A few months ago, a question circled the blogosphere: “Why are you Catholic?” A number of beautiful testimonies surfaced. I wanted to contribute, but I couldn’t quite articulate my story. Then, I came across a second question: “What does it mean to be Jesuit educated?”
I tried to answer each question multiple times; I started and stopped a number of explanations, unsatisfied with, what I later realized was only half of the story.
Five years ago I graduated from Gonzaga University, my first and only private school experience, and the birthplace of my adult faith.
I grew up in a household that was loosely religious. We went to church on major holidays and completed the sacraments, but we didn’t really know the tenants of the faith or what it felt like to pray as if your life depended on it (something I would later discover). My parents are wonderful people, compassionate in countless ways, but we didn’t share a family spirituality.
I didn’t know why people at church carried strands of beads. We didn’t pray before meals. I was pretty certain that the priesthood and religious life were only for really special people, and that it was normal to be half afraid, half in awe of anyone in clerics.
My high school years were a hotbed for religious inquiry and exploration. I was part of a non-denominational prayer group, an active member of Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and I dove headfirst into a number of books by spiritual mentors. I also participated in well-researched political discussion groups, and had a knack for math and science classes, particularly physics and environmental science. This is my first real memory of sitting in the tensions, trying to make sense of what appeared to be contradictory information.
Enter Gonzaga University. I ended up at Gonzaga by what could only be divine intervention. I had plans of going to college in Texas, studying architecture, marrying a cowboy and riding off into the sunset. I went to college in Washington, studied special education, became a writer and am still waiting for that cowboy, but that’s a conversation for a later post.
What matters from that decision is that it was not a decision I made without discernment. I had yet to “meet” St. Ignatius of Loyola, but the principles of consolation and desolation had already entered my life — likely in the form of “happys and crappys” from a youth group or two. I was curious what it would be like to go to a school founded by Jesuits (I had no idea what a Jesuit was) and rooted in the Catholic tradition. I experienced a profound peace — consolation — when I thought about studying at Gonzaga, a place I never visited until after I sent in my confirmation. In the fall of 2006, I became a Zag.
At Gonzaga, people my age went to Mass because they wanted to; their parents didn’t make them go. Friends in my dorm prayed before meals and joined praise and worship bands. Jesuit priests were not only available in the chapel, but they went running on campus, and they invited groups of students over for dinner. Organizations worked toward social justice and sustainability because they were central principles of what it meant to be Jesuit and Catholic, not just because it was the trendy thing to do.
Faculty members said “God” in the classroom and no one threatened their jobs. Many classes required service learning, a concept that reached beyond the volunteerism I previously knew. Debate was encouraged, reason was celebrated and science was seen as complimentary — not contradictory — to faith. We were immersed in the tension between a secular society and a deeply intellectual faith.
I went on an overnight pilgrimage to a sacred site, and, soon after, on a retreat with other freshmen. I joined faith-based groups and met people who were also interested in contemplative living. I realized Mass was offered everyday, not just on Sundays, and I prayed the Rosary. I met young men who were discerning the priesthood, and they were normal. I took a class from a Jesuit, and began to understand that different religious orders had different charisms, or ways of expressing themselves.
I started to understand that Catholicism wasn’t just an American thing. Certainly, we have an American (Roman) interpretation of Catholicism, but I began to see that the Church is much bigger than that. I took a class on African Catholicism and later followed in the footsteps of the saints and the Church fathers during a study abroad program in Rome. I realized the Church was big and there was room for everyone in it.
But things weren’t always easy. Later in college, my aunt and uncle went through a nasty divorce. We lost my grandmother unexpectedly. I was involved in two destructive relationships, one right after the other, followed by yet another where the intention was good, but the outcome and the timing broke both of our hearts. Friends left the church, and I went through a traumatic experience in the fall of my senior year. Everything I once knew and believed shattered.
My ideologies no longer fit in a tidy little box. Things were messy and painful and the struggle to stay faithful was real. I didn’t want to pray. I didn’t want to go to Mass. I didn’t want to believe. I had no idea how to reconcile my experiences and my choices with the Church and her teachings. I was ready to walk away from God — and, in large part, did. Yet, God didn’t walk away from me.
At the height of the worst moments, I walked into University Ministry and asked a priest, “What is spiritual direction?” Then, I told him, “I think you’re supposed to be my spiritual director.” By the grace of God, he agreed, and together, we began to unpack what I was going through.
Each week, he selected a part of the Mass for me to focus on. I was supposed to try as hard as I could to pay attention and pray through that part; I could zone out during the rest. It was the only way I kept going.
I fought with God in prayer and in my choices. I continued to live a dual life well past graduation that spring. One half involved good and holy choices and a pseudo, but believable, happiness. The other half involved a lot of numbing and questionable decisions.
By the time summer came to an end, I wanted to change, but I knew change would require drastic action.
So I moved to Rome.
I left Spokane, my head rich with knowledge of Jesuit tradition, social justice and all the reasons in the world why I should continue to believe in God. I also left Spokane with a deeply wounded heart, scarred by the decisions of fellow human beings and by those of my own choosing.
When I arrived in Rome, I walked the routes I had years prior in my study abroad program. I visited churches, notably Chiesa del Gesú and Sant’Ignazio, both of Jesuit origin. I met regularly with a priest at the Gregorian University and a friend in seminary at the North American College. I attended study groups at the Lay Center, where Jesuits often presented on topics of prayer, science and healing. I began to pray the Rosary again. I grew into the beginnings of an adult spirituality.
Slowly, steadily, I walked back into a life of faith, accepting the tensions I lived through and open to the tensions that would likely follow.
It was at that point, in the midst of great trial and the healing that followed, that I really began to understand what it meant to be Jesuit educated.
To be Jesuit educated is to have the tools and space necessary to work through the muck of life. It is about sitting in the tension and getting to the root of what is causing pain. It is about seeking peace through the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the ways in which we have hurt and been hurt.
To be Jesuit educated is to engage in the discernment of spirits in our daily lives and to seek the good — and the God — in each person we meet. To be Jesuit educated is to forgive and forgive and forgive.
To be Jesuit educated is to know that throughout our lives, things are going to challenge our beliefs, our trust, our understanding and the way we connect with spirituality.
To be Jesuit educated is to chase after, to long for and to dive into regular practices of intellectual and spiritual growth. To be Jesuit educated is to know we don’t have all the answers and to trust that God is there in the questions.
The past five years haven’t been a cakewalk. They, too, show periods of strong Catholic affiliation and periods of doubt. A recent experience nearly derailed my faith once again. But, the beauty of Ignatian discernment and an intellectual curiosity about the faith is that both provide the opportunity to continue to learn, grow and live through the tensions that will inevitably impact my life for years to come.
As Pope Francis said, “Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light.”
We live in a time of tension, a time when the Church is growing and asking tough questions of us. Are we ready to live out our faith in ways that demonstrate social justice, simplicity and an openness to change? The Jesuits taught me what it means to believe, what it means to forgive and what it means to be willing to grow intellectually, spiritually and holistically. They taught me that, in the face of trial and suffering, it is still possible to love and be loved.
I am Catholic because I am Jesuit educated.
Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.
Note: This post originally appeared on Medium.com as part of the #JesuitEducated collection.