. This was the Gantcher Family Sports and Convocation Center, and it was overflowing at its seams.
Yet, unlike the Commencement ceremony the next day, the Baccalaureate Service somehow spun a magic web that connected every individual in the building to each other. Despite the cavernous, detached environment, the substance of the service touched me in a way that was unexpectedly intimate, spiritual and bonding. This was no small feat for an arcane Christian tradition from medieval times.
The original purpose of the Baccalaureate was literally to honor graduates with “laurels of oration” as they cross the threshold into their lives beyond their college years. The ceremony, a religious graduation custom that originated in 1432 at the University of Oxford, was a religious service of worship in celebration of, and thanksgiving for, lives dedicated to learning and wisdom.
At Tufts, the Baccalaureate was coordinated by the University Chaplaincy and the Interfaith Student Council. It marked the last time for the senior class to be alone together as a class. As a parent focused on trying to figure out where 21 years went, it was a helpful reminder that this day was bittersweet for my son too.
It was also a multi-faith celebration that spotlighted the students’ (and their parents’) shared heritage of diversity and common values of learning, service and teamwork. The program emphasized prayer, meditation and contemplation. And live music: jazz, a traditional Gaelic song and a traditional African American spiritual.
Even the brochure felt more like a global prayer book than a graduation agenda. Instead of pages listing individual winners of competitive awards and prizes, the program was chockfull of readings and blessings. The title page pictured the 15 religious and philosophical symbols of the traditions practiced by the Tufts community.
Five “Lessons of Inspiration” illustrated the different ways students from 37 nations and 47 states acknowledged what is sacred to them. The selections came from Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Humanist sacred texts. Reading the English translations, it was impossible not to admit and admire their similarities.
Hearing the Upanishad (Sanskrit), the Bible (Hebrew) and the Qu’an (Arabic) in their original tongues was even richer. The languages “felt” holy, both melodious and hymnal. Each prayer spoke of peace, the beauty of life and the dignity of endurance. It was a powerful reminder that, while we are a diverse people that honor and take fierce pride in our separate identities, we are also members of a common community that embraces, rather than fears, those differences.
Anthropologists define rite de passage as marking the passage of a person through the life cycle, from one stage to another over time. What a persuasive and nurturing capstone the Baccalaureate was for these fledgling adults. And for their parents, too.