Education

Smoked Octopus and Rum: life advice from Brother Guy

Today is the feast day of Ignatius of Loyola, and it is also the first birthday of Project SJ. By way of an anniversary extra, here’s a wonderful speech delivered by my friend (and Project SJ’s invaluable supporter) Guy Consolmagno SJ. The year: 2010. The occasion: prize day at St Aloysius’ College, Glasgow. The topic: well, let’s call it What Not to Do…

Photo by Alessia Giuliani.

Photo by Alessia Giuliani.

I am honored to be among you this afternoon, to add my congratulations to those of your faculty. I confess, when I attended the Jesuit high school in Detroit, I used to sneer at academic awards; that is, until I actually won one. My sophomore year I was named to the National Honor Society, for reasons that were utterly mysterious to me. I had not distinguished myself academically; in fact the most common comment I had heard from my teachers was that I was “working below my capabilities.” But I thought I was getting by, just fine; I had a firm belief that hard work was just a sign you hadn’t figured out the system. I suspect, in retrospect, that the powers who handed me that honor knew me better than I knew myself, however. I was so embarrassed at getting the award, that I wound up actually working hard—or, at least, harder than I had been—to try to see if I couldn’t make myself a little more worthy of it.

Hard work is one of those virtues that is often misunderstood. One of the awful clichés that we used to hear at my high school from speakers (like me today) was, “If you work hard enough, you can be anything you want to be, you can reach your dreams!” Now, that always sounded like utter nonsense to me. What if I dreamt of being the star center for the Detroit Pistons, our local basketball team? Would hard work make me sixteen inches taller or stretch my arm span by an extra foot? Not likely.

The trick, of course—and it is a trick—is that you can be anything you want, only by controlling what it is you want. If you want to follow your dreams, you have to put some hard work into choosing your dreams. What is it that you really want?

Let’s say you think you want to be a basketball star. Ask yourself, why? Is if for the fame? There are plenty of ways to be famous besides playing basketball. A classmate of mine got his name in the papers just last year; he was working with the US military space program and was caught trying to sell military secrets to the Israelis. Hey, if it’s fame you want…

Is it for the money? You don’t need to be a sports star to get rich. Another high school friend studied to be an accountant. He wound up as the president of a bank.

It is the adulation of the crowds you crave? You can’t do better than my roommate at MIT. He’s married now with two sons. His wife and family know him as only family can, and they think the world of him. What adulation could be better than that?

Or maybe, just maybe, you want to be a basketball star for the irrefutable reason that you just love basketball. In that case, play basketball. It doesn’t matter if thousands of fans pay to watch you play, or if nobody watches; that’s not why you do it. Find a league, find friends, find a place where you can get a pickup game with people at your level, and play your heart out. There’s a guy I have worked with for thirty years, born with coordination problems, blind in one eye, he has no depth perception; but he loves basketball and even now—he’s a college professor, my age—three times a week he drags his aching old bones out onto the court for the sheer love of the game.

Now, if you’re lucky, your passion will match your skills and you’ll be good at what you want to do. If you’re even luckier, you will find a way to make a living at it. But the important thing is, to understand what your passion really is. In the words of St. Ignatius, you must learn to discern your deepest desires.

You knew I was going to drag Ignatius into this. He has a whole system for discerning your desires, but the main key to it is a principle that ought to be obvious, but sometimes gets lost: God wants you to be happy. The trouble is, of course, that what really makes you happy in the long run is sometimes not what you think will make you happy right now.

When I was eighteen and went off to University, I had no idea what I wanted. When it came time to choose a place to study, I picked Boston College mostly because it was in Boston, which seemed like a good place to be a student (there are 300-odd colleges and universities in Boston, some of them very odd). And Boston College was a Jesuit school; I had an idea that maybe I would want to be a Jesuit, but I wasn’t sure.

When it came time to declare a major—in America you can choose anything, it doesn’t depend on how you did on any particular subject in high school—I looked at the list and tried to find the box that said “all of the above.” It was the fault of those clever teachers in my high school who had gotten me to work hard; I had discovered that learning stuff was really, really fun. I wanted to learn everything.

But when I got to Boston College, I found myself in a freshman dorm where the local liquor store made deliveries. (The legal drinking age was twenty-one, we were all eighteen, but they didn’t seem to care.) Everyone went nuts doing all the stuff they thought they wanted to do, all the stuff they couldn’t do when they were living with their parents.

I remember one Friday night, there was this guy who tried to drink an entire bottle of rum and eat a tin of smoked octopus. I found him in the hallway about to be sick into the trash barrel; but he stopped. Something was wrong. He looked puzzled. Slowly, he took off his trousers and carefully lay them over the trash barrel. Then he got sick, into them.

Eventually these geniuses started failing their classes. No surprise. Well, that wouldn’t have bothered me, except that for some reason they would come to my room and pour out their problems to me. As if I cared. The more they bewailed their situation, the more I thought to myself, “you know, life is tough… when you’re stupid.”

I didn’t like it there. I didn’t fit in. So I figured, ok, there’s no problem so big you can’t run away from it. Time to bail out. Join the Jesuits, like I was thinking of doing anyway.

I found a Jesuit and asked him where to sign up, and he asked me a very peculiar question: “Have you prayed about this, son?” (I hate it when they call me “son”.) Well, I figured it was part of the routine. Why not? I went back to my room, sat on the floor, looked at the ceiling, and said, “OK, God, I’m supposed to ask if you want me to be a Jesuit, but I know you’re desperate for priests and I’m desperate to get out of here…”

Silence. Nothing came from the ceiling. And I was feeling very foolish.

While I was sitting there, waiting for something to happen, a funny question occurred to me. What does a priest do for a living? You know, when they show up at their desk on a Monday morning—I assume priests must have desks—what’s on those desks? Papers, I guess. Papers about what? About people. People with problems. People just like the idiots in my dorm whom I was trying to get away from. What a terrible job!

So… either there was no God, in which case it would be stupid to be a priest; or there was a God, and he had just told me it would be stupid for me to be a priest. (more…)

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.