Yesterday was commencement at my institution, which coincided with the 41st anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. The day before saw the baccalaureate service and academic receptions for the graduates and their families. I was asked to give the benediction at the reception of my division. For all the occasions in my life that I’ve offered prayer, it was the first time that had to do with graduation.
Writing prayers is a minor form of writing: quite minor. It shouldn’t take long to write one; if it did take long then one is better off looking for a ready-made prayer from the Internet. Yet like any kind of writing, it comes with practice and experience. The day before the reception, I spent a few minutes thinking about the occasion and the people there. I typed out the prayer and put it away until the next morning, when I read it out loud, made a few changes, read it out loud again, and printed out a copy.
For this benediction, I visualized three concentric rings of people, the innermost being the graduates themselves, and structured the prayer from the outer to the inner. There are many adjectives about God that one could employ, and I decided on “almighty” and “loving” for opening and repetition. I wanted to quote one Biblical passage, and just one, and a few minutes of a Google search led to a familiar passage from the Book of Proverbs. Since the ceremony included a short reading from the Gospel of Matthew at the start, I threw in a reference to it. Years ago, a friend noted that I had a soft spot for the word “lovely” in writing, and I found an apt spot for the word in the benediction. Having just completed three years of teaching Great Books, I wanted to reference at least one author and ended up with Aristotle’s name.
Last but not least, I wanted to name a group of people that I’d never included in a prayer before: stepparents. Indeed, for countless prayers that I’ve heard in public, I don’t think stepparents were ever mentioned along with parents. I was hardly alone in this experience, as a colleague said the same shortly after the reception.
Here are two examples that led me to include stepparents in this prayer. Several years ago, I read a short essay by Adam Bellow, editor and author but best known as one of Saul Bellow’s sons. Entitled “Honor Thy Stepfather,” the essay is about Adam’s stepfather Joe. Here is one passage,
Joe never tried to take my father’s place or pressed himself on me in any way. But, over time, he got into my life, and into my heart. He did this basically just by being there in all the most important moments. It was Joe who attended my high school theater performances and graduation ceremonies. It was he who drove me out to college every fall and picked me up each spring, loading my bulky stereo and enormously heavy record collection into the family wagon.
The second example comes from Pepperdine itself. In the last two years, I’ve required my students in Great Books to compile their writings into a portfolio at the end of the semester. I also invited them to make a dedication of the portfolio to one or more people. Many did, and they made them to their parents (especially mothers), grandparents, siblings, roommates, friends, boyfriends or girlfriends, teachers, and so on. Last year, one student dedicated her writing portfolio to her stepfather, “who made it possible for me to attend Pepperdine.” I thought of her dedication when writing this prayer.
Anyway, here is the benediction.
Almighty and loving God, as we conclude this celebration of the baccalaureate graduates, we turn to you and ask for your blessing.
We ask you to bless the families of our graduates, people who have loved and supported them in these few years of studies and growth at Seaver College. Bless the parents and stepparents of the graduates – mothers and fathers and stepmothers and stepfathers – who have made many sacrifices for their children’s pursuit of higher education. Bless their grandparents, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers, cousins and close friends that they had made before college. Though afar, these people formed circles of love and support so important for the growth and flourishing of the graduates. Bless them, loving God!
Turning to this beautiful campus, bless the faculty who have taught our graduates – and have learned from them. Bless the staff who have lent their skills to assist and counsel our graduates these last few years. Bless the friends that the graduates have made during their time at Pepperdine. As Aristotle has said, friendships of virtuous people are most treasured. May these friendships endure for a long, long time!
Most of all, mighty God, bless these graduates as they conclude this journey in higher education. We honor and celebrate the accomplishments of the graduates. We keep and treasure them in our memories. We pray for their journeys and adventures ahead.
Bless them in their pursuit of wisdom. “Get understanding [and] get wisdom,” says the Book of Proverbs, “Cherish wisdom and she will exalt you; embrace wisdom and she will honor you.” May our graduates continue to gain wisdom in their journeys ahead!
Lastly, loving God, keep and protect these graduates so that, to reference the Gospel of Matthew again, they will be the salt and light of the world. Keep them safe and well so that, to reference Proverbs once more, “when they walk, their steps will not be hampered [and] when they run, they will not stumble.” Help them give freely as they have received freely during their time at this lovely institution that is Pepperdine University.
We gather these prayers in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and our companion. Amen.