Rowan Williams on Jesuit education

Many thanks to Dr. Williams, who kindly answered my questions by email despite a very busy schedule.

“I remember reading an article about the Jesuits in a Sunday newspaper supplement in the mid-sixties, and being fascinated by the diversity of intellectual and spiritual gifts displayed by the people interviewed. Since then, I have had Jesuit friends and students for over thirty years. What has always impressed me has been (a) the businesslike approach to vocation and service: complete flexibility grounded in the daily attempt to become radically available to God, and (b) the sense that such a wide range of employment for mind and body is all of it equally likely to offer the opportunity of doing God’s will.”

So Rowan Williams outlines the history of his relationship with the Society of Jesus: a working relationship of friendship and respect. Williams is not so prominently associated with the Ignatian tradition as he is with other strands of Catholic theology; he is primarily known for his work on, among other things, Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton and the Rule of St Benedict. But his lecture on Jesuit education, delivered at the 400th anniversary celebrations of Heythrop College in June 2014, reveals that his connection with the Jesuits is not merely a matter of admiring coexistence, but of common ground.

The main thrust of his analysis (or, perhaps more accurately, the thing that most appealed to me) relates to the idea that studying something, and studying it thoroughly and well, is intrinsically valuable in itself; that education is not merely a matter of individualistic self-realisation, or of preparing the student to be of economic value in ‘the real world’, but is a constituent part of the formation of a soul. This is a fundamental principle of Jesuit education, and it gives concrete meaning to the tired old phrase ‘God-given talents’. It is also something with which Williams clearly has great sympathy, and which is consistent with his own approach to the politics (and theology) of education. (I was fortunate enough to hear some of his views in conversation last year: the part relating to the academy is here.)

On this occasion, I couldn’t resist asking him the same question I put to my Jesuit interviewees: What does the Jesuit identity mean to you? Here’s what he had to say:

“The ‘Jesuit identity’ is so diverse, united it seems simply by the conviction that all skills are relevant to sharing the gospel; but of course underlying it all is the Exercises, shaping a spirit ready to be put to any kind of service. I suppose because my own spirituality has been so much influenced by Benedictine and Carmelite sources, I haven’t been so devoted an advocate for Ignatian methods as some in recent years; but I have come to see that some of the polarities people see between these worlds are pretty artificial. There is also, to me, a refreshing distance in the Society from conventional ideas of church hierarchy (no abbots! Discouragement from becoming bishops or whatever—which is why a Jesuit Pope is a remarkable thing, and potentially a very creative one; as we see).”

Dr. Rowan Williams is the former Archbishop of Canterbury and now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge.

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