How does the whirlwind that is New Student Orientation at Georgetown conclude? Not with cries and cheers, nor with blaring horns. Rather, it concludes in a sustained hush, in great silence.
Allow me to recount NSO’s final moments in McDonough Arena this past Tuesday night. The 1,600 new members of Georgetown sat together in the gym, just as during a variety of previous events and programs. This time, however, it was later — close to 10:30 p.m. — with the lights lowered.
In these final moments together as new students, one of our student leaders, Reed Howard, guided the community through a cornerstone of Ignatian spirituality culled from “The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola” — the “Examen.”
The Examen is a spiritual practice of reflection open to different faith and nonfaith expressions. It is a means to reflect on one’s experiences so as to cull deeper meaning from all that one has been experiencing. It has been said that we can have the experience and miss the meaning; the Examen assists in discovering a deeper meaning in the midst of our day-to-day experiences.
As we reflected on the maelstrom of experiences over the course of the preceding days, what struck me was the enveloping silence within McDonough Arena. Here we sat, new members of the Georgetown community, and the only sound other than our Examen guide was the drone of air conditioning: a miraculous and graced occurrence, to be sure.
What was even more striking than this grand communal silence was how our new students were embodying and living out key, foundational elements of a shared Ignatian heritage that I had spoken about moments before being brought into the silence of the guided Examen. Only minutes prior, I had identified three key dispositions found in “The Spiritual Exercises” that are foundational in our life here at Georgetown:
Indifference. In an Ignatian understanding, indifference is not akin to not caring, nor is it passive. It is an engaged openness in seeking greater meaning in all of life: wealth as well as poverty, joy as well as sorrow, the noise of our busyness as well as the silence of our communal contemplation. In those beautiful moments of silent reflection, our newest Hoyas embodied that indifference, that openness, to discovering deeper meaning in the midst of a new experience.
Presupposition. St. Ignatius insisted that the foundation of a relationship between a retreatant and spiritual director presupposes the best in the other’s words or actions, referred to as “the Jesuit plus sign.” It means listening with authentic love. In the guided Examen, it was most evident that new students were already presupposing the best in all this new experience of contemplation had to offer.
Magnanimity. For St. Ignatius, magnanimity is a prerequisite for one desiring to make the spiritual exercises. It is approaching life with an open heart and a generous, deep spirit, literally with great soul. That evening in McDonough, our 1,600 new students were approaching life on the Hilltop and its range of new experiences with soul and spirit.
Indifference. Presupposition. Magnanimity. These foundational dispositions reside in the virtue that is the core of St. Ignatius’ worldview — gratitude. It is with gratitude to our newest Hoyas that I write this. They have reminded and shown me the lived experience of who we are at and as Georgetown.
As we commence this new academic year, may we all be mindful of these foundational Ignatian dispositions, and to live more fully out of them each day, in all that we do and in all that we are.
Fr. Gregory Schenden, S.J., is the Roman Catholic chaplain. AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT appears every other Friday.