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Magnum

A speech delivered at the GTU Commencement May 12, 2005

by Mary Ann Donovan, SC
Professor of Historical Theology and Spirituality
Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley

What a great day! It is so satisfying for me as a teacher to be here with you graduates. We in this chapel recognize the tremendous effort that has brought you here. The effort involved is first and foremost intellectual. A graduate degree attests to disciplined study, rigorous analysis, and the cogent presentation of material. Witness the thesis and dissertation topics in the program! But there is more to what you have done. Have any of you graduates considered yourselves as ascetics? Let me assure you that you are indeed just that – ascetics. Think about it. Asceticism means discipline toward an end. The discipline of scholarship which you have embraced represents counter-cultural effort of a high quality. Thus, a key dimension of the effort you have exerted is indeed ascetic. But let’s take this one step farther. To get where you are, you had to think for and by yourself. The hours of reading, studying, thinking, sitting at the keyboard: those were yours alone! Academics in many ways are not only ascetics. We are hermits – at least when we are at work. Yet it takes colleagues, families, loved ones, communities to support and enable our solitary work. Ideally, you have learned a balance between the solitary dimensions of your work and collegial review, collegial cooperation. A balance between isolated endeavor and communal interaction. That means you could be called scholarly ascetics with working hearts. It suggests that you have the skills for both independent and interdependent academic work. You are on the way to becoming scholars. No one of us here needs a magnifying lens to recognize the scope of your achievement. To lift a magnum of champagne might come close to being a fitting toast!

Magnum. “Magnum” means great. You have done something great – but now you are being called to something greater. In Latin, that is the move from magnum to major. Greater. What is this “greater” call? Each of you has been initiated into the wisdom of a tradition, whether Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, or Jewish. An example will help. I speak to you as a Roman Catholic Christian. When I came on this faculty we gave history lectures to groups of between one hundred fifty and one hundred seventy students at one time, students coming from all the schools. I remember being in the stacks sweating over my first lecture. Dr. Massey Shepherd, a respected senior faculty member, stopped to ask me how it was going. I told him what I think he already knew: “ I’m scared to death. I can speak only from my Roman Catholic perspective.” He was an Episcopalian. I’ve never forgotten his answer. He said: “ Your Roman Catholic tradition is exactly what we want from you at the GTU. We each must speak our truth from our own tradition. Then we will come to know one another from those places of truth.” One of the glories of the Graduate Theological Union is that each of us strives to be wholly who we are, while respecting what others are.

So let me say a word out of my tradition about the greater to which you are called as initiates into your traditions. Some of you know the First Letter to the Corinthians. There Paul is writing to new Christians. Talking about the Eucharist, he begins: “I received from the Lord what I handed on to you.” He then goes on to relate Jesus’ words at the Last Supper – but what matters to us here is the one line: “I received from the Lord what I handed on to you.” The key words are “to receive” and “to hand on.” They describe the process of traditioning. Paul is modeling what the recipient of a tradition is expected to do. A tradition, you see, is given to be given away. In the process of receiving, then handing on, one works with, reflects on, what has been received. You graduates have been initiated into a tradition. You have engaged in an academic form of asceticism. You have done so both independently and interdependently. This is a great thing – but you now are called to a greater thing. Moving from the magnum to the major, the greater to which you are called is to reflect on your tradition – and give it away. Pass it on.

And why should you do this? Let me ring one final change on the root word “magnum.” I’ll shift from magnum to magnify. One meaning of magnify is “to glorify, to praise.” The Christian understanding of why one hands on the tradition is to praise the One from whom all blessings come. So my parting prayer for you is this. May each of you, as you hand on your own tradition, be able to say from your heart, in ways appropriate to your tradition, these verses from Mary’s prayer: “My soul magnifies the Lord who has done great things for me. Holy is God’s name.”

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