10 Things I Learned From the Jesuits
I'm about to turn 50, and upon reaching that milestone something has become clear: Everything I need to know I learned from the Jesuits.
I went to school at Georgetown Prep in Maryland, an institution which this year celebrates it's 225th anniversary. The school was founded by John Carroll, the first American Catholic bishop, in 1789. His "Academy on the Potowmack" would become both Georgetown Prep and Georgetown University.
Of course, no organization, person, or denomination is perfect. After centuries of service after their founding by Ignatius Loyola in 1534, including some bold anti-Communism, the Society of Jesus was infected with the fever of Marxism in the 1960s. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Jesuits seemed to reengage with reality. Pope Francis, the first Jesuit Pope, has even distanced himself from communism.
And on some fundamental things that make for a good life, what I learned from the Jesuits has been incredibly durable, even timeless.
1. Find God in all things. This motto is probably the biggest gift I received from the Jesuits. Secularists strain to appreciate the holy in things, even when they are starring at a wondrous star-filled sky. And even Christian denominations can nitpick about what is holy and what isn't. To the Jesuits God can be found in all things (aside from the demonic, of course), from the Eucharist to U2. To live life with a sense of wonder is a remarkable gift.
2. Shake a man's hand and look him in the eye. More than 30 years after graduating from Prep in 1983, it will amaze me how poorly the rest of the world is trained in basic manners. When you meet someone for the first time, the proper response isn't to offer a wet-noodle half-shake and a "Hey man." You shake the man's hand. You look him in the eye.
3. Dress right. I had a dispiriting experience a couple years ago, when a kid from the neighborhood showed up at my door. It was his prom night, and he didn't know how to tie a tie. To not know how to tie a tie, and to not have a standard Navy blue blazer in your closet ready for all occasions, is like not being toilet trained. You'll never have a doubt about how to dress again; if the event is somewhat ambiguous -- a neighborhood cocktail party, the homecoming game -- you just toss on the old blazer and you're good to go.
4. Same-sex education works better. It should be considered common sense that when young men are at the height of their hormonal cyclone, they will probably learn better if they are not distracted by the opposite sex. It's also not a bad thing to have boys inculcated with the idea that women are strange, mysterious, and wonderful creatures. Liberal might say that this shields them from reality, but as with so much else in Catholicism, it's actually a doorway into the genuine reality of our supernatural souls.
5. Have an extracurricular activity. Any extracurricular activity. "We have them for eight hours, you have them for eight." These were the words of the headmaster of Georgetown Prep to our parents before my freshman year in 1979. Classes ended at 2:37, but we were required to stay on campus until five, when the busses left. This was to encourage us to get involved in an extracurricular activity. It could be anything -- football, photography, doing homework, and painting. The message was that life is about more than just work and getting ahead. It was also about the joy of sports, or of creativity. It's about forming a habit of lifelong learning. Again: Finding God in all things.
6. It's OK to have a good time. Catholic guys like to have a good time. We drink. We wrestle. We (politely) chase women. Occasionally, there is an arrest. Yet we were taught to keep revelry in its proper place. While a lot of people when I was in school in the 1980s were getting high or drunk to try and reach some unattainable transcendence, a heaven here on earth (and truth be told I was one of them), we learned that the reason we are occasionally unserious is that ultimately God is in charge. The authority on this subject is the great retired Georgetown University Jesuit Fr. James V. Schall. When your rowdiness is under the authority of God, it becomes a healthy and important affirmation of our creatureliness, not a pathway to nirvana.
7. Learn the art of conversation. Jesuits are the intellectuals of the Catholic Church, and that is manifest in their mastery of conversation. In high school we took speech and debate class, and outside of class a facility with language was admired. My favorite teacher from Georgetown Prep, Fr. Greg Hartley, who died in 2005, was a brilliant conversationalist. I could spend an hour talking to him, whether in person, in writing or on the phone. Mitchell Kalpakgian, a professor of Humanities at Wyoming Catholic College, described this well: "True conversation is not gossip, babble, or the mere exchange of information. Like other purely liberal activities enjoyed for their own sake, conversation encourages the lighthearted, spontaneous play of minds that enjoy the company of others in the round of talk that gracefully jumps from topic to topic in no regular order and moves easily from the comic to the serious, from the ideal to the practical, and from the factual to the anecdotal. Conversation requires no agenda and no Robert's Rules of Order. Where genuine conversation flourishes, wit, banter, and repartee fill the air; ideas are exchanged and clarified; and wisdom and prudence conveyed. Conversation expands the heart, nourishes the mind, and refreshes the spirit, for man by nature is a social animal who desires to know. While news outlets and information highways relay facts and events, they do not cultivate the common sense, perennial wisdom, or self-knowledge that the art of conversation does."
8. Be a "Man for others." Jesus is the guide. To live a life of kenosis, of emptying yourself for others as Jesus did, is the paradoxical way to happiness.
9. Jesuit friendships last. I see my old classmates, or "brothers" (and Jesuits were calling everybody brother long before the 1960s) not only at reunions, but at life milestones, like the impending turn to 50. When I had to deal with a serious illness a few years ago, the first five calls I got were from former Georgetown Prep classmates offering help. One of them drove over to the house with beer and cookies, and, after talking for a couple hours, spent fifteen minutes imitating an old teacher until I was a pile of spent laughter on the floor.
10. Above all, mercy. Pope Francis is becoming known as the mercy pope. This is probably the thing that is most missing in the world. The wrong opinion expressed online launches an army of Internet attackers, who don't stop even after retraction or rebuttal. The fairly innocent Playboy magazines that my Prep buddies and I snuck looks at have become the punitive, merciless violence of modern pornography. Jesuits are especially good at showing mercy towards their own. I've been known to sometimes go on tears about how the Jesuits almost lost their charism chasing liberation theology, a form of Marxism, in the 1960s. I even wrote a book about it.
The last time I did this was when my high school friends and I were making plans for the party to celebrate us all hitting 50. I wrapped up my jeremiad, and one of them just looked at me and smiled. "Go easy, Pope Judge" he said. Then he recommended a book by a great Jesuit.