Most readers would agree that reading a magazine is worthwhile if we learn just one new thing from every issue. In the present instance, I will spare you the anticipation by providing it right up front; it is not one new thing, in fact, but two. And these two things, which I’m guessing you don’t know, concern some of your favorite people: Jesuits.
The first thing you should know is that Jesuits are not as smart as we think we are. On second thought, maybe that is something you already know; but if that is the case, then in a way my thesis is affirmed.
The second thing you should know is that Jesuits are more devout, even pious, than you would ever suspect. All this merely affirms a joke my brothers and I liked to tell in philosophy studies: If you buy a Jesuit a drink, he’ll talk to you about anything. If you buy him two, he’ll talk to you about Jesus.
This is true enough, but not because Jesus is in any way an afterthought for us; the Jesuit, after all, is a member of the society that bears his name. That joke contains some element of truth precisely because the Jesuit’s relationship with Jesus is the most precious treasure he possesses; God in Jesus Christ is the one who is closest to our hearts.
And as you know, men often struggle to account for the affairs of the heart. Some people think that’s because men are unfeeling. In my experience, however, we feel very deeply. What we lack is the cultural permission to acknowledge our feelings.
On the other hand, Jesuits do have a common language of the heart. Every Jesuit, at least twice in his life, must undergo the complete Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, four weeks of intense, silent reflection and prayer. The Spiritual Exercises are a method of encounter with Jesus, one that reveals the purposes of the heart; the reason why we humans exist; the reason Christ entered human life; and why he suffered, died and rose again for the one and the many.
I mention this because when people talk about Jesuits, they often mention our training: the almost ridiculous number of classroom hours we log, the countless degrees we accumulate, the books written and articles edited. The training is long and rigorous, and the results are certainly impressive.
Yet that is what we are, not who we are. The most important part of our formation, far and away, is each man’s encounter with the Son of the living God in the Spiritual Exercises. There our cherished myths and narcissistic desires encounter the one who is pure giver and pure gift. In the Spiritual Exercises our false selves give way to our true selves under the onslaught of God’s overpowering grace.
We are left with nothing but the truth of who we are: sinners who are called by God. This is why, when Pope Francis was asked, “Who are you?” in the interview published in these pages in September 2013, he answered, “I am a sinner.”
This Lent we would all do well to remember that grace alone is the source of human freedom in every truly meaningful sense. Yet free to do what exactly? To launch forth into the deep, into the depths of our relationships with God and one another; to go forth and make disciples of all the nations; to raise up the lowly, to empower the powerless; to dream anew in the midst of despair; to live in the hope that while we are not now that which we once were, that which we are now, by the grace of God, is becoming a future of which we never even dared to dream.