UN552 A Spiritual Exercise
David H. Gill, S.J.
Associate Professor, Classical Studies
A. The goal of the course will be to explore with the students the following questions having to do with their Boston College experience and their plans and hopes for the future.
What does my transcript say about my seriousness as a student and person? What choices have I made and why? Has there been a plan? On what has it been based? Am I proud of it? Has BC worked for me? BC's mission and my part in it? Did I get my $160,000 worth?
What kinds of personal relationships have I developed in my time at BC? With men? With women? With faculty and staff? With my family? Have I made good choices? Have I made any enemies? How? Can I repair the damage? Will college friendships endure? My plans/hopes regarding marriage and family and/or other kinds of committed relationships?
My future work and career
When I came to BC, what kind of work did I think I was going to do for the rest of my life? What do I think now? What caused me to change or not change my plan? The famous three questions plus one:
- What do I love to do?
- What am I good at?
- What does the world need most?
- How do/will the answers to them intersect/converge in my life?
My world—community and society
How do I see myself as a citizen? What kinds of responsibility do I have to my fellow citizens locally, nationally, globally? Where do I fit in a world that is radically divided into rich and poor people and more or less constantly at war somewhere?
When I think about my answers to the above questions, can I discern the basic values that cause me to choose one way or the other? How do I like what I see?
I think of this as a kind of prolonged 1st-week exercise, an examination of conscience meant to lead eventually to life choices that extends throughout the course and becomes ever more sophisticated. We might start with an exercise in which the students answer the questions right off the top of their heads—true/false style, almost—and I feed back anonymously the most typical answers. Then, as we work through the readings and discussions, they could periodically update their answers in light of what they have learned. By the end of the course, after several drafts—to be passed in at various stages in the course—they should have a pretty good autobiography life-plan as a final product.
B. The next stage of the spiritual exercises, 2nd and 3rd weeks, involves meditations on the life of Jesus leading to an election of a kind of life path. Here in the course I situate readings from several people (including Jesus) whose lives and writings have challenged me and others throughout history, to think about how best to live life. The hope is that the students will also feel challenged, whether they admire or agree with these people or not, to what Peter Maurin called clarification of thought. With each reading/class meeting, I'll ask for brief reflection papers aimed at promoting more thoughtful reading and stimulating class discussion.
Socrates—Plato's Apology and Crito create the classic picture of the philosopher as ideal human type; relentless throughout his life in his search for the truth no matter where that may lead, even to death. An ideal of service to fellow citizens—getting them to think and, by doing so, to care for their souls—which also brings happiness to the philosopher; wisdom is virtue and virtue brings happiness, i.e. the successful life. Socrates also was a source of annoyance to his fellow Athenians. Why was that? What do you make of him?
Jesus was the embodiment in his life of his own highest ideal for his followers, namely to let the one who would be greatest among you become as the least and the servant of all, because this is God's plan for his people. Readings, a collection of teachings and parables or perhaps a whole Gospel or two (Matthew and/or Luke).
Dorothy Day was a 20th-century American woman saint, though she did not like the title, who tried to translate the Gospel of Jesus into practical charity and became a model of radical commitment to peace, simple living, community, and the dignity of all people. And an intellectual into the bargain. Reading, either her autobiography, The Long Loneliness or, perhaps better, selections from a collection of her best work, Loaves and Fishes. For viewing, the recent documentary on her life, which explores in a new way her struggle with the tension between her love for the father of her daughter and for the daughter, and her commitment to her mission in life. It wasn't neat. Also, as counterpoint to her pacifism, there's Chris Hedges' War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (2002), Tim O'Brien's The Things We Carried, or Anthony Swofford's Jarhead.
Thomas Merton was another 20th-century American who went from man of the world to Trappist monk, to social critic to an early death, as he explored the treasures of Eastern spirituality. Reading, Confessions of a Guilty Bystander, and perhaps something from Thich Nhat Hanh's Miracle of Mindfulness and The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.
Middlemarch by George Eliot. Virginia Woolf thought it one of the few English novels written for grown-up people. Set in 19th-century provincial England, it is the story of an idealistic young woman with notions, Dorothea Brooke, and her journey through schemes to improve herself and the world to a disastrous marriage to eventual—if limited—contentment. Eliot creates a whole world of human types and situations that are very like what we all deal with in real, as opposed to ideal, life. Besides its breadth, the other key to the book, I think, is its combination of cool-eyed observation of human foibles with a gentle compassion for those who suffer them, always asking the reader if s/he is doing any better. The book's treatment of gender relations, while quite subtle, is still rather quaint and Victorian. As a foil, we might read some recent essays on hetero- and homosexuality. On the other hand, the fact that the book requires an act of historical imagination is, to my mind, a plus that's part of the academic aspect of the course.
C. The last 4th week of the spiritual exercises, after further meditation of Jesus' Resurrection, asks the exercitant, "Given all of the above, where are you resolved to go from here?" To what do you want to commit your life? In the context of this course, the question and the topic of the final paper, which will be the finished version of the drafts, worked on throughout the course, might be something like, "Several years from now, what quality of answers will you hope to be giving to the five questions in part A?" Or, "Where do you stand on these issues now, compared to where you stood at the start of the course?"
D. Films—for viewing outside of class if we decide to use them
- the new Dorothy Day documentary
- a Jesus film—not Mel Gibson's
- Speeches by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
- one of the Vietnam films
E. Reading list—subject to revision as the conversation develops
- Plato, Apology and Crito
- Gospels, Matthew and Luke
- Dorothy Day, Loaves and Fishes
- Chris Hedges, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, or the like—see above
- Thomas Merton, Confessions of a Guilty Bystander
- current articles and essays on the state of higher education in the USA, on the war in Iraq, and on race relations
- George Eliot, Middlemarch—I'd give this three or four weeks
F. Writing—see above
For each class, a short two-page reflection paper on the reading for that day; for the longer assignment, ten to twelve pages of answers to the questions posed at the beginning of the term and reviewed in the form of drafts.
G. Class structure—will be based on the old philologist's three questions to any text
- What does the author say?
- Why would s/he say that?
- Is what s/he says a good idea, and if so, what does it have to do with me?
The first two questions would be the more academic aspect of the course, and the third would be more personal. Once we get the knack of it and know one another better, students would be asked to lead the discussions, both academic and personal.
H. Grading, each of the three components—weekly reflection papers, class participation/presentations, longer paper—will count for one third of the final grade.