Friday 25 November 2016

Joining Virtue with Letters

Jesuits have forever been getting themselves into and out of trouble.  Ignatius was jailed at one time by the Dominicans for allegedly preaching heresy.  Along the way he had many brushes with the Inquisition, but he always ensured that when no error was to be found in his writings (usually to do with his Spiritual Exercises) he carried with him the written attestations of his good standing from any tribunal, Inquisitor or bishop.

Much later, after Ignatius’ death, his successors began drawing up guidelines for administering colleges and universities (the so-called Ratio studiorum).  A number of editions were drawn up (four in fact), reflected upon and redrafted.  Copies of the intermediate ones are very rare as they were instructed to be burned, lest they fell into the wrong hands and our enemies could find fault with these “working documents”!  Two of the contentious issues at the time were whether we could teach theologies other than that proposed by the medieval master, St Thomas Aquinas.  (That is, could we have the freedom to explore and test other theological positions?)  The other concerned the use of ‘pagan’ authors in the syllabus of the colleges.

Our Jesuit colleges emerged at a very significant time in European history.  Universities had existed for many centuries.  They were the professional schools, setting people up to work in the law, in civil service, theology, medicine, and so on.  But they were increasingly being seen as rigid and too concerned with a narrowly “academic” preparation of the person.  Then, around the time of Ignatius, and especially in Italy, came the sweep of the humanistic schools.  The Christian humanists of the time were interested in a much broader formation of the person – educating character, we might say.  They spoke of a core-value to be developed, pietas.  This is a virtue not narrowly captured in the English “piety”, but a quality which would direct a person to live out one’s duty, not only to God, but to one’s family and the nation, to those in one’s community.  The Jesuits were drawn to these.

The humanists’ schools incorporated the Latin and Greek authors, not only because classical languages were at that time important in so many careers, but because the Greek and Roman orators, poets, story-tellers and historians inevitably dealt with the “big questions of life” which were singularly worth studying.  Questions of character, of right choices, of noble action, of the struggle between good and evil, of the meaning of suffering, and so on.  In adopting this model for the schools, the Jesuits came in for not a little criticism and suspicion: giving impressionable young boys pagan texts to read!  But in one of his letters, Ignatius endorsed the practice, because “in the desire to help save souls, we use the spoils of Egypt for the honor and glory of God” (a reference to the actions of the Israelites fleeing their former captives, in Exodus 3:20-22).  So our schools were free to make use of sources outside the traditional Christian culture.  Those Jesuits could find latent truths within non-Christian sources.  In Christian educational practice, “plundering the Egyptians” means taking truth, goodness and beauty from any surrounding culture because such principles are also biblical and have their source in God.

Those early plans of studies also strove to have pupils reach “flawless eloquence” (eloquentia perfecta) which meant not only being able to speak, to write and to communicate one’s own ideas with facility and elegance, but also having the capacity to reason, to feel, to express oneself and to act, harmonizing virtue with learning.

Recently, at the encouragement of Fr General’s Secretary for Education, Fr José Mesa SJ, we have been forging more links with international Jesuit schools.  At the end of last term there was an exchange of staff and boys with schools in New York and Boston.  One of the fruits was to discover that Boston College High has a very successful wide-reading programme which we are seeking to emulate here.  It is a project which goes right to the core of the characteristic of our schools which we have been exploring here.  It is, to use Ignatius’ expression, “joining virtue with letters” – that is, shaping character alongside an academic formation.  Making the link.

To this end, we are in the process of selecting a novel which treats and wrestles with some significant moral or ethical issues, matters of conscience, or those “big questions of life”.  It will be a story that engages both boys in the senior school, their parents, and the staff.  Everyone will be invited to join in this “summer read”.  Then next year, we will find forums in which to engage with the matters raised in the book.  To sharpen the boys’ eloquentia perfecta as well.  Perhaps in a book club for parents, or a conversation between boys in mentor groups or classes, bouncing insights back and forth across the dining room table at home, themes to explore in Assemblies with guest speakers, or a reflective starting point of inspiration for our young men in the visual arts or drama.  Many possibilities.

“Plundering the spoils of Egypt”, that is, finding virtue and value in the works of our culture – as we have done for almost five centuries.

Fr Ross Jones SJ