MAHER: Reflection Soothes Souls
As This Jesuit Sees It...
Published: Thursday, March 29, 2012
Updated: Thursday, March 29, 2012 21:03
A wise Franciscan nun once counseled me that it is imperative to locate the oases of grace in your life and visit them regularly. She explained that we all know of places where the odds are good that we will brush up against God or, better, that we will allow God to brush up against us.
Over the years, I have found her advice to be solid, and I have located some dependable oases in my own life: Dahlgren Chapel during the 7:30 p.m. Mass, Broadway shows and the front porch of the Jesuit house in Cape May, N.J.
This semester, a new locale has been added to the list: the ICC 115 on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 3:30 and 4:45 p.m. That’s when my class, “Jesuit Education,” meets.
Creatures of habit, hard-wired to respond to the rhythm of ritual, we always begin class in the same way. Students filter in and arrange the 75 desks in a double-rowed open oval and settle into the gentle rumble of friendly conversation. I gather their attention, say a short prayer and read a poem, inviting any responses students might have. After a few minutes of limbering up through these shared moments, we are off and running.
Early in the semester, we read a poem titled “On Reading Poems to a Senior Class at South High” by D.C. Berry. In it, a teacher compares his classroom to an aquarium where he and his students are frozen fish who thaw as the room fills with the water of their conversation, a conversation that lingers after the students have left the classroom.
I have returned to that poem many times this semester as I have found that invariably, the discussion that unfolds in class each Tuesday and Thursday afternoon sticks with me and keeps expanding in my heart and mind long after class is over. There’s something about that class and its conversation that is, at least for me, oasis-like. It slakes a thirst that’s hard to define but that lies at the heart of what a Jesuit education is all about.
Some of it has to do with the subject matter. We talk every week about some of the most important questions people can ask: What do we make of God? Of evil? What about sin and grace and death? And the Church and prayer and justice? How do we understand our answers to all of that in the context of our Georgetown experience? How do we forge intellectual and effective connections between what we believe and how we live?
There’s a lot to chew on, but there’s more.
My discovery of an oasis in my class also has to do with the voices involved in the conversation, as well as the honesty and vulnerability with which they ask and answer questions. I’ve found that most Georgetown students are eager to engage in conversation about things of substance, including questions of ultimate meaning, with their peers and professors.
Recently, the class has been taken up by students giving short oral presentations entitled “When It Comes to God, I …” They have been engaging and often powerful. Following each class, students send email reactions to someone whose presentation somehow resonated with them.
These, too, are often powerful. One read in part, “I usually allocate a few short spaces to make notes during each reflection. For yours, my notes spilled into the border and across the page banner. I think the amount I had to write stems directly from the amount of thought you put into your reflection, as well as how much of it resonated with my own understanding of faith. ... I also think you’re absolutely right: To find a belief that resonates requires an intimate engagement with your own self. How that process occurs, I’m still unsure.”
How it occurs, of course, is through a life well lived. A life of action and reflection, trial and error, prayer and service, reading and conversation. And grace — lots of grace. That’s why it’s so important to be on the lookout for the sorts of oases my Franciscan friend mentioned. And why I’m so grateful to the students of “Jesuit Education.”
Fr. Ryan Maher, S.J., is a professor in the College. Fr. Schall, Fr. Maher and Fr. O’Brien alternate as the writers of AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT …, which appears every other Friday. Fr. Maher leaves to take a position at the University of Scranton at the end of the semester; this is the last column he will write for The Hoya.