When I bring guests to Wolfington Hall, one of my favorite things to do is to show them a special section in our house library dedicated to books by Georgetown Jesuits. It’s huge. Eight feet tall. About five feet wide. With well over 250 volumes, spanning an incredible range of academic disciplines, it stands as a physical testament to the intellectual prowess and scholarly dedication of the Jesuit community over the last half-century.
Near the beginning are books by Ed Bodnar, the professor of classics who passed away last year. Below it is an entire shelf weighed down by the tomes of Joseph Fitzmyer, the world-class biblical scholar, now retired in Philadelphia. A bit further along are the canon law texts of the Hungarian Jesuit Ladislas Orsy and then the books on political philosophy and the intellectual life by the legendary James Schall. In between, you’ll find newer books by David Collins on the saints and magic, Christopher Steck on Christian ethics and the scholarly work of so many current Jesuit professors on campus. Each time I walk by, I place my finger silently and with happy anticipation at the place where my first book – on Latin American labor politics – will find its home.
Jesuits do lots of things at Georgetown, but the one most fundamental to the university is what we call the “intellectual apostolate.” In the midst of many activities, Jesuits are scholars. It is usually the work students see least, because much of a scholar’s research happens away from the classroom, in libraries and archives and during late-night bursts of reading and writing. It is a task many people would least expect of a priest. But it is at the heart of who we are as Jesuits, people on fire with a desire to know and understand this fascinating world in all its complexity, a world we say is “charged with grandeur of God.” It requires discipline, sustained inquiry and dedication, but we find that dedication pays huge dividends in the joy of discovery and learning.
In fact, the disciplined life of the mind goes hand in hand with the life of the spirit that we seek to cultivate in our students. Seeking God in all things is, at least in part, an intellectual challenge, and today it is decidedly countercultural. In a time when all knowledge is seemingly just a Google search away, real intellectual inquiry and exposition testify to something different, something more. They are about depth of knowledge, experience, imagination and transformation – a depth that can only be reached with time and effort. Reading, reflecting, trying out ideas and revising them and then writing and rewriting; these are the scholar’s trade and art, and we Jesuits know that they make us more human and more alive. Like all good scholars and teachers, we want our students to embrace the same depth, and we rejoice when they have those “aha” moments that come only when one has gotten below the surface of things to glimpse truth or beauty and has sought to express one’s growing understanding of them.
Jesuits have been doing this kind of intellectual work from the very beginning. The 10 men who would eventually form the Jesuits first met as college students at the universities in Salamanca and Paris, and they quickly realized they could best serve the church and world as “learned priests.” As scholars in fields as diverse as astronomy, biology, linguistics, literature, politics and the arts, as well as theology and philosophy, they saw the opportunity to dialogue with the best minds of their time and advance humanity’s shared search for truth and beauty. This is the same task that Jesuit scholars at Georgetown take up today and seek to pass on in our writing and teaching.
So, as you trudge once more into Lau for a long night of study, as you plow through yet another dusty tome for your thesis or as you struggle before your laptop screen searching for the one right word, know that precisely in doing those things you participate in the Jesuit mission at Georgetown as students and faculty have done for generations. And you do so every bit as much as when you go on a retreat, spend a Saturday morning in volunteer work or attend a religious service. Savor that search for understanding in every one of your classes. Peer deeply into the reality of things in every discipline. As you do, you may just find that it’s in your academics – those academics that everyone loves to complain about at this point in the semester – that you the encounter the truth and beauty that set your heart on fire.
Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., is an assistant professor in the government department. He is one of the alternating writers for AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT … which appears every other Friday.