It is suspected that the 360 degrees in a circle may have originated from the 365 days in a year, as these 365 days bring us back to the day where we began, even as turning a geometric figure a full turn of 360 degrees returns the figure to where it started. This weekend the Jesuit order, which educated me, once again celebrates its founder. As I did last year and the year before, I, returning to where I was a year ago, once again remembering the many gifts I received from my years spent with these incredible educators.
Among the lessons they taught me in my time with them were a concern for the poor and a desire to question even the most fundamental of assumptions. They gave me a willingness to venture outside of my discipline and humility about my own intellectual skills. They also helped me to look at the world as a poet sees it (thank you, Gerard Manly Hopkins), and encouraged me to take those poet’s eyes as I observed all areas of study (as did Teilhard De Chardin.) They held up examples of teachers that I will always seek to emulate, and my entire academic career will be one of trying to meet the standards for teaching and scholarship that I observed as an undergraduate and as a graduate student. I suspect, however, that there are lessons I learned and gifts I received from them that they did not set out to confer to me. And, as we once again celebrate the founder of this order, it is those lessons I reflect upon today.
The Jesuits are an order of celibate priests, and so one would not expect to meet many women through them, or to receive any useful advice on being a mother from them. I, however, have several incredible friends from different stages of my life who are former Jesuits. As each left to marry his wife, they introduced me to the amazing women they married. Now all parents, I find support from those women as fellow mothers, and this is a gift that I treasure greatly. One shares information with me on dealing with particular parenting challenges that we share, while I admire another as she works to help children who are recovering from facial disfigurements. One of these couples lived near us for many years and taught me a great deal about being a parent. They cried with me as I walked my difficult road to motherhood, and encouraged us to continue that quest, even in its darkest days. Just weeks before our daughter came home, they officially made me and my husband parents- God parents, that is, to their youngest child. I doubt that the Jesuits, who are a male order, suspected that they would be the means by which I would someday meet such fascinating women. But my life is much richer for it.
When I left my suburban parish in my dissertation year, I found that the religious services offered on our campus were aimed at undergraduates, and did not speak to the graduate experience. In response to this, a friend and I approached the school, asking if we could use an empty chapel to hold masses especially for graduate students, celebrated by priests who were graduate students themselves. What resulted was a community of graduate students, some vowed religious, but most not, who taught me, thanks, ironically, to the order who takes a special vow of obedience to the Pope, that “church” does not need to be given from above, but can be created from among.
Jesuit schools began as male-only institutions, and had been admitting women for only about ten years when I enrolled in college. I recall, at age 18, encountering a plumbing fixture in the bathroom in my dormitory that I had never seen before, and realizing then that this school was not created for people like me. In graduate school it was again clear that women were added later, and were not the original priority of the founders. Despite being an afterthought, women succeeded and thrived at both institutions, although I was curious as to what a woman-centered college would be like.
I was able to answer this question when I found a place to work where women, and the perspective they bring to the world, are seen as central to its mission. Here, Ursuline College focuses on women and teaches them in a way that respects their unique stories. I hope that my daughter seriously considers such an environment some day.
I doubt the Jesuits intended to teach any of these lessons, but they are among the greatest gifts I have received from them. And so, to any Jesuits (or former Jesuits) who might read this, have a wonderful weekend and a Happy Feast Day!