Forever Altered

Jesuit education fomented in me a rebellious mind and spirit. It forever altered my frame of reference: introducing a Catholic boy who lived safe in the knowledge of good and evil to a catholic worldview that held that all things are gifts from God, and transforming a basically docile open-mindedness into a never-ending, critical search for truth. It is widely known that Jesuit high schools and universities seek to produce educated citizens who will succeed in the world and, in turn, use their success for the greater good. But surely this is only part of the story. In my case, Jesuit education has fostered the habit of being unsatisfied, providing a framework for turning flaccid and facile restlessness into a thirst for knowledge and meaning.

During adolescence I was inspired by an unsullied idealism; I believed that making a difference in the world meant rising above it. My Jesuit education taught quite the opposite: to make a difference in the world requires that we immerse ourselves in it. We may not be of the world but we are indisputably in it, and to make an impact demands a keen sense of the pragmatic and the practical. This lesson was first implanted in ninth-grade English with the redoubtable Father Nicholas Pope, wherein I learned to look askance at my flighty prose style, sorely in need of concrete grounding and, in his words, simply to "say what you mean." Jettison the fluff; get to the point.

A stern taskmaster, Father Pope was uniquely devoted to the practical, a word that to this day I associate with him. Once in class Joe Gilmore suddenly vomited, covering his desk and more than one of his classmates before sprinting out of the room in convulsions. Ever unflappable, Father Pope’s deadpan response was to glance off-handedly toward the inconvenience and mutter, "It seems we have a practical problem." Twenty minutes later Joe returned to the classroom, greeted by Father Pope’s unceremonious, "Now that you’re feeling better, Mr. Gilmore, please take your seat and help us finish diagraming the sentence on the board."

Pragmatism and practicality are necessary but not sufficient to the meaningful life; recognizing all things as divine gifts—perhaps especially those that feel most like setbacks—often requires imagination. Therefore, my Jesuit education impressed upon me, that I should expect to be wrong and should not shun uncertainty, a lesson poignantly instilled in me as a college freshman by Professor Thomasson’s course, "The Problem of God." Through a syllabus of readings in philosophy and theology, and through his lectures, the agnostic Thomasson launched a merciless assault on my belief system. He shook the foundations, repeatedly calling on me to ask myself questions I never thought to ask before: Does God exist? If so, how do I know? Why does it matter? The basis of the course was anathema to me—and deeply intriguing. Transforming unthinkable questions into indispensable inquiry, this course is a metaphor for the best kind of education: that which leaves us with a greater sense of what we don’t know. Without ever saying it, Thomasson drove home to me that the process of illuminating the mind demands that we confront our ignorance, sometimes painfully.

It is a well-known and oft-imparted bit of wisdom that all the knowledge in the world is as nothing without flesh-and-blood experience. During the course of my Jesuit education, a particular variation on that theme was deeply inculcated in me: relationships are paramount. Nurturing community nurtures oneself. From my high school work-study job in the Jesuit dining room—seeing priests in their home, off duty, with moods, in mufti—to my two years living in a Jesuit residence in Oxford—surrounded by a cast of characters that would have put Dickens to shame—I witnessed a panoply of men living out their vocation, imperfectly and individually, in friendship and dissension. Through it all, I observed and became part of relationships of an astounding variety, and the countercultural message took root: study, work and success are worthless without the steady underpinning of people who know you and with whom you can be yourself.

I was privileged to know the late Tim Healy, president of Georgetown University and head of the New York Public Library, a model of worldly success. Upon learning from a fellow Jesuit that I, an undergraduate whom he had never met, was struggling to make ends meet at Georgetown, with a few phone calls Tim made it possible for me to quit my two jobs and be free of financial worries during my senior year. "A guy shouldn’t have to choose between feeding his mind and feeding his belly," he quipped during our first conversation over the phone. "It’s your last year of college. Slow down, read everything, and enjoy your mates." Upon meeting him, I began stumbling all over myself thanking him profusely. He stopped me and said simply: "I’m happy to help. Now let’s forget all that and go about the business of becoming friends." No one knew better than Tim that money talked, but it was as an educator and a friend that he reached out to me.

At the core of all the lessons learned and truths imbued throughout the course of my Jesuit tutelage stands one belief: I am unique; I am loved. Many Jesuits have reached out to me, and many courses have reached into me. The result has been to raze facades and reinforce foundations, and to make me feel that I’m ever arriving and embarking at the same time.

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