Fr. Ryan Maher, S.J., an associate dean in the College from 2001 to 2012, taught me about a particular mission of Jesuit education. In his role as a dean, he didn’t color inside the lines or stick to the script of narrowly construed academic advising. His question to you, the student, was invariably, “How do you feel about who you are becoming, here and now?”
He saw you as inhabiting a larger space than your role as a student alone; he saw you in your wholeness.
I was privileged to audit his course, “Jesuit Education.” He began each class with this prayer: “Blessed are You, Lord God of all creation, for in Your goodness You have given us life and freedom. We thank You for the gift of our Georgetown experience which is shaping us even at this very moment. Help us learn; help us know what You would have us know. Blessed by God forever.”
I am not a religious person, and I am acutely aware that this is a prayer offered from Fr. Maher’s deeply held faith, so I wish to speak carefully about what I find provocative about it. As the prayer is spoken, it evokes the immediate moment of promise in this class today for the professor and students assembled. The prayer joins the professor and students in one voice. “Help us learn; help us know what You would have us know.”
Fr. Maher’s prayer evokes for us the full potential for learning that each class holds. Faculty teach you content and skills, impart knowledge, and develop your competencies. But our educational mission is also charged with your character development and maturation — with your formation and who you are becoming.
Students reveal the pressures they feel from every direction when they talk with me about their academic choices. I witness that your future weighs heavily in your criteria for decision making. Is your education preparing you for the job market — that’s the dominant theme in these challenging economic times. While I reassure you that your liberal arts education is good preparation, I know that we — provost, deans, faculty — also feel the urgency of this pragmatic question. I may try to pry you loose from decisions that appear to be driven by external utilitarian reasoning alone. Your future does not demand yet another internship, more statistics, an additional minor or certificate. My mantra with seniors is “simplify.” Let’s note how dropping your minor may open up more generous possibilities for learning. “Help us know what You would have us know.”
Do we imagine God bothers to hold an opinion about whether to major in economics or art history? Whether I get a job interview with Google, or a GUROP summer grant to do RISE research for my biology professor? Rather, He asks the question of am I a good son, a good brother? Do I help my friend prepare for a calculus exam, taking time from my own studies? Am I troubled by what I am learning in my poverty class? Is there something I should be doing about the social order and my place in it? At home? Here? Off campus? Globally? Do I talk with others about my thoughts? Who among my acquaintances are real intimates? Can I trust that I will be heard and not judged? Do I listen and not judge?
Once we stretch to imagine what a higher power might want us to know, we force ourselves to move outside our personal ambitions —- those of our parents for us, those of our materialist culture’s expectations —- and we struggle for footing in territory as vast as the whole of our lives.
Our imagination takes us outside ourselves — is there a Being who has a purpose for us? Have we any way to know that purpose? If one is studying (or working) in an institution that takes religious questions seriously, then regardless of one’s belief system, we are invited to engage in these questions of being and purpose.
Fr. Maher asked his students each day of class, what are you doing and why are you doing it? Let’s be present for one another, let’s be open, let’s go deep. Rather than yet another voice in our heads that nags and worries about the future — a conversation we conduct internally too many hours of the day — his prayer is an invitation, a gift. And it’s a marker of a Jesuit education.
Anne Sullivan, a senior associate dean at Georgetown College, is one of the alternating writers for The Dean’s Desk, which will appear throughout 2015. Next month, Sullivan will retire from her position after 43 years at Georgetown.
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