[Speaker: Dr. Mark Hart]
Parents, grandparents, family, friends, members of the class of 2019 welcome to our interfaith baccalaureate service. Our service today combines voices and perspectives from different religious and spiritual traditions. And we invite everyone here to participate in the service, both open to these unfamiliar traditions and still honoring their own faith, commitment and understanding of what is true. Even in this last weekend of your college career. And indeed, throughout life you can still be learning.
This graduation celebration marks a completion of a phase of life, a combination of a lot of hard work and growth. And I’m here also to remind you that the future is always unknown. It may feel like at this point it’s particularly unknown, but at each stage of life that’s still the case. So, I encourage everyone to live all of their life with an attitude of welcome to whatever befalls us, whether it is good or bad in the categories of the mind, whether it is perceived as a gain or a loss, whether it is an experience that is wanted or unwanted, it is all life, and you can still be learning. So, we’re here to wish the graduates every blessing that they receive the right guidance and support at the right time in their lives. Let’s pause for a moment of silence now and offer them our unconditional goodwill and prayers and good wishes.
[Speaker: Professor Jyl Gentzler]
Good morning. My reading is from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. Carl Sagan was inspired to write this book by an image taken at his suggestion by Voyager 1 on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1990, as a spacecraft left our planetary neighborhood for the fringes of the solar system, engineers from Earth turned it around for one last look at its home planet. Voyager 1 at the time was about 4 billion miles away, and in the image the Earth appeared as a tiny point of blue light. Sagan writes:
Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines. Every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all of those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another. How fervent their hatreds. Our posturing, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this pale point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely spec in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all of this vastness, there is no hint that hope will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits then this distant image of our tiny world. To me, says Sagan, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot—the only home we’ve ever known.
[Speaker: Gabby Rose ’19]
Good morning. I’ll be reading an excerpt from a speech given by Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein who’s the rabbi of Chabad of Poway, and this was a speech that he gave the day after the shooting and his synagogue last month.
We need to battle darkness with light. No matter how dark the world is, we need to think of why. A little bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness; a lot of light will push away much more. And the Rebbe would say, we all need to teach everyone. No matter what religion you’re from, we need to do random acts of kindness. We need to tilt the scale. There’s so much darkness now in the world, but you and I have the ability to change. We’re all created in God’s image. We’re all partners in creation. No matter what faith or religion you’re from, we all need to make this world a better place to prevent this from ever happening again. The best we can do to combat is to grow, build, and be stronger and stronger and stronger. And yes, every single one of us can do that.
[Speaker: JoDeanne Francis ’17]
Good morning. I will be reading the Christian reading today. It will come from wisdom literature from the Holy Scriptures in the Book of Proverbs. So I’ll be reading Proverbs 2.
Good friend, take to heart what I’m telling you. Collect my councils and guard them with your life. Tune your ears to the world of wisdom. Set your heart on a life of understanding. That’s right, if you make insight your priority and won’t take no for an answer, searching for it is like a prospector panning for gold, like an adventurer on a treasure hunt. Believe me, before you know it, fear of God will be yours. You have come upon the knowledge of God, and here’s why. God gives out wisdom free. It’s plain spoken and knowledge and understanding. He’s a rich man of common sense for those who live well, a personal bodyguard to the candidate and sincere. He keeps his eye on all who live honestly and pay special attention to his loyalty, his committed ones. So now you can pick out what’s true and fair. Find all the good trails. Lady wisdom will be your close friend and brother knowledge your pleasant companion. Good sense will scout ahead for danger; insight, will keep an eye out for you. They’ll keep you from making wrong turns or following the bad directions.
[Speaker: Alizeh Sethi ’19]
Good morning everyone. I would be reading out an excerpt from an article written by Imam Khalid Latif, who works at the Islamic center at NYU. I picked this portion because I think it inspires hope in God’s love and gentleness, and also directly addresses the false negative conceptions that are spread about God every time somebody commits an atrocious act in the name of religion.
Growing up, my understanding of God was always tainted by a negative framing. Through Sunday schools and Friday sermons, I learned that God was watching me, but only later on in life I understood that God was watching over me—two very different things. A fundamental value in Islam is Ihsaan, and a definition of the word is given by the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, when he is engaged by the Angel Gabriel, peace be upon him, on one instance. Amongst other questions, he asked the prophet, what Ihsaan is. In response, the profit says, Ihsaan is to worship God as if you can see him, because although you cannot see him, he can see you.
When I was younger, my understanding of God made me understand this concept as one that told me to be careful because God is watching wherever you are. Now that I’m older, I understand it more so as, be strong and courageous. God is with you and watching over you wherever you are. My understanding of God has begun to be shaped more by how he described himself. God says, I am as my servant thinks I am. Do you conceptualize God as being the most merciful of all those who show mercy, even more merciful than a mother is to her child, as being the most gentle, the most compassionate? Or do you see Him as an angry old man looking for a reason to punish? It’s an important question because how you conceptualize God will dictate so many things in your life. I personally prefer the former rather than the latter. You will have to decide for yourself how you approach it.
[Speaker: Deacon Roger Carrier]
Let us pray.
Good and gracious God, we gather today as the seniors are ending their time here at Amherst, remembering and celebrating all they have learned from their professors and fellow students. And, as we gathered during this Easter season, we remember all Jesus taught his disciples before sending them out into the world. Just as the apostle spent years in your presence, Lord, being prepared to leave on your mission of love, so to the seniors have repaired to leave here for noble ambitions of their own. May their plans and ambitions be influenced by the plans you have for them, plans for prosperity and hope, which is so desperately needed in our community, our country and our world. Lord, we have cried out to you often over the past few years because of the pain and suffering in our broken world. May your spirit encourage these women and men to live and act with great love for one another.
May they understand that a full and joyful life comes when they pursue their life’s passions while also fulfilling the passion of your heart through unifying acts of small kindnesses, especially to those most in need. May they be the ones to show the world that respect leads to unity, that love overcomes hate and compassion brings peace. Lord, we placed this prayer, this hope for their future into your outstretched hands. Bless these seniors abundantly as they go out on their own, mindful that you are with them always. We ask this through the holy one who makes all things possible.
[Speaker: Harrison Blum]
Good morning. It’s really a privilege to offer blessings to our seniors as they’ve spent many years blessing us and our community. It’s wonderful to be with you all. I’m very pleased to introduce our baccalaureate speaker, Dr. Asha Shipman, director of Hindu life at Yale University. I first learned of Asha through a message she posted on a national LISTSERV for college chaplains offering context and ideas to support Hindu students celebrating the Festival of Diwali. I reached out to her and she coached me up so that I could better support the Hindu students as they organized the first ever Diwali festival held at my previous institution. I was further grateful and impressed when Asha wrote and circulated and extensive white paper on Hindu chaplaincy in U.S. higher education. As the second and only female Hindu college chaplain in the U.S. with a full-time appointment, she is not content to merely break new ground at her home university but rather brings her knowledge and experience into the field at large. In addition to sharing her expertise through blogs and podcasts, Asha is forming a Hindu chaplains association, and she’s a contributor to the first book on Hindu chaplaincy in the U.S. coming out this fall and titled Hindu Approaches to Spiritual Care. As a Buddhist chaplain myself, I have my own experience representing a faith-tradition in new contexts and in new roles, and I very much see Asha as a laudable example in that.
I’ll share one more thing I find remarkable out about Asha is that as she works to help college chaplaincy evolve, evolve toward being more inclusive of Hindu students specifically and interfaith perspectives generally, she has also evolved herself. Initially trained as an anthropologist, her professional life has shifted into full-time chaplaincy work. She now channels her anthropological training to examine spiritual support offered to Hindu students. And in this, she is a good example for us of how we can each follow our passion and to make meaning even if it brings us beyond the boundaries of the roles we have played, the titles we have held and the institutions we serve. Please join me in warmly welcoming Dr. Asha Shipman.
[Speaker: Doctor Asha Shipman]
Good morning everyone. Thank you, Harrison. That was a lovely introduction. It is a joy to share this space and time with you. Speaking of time, there's an apocryphal old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times,” and our times are very interesting. In fact, our psyches these days may cry out for a time less dislocated and turbulent, more predictable and easier to navigate. When students express these wishes to me, I hear they're craving for stability and for assurance that things will be okay, and I naturally want to offer comfort, perspective, and good advice. My perspective is rather unique. While most chaplains have a masters in divinity, my graduate degrees are in ecology and anthropology, in particular psychological anthropology. Having grown up in the United States, I also understand what it is like to be a devout Hindu in a country where we are ethnic and religious minorities. Much of my scholarly work involves understanding how people interpret, navigate and create aspects of culture, including spirituality.
Given my appointment as a Hindu chaplain, much of my daily work beyond explaining chaplaincy to Hindus and Hinduism to everyone else, involves helping people find internal balance so they can lead authentic, happy and meaningful lives. With that being said, one of my enduring pieces of advice is to try to connect. I encourage students to develop not just a social network, but a soul network, and not just one but many—a collective that we'll share experiences, heart emojis, great big cheers, kitten pictures, actual hugs and warm cookies, kind ears and open hearts. Whatever is needed during times of great joy, times of great distress and every time in between. These are the people whom you can rely upon to ease the rough transitions, provide reality checks and maybe even a spare couch as you make your way through the world.
I recall feeling very shy and uncertain when I matriculated into Mount Holyoke College just down the road from here. One of the core Hindu philosophies that eased my way into college and into other new spaces post-college, was the Hindu principle that we are all one. The walls we think exist are really constructs. We are all truly connected in a vital transcendental way. Hindus believe in the concept of the Atman, the everlasting soul. Some limit the Atman to sentient creatures, while others extend this to all living fila, and even to nonliving entities, such as rocks streams and fire. Regardless, Hindus believe that each Atman houses a spark of the divine. One of the names we use for God is the Paramatman, the Supreme Atman. Hindus believe that the admins holy spark will after lifetimes ultimately reunite with the divine light of the Paramatman. Thus, the Atman connects us with God and with each other. This Atman to Atman linkage reinforces the Hindu conviction that the whole world is one big family.
This concept originates in a sacred Hindu scripture called the Maha Upanishad, and chapter 6, verse 72 says, “Only small men discriminate saying: One is a relative; the other is a stranger.
For those who live magnanimously the entire world constitutes but one family.” In a similar vein, the common Hindu greeting, namaste, with palms folded is much more than just hello. Namaste means, my soul recognizes your soul. I honor the light, love, beauty, truth and kindness within you because it is also within me. In sharing these things, there is no distance and no difference between us. We are the same; we are one. As a first-year student in the first hour of being on campus, I sat teary-eyed in my dorm room already missing home, and I'm sure many of you can relate. I was not considering scriptural lines, but I believed and fervently hoped that surely there would be someone to connect with.
And there was not just someone—there was a cluster of women with diverse personalities, life experiences, hopes, dreams, and an openness to each other, which developed into powerful and enduring friendships. Life inside and outside the classroom provided us insights into our cultural models, complex and often deeply internalized mental frameworks for how we think the world is organized. Some of the best conversations occurred when these cultural models were severely tested and we needed to talk through how and why and in a safe and non-judging form. Take a moment to consider which lounges couches, hidden nooks and walking paths here at Amherst enabled your own interior spelunking. At the outset, this may not sound like spiritual work, but delving into yourself and connecting with other selves to establish your soul network is a wholly endeavor, which will instill resilience and bring great contentment into your life.
Each of you have, no doubt, also experienced connection across difference and a checking of cultural assumptions during your time at Amherst. Often college opens our eyes to the fact that our way is just one way among many. I taught a medical anthropology course called Illness and Curing at the University of Connecticut, in which I compared Western allopathic medicine, the prevailing medical system in the United States, with pure medical systems from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Native American groups. Most of the students were familiar only with Western allopathic medicine and had no idea of these other systems exist and have successfully treated billions of people over thousands of years. Some had heard of acupuncture but had never tried it, so I brought in an acupuncturist to talk about her work. A student incidentally volunteered that she had flu-like symptoms coming on and agreed to let the doctor offer her some relief. The student had no reason to believe this could help, but was open to the possibility. She laid down on a desk and with one needle of the smallest gauge placed in the right spot, her symptoms quickly dissipated and remain so past the end of the 90-minute class.
Now, does this mean that these students will now pursue acupuncture instead of downing Emergen-C when they feel oncoming cold and flu symptoms? Probably not. But it's an experience they won't forget, and hopefully their cultural models of illness, wellness and healing changed just a bit. Think back on what courses at Amherst have challenged and expanded your mental frameworks. Perhaps the ones that caused the greatest headaches or required the most cognitive processing and hopefully offered some glimmering “A-ha” moments of clarity. As you move through the world, you will continue to augment your cultural models and shape meaning in your life. As you do so, seize opportunities to experience other people's lifeways. Learn about their cultural models, values, feelings and lived experiences. Consider how they jive with your own; we have much to learn from each other.
Languages offer amazing windows into culture and cognition. Many of you have studied abroad during your college years, perhaps navigating a foreign language manifested with its full contours. You may have even stayed with a family for your program. In doing so, you had an opportunity to experience a place in culture from an internal and extended vantage point that the majority of the world is not privy to. The kitchens, inner courtyards wooden paths, tea shops and doorways where conversations struck intimate tones and a veil dropped between you and another soul.
As a PhD student in 2003, I studied Hindi at a private compound in the Himalayan foothills nestled by side the Ganges River. Every day to the thundering background noise to the Ganges, I walked with Krishna, one of my Hindi teachers encountering the landscape, connecting with the local residents and with each other. Women collected wood and fodder for animals in bundles balanced to top their heads. Shyly smiling as they skirted up and down the steep stony hills like mountain goats. In the labyrinth in local marketplace, the merchants graded my fledgling language skills with gentle smiles and great patients. People seem so alive, so connected with each other and genuinely happy to share their selves with others. These days. Krishna and I retain our Atman to Atman connection via WhatsApp, shortening the miles between us. Soul networks consist of people whose presence fills your heart. They may be connected to by genetics, geography, shared interest, or even by coincidence, these relationships may form more fully post-college, so be on the lookout. If you haven't found them yet, you will.
Perhaps you already have an intellectual soul network, maybe family members who early on instilled a love of learning and supported your educational aspirations, whose love and toil helped bring you here and whose faces light up in hearing your college stories. They may be teachers who further shaped your academic interests and skills and firmly believed you could in fact matriculate into and graduate from Amherst college. They may be your professors, staff, or administrators who made sure you would graduate from Amherst College, and who want to hear about your postgraduate experiences.
Some soul networks emerge in unexpected places. I had a rock-climbing soul network, which developed perhaps 15 years ago. Rock climbing presents a physics puzzle, with titled slabs, chimneys and overhangs, with quirky and dubiously helpful hand and footholds. Bilayers and root comrades urged each other upward shouting suggestions and sharing chalk dust. Similarly, you may have a musical soul network with whom you share your journey made of notes, rhythms and expansions and contractions of sound. Both include established patterns with room for interpretation plus a reliance upon each other for making it through, whether it be a symphony or an ascent, and their rewards are exhilarating. Who are the souls your soul recognizes, rejoices in and relies upon? Who are the people who sofas you’ve fallen asleep on in the wee hours, who you can be silly with, honest with, afraid with, confused with, love with, and be hurt with? Who will walk miles by your side in the rain because that's what you need and you would do the same for them? Who hears about what matters, what happened and follows up when they haven't heard from you in awhile?
Right now, you may be feeling anxious like my friends and I did in our senior spring about losing touch and leaving a place that over time had become more home than home. This can feel quite bittersweet. Remember though, that while you may be done with this particular arc through Amherst, you are never done with your alma mater unless you choose to be. There are so many ways to remain connected, so make sure you do even if months or years elapse. Reach out, reconnect, reignite. As for our times, the universe is subject to countless cycles and our own human scale of experiences are cyclical, as well. And I too have been inspired by astronomer Carl Sagan, and Dr. Sagan famously extolled the framing of time in Hindu philosophy in his series Cosmos. He said, “The Hindu religion is the only one of the world's great faiths dedicated to the idea that the cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite number, of deaths and rebirths.”
Indeed, modern astrophysics supports the idea of a series of cosmological expansions and contractions. Living entities undergo similar phenomena, and so do cultures. This world has experienced many cycles of great conflict, times of limited rationality and compassion, and strict, sometimes punitive control over human autonomy. It has also enjoyed cycles of amazing scientific, artistic, technological and social advancement. We inherit and are shaped by the world we step into as young adults, but consider carefully that we also inherit the agency to shape contemporary culture to more closely reflect our own cultural models, our values, hopes, dreams and ideas. This work is best done in the company of others as culture is the manifestation of shared human experience and imagination. Spend time serving the cultural scene and then offer alternative perspectives using the tools of your trade. Be it paint brushes, keyboards, or calculators, hammers, scalpels or pens, carabiners, voices, feet or hands.
Chances are that you have already begun to do this. It can feel quite perilous taking a stand, even if your public square has postage-stamp dimensions. It's still your stand and your stamp. Sitting here now, you may see your future self in technology, healthcare, education, or public service as a changemaker, teammate, loving partner, or parent. Hopefully you see a suite of possibilities. You may be wondering: How do I know the right path to choose? I think of children's author Peter H. Reynolds and his book, The Dot, where the young protagonists, art teacher challenges her to make a mark and see where it takes you. Your wonderful education here at Amherst college does not create a highway with no off ramps. Just start, and be willing to modify your cultural, including your own culturally constructed understanding of yourself. We never really know where our paths will lead us and route recalculations are guaranteed, but these detours may offer great adventure and perhaps lead you to encounter amazing souls. So, Amherst class of 2019, here is my blessing for you: Fair forward, held dear in the hearts of your soul network. Be inspired an illumined by the light, love, beauty, truth and kindness that shine within and around you. Namaste.
[Speaker: Rabbi Bruce Bromberg Seltzer]
Thank you. Shabbat Shalom.
This morning we have pause to reflect on the gifts which brought each graduate to this day, the gifts of time, love, friendship and caring and their hard work. Graduates, your accomplishments are worthy of celebration in and of itself. Still, as soon to be alumni of Amherst, I challenge you with a question from the Talmud on the purposes of education: Which is greater, learning or action? The Talmud’s answer is that learning is greater because learning leads to action. Our college has a similar view of the purpose of education. The college’s motto, Terras irradient, Let them give light to the world, demonstrates that the goal of education is not knowledge itself, but about how you use the knowledge in the world. As Gabby shared earlier, the world, while full of promise and diversity, is also teaming with darkness and challenges. As you leave Amherst, I challenge you to shine bright and dispel some of this darkness. Help the world find solutions to these challenges with your learning, your personality and action. Whether it’s how you earn a living or how you spend your free time.
In this vein, I offer you a fitting prayer from the Talmud to guide you as you leave Amherst: May you live to see your world fulfilled. May your destiny be for worlds still to come. May you trust in generations past and yet to be. May your hearts be filled with intuition and your words be filled with insight. May songs of praise ever be upon your tongue, and your vision be on a straight path before you. May your eyes shine with the light of holy words and your face reflect the brightness of the heavens. May your lips speak wisdom and your fulfillment be in righteousness, even as you ever yearn to hear the words of the holy ancient, one of old. In the Jewish tradition, it's customary to recite the Shehechiyanu prayer at joyous occasions and life's transitions. I'll do so first in English and then conclude what the Hebrew.
Praise are you God, ruler over the world who gave us life, kept us going and brought us to this joyous day.
Barukh ata adonai elohenu melekh ha’olam, shehecheyanu, v’kiyimanu, v’higiyanu la’z’man ha’zeh.
[Speaker: Mohammed Abdelaal]
Good morning everyone. Peace be upon you.
I’m very happy to be here with you today as a representative of the Muslim faith. This is a very special time for the graduates. They have just finished an important chapter of their life and they are ready to move into the next chapter. For some, the next steps might be very clear. For many others, the might not be sure what to do next. At this very special time, I would love to share with them a do’aa, or a supplication, which is an informal prayer that every individual Muslim man or woman is encouraged to do. In Islam, it is very important to have a very personal and direct relationship with God, in which you can talk to God, express your anxiety, stresses, ask for things and seek help, seek guidance and try to achieve success. Of course, that has to be complemented with action in order for that the prayer to be accepted.
We pray to God almighty to reward the graduating class for all their hard work to reach the this point in their lives in pursuit of knowledge and success. We pray to God to help them benefit from and reap the fruits of their education and learning the gained during their years of study here at Amherst. We pray to God almighty that they continue their journey in pursuit of knowledge, wisdom and success. We pray to God to help them be a source of light guidance and aid to others, especially those who are disadvantaged or who are in need. We pray to God to help them be a great addition to their local communities and to the rest of the, uh, of the world. We pray to God to grant them success both in their professional and their personal lives, and to ease for them a path to happiness, prosperity, and fulfillment. May God almighty accept our prayers and reward and guide all of us. Amen.