Strategic Conversations at Fairfield: Discernment

Submitted by Mike Moritz '11 on May 11, 2011

As a Jesuit institution, Fairfield University seeks to encourage student reflection on some of life’s biggest questions – Who am I? Whose am I? Who am I called to be? – questions that reverberate throughout religion and philosophy classes as well as in living and learning communities. This practice of aligning one’s sense of self with one’s decisions and actions was the topic at hand when a quartet of panelists addressed a crowd of faculty and staff on Wednesday, April 28th in the Dolan School of Business. The discussion, entitled “Strategic Conversations: Discernment,” featured:

Moderated by Dr. Paul Lakeland, the conversation began with the 4 panelists weighing in on their personal reflections and experiences with discernment, followed by an open discussion with the audience.

Lakeland defined discernment as “the learned process by which a person explores the inner promptings of her heart in relationship to the practices and decisions of daily life. It is a method for discovering what course of action or way of life is truly compatible with our inner selves…We employ it so that our choices will be fully authentic.”

Raising an intriguing point about the Jesuit principles during his speech, Lakeland asked the audience how students and even educators of different backgrounds can come to embrace and understand this tradition. He also referenced a key meditation in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises called “A Meditation on the Two Standards,” which says that we must get to know the world in all of its complexity – the good and the bad; once we can define the world, then we must find our place in it.

Following Lakeland was Dr. Nancy Dallavalle, Professor of Religious Studies, who spoke about discernment on a broader level. She pointed out that the main problem that we face when discerning in life is the many choices that we must make on an every day basis. We must learn the art of taking up good habits and being consistent with those habits. Dallavalle advised the audience to be radical in their discernment, and to move with God through the air as opposed to being rooted in the ground.

The third panelist, Rama Sudhakar, Vice President of Marketing and Communications, talked about 6 instances in her life in which she discerned. A majority of these instances dealt with her Indian heritage and the transition she had to make when moving to the U.S. The most important of these was the last, when she came to work at Fairfield. She came prepared to do her best and support Jesuit education even though she was a Hindu. It turned out to be an eye-opening moment for her. She realized that even though she was not a Catholic, she could certainly support the Catholic tradition as she shared many of the same values and beliefs.

Chris Staysniak ’10 was the final panelist to speak at the event. Staysniak was significantly younger than the other 3 panelists, and his talk inspired a few laughs as it provided the audience with the viewpoint of a recent Fairfield graduate. While practically everyone in the room could remember what it was like to be in college, not everyone experienced that life stage in a Jesuit institution. Staysniak raised a good point by saying that the task of balancing classes with social pressures involving alcohol – all in the midst of having to answer the 3 Ignatian questions – was not necessarily easy. Aside from asking these questions, the idea of discernment on campus goes largely unexplained. There is no higher power on campus that is going to tell a student that they are in a moment of “discernment.” Students must come to realize this for themselves, and apply what they have learned about themselves as their lives unfold. Staysniak felt that the concept and definition of discernment on campus need to become more prevalent.

After Staysniak spoke, the talk moved in the direction of the audience and faculty sharing their own experiences with discernment or suggesting ways in which we can make discernment more of a focus on campus. Rev. James Bowler, S.J., University Facilitator for Catholic and Jesuit Mission and Identity, suggested that the Ignatian question “Whose am I?” takes freedom away from students as they are forced to think of themselves as belonging to someone else. Dallavalle responded that God gives us ultimate freedom, and students should find comfort knowing that God is merciful.

As a senior at Fairfield, I found this lecture and discussion unlike any I have attended on campus before. After learning so much more about what discernment is, I can say that I have discerned throughout my college career, but have many more opportunities to do so in life as I find a place for myself in the world beyond college.

Perhaps because I am closest to him in age, I found Staysniak’s arguments to be the easiest to follow and thought he made some sound points about discernment on campus. Had I not gone to this discussion, I would not have known that I have discerned throughout college and also would not have known that this is a big focus for the university, which is why I think more students should be required to go to events like this. The faculty is not going to learn best from each other; they are going to learn how to be more effective from a first-hand account of the students.

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