My first real introduction to Ignatian spirituality came from the walls I passed by day after day in the second year of my undergraduate career at Fairfield University. That year, I lived in the Ignatian Residential College: a living and learning community of about 200 sophomores.
The thesis of the year was simple: Intentional community infused with Ignatian spirituality, carved out during a pivotal moment of a young person’s life, could help better form all of us to be people for and with others. The particular residence hall in which this community was housed was – at least in 2008 – the best Fairfield had to offer: a beautiful gathering space complete with free snacks, comfy chairs and endless coffee; rooms for quiet study and group activities; and no need to ever walk out of the front door.
The academic year itself – and all of the extracurricular activities that took place – was organized around three key questions: Who am I? Whose am I? Who am I called to be? We returned to those questions again and again throughout the year, touchstones for our personal discovery and discernment. And in case we ever forgot them, those questions hung on enormous banners throughout the halls.
Ten years later, those questions still come readily to my mind. They were the right questions then, and they haven’t lost their relevance today.
Who am I? This question is foundational to any of our personal stories. Any realistic answer to this question carries with it themes of family heritage and history, language, faith and friendship. It anchors us in our own unique past and positions us to carve out our own unique present. Understanding who we are helps us understand where we’re going, why we’re going there, and the particular methods, techniques and tactics that each of us employs to reach our goals.
Whose am I? This is a question of community. It speaks both to the people who have formed us in the past, as well as those who are forming us in the present. It points to the privileges we have – or haven’t – enjoyed by virtue of the groups with which we’re associated. It challenges us to think about the values we hold – and hold in common with others. And it pushes us beyond ourselves to think about what we are and what we might yet be for others, near and far.
Who am I called to be? A question with more answers than many of us may hope for, this final question speaks to our vocation: the intersection of our passion with the world’s needs. We are reminded that we are called to be different things to different people at different times. But ultimately, for the person of faith, we look to God to guide us in discovering the answer.
These questions, for me, are distinctly Ignatian and inherently spiritual. So, it was a real surprise when I encountered them many years after graduation on a different university campus, one with no Jesuit influence.
I was taking a course in international communication at American University in Washington, D.C, when I was introduced to the work of Marshall Ganz.* Ganz proposes a public narrative, an exercise in storytelling in the public sphere. The building blocks of a compelling public narrative are simple: tell a story of self, a story of us, and a story of now. Ganz writes that:
“[a] story of self communicates the values that move us to lead. A story of us communicates values shared by those whom you hope to motivate to join us. And a story of now communicates the urgent challenge to those values that demands action now.”
For me, Ganz was adding a new layer to the three questions I’d wrestled with in college, but he was doing so by issuing an additional challenge: the stories we tell are opportunities to lead others to make change. We have to be able to bring others – both those who agree with us and those who do not – along with us as we respond to God’s call in our lives.
These three questions – Who am I? Whose am I? Who am I called to be? – make up the backbone of my new book, Cannonball Moments. But arguably more important than that, they make up the backbone of each of our own ongoing stories. They demand to be answered as we muddle through our day-to-day. They whisper, nudge, insist.
These questions drive us to seek out our deepest, most authentic selves. And then, to act.
In many ways, that’s what this Ignatian Year has been about. We’ve reflected on the cannonball moment, when St. Ignatius’ war wound forced him into a convalescent conversion. We’ve also – hopefully – spent time reflecting on our own cannonball moments: those big, loud, obnoxious explosions in our life stories that turn us about and set us on new paths.
But what I hope we take from this year – and what I hope my book can offer – is a roadmap to continual reflection, a continual unpacking of the stories that make up our lives: the good and the bad, the loud and the quiet, the painful and the miraculous.
Not every important moment begins with a cannonball blast. But even these quiet, easily missed moments can be pivotal to our life stories, pivotal to the role we might play in building up the common good.
If the Ignatian Year invited us to consider the cannonball moment, let’s use the years that follow to reflect on all the many moments that come after.
*Ganz, Marshall. 2011. “Public Narrative, Collective Action, and Power.” In Accountability Through Public Opinion: From Inertiato Public Action, eds. Sina Odugbemi and Taeku Lee: 273-289. Washington D.C: The World Bank. Ibid p. 282.
By Eric Clayton, Deputy Director of Communications, Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States
Eric Clayton is the author of “Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith,” and the deputy director of communications for the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. He is a 2011 graduate of Fairfield University and lives with his family in Baltimore, MD. Learn more about Eric at ericclaytonwrites.com.