To renew Jesuit education for the future, we should look to the foundational inspiration of St. Ignatius.

So, what is to be done? At Fairfield, we have turned back to our roots and traditions to seek an answer in the life of St. Ignatius. And I believe we have found an answer in the core tenet of Jesuit education — the practice of cura personalis, often translated as care of the whole person.

The idea is often simplified to mean developing our students in mind, body, and spirit, but to translate cura personalis this way is a bit misleading. It implies we simply give our students a “well-rounded” educational experience — a bit of study, mixed up with a bit of community building, and a little intramural basketball thrown in to keep them fit and healthy.

In truth, cura personalis describes a relationship, a kind of conversation. In terms of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius — the foundational document of the Society of Jesus — we talk about the “cura” in terms of a relationship of trust between a person who is on a spiritual retreat, and the spiritual director giving the retreat.

The one who is giving the retreat is no more than a guide who listens very carefully to the retreatant’s unique experiences and encourages them to become open to what their own hearts are telling them. In this context, cura personalis is a relational dynamic of trust, with an overarching belief that the Truth will rise in the heart of the one taking the retreat.

What, then, does cura personalis mean within the context of higher education? We must return to the story of St. Ignatius.

As a person, St. Ignatius was transformed from a rather despairing (some might say shallow and narcissistic) young man into a person of great compassion and utter dedication to the welfare of his fellow men and women. In effect, he discovered who he really was and what he really desired in the depth of his heart. This freed him to be an authentic human person.

How did that happen? In Ignatius’ own words, God “taught” him who he was. Every moment of his life following his wounding at the battle of Pamplona, Ignatius experienced himself as being under the tutelage of a Created World that was educating him, deliberately and personally, and guiding him to greater awareness.

Think how radical an experience this is — not the experience of one driven by his own needs and ambitions. Rather, it is a Created World — a “Divine Consciousness” that is reaching down personally from above to teach, to encourage, to expose Ignatius — and us — to broader visions, to give us strength and the tools we need to grow more fully into our humanity.

Jesuit pedagogy — the cura personalis within a Jesuit university — holds that this dynamic is true for every single one of us, whether we are aware of it or not. It holds that God is present in all things, and the desire in us to know is matched by a world that is coherent, and wants to be revealed to us.

“The Two Standards” is the most famous meditation in the Spiritual Exercises, in which the retreatant is asked to imagine two armies gathered on a great plain, with their flags and banners waving, preparing for battle. (Ignatius had been a soldier and he’d seen such things.) One Army is that of Lucifer, and the other is the Army of Christ. (Again, this scenario must be appreciated within the intellectual context of the 16th century; today we are free to understand these opposing forces more broadly.)

During the Exercises, the retreatant is asked to choose on which side he or she wants to fight — on the side of selfishness, riches, envy, deceit, or the side of compassion, humility, and kindness.

Within the context of Jesuit higher education we, in effect, ask our students to make this decision. We also strive to create a learning environment that is fundamentally an ongoing conversation of mutual trust between our students and their teachers, in which we hope to encourage our students to have some kind of revelatory experience of their own inner drive to become who they are — an experience analogous to that of Ignatius.

Dr. Paul Lakeland, our Aloysius P. Kelley Chair in Catholic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies, reframes the Two Standards this way:

It is “a choice between energies that promote the truly human in a world that is our home, and those that are in effect anti-human. Ignatius encourages us to use our imaginations to see beneath the surface of things, to see that the world is a site of decision-making, that we really cannot just absolve ourselves from the need to take sides. Will we side with the forces of good, with everything that supports human flourishing? Or will we side with the forces of evil, of all that is destined in the end to narrow and destroy the truth of human community and solidarity?”

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