“Bright Wings”

Members of the Loyola community share what it means to be Jesuit educated

By Frank Cunningham, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy  |  Photo courtesy of Frank Cunningham

“Glory be to God for dappled things.”

Thus begins Pied Beauty, a poem by the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

One of the things I learned, again and again, in my years as a student at Jesuit universities, first at Fairfield as an undergraduate, and then at Fordham as a graduate student, was an appreciation for this truth. We like to simplify. Answers are readily available, certainty is at our fingertips, if we don’t bother to worry ourselves with the complexity of details. It is easy to be facile.

The Jesuits taught me to be attentive to the details of my experience, to look hard—and look again, and to listen to the wisdom of those who had looked before.

I was a biology major in college, absorbed in the sciences, interested in medical school. The Jesuit curriculum did not let me specialize too early. It insisted that I take classes in literature, history, philosophy, and theology. So my classes themselves were dappled things. In science classes and in humanities classes, my Jesuit teachers made the familiar unfamiliar. And in doing so they taught me to look for subtle connections, for relations that were not obvious, for aspects of experience I had not noticed because, like most of us, I was all too ready to jump to conclusions.

I think this is related to what St. Ignatius calls “the discernment of spirits.” In his autobiography, he describes a number of visions that he has over the course of his conversion. And the question he asks is whether these visions come from God or the devil. He must think about them, examine them carefully, look hard, and look again, to learn if they are true. Both the devil and God are in the details.

In teaching me to look closely, the Jesuits also taught me to value what I was looking at—just in itself, apart from any use or any connection with other things. Again, as Hopkins so perceptively puts it: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Ignatius taught us to find God in all things.

The Jesuit model of the priest-scientist gave me concrete examples of how to conduct that search. I think my education at Fairfield and Fordham developed in me an aesthetic of truth. It refined in me the ability to see the beauty of true and subtle reasoning, and the truth of the beautiful play of variegated detail.

When I find myself admiring the beauty of a well-designed piece of biological research, or saying “yes” to the insight made manifest in a Matisse cutout, it’s because my Jesuit education taught me both to see things in their own elegant detail, and to grasp a little how the infinite complexity of things leads us from one to another.

“Because the Holy Ghost over the bent/World broods with warm breast and with ah! Bright wings.”

==

Frank Cunningham, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at Loyola, where he serves as chair of the department. His perspective on Jesuit education is multi-faceted, having studied and received degrees from two Jesuit universities, Fairfield and Fordham, and later teaching at Loyola.

Bookmark and Share

No Comments

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment