The Small Envelope Meets Ignatian Spirituality

You’ve worked hard, really hard. You did extra hours of homework, you picked up the flute in addition to piano, you started playing tennis (on top of basketball), you took AP Chemistry, you gave up Saturdays for endless SAT prep, you deprived yourself of sleep so you could memorize hundreds of Latin roots: you did everything you could short of bringing peace to the Middle East, and still. It still wasn’t good enough for your dream school.

College admissions decisions are coming back, happiness communicated, literally, in a manner of inches. Disappointment spreads like a toxin as students confront the horrifying regular-sized envelope. After, perhaps, some momentary denial (“Maybe the enrollment paperwork is coming later!”), the envelope is torn open and the fullness of the rejection sets in. Teachers and parents try to console, offering empathy based in similar experiences, but no medicinal words unswell the sting. 

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However, this doesn’t mean we are left powerless, left to curse admissions officials and trash the shirts and trinkets emblazoned with the monogram of our childhood Eden. While no words can reverse the decision, they can offer a framework for keeping our wits together and for avoiding apocalyptic gloom. (Remember: the denial letter is not a diagnosis of terminal illness.) Turning to ancient wisdom becomes especially important, and almost a necessity, for teachers and students anchored in Catholic, Jesuit education.

Those of us who live and move within perspectives of discernment turn to faith for meaning, for perspective on the springs and winters of our lives. To be a person of faith means nothing less than that. And it is in our faith that we can find some hope beyond the heartbreak. What follows are some reflections for learning to love the small envelope.

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Life before adulthood trains us to believe that life proceeds along a nice little chain of cause and effect. So long as we engage in certain practices, certain benefits are — or should — follow. I do my homework, I study for the exam, I participate in class . . . I get an “A.” I show up early to practice, hit the weights, and listen to the coach . . . and then I get to start the playoff game.

Most of the time, this pattern of cause and effect holds. But sometimes it does not. We see this more as we get older, when we discover that waking up early and staying late is not always enough, that we can do everything we’re supposed to, including more than we’re supposed to, and what we expected does not happen. This can begin with college admissions, but envelopes of disappointment arrive in other ways. We can eat well and exercise and still contract disease. We can save and invest wisely and still find ourselves frantic for money. We can fix our eyes on the road and still end up with a broken arm because of another driver.

Learning that difficult truth often begins with college decisions. Though rejection sends teachers and students rushing for answers, often there is no satisfying explanation. Sometimes there is a clear reason (bad grades, an “F” from freshman year), but usually there is not. But this greeting from the unexpected can be a threshold moment in the life of faith. It can be a hidden invitation to consider a version of the future that may teem with more delight and excitement than we thought possible, a version of the future far more suited to our truest self.

When we say, “What happened? This doesn’t make sense!” we echo what many of our ancestors in faith endured as they encountered God. The news that Mary was to give birth to Jesus, the savior of the world, shocked her. She likely had a timeline in mind about marriage, children, and the variegated pleasures of family life. Gabriel’s arrival had the effect of a rejection letter: it altered expectations, her plans, and probably made her feel insecure and unprepared. Bewildered and fearful, Mary asked, “How can this be?” What she was saying was: How did this happen? I didn’t plan for this!

The life of St. Ignatius of Loyola offers another instructive example. Not long after his injury and conversion, St. Ignatius departed for Jerusalem. He had determined to remain there for a long time, visiting holy places and, in his words, “helping souls.” Ignatius, it is important to recall, longed to be there and felt truly called to be there. But at the time, it was an unstable place, and the Franciscans in charge of the Christian holy sites told him to leave. Ignatius was so stubborn that he was almost excommunicated. Eventually, he obeyed the Church officials and left.

He must have thought a lot like Mary at the Annunciation, and a lot like our students do when colleges deny them. On the ship back to Spain, he probably dwelled in insecurity and self-doubt, mesmerized that his long prayed-about plans had gone awry. He probably told himself, “This was not what I had in mind. I thought God wanted me in Jerusalem. Now what?” Of course, we know what the “now what” turned into: one of the greatest and most influential spiritual journeys in the history of Christianity. Four hundred and fifty years of Jesuit history later, the world is still blessed with the fruits of Ignatius’s rejection.

So, too, can it be with college admissions decisions. I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m not saying that God will suddenly make the future obvious. It’s never as simple as that. Opening ourselves to discernment does not give us powers of fortune-telling. In fact, it is usually just the opposite: we retreat into the beauty of mystery. Confusion still follows even when following God’s will. But somehow it is a confusion for which we are grateful, and gradually, like a work of art, the little touches of faith on our part merge into an extraordinary human picture that brings a happiness we could never have mapped, that we could never have guaranteed through stock market-like projections.

Going to the University of San Diego instead of Stanford may not seem momentous, but, if done with the right openness, it can be one small step toward freedom in faith. The freedom to let our lives be God’s project, not our own. To students who are frustrated, I tell you: I understand exactly what you’re going through, as do your parents and teachers. But use this time to listen more intensely than you ever have, to be more aware to where grace and life may lie. It worked for Mary, it worked for Ignatius and, I promise, it will work for you.

[The above was first published on April 3, 2013, at the original The Ignatian Educator site, with the title, "Learning to Love the Small Envelope: On Getting Rejected from Your Dream School."]

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