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Baccalaureate speaker Sister Joan Chittister

Sister Joan Chittister is founder and director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality, and co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Baccalaureate speaker tells Stanford's Class of 2012, 'Rebel, rebel, rebel - for all our sakes, rebel!'

Answers are easy to come by – just Google them, Sister Joan Chittister told the Class of 2012 at the Baccalaureate ceremony. "No, what the world really needs from you now is the courage to ask the right questions without apology, without fear and without close-mindedness."

Steve Fyffe

The Baccalaureate ceremony, a festive celebration of thanksgiving and inspiration for the future, is held in the Main Quad.

Speaking to the Class of 2012, Sister Joan Chittister drew inspiration from the Buddhist monk Tetsugen, who spent years begging for money to translate the Buddhist scriptures into Japanese, but gave the money away twice – first to build houses for the homeless after a flood, then to feed the starving after a famine.

"When the scriptures were finally printed in Japanese, they were enshrined for all to see," she said, speaking Saturday morning in the Main Quad at the Baccalaureate ceremony, a festive celebration of thanksgiving and inspiration for the future.

But they will tell you to this day in Japan, she said, that when parents take their children to view the books, they tell them that the first two "editions" – the new houses and the thriving people – were even more beautiful than the printed works.

Chittister said there was a lesson for Stanford's graduating students in the story.

"No personal passion, no private agenda, not even any religious ritual must ever be allowed to come between you and the people you serve," said Chittister, who is a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania.

Chittister was the featured speaker at the hour-long ceremony, which is led by students under the auspices of the Office for Religious Life. She is the founder and director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality, and the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, which hosts programs and gatherings around the world.

The Baccalaureate celebration opened with a solemn Buddhist call to prayer performed on a singing bowl and ended with a dramatic drumming blessing, Tatsumaki (Whirlwind), performed by Stanford Taiko.

In between there was an invocation by Black Elk, The Sacred Hoop, which the audience recited. Stanford Talisman, a student a cappella group, performed Wanting Memories, a song of the African diaspora with the refrain: "I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes."

In her address, Chittister reminded the audience of the Hans Christian Andersen tale The Emperor's New Clothes and the child who cried out – even as the rest of kingdom admired the emperor's splendid new robes – that he was naked.

"Point – if you want to really be a leader, you must be a truth-teller," she said.

"If you want to save the age, the Irish poet Brendan Kennelly writes, 'Betray it. Expose its conceits, its foibles and its phony moral certitudes.' Remember that there will be those among the powerful who try to make you say what you know is clearly not true, because if everyone agrees to believe the lie, that lie can go on forever."

Among the "lies" Chittister said were waiting to be dashed: that there is nothing we can do about discrimination; nothing we can do about world poverty; nothing we can do about fair trade; nothing we can do to end global carnage; nothing we can do in this country to provide education and health care, housing and food, maternity care and just wages for everyone in the world; nothing we can do about women who are raped, beaten, trafficked and silenced.

"If you want to be a leader, you must refuse to tell the old lies," she said.

She said the great leaders of history are always those "who refuse to bend to naked kings," including Mahatma Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchu, Aung San Suu Kyi, Sojourner Truth, Dorothy Day and the solitary man who stood in front of a line of tanks in China's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Chittister advised the graduating students to choose their heroes wisely, because they would be the measure of their character, ideals and legacy:

"If you want to lead the world to compassion, you must surround yourself with the compassionate, rather than the uncaring.

"If you want to lead the world to wholeness, you must follow the peacemakers, not the warmongers.

"If you want to lead the world to the freedom you learned here, equality for everyone must mean more to you than domination by anyone.

"Justice must mean more to you than money. People must mean more to you than fame. Ideals must mean more to you than power or politics or public approval."

Chittister said that the motto under which the graduating students had been educated – the wind of freedom blows – was exactly what the world struggling between the challenges of the present and the ideals of the past requires.

She called on the graduating students to "rebel against the forces of death that are obstructing us from being fully human together."

Chittister quoted essayist Leo C. Rosten, who said that the purpose of life was not to be happy, but to matter – to have it make a difference that you lived at all.

She concluded her address with a call to leadership:

"To save this age, use your education, use your freedom, to make a difference in the way tomorrow's wind blows," she said.

"Inspire in those who follow you the conviction and the will to denounce the lies, to reject the greed, to resist the heretics of inhumanity who peddle inequality, injustice and the torturers' instruments of social violence.

"To be a real leader, by all means make a difference. Rebel, rebel, rebel – for all our sakes, rebel. For if the people will lead, eventually the leaders will follow."

Student reflection

Tara Gu, who offered the student reflection, said students are often asked what they are going to do when they graduate, but are rarely asked to reflect upon the process.

"By process, I mean the question of who we want to be," said Gu, a graduating senior who majored in public policy and minored in human biology.

"Who do you want to be when you grow up? Who do you want to be next year? These are far more difficult questions to answer, and yet most of us spend less time thinking about them."

Gu told the audience that in April, Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J., and this year's Commencement speaker at Stanford, ran into a burning house and carried a neighbor through smoky stairwells and falling flames.

"Why were we so impressed with Mayor Booker's actions that we tweeted #Stanfordcommencementspeaker #like a boss," she said, a comment that drew appreciative laughter from the audience. "Were we drawn to the result of his Dark Knight heroics, his achievement of saving someone's life? Or did we admire what his actions said about who he is, his ability to live up to his values of public service?"

Gu said the coveted Stanford diploma students will receive will give graduating students "another neat line of size 10 Times New Roman font" to add to their resumes. But its pretty calligraphy letters do not reveal the process, she said.

"They do not say anything about the philosophical late-night hallway conversations, the chicken tenders from Axe and Palm or the saddening loss of two members from our community this year," Gu said, referring to two members of the Class of 2012 who died during the 2011-12 academic year: Sarah Jane Adicoff, an undergraduate, and Abninder Litt, a doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Business.

"Results are measureable but not memorable," Gu continued. "What is memorable is not measurable. What is measureable is not memorable."

"Congraaaaaaaatulations, oh-twelve," Gu concluded.

To which students responded: "Oh-twelve!"