Academia

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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Dominic Robinson SJ, Superior, Mount Street Jesuit Centre

The Mount Street Jesuit Centre, attached to the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Farm Street, is an extraordinary place. When the parish was founded in 1849, Farm Street was an obscure location: a safe, out-of-the-way site for a new Jesuit community in hostile times. Now the Centre is a living contradiction: a witness to apostolic poverty, Christian hospitality and social justice, right opposite the Connaught Hotel at the heart of opulent Mayfair.

But the Centre’s importance to Jesuit life in the UK is more than symbolic. In addition to its pastoral, spiritual and cultural programmes, it houses the offices of the British Province of the Society of Jesus, the London Jesuit Volunteers and Jesuit Media Initiatives (which created the Ignatian podcast Pray as you Go). 

The current superior of the Mount Street community is Fr Dominic Robinson SJ, lecturer in systematic and pastoral theology at Heythrop College and interim Chair of Churches Together Westminster. He kindly agreed to meet with me to explain something of his mission and his personal sense of vocation to the priesthood.

Dominic RobinsonWhen and how did you feel the call to join the priesthood?

I felt the call first at about the age of fourteen, I suppose, and I felt it where I was growing up. I grew up in—I suppose in a fairly typical Catholic parish in the North-West. I’m a cradle Catholic. In the 1970s and early 1980s the parish was very much your community, if you like. You had a really strong sense of community there. There were a number of priests in the parish as well, diocesan priests, and I very much appreciated who they were: as good people, as kind people, as men who really wanted to serve and to bring the best out of people, and who spoke of the gospel and spoke of God. And it made a lot of sense. So that first attraction, I suppose, to priesthood came there. I thought about different other things I could do, you know—I was certainly interested in politics, interested in law, I had academic interests—history, for example. I was at a school run by another religious order from the Jesuits: the Augustinians, and that was a very good school, a very good experience with the religious community who ran the school.

Well, I went to university and there were several other options. I had a wonderful experience at St. Andrews, and a real broadening experience as well of people of no faith, I suppose, and friends who had no faith. I was involved in debating, for example, at St. Andrews, so those sorts of issues to do with faith and the contribution of faith to society and culture. It was a very strong Catholic chaplaincy, and I suspect that without that I might not have even kept on practising the faith. I think it was really good to have a strong sense of community which emerged from the Catholic chaplaincy there. There was a community of religious sisters there, the Assumption Sisters, who welcomed students in. You could be yourself—you could explore your growing development, growing maturity. There were people whom you could trust and speak to in confidence, etc.; social life and prayer life and community life came together. It makes me realise just how important university chaplaincy ministry is. So we also at St. Andrews were very grateful to have two Ignatian Retreats in Daily Life there: the Spiritual Exercises in Daily Life with Gerry W. Hughes, who died recently, of course, just a couple of weeks ago—we had his funeral here at Farm Street. So Gerry W. Hughes came up to St. Andrews, and I remember that there was a huge room of about 100-150 people who came to the initial meeting. I did two Retreats in Daily Life at St. Andrews and I ended up getting in touch with the Jesuits and became a candidate for the Society, went to the candidates’ programme and then I decided, at the age of twenty-three, I would take the plunge, as it were.

I remember meeting a priest when I was a teenager who gave me very good advice, I think, and he said: If you’re thinking about vocation, it’s important to discern. And so discernment is really the key. But it’s also important not to put it off, as well, if you feel that this is something you know is something you want to commit yourself to, something which you must do. And I felt that to some extent: that, looking at the pros and cons of entering into a lifelong commitment to poverty, chastity and obedience in this Society of Jesus where, as it was sold at the time, varied works of a unique spirit—which really attracted me, I think, as well. And the advice from him, from this very wise priest, I seem to remember, was: Well, take the plunge. You have to take the plunge. So I did, and I think that was good for me—I think it was good. So I would advise anyone who feels not sure about whether I’m called to this, whether I’m called to another profession, whether I’m called to marriage, whether I’m called to diocesan priesthood or to a religious order, at some point to take the plunge. So that’s what I did, and I think there’s a sense in which you have to trust in that, and thank God—God was faithful, and it worked.

Were you drawn to any particular ministry on entering the Society? Did anything particularly attract you: chaplaincy, for example, or mission work? Or were you open to whatever developed? 

I suppose I was always interested in education. I was quite interested in theology at the time, and so I was interested in doing further studies in theology anyway. What attracted me to the Jesuits, though, was this experience of Ignatian spirituality, where I discovered this call to find God in the facts, to find God in ordinary life and on a daily basis to reflect on the presence of God in my life and the presence of God in the world. So connecting up the dots of religion of my Catholic faith and of the world around me. I somehow knew that that was important. I think I knew that I wasn’t called to monastic life; I couldn’t do that. I wasn’t called especially to what would be the work of a diocesan priest, which is a wonderful gift of parish ministry for the whole of your life—in different communities for the whole of your life—which in one sense seems attractive, but I kind of wanted something more. I wanted more of a diversity. I wanted to use gifts of teaching and spiritual accompaniment, I suppose. At the time I didn’t really think about community life—I didn’t think about the possibility of living on your own, and loneliness, and that kind of thing. I didn’t think of that. But in hindsight…I suppose you do this subconsciously as well—at least, that’s my analysis of it when I look back—that you recognise…that I was also quite happy with the idea of living in community, and felt that that was something I could do, which would be good for me. I realise now that community life is something which also attracted me, even subconsciously, to the Society, and I couldn’t imagine now not feeling that community was part of my vocation and central to my Jesuit vocation.

As you say, when you were growing up, your parish had several priests; now, that’s very rare. But community is not so alien to the diocesan priesthood in principle, is it?

I think that’s an interesting question, actually. Well, I can’t speak for the diocesan priest, but the diocesan priests I know wouldn’t look at it from the point of view of: “either I’m interested in community, or I want to be on my own”. The community of the diocesan priest as I see it—and I stand corrected on this—is the parish. It is the people who are in the parish.

I had a wonderful experience when I was living in Rome, of community in a parish, with a diocesan priest who really knew his community very well. He’d be out for dinner most nights of the week, which is fantastic in an Italian parish. In Italian culture, the priests are invited into the house; they don’t even need to go knocking on doors. They’re invited in every night for meals, and that’s just how it works. You get to know people really well, and that came out in his homilies. We were going in, as young Jesuits, on Sunday mornings to go and hear confessions, and in the confessions you just got a sense of what Don Silvio was saying in his homily. He really touched peoples lives, because he understood where they were.

So it seems to me the parish priest—whether it’s a religious or a diocesan priest—has as his community the whole parish, and the idea is to get to know them. He’s the centre of the community. For a Jesuit it’s slightly different. If you’re working in a parish you have that, but you also have your religious community who share your life; who are your companions. And we are all different as Jesuits; we are all radically different sometimes, it would seem, and we need that more—intimate would be the word—sharing with each other. I think it can happen in different ways. It usually happens in a Jesuit community over the dinner table or over a drink—a community social—but it also happens when we come together to pray, which is really important as a Jesuit community: that we come together for Mass, to share bread together, share the Eucharist, and also to just be in silent prayer sometimes as well with each other. There is that special intimacy of knowing that we’re living roughly the same life, bringing the same charisms, and trying to allow God in so that God can show us where he’s at work in the world, where he’s at work in the ministry we do to those outside. But I suppose it starts within us, because hopefully, as Jesuits…we’re a funny mix sometimes. We’re naturally introspective: we do two thirty-day silent retreats in our lifetime. But our introspection is not an introspection which tries to find God within us. We find God in the facts, as Gerry Hughes put it; we find God outside there, and so we need that conversation. We need what Pierre Favre would have modelled—one of the first companions of Ignatius—I’m a great fan of Pierre Favre—we need that…on one level, just normal conversation about the things of God. And we find that within Jesuit community, I think, between each other, even if it doesn’t seem so at times; even if it just seems, well…You come to dinner in a Jesuit community and people expect there might be some kind of big academic discussion or whatever going on, and people are surprised, you know, which is a bit mad; but in fact we’re just talking about what’s happened in the news that day, or about a meeting which we’ve got about something that’s happening in the diocese, or films somebody’s seen. But the conversation we have within the community also is a way of actually impacting on our own relationship with God. It’s not rocket science; it’s not something which is specific to Ignatius and to Jesuits, but it’s something which I think our spirituality is about.

Could you talk me through some of the spiritual relationships within a Jesuit community: for example, the hearing of confessions, spiritual direction…Are these things that the members of the community do for each other?  (more…)

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.

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.

Author Q&A: William O’Malley SJ (The Fifth Week)

William O’Malley is a professor of theology at Matteo Ricci College, Seattle University. His books include Why be Catholic?, Meeting the Living God and Building Your Own Conscience. For my review of his Jesuit classic The Fifth Week, click here.

What do your writing days look like?

Depends if I’m teaching and how many classes. Two—nothing except Saturdays. One, maybe morning or afternoon. Summer, daily, except Sundays—and I stop at dinner every day. Otherwise you lose perspective. The point is, I can’t not write.

If you were writing The Fifth Week now, who would be your Jesuits of the Present?

Famous? Jim Martin, Bob Drinan , Arrupe, Greg Boyle of Homeboys, Jack Halligan, Bill Cain the film director.

Do people still ask whether you’ve never gotten laid?*

Psst! I’m 83! And wrinkled as an albino California raisin.

Which book would you recommend to readers who want to know more about the Jesuits?

John O’Malley (no relation): The First Jesuits.

Sum up the Jesuit identity in five words or less.

Gospel, Exercises, humanity, adaptability, forgiveness.

What is your favourite text by St. Ignatius?

There’s only one that counts.

* Cf. The Fifth Week, p. 183

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…)