Jesuit brothers

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…)

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Gone Fishing

I’m about to move house (move countries, as it happens) and so Project SJ will be taking a short-as-possible hiatus. In the meantime, please enjoy these videos featuring some of the Jesuits and allies who’ve participated in the project so far. Click on the hyperlinked names to see the original interviews.

Br Guy Consolmagno was my first Jesuit interviewee, both on Project SJ and elsewhere. (This interview took place in 2010, when I barely knew what a Jesuit was; note how graciously he answers my rather silly questions.) Here he is at Heythrop 400, talking about the Jesuit contribution to science.

My next interviewee was George Williams SJ, whose words on prison ministry are here. This video from America Magazine gives some idea of how he works with the prisoners at San Quentin, and how some of them respond.

Peter McVerry SJ, of The Peter McVerry Trust, spoke frankly about vocation, freedom and charity. His homily at this year’s Portlaoise Novena is a window into his experience working with those who are homeless and marginalised, and what they have taught him. (I couldn’t, unfortunately, embed it: right-click to open in new window.)

Peter McVerry SJ: Portlaoise Novena 2014

Finally, Rowan Williams is not just a churchman and theologian, but also a poet and literary scholar. Here’s his inaugural lecture at the University of Chester on “The Messiah and the Novelist: Approaches to Jesus in Fiction.”

Enjoy! And I’ll see you again soon.

Brother Guy Consolmagno: planetary scientist, Vatican Observatory

Portrait by Fr. Don Doll, SJ

Portrait by Fr. Don Doll, SJ

How did you experience that first call to religious life?

Every couple has their “how we met” story, and every religious has his or her vocation story. I have told mine so many times that I remember less the actual events, and more the version of the last time I told the story. So to make it fresh, and maybe find some truth in it that has been hidden from me, I am going to try to approach it from a different point of view.

First, some basics. I am a classic baby-boomer kid, born in 1952 in America of an Irish-American mother and Italian-American father, the youngest of three children. That’s a pretty common background for cradle Catholics of my generation. We were active Catholics, but not overly pious; we certainly did not live in a Catholic ghetto.

What’s less common is that my parents were both college educated, and my Italian grandfather (who came to the US at age seven in 1899) was a lawyer with a degree from Boston University. All my siblings have multiple university degrees; my sister is a retired schoolteacher, and even my hippy brother, who has lived mostly on air for all his life (he’s a blues musician) has a master’s in creative writing. We’re a bookish family. We’re also all great friends who enjoy each others’ company.

What was I going to be when I grew up? A writer; a pilot; an astronomer; a journalist; a chemist; a sailor; a lawyer; a soldier; a priest. The usual, in other words. A favorite toy was my father’s old typewriter, the one he took with him to World War II (and which I took with me to college). I wrote a biography of my brother when I was six, and he was nine; I typed out a regular family newspaper.

I grew up in the affluent suburbs of Detroit, back when Detroit was at its peak. I was the smartest boy in my class, no mean feat given the competition; in the achievement tests we took at age 14, seven of us boys scored in the 99th percentile. There was one girl who got better grades than me; she became my high school sweetheart. (We’re still good friends.)

I first heard of the Jesuits, and their high school, when I was about ten, as part of a presentation on how our school taught science, at a teachers’ meeting being held at the local Jesuit high school. I was told that it was the best school in the city; I knew then that I would go there. In fact my brother started there three years before me, but he’d flunked out by the time I arrived. (“He knows many, many things, but none of them are on the syllabus.”)

I loved it. The first year was tough—it was not so much the shock of no longer being the smartest kid in the class, but the temptation to relax and use that as an excuse not to work hard. The Jesuits wouldn’t let me get away with that, however. They shamed me, cajoled me, and flattered me into academic excellence. By the time I was finished, at age seventeen, I had as good a background in the arts and humanities as most university undergraduates.

The Jesuit spirituality supplemented my mother’s Irish piety with a strong intellectual backbone. It was nothing new or unusual to me; the sisters who had taught me religion—and science—in my Catholic grade school were no slouches, either. But it was completely congruent with both my intellectual family background and the tenor of the times.

I graduated high school in 1970. I loved the Jesuits and their sense of what life in general was all about. I decided to attend a Jesuit university in Boston, Boston College, to stay close to them and maybe be available if I should decide to follow a religious vocation.

After my great high school experience, Boston College was a great disappointment. It was not intellectually challenging and, worse, it was part of the same narrow Catholic world that I was ready to go out beyond. Rather than repeat the story I have told too often of how I did not become a Jesuit then, let me merely state that what had attracted me to be a Jesuit was mostly the desire to get away from an unhappy situation; and I realized even then that it wasn’t a good enough reason. Instead, I transferred to MIT and studied planetary sciences.

Fast forward nearly twenty years. By 1988, I had my doctorate, several dozen scientific publications, a reputation for good (and bad) in my field, two years’ experience in Africa in the Peace Corps, and a job at a small university in Pennsylvania. I had also just turned in the manuscript of my first book, Turn Left at Orion. I had finally admitted to myself that my five-year attempt to make a relationship work with a woman I knew in Boston was beyond hope; and, to be honest, it was a relief to accept that and move on. But though I was as happy as I could ever have imagined myself… something was still incomplete in my life. I thought of my Turn Left co-author, Dan, married and delighted with two small children. And I realised that, wonderful as that was for him, it wasn’t for me.

Can I identify one moment when the sense of vocation came to me? I remember several, and I am not sure that any one of them was definitive. On the shore of Windermere in January, after I’d delivered my manuscript. At the apartment of a soon-to-be-married friend from my Peace Corps days. But I have also found reference to the possibility in a letter I wrote to my parents from Africa, two years earlier. So… no, there was no specific moment.

Was it something I was sure of from the beginning? Not at all… I worried about it for nearly two years, not even counting the two years of novitiate before taking first vows. I talked about it with everyone I knew… including women I had dated. I was stunned at the unanimous opinion of everyone in favour of me entering religious life. Including from friends who were atheists. Including women I had dated.

I came up with lots of rational reasons for and against. In retrospect, neither set turned out to be valid. It has not been what I expected. I never expected it to feel so right.

Was it always a question of becoming Jesuit? Or did you ever consider entering another order, becoming a diocesan priest (when the priesthood was still in your sights)… (more…)