How does this spiritual vision get translated into an educational vision? The early Jesuits struggled to describe what they called “our way of proceeding.” Their accounts varied but it seems that they thought of their distinctive spirituality as a three-part process. It begins with paying attention to experience, moves to reflecting on its meaning, and ends in deciding how to act. Jesuit education, then, can be described in terms of three key movements:
1. Be Attentive
We learn by organizing our experience and appropriating it in the increasingly complex psychological structures by which we engage and make sense of our world. From infancy, learning is an active process but in our early years it happens without our being aware of it. Once we become adolescents, though, whether we will continue to learn is largely a choice we make.
Conscious learning begins by choosing to pay attention to our experience — our experience of our own inner lives and of the people and the world around us. When we do this, we notice a mixture of light and dark, ideas and feelings, things that give us joy and things that sadden us. It is a rich tapestry and it grows more complex the more we let it register on our awareness.
Ignatius was convinced that God deals directly with us in our experience. This conviction rested on his profound realization that God is “working” in every thing that exists. (This is why the spirit of Jesuit education is often described as “finding God in all things”). So, our intimate thoughts and feelings, our desires and our fears, our responses to the people and things around us are not just the accidental ebb and flow of our inner lives but rather the privileged moments through which God creates and sustains a unique relationship with each of us.
How do I pay attention? By observing, wondering, opening myself to what is new, allowing the reality of people and things to enter my consciousness on its own terms.
This is why Jesuit schools have traditionally emphasized liberal education, a core curriculum, and the arts and the humanities — studies that can enlarge our understanding of what it means to be human and make us more sympathetic to experiences different from our own. This happens outside the classroom too — for example, in service programs, when we enter into the lives of others. Referring to students engaged in working with the poor, Peter Hans Kolvenbach, the former Father General of Jesuits across the world, has said “When the heart is touched by direct experience, the mind may be challenged to change.” The key movement that begins this process of learning and change is paying attention.
2. Be Reflective
The outcome of paying attention to our experience may be a complex variety of images, unrelated insights, feelings that lead in contradictory directions. To connect the parts of our 1experience into a whole, we need to examine data, test evidence, clarify relationships, understand causes and implications, weigh options in light of their possible consequences. We need, that is, to see the patterns in our experience and grasp their significance. Reflection is the way we discover and compose the meaning of our experience.
Figuring out our experience can be an inward-looking activity — identifying our gifts and the future they point us towards or confronting the prejudices, fears, and shortcomings that prevent us from being the kind of people we want to be — but it can also mean looking outward — at the questions that philosophy and theology pose to us, at subjects like biology and finance and economics and the different ways they organize and interpret the world and help us understand ourselves. In either direction, the goal is the freedom that comes from knowing ourselves, understanding the world, and finding the direction that God is disclosing for our lives in and through our experience.
Reflection is a kind of reality-testing. It takes time and care. Ultimately, it is the work of intelligence, which is why Jesuit education has always emphasized intellectual excellence. There is no substitute for using the minds God gave us, to understand our experience and discover its meaning.
3. Be Loving
Being attentive is largely about us and how God is working in us through our experience. Being reflective moves our gaze outward, measuring our experience against the accumulated wisdom of the world. Being loving requires that we look even more closely at the world around us. It asks the question: How are we going to act in this world?
In part, this is a question about what we are going to do with the knowledge and self-understanding and freedom that we have appropriated by reflection. How shall we act in ways that are consistent with this new self and what it knows and values?
But we can’t move very far in the direction of answering this question without discovering that it is not only a question about how our lives can be authentic. It is also a question about our relationship to the world around us and what the world needs us to do. We are not solitary creatures. From the womb, we live in relationships with others, grow up in cultural, social, and political institutions that others have created for us. To be human is to find our place in these relationships and these institutions, to take responsibility for them, to contribute to nurturing and improving them, to give something back.
We can understand this in quite secular terms if we choose to, but through the eyes of faith there is an even more compelling reason for thinking and living this way. Ignatius ends his Spiritual Exercises with a consideration of love. For him growing in love is the whole point of the spiritual life. He suggests two principles to help us understand love. One is that love shows itself more by deeds than by words. Action is what counts, not talk and promises. This is why Jesuit education is incomplete unless it produces men and women who will do something with their gifts.
More profoundly, Ignatius says that love consists in communication. One who loves communicates what he or she has with another. Thus, lovers desire each other’s good, give what they have to one another, share themselves.
It is easy to see this communication in two people in love. For Ignatius, however, love was most dramatically evident in the relationship that God has with human beings. Two examples of this are central in the Exercises. First, God creates the world and gives life to everything in it. People and things come into existence because God communicates God’s own self to them. And God continues working in each person and thing in its own specific reality and at every moment. God keeps wanting to be in relationship with us, even when we fail to respond. Second, surpassing even the gift of creation is the gift God has given us in the person of Jesus. God’s taking on our human nature in order to heal our brokenness is the ultimate evidence of God’s love for us. Jesus’ life and death are, for Ignatius, the model of how to love in return.
If every human being is so loved by God, then our loving relationships do not stop with the special people we choose to love, or with our families, or with the social class or ethnic group we belong to. We are potentially in love with the whole world.
So, for Jesuit education, it is not enough to live authentically in the world. We have to participate in the transformation of the world (the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam conveys the same idea, of mending or repairing the world). For more than four hundred years, it has been said that Jesuit education educated “the whole person.” Today, we live with an increasingly global sense of what it means to be human. A person can’t be considered “whole” without an educated solidarity with other human beings in their hopes and fears and especially in their needs. We can’t pay attention to our experience and reflect on it without realizing how our own lives are connected with the dreams of all those with whom we share the journey of human existence, and therefore with the economic, political, and social realities that support or frustrate their dreams. This is why Jesuit education is so often said to produce “men and women for others.”