This Summer: Read Slowly, Spiritually

Ever since I was a kid, I have looked forward to the summer as a time to catch up on reading books for fun. But in recent years, necessary reading for work and study have made it more difficult for me to make the time for a growing pile of books recommended to me by friends and family. This summer, I hope to reverse this trend and enjoy some fiction, both classic texts that I have never tried and some contemporary favorites on popular year-end Top 10 lists.

This summer I hope to enjoy some fun reading that has piled up in recent years. Are you looking forward to spending time with any texts this summer?

But reading does not have to be exclusively a professional obligation or a relaxing outlet. Reading can actually be a way to grow in spiritual knowledge, self-discovery, and action for justice, all of which are especially needed these days as we continue to confront the uncertainty of the pandemic.

In his book Discernment, the trusted spiritual writer and teacher Henri Nouwen describes the multiple ways that we can read the texts of the world, ourselves, and the Transcendent. According to Nouwen, the books that we need to read to grow in spiritual discernment include the books of nature, sacred texts, events, persons (both living and historical), and social injustices. By reading these “books” not for intellectual comprehension but for personal transformation, we can more easily allow ourselves to be moved by God within the signs of our daily lives. This type of spiritual reading requires that we read slowly and patiently, not as consumers of information but as people on a long journey of interior and communal growth.

In the case of spiritual reading, Nouwen defines this practice in contrast to the standard approach of digesting a text:

Reading often means gathering information, acquiring new insight and knowledge, and mastering a new field. It can lead to degrees, diplomas, and certificates. Spiritual reading, however, is different. It means not simply reading about spiritual things but also reading about spiritual things in a spiritual way. That requires a willingness not just to read but to be read, not just to master but to be mastered by words.

Acquiring this spiritual knowledge invites us to read more with our hearts than with our heads. It means allowing ourselves to read words slowly, becoming attentive to how the words on a page make us feel and potentially move us to make meaning of the world. This approach requires frequent pauses and suspension of the natural instinct to rush along, thinking about what might come next. It is ultimately a sacred process in which we listen for the movement of the Spirit within us as we go along.

 A view of nature just outside of our front door. Henri Nouwen invites us to read nature spiritually. As you spend time in the natural environment, do you reflect more deeply on the grandeur of trees, plants, and natural life?

So, this summer I invite you, as you are able, to read spiritually. You might select a favorite poem, a passage from a sacred text in your religious tradition, daily reflection offered by a spiritual writer, or even a news article or commentary about some of the social injustices that this pandemic has brought more clearly to the surface. Whatever you choose, I suggest the following simple steps:

  • Read the entire passage at once. Take a pause.
  • Slowly read each word of the passage until you reach the end. Take a pause.
  • Slowly read each word or short phrase of the passage. Take a pause. And then allow yourself to sink deeper and deeper into the words. What are you hearing? What are you feeling as you savor the words? Are there any new insights about yourself, yourself in relationship to others, yourself in relationship to God? Are you feeling moved to act in some way?  
  • After you’ve spiritually read through the entire passage, take some time for silence to allow yourself to listen to whatever it is that you hear interiorly.

As a taste of this way of proceeding, I offer below one of my favorite poems, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” by the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;

Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —

Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

What Are We Learning from Students about Effective, Mission-Driven Teaching During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

A hallmark of Jesuit education is a commitment to a style of teaching, known as Ignatian Pedagogy, which emphasizes the personalization of learning, the social context in which learning occurs, and the ultimate goals of education: serving each other and the common good. The paradigm of Ignatian Pedagogy, which flows from Jesuit spirituality and features a dynamic inter-play of the five stages of Context-Experience-Reflection-Action-Evaluation, is not a rigid one-size fits all manual for teaching but rather a spur to deeper consideration of students as whole persons in the learning process. The paradigm’s often overlooked fifth stage, evaluation, offers all of us at Georgetown an opportunity to comprehensively reflect on what we have learned from our teaching and working during the last two months so that we might proceed with a better understanding for how to more effectively journey together as we meet the challenges before us.

Taken from “Ignatian Pedagogy: An Abridged Version,” Ignatian Pedagogy is five inter-related stages and ends with evaluation. How are we evaluating the experience of teaching and learning in the pandemic?

This year’s Teaching Learning and Innovation Summer Institute (TLISI) conference, an annual conference hosted by the Center for New Designs in Learning & Scholarship after spring semester ends, provided rich opportunities to more deeply evaluate what we learned from educating in the virtual environment from March to May. TLISI is always an engaging experience of cross-campus, peer-to-peer sharing, and SCS has contributed significantly to the conference in the past few years, offering a number of mission-related sessions (including here, here, and here). Two panels stood out at this year’s all-virtual conference: one session led by students and another session led by Georgetown’s Deans.

This year’s TLISI conference offered several opportunities to reflect on what worked and what didn’t in our teaching, working, and learning at Georgetown in the final months of the spring semester.

Evaluation, in the context of Ignatian Pedagogy, needs to be understood as broader and deeper than simply assigning a numerical score for performance. Rather, evaluation in the Ignatian style involves taking a deep look at how teaching encouraged “fuller human growth” beyond simple “academic mastery.”  Did this learning experience foster opportunities for “further reflection” beyond simply transmitting knowledge or skills?  I was so heartened to hear a range of student voices reflecting on what worked and what didn’t in their virtual learning. These insights, some of which I summarize below, provide important reminders about how much traditional methods of teaching need to adjust to this unprecedented moment:

  • One-on-one faculty engagement with students matters now more than ever. Students reported that their sense of belonging and community deepened when faculty members reached out to check in on them. A relationship of trust between teacher and student helped learners stay connected to the content of their courses.  This one-on-one commitment also reinforced a sense of solidarity and mutuality between students and faculty during a time of crisis.
  • Faculty conducting virtual classes need to mix up their learning activities and provide space for students to actively engage the subject matter and each other. 20 or 30 minutes is probably the maximum time a student can sit through a synchronous class session without being invited to share a reflection, ask a question, or actively explore the class material. Students shared that they were more likely to stay engaged if they were drawn into active participation by faculty. The students also emphasized that flexibility is crucial as some students might not be as disposed to participate actively in class due to adverse conditions in their home learning environments.  

The panel of Georgetown deans offered similar insights as they shared lessons learned from managing their organizations during this time. While each school operates in its own unique context and faces different challenges and opportunities, the panel reflected many things held in common. The deans emphasized several shared themes about the need in this time of crisis to:

  • Deliver clear and well-coordinated communications to their students, staff, and faculty.
  • Cultivate structures of community (amongst faculty, staff, and student groups) in which the bonds of personal and communal connection can help withstand feelings of dislocation and separation through self-growth opportunities like the SCS Daily Digital Meditations.
  • Embrace change and adaptability about existing ways of doing business. This crisis actually invites new ways of proceeding that will ultimately improve the management of Georgetown’s operations.
  • Express gratitude for the gifts of our community, especially the heroic and inspiring actions that our students, staff, and faculty are taking to uphold the mission of Georgetown University.

There is still much to ponder as we evaluate the experience of closing out the spring semester by learning and working in an all-virtual context. But I am hopeful that the valuable reflections at TLISI provide a helpful foundation for deeper discernment about how we are called to meet this moment. Our unique mission and values as a university present a depth of resources for how to proceed in our learning and working at Georgetown. As Mara Brecht notes in a recent article in America Magazine, COVID-19 invites an even fuller commitment to our Jesuit mission and heritage:

” Overrun hospitals, a halted world economy and a pervasive aura of fear and anxiety turn abstractions about mission and identity into reality. In this moment, need becomes nakedly apparent: our own existential and economic needs, the need of people who are sick and suffering for compassion and care, and the desperate needs of the poor and vulnerable among us. Responding to need, in its wide range and many manifestations must become our starting point for assessing the distinctively Catholic nature of our institutions.” 

Are We Called to Imagine the World Anew? A Reflection on Vocation

This week’s post comes from Mary J. Novak, associate director for Ignatian Formation for SCS & the Law Center, and adjunct professor of Law. Mary also serves as Chaplain-in-Residence in the Gewirz Residential Community located on the Law Center’s Capitol Hill Campus. 

Talking to students, staff, and faculty at any Jesuit institution, I will often use the word “vocation.” To some ears, this language is familiar and serves as an invitation to a deeper conversation. To others less familiar with Ignatian language, I will see the slight furrowing of the brow.

If I am quick on my feet, I will say: “You know, the Frederick Buechner definition of vocation of ‘where your deepest desires meet the world’s greatest needs and the community confirms your call,’ therein you will find your vocation.” Buechner is much more eloquent than I am, saying, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” 

Standing on my terrace first thing in the morning, I look up and can often see something like this.

It is Buechner’s definition of vocation that Jamie Kralovec and I use to end the SCS student retreats (pictures of which Jamie included in his last blog post). Buechner says this (and please pardon the gendered language): 

“IT COMES FROM the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God.  

There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Super-ego, or Self-Interest.  

By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either. 

Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” 

In higher educational settings, we so often focus on the first part of this definition of vocation, what the student needs most to do. During this pandemic, I know I am not alone in focusing more and more on the second part of Buechner’s definition, what “the world most needs to have done” and I wonder if the order of these questions needs to change.

This pandemic reveals more fully than ever in my lifetime that our systems and society do not value all life, especially the lives of those who have been historically marginalized, the materially poor and the most physically vulnerable. The raging pandemic has revealed our systemic operative racism, ageism, classism, toxic nationalism, etc. in ways that are stark and hard to ignore. 

When I look down from my terrace, I view CCNV, DC’s largest shelter for folks without homes.  This picture was taken in early April when the folks were moved to the tent to sleep while the shelter was cleaned.  One recent Washington Post article described CCNV as a 1,300 bed facility. The city is working to add more capacity to house persons experiencing homelessness by taking over DC hotels. Washington Post article available here:

Last month in the Financial Times, Arundhati Roy called this moment in our world history a “portal,” saying:

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

Can we imagine our world anew? What does the world most need to have done to get there?  And only when we answer that question can we ask: what do you/I/we most need to do? This is the treasure of our Jesuit Heritage: not only can we ask these questions in this setting, but we can lean into discerning them together as community to build a better world in the common good.  

For Our Graduates: An Invitation to Savor Your Georgetown Memories

Pope Francis recently gave an interview that I think offers much inspiration as we end this academic year. In particular, our SCS graduating students may find some needed consolation in the pope’s remarks, which concern two themes: the “now” and memory. While these ideas might seem like opposites, they come together in a deeper union if we allow ourselves to recognize just how deeply loved we truly are.

Photo from SCS student retreat. Cherished memories like this rise to the surface when I reflect on the Class of 2020.

First, Pope Francis challenges all of us in a period of pandemic to greater solidarity, especially with those who are disproportionately at risk and suffering. He then invites us, in our “lockdown” at home, to find new creativity and imagination. Pope Francis writes:

“Take care of the now, for the sake of tomorrow. Always creatively, with a simple creativity, capable of inventing something new each day. Inside the home that’s not hard to discover, but don’t run away, don’t take refuge in escapism, which in this time is of no use to you.”

I first reacted to this encouragement with inspired energy but then wondered, as I am sure many of our graduates may also be feeling: what if I am not feeling creative or capable or imagining anew in these days of staying-at-home? What if I am not able to find a creative way to re-frame this unusual circumstance of graduating without all of the same ceremonial details of our much-anticipated rituals of commencement?

Pope Francis offers an affirming response later in the interview when, drawing upon the lessons of literature in Virgil’s Aeneid and the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky, he writes:

“We need to recover our memory because memory will come to our aid. This is not humanity’s first plague; the others have become mere anecdotes. We need to remember our roots, our tradition, which is packed full of memories…So to be in lockdown, but yearning, with that memory that yearns and begets hope – that is what will help escape our confinement.”

Here, Francis is saying that we need to draw upon the resources of our past in order to take care of the now. In keeping with so many religious and spiritual traditions, including Ignatian spirituality, Pope Francis is offering all of us an opportunity to more deeply experience the love of the transcendent by utilizing all of our senses, including our memories. What would happen if we, recognizing that the cherished annual traditions of commencement have been turned somewhat upside-down, reimagined the graduation celebration by getting in touch with some of our most cherished memories as students at Georgetown?

Graduating students: here is my special invitation to engage with your memories in the days ahead as you prepare to receive your degrees. I invite you to find a quiet space and:

  • Remember some experience of feeling gratitude during your time as a Georgetown student. Pick out one consoling memory that rises to the surface and recreate all of the details of the experience with your senses.
  • Remain in this memory for a few minutes, calling to mind why you were so grateful about this event, person, or activity.
  • Then, return to where you are seated now and call to mind all of the details of your current location. Go back and forth between these places and memories for a few minutes.
  • Conclude your prayerful remembering by expressing a desire to be able to bring that memory back into the present whenever you are in need of some hope in these days of closing the academic year, and celebrating your journey as a student at Georgetown.
Reliving some of our consoling memories, like the SCS holiday party, can give us hope in the present. Graduating students, what are your favorite memories during your time at Georgetown?

My own reflection surfaced some rich memories that I have of the Class of 2020, including time spent on retreat with students at the Calcagnini Contemplative Center, in the classroom engaging in enthusiastic debate and discussion about how to be values-guided professionals, and in fun social settings like the annual SCS holiday party and new student welcomes. I cherish these memories and they give me so much hope about this year’s graduates.

And while the rituals of next week’s commencement might not have these same exterior qualities, I invite you in the coming days to spend some time savoring your rich memories of your Georgetown experience on the interior. Our consoling memories may not make up for what we are missing today, but my hope is that your joyful memories might give you some needed hope in the present.


Contemplative Practices Invite Us into Deeper Unity, Community

“The future is so unclear in almost every aspect. But what is clear is that the future will not be business as usual. So what do we do know?”

This was the question posed by Mary Novak, associate director for Ignatian Formation at SCS and the Law Center, as part of her video reflection this week in Georgetown’s “Spiritual Continuity” series. Mary’s answer, drawing upon the universal richness of spiritual and religious traditions, is that only love grounded in inner resources can move us beyond the “destructive tendencies” of this perilous moment in history. The way we do this inner work, according to Mary, is to become “more fully human and to become more fully a human community” through an increase in spiritual practices, including fasting, praying, and engaging in some form of contemplation.  


Mary Novak, associate director for Ignatian Formation at SCS and the Law School, delivered a “Spiritual Continuity” message on contemplation this week. Check out Mary’s video reflection by clicking on the image.

Mary then outlines an invitation to go deeper into contemplative practices by pointing to the particular resources within and across our spiritual traditions, reflected in the number of virtual programs for deep silence offered through Georgetown’s Office of Campus Ministry. It is important to point out, as Mary does, that growing contemplatively does not mean disengaging from the world or indulging in fantasy. Rather, contemplation, as explained by the Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt, is a “long, loving look at the real.”

Contemplation invites us to encounter reality, engaging with both the sorrows (“I hate this pandemic”) and the potential possibilities (“I am called by this pandemic to ….”), in order to discover how we are being invited to greater love and greater community. In addition to the contemplative resources on the Campus Ministry website, we invite you to join our SCS Daily Digital Meditation at 12 pm each day of the work week (sign up here).  Mary’s reflection inspires some important questions that I would invite us to consider this week:

  • Do you engage in contemplation in some way? If you do not, but you would like to consider contemplative practices, what factors hold you back from engaging?
  • Mary describes contemplation’s commitment to “deep listening.” What does it mean for you to engage in this kind of listening?
  • Has this pandemic invited you to consider a new calling? Are you feeling motivated to do something for others – in your local community or the world beyond – because of this situation?

Exploring Nature: A Healthy (and Holy) Response to Zoom Fatigue

Two seemingly unrelated pieces caught my attention this week. The first was an article by Steven Hickman, a psychologist and teacher of mindfulness, about an increasingly acknowledged phenomenon of fatigue with our virtual tools: “Zoom Exhaustion is Real. Here are Six Ways to Find Balance and Stay Connected.” The second was Georgetown’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, which included a set of helpful online information and reflections about the implications for stewardship of the environment in the middle of a global pandemic.

As I pondered the recommendations of the article about Zoom exhaustion, I realized in a deeper way just how much the natural environment offers some important resources for overcoming the challenges of our virtual lifestyles in the era of COVID-19. Enjoying our natural environment, and protecting it from harm, is not only a way to stay healthy during these difficult times but it is also a way of honoring our university’s commitment, as a Jesuit and Catholic institution, to care for God’s created world.

Georgetown celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day with some helpful resources offered by the Environment Initiative and the Office of Sustainability, available at

Hickman diagnoses the major drawbacks of an excessive reliance on Zoom technology to conduct our work and our study in these days of maintaining continuity. Acknowledging that tools like Zoom do present some incredible benefits, including the opportunity to foster increased inter-dependence and new ways of learning, Hickman argues that online meetings can actually lead us to feel more distant and absent from each other. Our bodies and our minds, consciously and sub-consciously, are grappling with more information in a Zoom session than is typical for a face-to-face interaction: “And when we start to be over-stimulated by extraneous data that we haven’t had to process in the physical world, each new data point pushes us just a little bit farther way from the human-to-human connection that we all crave and appreciate.”

The author’s six suggestions for coping with Zoom fatigue feature some important insights about maintaining balance and perspective. For me, Hickman’s most helpful suggestions are to give the Zoom session and its participants one’s full attention, fighting against the tendency to multitask, and to take breaks between sessions. I have tried to observe these remedies for Zoom fatigue in the last few weeks with varying success. Taking breaks by walking in nature (at a responsible social distance, of course) and gazing at the natural world has been my go-to source for nourishing my attention and energy necessary for a day filled with Zoom meetings.

In 2015, Pope Francis published a landmark encyclical, Laudato Si, which reflects on care for the environment as a religious and spiritual obligation. Laudato Si has inspired many actions at Georgetown and across the globe to support environmental sustainability.

Walking in nature, admiring trees, creeks, flowers, animals, etc., has helped ground my perspective in this difficult period. The awe and majesty of the environment remind me to reflect on the source of all created things (it makes more sense to me why the natural world has inspired spiritual movements of all kinds, sometimes branded as Eco-Spirituality). As I enter into these reflections, take a deep breath, and soak up the gifts of the natural environment, my horizon and vision expand beyond more narrow daily concerns.

Pope Francis, in his teaching document Laudato Si, describes how important it is to simply gaze at the wonders of nature, just like St. Francis, patron saint of the environment and animals: “Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise.” The peace of a nature walk can translate not only into greater mindfulness and attention but also a deeper love for nature and a desire to protect it against harm. In my nature walks, I am often moved from awareness to gratitude and love for the peace that I feel in the natural environment.  This is where Georgetown’s 50th anniversary celebration of Earth Day connects and offers some suggestions for how to make environmental protection a part of our lifestyle even in the midst of this global pandemic.

Georgetown presents many ways to grow into greater appreciation for the gift of the natural environment. Some of these creative ideas including taking a virtual sustainability tour of the campus, exploring 50 actions for 50 years that universities in the D.C. area can take to increase their sustainable practices, and reading reflections from university students, faculty, and staff about how they approach environmental sustainability. Always anchored in the university’s commitments to our Catholic and Jesuit values and the common good, as demonstrated by Pope Francis in Laudato Si, Georgetown is a leader in the local and global efforts to protect the natural environment. Flowing from Georgetown’s commitment and inspired by the personal benefits of walking in nature, here is my invitation for this week:

  • Spend some time reflecting on the possibility that you are experiencing Zoom fatigue. Are you finding yourself drained after a day of online interactions? If so, name the feelings associated with your experiences.
  • Take some time to review Georgetown’s Earth Day resources. Do any of the suggested actions resonate with you and move you to take action on behalf of the environment?
  • Try to take some breaks from Zoom meetings with a socially distant walk in nature. After your walk, find a little time to reflect on your experience. Did being surrounded by nature give you greater perspective on your day? Do you feel more recharged?

What We Need Right Now: Jesuit-Educated Leaders

Times of crises demand ethical leadership. As we look around our communities, we are faced with inter-connected challenges related to this global pandemic: public health, economic stability, educational continuity, and the list continues. One challenge inevitably relates to another, requiring inter-disciplinary reflection and analysis in order to effectively solve the problems confronting us. Responses to these linked challenges invite us to gather data, bring experts to the table, struggle with complexity, and ultimately make decisions from a place of ethics, compassion, and the common good. While we hope that our local, national, and global leaders enter into their decisions in this way, we know all too well that not all leaders are formed to approach difficult decisions like this. A question that we are all then invited to ponder: what kinds of leaders are needed right now? And how do leaders become ethical, compassionate, and effective? Lest you think that such questions only apply to leaders in positions of formal authority, like governors and public health officials, these are questions that we should all be asking ourselves these days because we all have an opportunity to lead. Our tradition of Jesuit education offers some critical lessons about how ethical leaders can meet the challenges of this moment. All of us, whether faculty, staff, or students, have an opportunity in these turbulent times to demonstrate leadership in our homes, our communities, and our virtual schools and workplaces.

What does Ignatius of Loyola, a 16th Century saint, founder of Jesuit education, and patron of universities like Georgetown, possibly have to offer in terms of developing leaders who can meet the demands of the current pandemic? Jesuit education actually has a lot to say about forming the ethical leaders that we need today.

Georgetown University makes a bold commitment in its mission statement and gives a clear signal of the kinds of leaders we strive to form: Georgetown educates people to be reflective lifelong learners, to be responsible and active participants in civic life and to live generously in service to others. This bold claim is similar to the statements made by other Jesuit educational institutions who aspire to live out the core values that have defined Jesuit schools for the last 500 years: an orientation to fulfilling mission and the common good, a commitment to discernment in all that we do, a willingness to be flexible, creative, and adaptable in our work, and an enshrined inspiration to put the interests of others above our own. The hallmarks of this Jesuit tradition have been translated into theories and practices for leadership. One popular translation of Jesuit leadership theory has been offered by Chris Lowney, a former Jesuit turned JP Morgan Managing Director, whose best-selling book “Heroic Leadership” is used widely in courses and workshops at Jesuit schools and beyond. The popular book distills the wisdom of Jesuit spirituality, formation, and the history of education into four pillars of wisdom: self-awareness, ingenuity, love, and heroism. Written for a broad audience, Lowney’s text integrates Jesuit concepts into a prescription for what makes leaders effective. “Heroic Leadership” is relevant reading not only for those interested in learning more about the Jesuits’ self-development practices but also for anyone aspiring to lead others out of compassion and not fear, a stance that is critically important these days. Lowney sums up the Jesuit approach to leadership in this way:

How did the Jesuits build the most successful religious company in history? And how do individuals become leaders today? By knowing themselves. By innovating to embrace a changing world. By loving self and others. By aiming high. Self-awareness, ingenuity, love, and heroism. Not four techniques, but four principles forming one way of living.

Chris Lowney, Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company that Changed the World

You might be wondering: aren’t leaders inspired by the Jesuit tradition of education offering the same thing as other leaders formed in different ways? While it is the case that leadership capacity and good leadership can grow out of many different traditions of education and training, there is no doubt that many Jesuit-educated leaders bring distinctive values-based approaches to their leadership. Recently, William Meehan in Forbes noted in two widely circulated columns (here and here) that some of the most effective leaders that have emerged in the response to COVID-19, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, share in common that they are products of Jesuit schooling. Meehan describes how Jesuit schools tend to produce “servant leaders,” who act in the following way:

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps develop and perform as highly as possible.

William Meehan, “Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., Redux: All Educational Institutions Should Include Instilling ‘Serving Others’ in Their Mission”

Does this resonate with you and your experience of Jesuit education? Have you felt called in your study and your work to approach leadership in this way of service?

This week, I invite you to reflect on these questions: 

  • What kind of leader are you and what kind of leader do you want to become?
  • How is this current crisis shaping your reflection about who you are as a leader?
  • How might you grow as a leader who deepens in self-awareness through regular reflection?  

There are many resources you might consider as you wonder about these questions. You might develop your self-reflection practices by joining our SCS daily digital meditations each work day at 12 pm EST (sign up here), which conclude each week on Friday with an Ignatian examen, an important resource for growing in self-awareness (read more on the examen here).  Additional leadership resources from within the Jesuit tradition might assist your reflection, including this self-paced set of modules: “Ignatian Leadership: Resources for Learning, Change, and Growth.

Expressing Love in Action

Talking about love can make people uncomfortable. For many, love is too sentimental, too romantic, too intimate for public discussion. Love might even elicit overly strong feelings and memories, some painful and others glorious. But love, and expressing love, is at the heart of all spiritual, religious, and humanistic traditions, and it carries special significance in the spirituality of the Jesuits and their founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola. The message that our world needs practical expressions of love now more than ever was delivered by me in a video recording as part of Georgetown’s “Spiritual Continuity” series. I describe expressing “love in action” as a core tenet of the Spiritual Exercises, a lengthy retreat in daily life authored by St. Ignatius that has successfully helped people for the last five centuries to grow in greater interior freedom and more generous service of others. Ignatius ends the Exercises in a “Contemplation to Attain Love” with a profound statement: love ought to show itself more in deeds than in words. This core truth has profound implications for how we should live and gives special insight to our shared responsibility in a time of global pandemic.

Jamie Kralovec, Associate Director for Mission Integration at SCS, delivered a message on expressing love in action. Check out Jamie’s video reflection, as part of Georgetown’s ongoing “Spiritual Continuity” series, by clicking the image.

For Ignatius, we are each called to love others with the same generosity with which we are loved by God. Despite our failings, limitations, and shortcomings, we are invited to give to others of what we have: our special talents, gifts, callings in life, in the same generous way that God gives to each of us. But this is not some invitation to saccharine, abstract love of romance novels. Instead, Ignatius is inviting us to love others concretely, practically, generously in the context of our relationships. Our relationships and the love that we share in them, both the relationships that give us great joy (you might think of your children, parents, siblings, spouses) and the ones that challenge us (you might think of difficult colleagues, neighbors, friends), are being seriously tested today. On the one hand, this pandemic is revealing many of the weaknesses in us as individuals and in us as a society. On the other hand, a crisis like the one we’re living through invites even greater possibilities for hope, healing, and service. I recall in the video some of the inspiring ways in which I have observed how SCS staff and faculty colleagues are expressing love in action through ongoing discernments about how to care for our students during this difficult time. I also call to mind students who are patiently and creatively arising to the educational challenge in the midst of these new circumstances.

I invite you this week to ponder how you are seeing love expressed in actions. Are there people in your life who have inspired you with greater generosity, patience, and care? Are you finding ways in your relationships to express love in new and creative ways?  If you’d like to continue this reflection on love in action in the form of an examen, join our Daily Digital Meditation at 12 pm each day of the work week (sign up here). Each Friday will be dedicated to a guided examen that reflects on our experiences of the past week.

Gratitude: A Needed Disposition for These Times

Even in the most difficult and challenging times, an attitude of gratitude can make all the difference between living a life of hope and satisfaction or one of anxiety and envy. This was the main message delivered in an inspiring contribution to Georgetown’s “Spiritual Continuity” series this week by Mary Novak, Associate Director for Ignatian Formation at SCS and the Law Center. In her video reflection, Mary makes the case that we are called to even greater gratitude in these circumstances because gratitude is a disposition especially necessary when it is harder to see potential. Grounding gratitude in the Jesuit practice of the examen (which we described in this post last week) and the life of the Jesuit founder St. Ignatius, Mary describes how a disposition of gratitude helps us see more clearly that God is at work always and everywhere. This outlook is foundational to the spiritual life and explains why the examen and all of Ignatian spirituality is rooted in gratitude because “gratitude was the totality of the way Ignatius related to God.”

More than simply an idea, however, Mary uses her video reflection to describe how gratitude can be practiced. Mary models the practical application by naming the persons for whom she is especially grateful these days:  healthcare workers, social service providers assisting persons experiencing poverty, staff at Georgetown who have been sorting mail and keeping essential services going, and the university’s leadership for thoughtfully addressing difficult decisions. The ultimate outcome of a gratitude practice is that one becomes more generous and more disposed to serve others, or as a student put it to Mary, gratitude “makes me more self-less.” We encourage you to practice this week by making a list of people and actions for whom you are most grateful. Try making a list every day. If you’d like to experience gratitude in the form of an examen, join our Daily Digital Meditation at 12 pm each day of the work week (sign up here). Each Friday will be dedicated to a guided examen that reflects on our experiences of the past week.

Mary Novak, Associate Director for Ignatian Formation at SCS and the Law School and an Adjunct Professor of Law, delivered a “Spiritual Continuity” message on gratitude this week. Check out Mary’s video reflection, as part of Georgetown’s ongoing “Spiritual Continuity” series, by clicking the image.

The Examen: A Resource for Understanding Your Feelings

As we head into another week of adjusting to this new normal, more and more commentary is focused on how to make sense of the dramatic changes we are living through each day. I was struck in the last few days by two different articles addressing the same topic: grief. These pieces gave me needed language to describe what I have been feeling in my own experience, both unconsciously and consciously, in the early days of adjusting to the reality of a global pandemic.

In an article entitled, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief,” the Harvard Business Review interviewed David Kessler, a grief and trauma expert who has worked in hospital systems for a decade. Building on the stages of grief constructed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Kessler provides several important insights for managing our individual and collective grief about COVID-19: 1) name the feeling so you can start controlling it; 2) find balance in the things you’re thinking; 3) come into the present in order to calm yourself; and 4) show compassion because everyone expresses their grief in different ways.  A similar article in the New York Times by Lori Gottlieb captured many of these same insights in the article, “Grieving the Losses of Coronavirus.” A critical point of Kessler’s is that naming emotions helps us move through the ones that hold us back: “When you name it, you feel it, and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through.”  The naming of temporary feelings as a way to grow into greater freedom from our feelings has a clear connection to the spiritual tradition of the Jesuits, known as Ignatian spirituality, and the practice of the examen. This dynamic and flexible form of reflection is a helpful resource for staying in the present and finding balance.

Image of Georgetown’s Calcagnini Contemplative Retreat Center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia during the 2019 SCS Staff and Faculty Retreat. SCS is helping our community reflect during these times through offering a daily digital meditation.

The examen, or the examen of consciousness, is a structured form of prayerful reflection on daily experiences introduced five centuries ago by St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits and author of Ignatian spirituality (for more on the examen, see here). Ignatius included the examen in the text of his Spiritual Exercises, a lengthy retreat intended to guide participants to greater depths of spiritual growth and understanding so as to more generously serve others and God. For persons of faith, the examen is a regular opportunity (Ignatius encouraged practice of it twice per day) to reflect on how the experience of daily thoughts and feelings either bring us closer to God (consolation) or farther way from God (desolation). It is through noticing and becoming more aware of these movements of consolation and desolation in our interior lives that we notice patterns and develop the capacity to change our behaviors by doubling down on what brings consolation and working against patterns of desolation.  The examen is not just for Christians or for persons of faith, however, and it can be adapted to secular audiences. For a secular listener, the language of God in the examen might be substituted with “true self” or “transcendent mystery” and the language of consolation/desolation might be understood as “flow,” those experiences that bring us deeper joy and greater energy and vitality. Regardless of how one enters into the examen, the fundamental gift of this 10-15 minute reflective practice is that it helps us become more aware of gratitude in our daily experience, both moments of joy and moments of challenge that can stretch us and make us stronger.

The multiple emotions we are experiencing these days, including grief, might lead to a conclusion that it is better to ignore our many feelings than confront each of them as we experience them. The examen gives us a resource for naming our emotions and realizing that feelings are only temporary and do not last forever. What is especially helpful about the examen is that it can be tailored to particular circumstances or situations of life, like a pandemic. Susan Haarman has demonstrated that flexibility by crafting an examen for the Ignatian Solidarity Network that meets this moment in time: “Examen for Life During COVID-19.” I will present below a modified form of Haarman’s examen:

Enter into the examen by first settling into your space. Become comfortable in your surroundings and remove any distractions if you are able to. Start by noticing your breathing, allowing your minds and bodies to settle into the experience. Take a few minutes to relax and enter into these six steps.

  • 1) Acknowledge how you are feeling at this very moment. Name both the good and the challenging feelings (take 2 minutes).
  • 2) Ask for light and insight as you prepare to review the last 24 hours of your life. Take some time to settle in the presence of God, or of your true self (take 2 minutes).
  • 3) Gently review all of the major experiences of your last 24 hours. In particular, review the most significant experiences when COVID-19 had an impact on your life in the last day (take 2 minutes).
  • 4) Take a few moments to call attention to the most significant experiences of the last day that made you feel more connected to yourself and to others. Take a few moments to call attention to the experiences that made you feel less connected to yourself and others (take 3 minutes).
  • 5) Now go back to the experiences of connection and dis-connection that you reviewed in the prior step and name the emotions that surface for you when you acknowledge the most significant feeling of connection and the most significant feeling of dis-connection (take 3 minutes).
  • 6) Conclude this short examen by reflecting on how this quiet time has prepared you to face the challenges of the next day. How might you maintain more connection with yourself and others? (take 2 minutes).

If the resources of the examen appeal to you, please consider participating in the SCS Daily Digital Meditation offered Monday through Friday at 12 pm EST over Zoom (click here to participate). The final meditation of each week, on Friday, will be a guided examen for 10-15 minutes inviting participants to review their experiences of the past week. Please join us!