Santa Clara University

SCU Commencement

Sharon M.K. Kugler, Yale University Chaplain


Read in PDF ViewerGraduate Commencement Exercises

Santa Clara University
Leavey Activities Center
June 10, 2011

President Engh, Interim Provost Dodson, Trustees, Deans, Faculty, Staff, honored guests, joyful family and friends and most importantly jubilant members of the Graduate School Class of 2011, I bring you warm greetings from New Haven, Connecticut and Yale University all the way over on that other coast. It has been such a treat to walk around Santa Clara these last few days. It has truly been an experience of coming home, back to a place that in many ways feels even brighter and bursting with possibility than ever before. Class of 2011, you have worked tirelessly to bring this moment into being and now it is real. There is so much joy and pride in the air, but more than that there is the unmistakable feeling of love in the rafters as well. Though this place is vast in size it feels somewhat intimate tonight because of its purpose. I speak to you this evening with a heart full of deep appreciation for all that you have accomplished to get to this point and genuine gratitude for your invitation to include me in this celebration.

In the book “Meditations of the Heart” the great spiritualist, sage, college chaplain and pastor to Martin Luther King Jr., the Reverend Howard Thurman wrote, “Every moment is a divine encounter, every facet is an exposure to the boundless energies by which life is sustained and our spirits are made whole." My sisters and brothers we are in the midst of such a moment right here, right now. Assembled here is a spectacular mosaic of families, rich in cultural, spiritual, social and ethnic diversity, each with texts, stories and meditations that enlighten, energize and nurture the soul. You are breathtaking to behold and you fill us all with a remarkable sense of what is possible in this turbulent world. At a time when difference is often placed at the center of great divisiveness between people, it is indeed a divine encounter to be here with you in this way.

So first a small disclaimer, it is highly unlikely that I could have ever been admitted to any program from which you are receiving your advanced degrees this evening, at least not immediately after finishing my less than stellar academic career here. As an undergraduate at this fine institution of higher learning I was what you might call a unique case. My transcript was an odd combination of things revealing my own passions, stubbornness and to some degree my future, though I couldn't possibly have known that while graduating with a bachelor of science in mathematics 30 years ago this month.

Let's just say there were clearly peaks and valleys that could certainly be considered puzzling to the uninformed if one was to track my rather odd trajectory to where I am now solely based on how I got started in college. I went from barely mediocre grades in my discipline of Mathematics where one had to also take Physics for engineers (a valley) on to much stronger ones in English and Religious Studies (definitely peaks). What my transcript doesn't reveal is that the time I spent at Santa Clara was one of great discovery in the unconventional sense, I spread my wings, I fell short of my goal many times and most importantly, I recovered. In other words, I got an education. Academically, I thrived much later in my life when the good folks at Georgetown chose to look beyond a mere set of ratings on a transcript before accepting me to graduate school to study theology and world religious traditions some fifteen years later.

There are numerous gifts that I received from my Santa Clara experience that have pulsed strongly through my actions at different points throughout my life not the least of which has been the many times when I have been able to calm the distraught student who is dealing with his or her very first sub-par grade. I have relished being able to say time and again, "If you would like me to deliver the lecture about how one can receive some lousy grades in college and still go on to a reasonably successful career in higher education, please say the word, I am your gal!" It is then quite tempting to tell them about the Sufi poet and mystic Rumi who about 700 hundred years ago wrote, “Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment” and with that we will surely be off on a whole other tangent. Their world has been rocked and we might begin a delicious give and take together while unpacking the really meaty stuff of life.

It is my task not so much to dispense advice tonight as it is to plant a few thoughts with the hope that in the midst of all this excitement and celebration one or two might stick.

The first thought is simply this, say thank you every chance you get. Perhaps, your mother carefully taught you this already. Nurturing a grateful heart is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, not to mention the rest of those who share in your life. It was the 13th century German mystic Meister Eckhart who wrote, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, 'thank you' that would suffice.” He was right!

Odds are that you are sitting here tonight savoring this milestone moment because others believed in you. Maybe it was your parents, a certain professor, your spouse, partner, or a dear dear friend. Chances are sacrifices were made on your behalf that might have even been invisible to you at the time but they were made nonetheless. Someone said, "I'll take the baby, you study." or "You can do this, you have something to say, people to touch, God is guiding you here." or "Try again, it is worth the effort, we will find the money." or someone simply said "Yes." Whatever it was, whatever brush was cleared out of your way as you worked so very hard to get through these last few years, say "Thank you."

Later on, after you have left this place and the final toast has been made, the last congratulatory gesture has been received and you are simply alone with your thoughts basking quietly in the glow of what you have achieved, say thank you. Let this become, if it isn't already, a spiritual discipline that you will cherish and practice daily. It will be one that will serve you well the rest of your life. There will be many surprises contained in the cultivation of this discipline not the least of which is that it will bring you to a certain kind of prayerfulness where you will find yourself much more spiritually awake. You will be pulled ever closer to understanding what it means to lead a faith-filled life than you might be able to imagine in this moment. It will not always be easy and there will surely be times of bitterness, anguish, puzzlement and alienation involved, but there will also be this beautiful promise, the mere act of gratitude brings you closer to God.

Whatever your particular faith tradition might be make prayer as second nature as breathing. Infuse it into every fiber of your being. Poet and author Alla Renee Bozarth invites us to understand it in this way when she writes:

What is Prayer?

….Be awake to the life that is loving you
and sing your prayer, laugh your prayer,
dance your prayer, run
and weep and sweat your prayer,
sleep your prayer, eat your prayer,
paint, sculpt, hammer and read your prayer,
sweep, dig, rake, drive and hoe your prayer,
garden and farm and build and clean your prayer,
wash, iron, vacuum, sew, embroider and pickle your prayer,
compute, touch, bend and fold but never delete
or mutilate your prayer.

Learn and play your prayer,
Work and rest your prayer,
Fast and feast your prayer,
Argue, talk, whisper, listen and shout your prayer,
Groan and moan and spit and sneeze your prayer,
Swim and hunt and cook your prayer,
Digest and become your prayer.

Release and recover your prayer.
Breathe your prayer.
Be your prayer. 1

In trying to "be your prayer" do your best to cultivate the art of being "bravely human". There is someone who taught me quite a bit about this that I came to know well during my time as an undergraduate here and later on when I was invited back to work as an Associate Campus Minster. His name was Fr. Dan Germann and he was my chaplain and later my boss. He died in late September of 2007 and the gift of his amazing spirit still flows through me in the work I do everyday. Much was written and said about Dan before and after his death but I just want to publicly say how very grateful I remain for what he taught me. Every time I enter a new or challenging situation I remember his guiding hand because it has made a permanent imprint on my heart. I imagine him reminding me to, "Just be bravely human, to be exactly who God has called me to be in this moment, nothing more nothing less."

In my life I have been brought to my knees literally and figuratively many times. I have done battle with cancer, endured the loss of both parents and a sibling, been called to provide pastoral care in some of the most heartbreakingly tragic situations one could imagine and I have bumped up against the painful edges that dwell in the midst of bitterly divisive interreligious conflict. I have made good decisions and bad ones. In other words, like each one of you assembled here, I have been living the precious life that was given to me. I have felt moments of great peace and clarity along with moments of shattering uncertainly and fright. One thing has remained constant and that is an awareness of a kind of profound grace that dances in and out of everything within this fragile yet privileged human walk of becoming. I have discovered that sorrow and marvel are indeed two sides of the same coin and that there are times when we can encounter both in the same breath. As members of one human family, whether we like it or not, we live our sorrows together. The power and mystery of human resilience is a constant in our lives for it is an integral part of our individual and mutual stories.

Benedictine nun Sr. Joan Chittister puts it this way, “There is glory in the clay of us. There is beauty in becoming. The static notion of life, the idea that we can become something and stay that way, is a false one. We face newness all our lives. We search all our days for truth. And God loves us for the seeking. What we need is not perfection. What we need is a center that stabilizes us in times of change, in us as well as around us.”

I have been empowered to do things that I could hardly have thought possible thirty years ago when I first left Santa Clara and that has happened not so much due to my own burning ambition or any particularly extraordinary gifts. It has happened because I have been blessed by people who at various points in my life possessed a kind daring imagination that led them to open doors for me. Whether it was the brave Jesuits who let me preach on the occasional Sunday in the Mission church thereby inviting a kind of vocational challenge and gift that I could have hardly imagined for myself growing up as a Roman Catholic lay-woman, or the institutions of higher learning such as Johns Hopkins and Yale that entrusted me with the privilege of serving as their spiritual leader thus enabling me to approach this work invoking a new paradigm of radical hospitality, something I learned right here at this very place, or most importantly my family who have shown me the wondrous miracle of love is a real true thing everyday. All that is certain is that I have been incredibly blessed because others, for whatever reason, have nurtured possibility.

You now have the privilege to do the same for someone else, to believe in them, lift them up and over some fences that quite possibly should not have been put there in the first place and let them reach their full potential. By virtue of the degrees that you will receive here you just might be given that chance. You see, this accomplishment is not just about you. The core values of Santa Clara inspire a different notion, one that builds on the idea that your education is part of the foundation of what it takes to build a more just world. To properly honor the considerable work that brought you to this night you will and in fact must have a hand in that.

In graduate school your lexicon has been in finding facts, perfecting your research, expressing and defending a solidly conceived argument and this has served you well. You refined technical expertise and fostered a certain kind of intellectual prowess which has been diligently honed right alongside your mastery of critical thinking. However, in the life you will lead beyond these walls your further task will be in understanding and cultivating what are your feeling and believing instincts. Just as fact finding and analyzing empirical evidence was your daily bread in graduate school, understanding your instincts and cultivating them with care might well be called your daily breath in life. It is in this work that love and compassion become the attributes that reveal the true measure of your considerable education.

As you take leave of this place that nurtured your intellectual efforts so well, you are going out into a world that is hungry for you, if you aren't at least saying to yourself that you are scared I would suspect that you aren't being altogether honest. This world we live in goes at warp speed, one's moral compass can lose its mooring against the backdrop of foggy thinking about power, glory and fame. You are going out to be leaders, ministers, entrepreneurs, experts, hopefully somebody's employee, possibly someone's boss, teachers, writers, voices for change, each one of you students of God's handiwork. You will be tested more than you could rightly imagine in this celebratory moment.

This world is swirling with challenges to our humanity. The cries of its poorest and weakest people from the far corners of the earth and from down the road in East San Jose are unremitting and cannot be ignored. Even nature is constantly reminding us to become better stewards of our global environment. Seeing so much despair, so much need, can paralyze you or numb you if you let it. In just three months we will be upon the ten year anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001 and we will pause in solemn remembrance of not only what happened then but of how much has changed in our world since. In that moment we have another chance to embrace what is possible if we commit to looking at one another with tenderness rather than distain. The impassioned prayer of Howard Thurman was to ask God to “match the darts of despair with the treasures of our dreams.” These are the dreams of those who hold on to hope. Those who know that we are indeed of one another, that our undoing as a people will come about if we do not stay spiritually awake, if we do not bravely live into our true humanity.

Dear members of the class of 2011,
I'll close with this, we live in a world that is fraught with hate
and the tragic malignancy of ignorance,
but we also live in a world that nurtures great dreamers, thinkers and prophets,
and you my sisters and brothers are among them,
as you take leave of this place to become part of wider realms,
know that you are entering a world that eagerly awaits your loving touch.
May you nurture a gracious spirit, find reason to say thank you everyday,
may you embody a kind of prayer in all that you do
and always remain awake to the wondrous possibility that lives all around you.
For you, indeed are, tomorrow's hope.
May God bless you on this day, and all your days.

1Moving to the Edge of the World, by Alla Renee Bozarth, iUniverse 2000

Commencement Office | Walsh Administration Building, Lower Level
500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA 95053
1-408-554-2326 |