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Undergraduates take personal stock, the Jesuit way
On a summerlike Thursday night in late March, inside a dormitory basement on the upper campus, a small group of students are fleshing out the Gospel of Matthew’s message about the spirit dwelling “wherever two or more of you are gathered in His name.” It is sometime after 8:30, and two freshmen, a sophomore, and a graduate student are sitting on mismatched chairs and sofas around an old coffee table in a fellowship room adjacent to St. Joseph’s Chapel in Gonzaga Hall. The room is dimly lit, the overheads switched off. Recorded music—the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” for instance—plays softly during moments of quiet reflection, and faith is shared. The students exchange “Highs and Lows,” their ups and downs of recent days, and where they “saw God”—for one young woman, it was in the warm and relieved smile of a driver who might have gestured differently after having to slam on the brakes near Boston Common as the student jogged inattentively into the street, plugged into her iPod. The meeting ends, after an hour, with “intercessions,” or requests for prayers—including one “for my grandma, who’s in a hospice and was given Last Rites yesterday.”
This small group is part of a student-led community at Boston College known as Cura, which takes its name from the Jesuit expression cura personalis (Latin for “care of the person”—not the body alone, nor the spirit or mind, but the whole person). Nearly 140 students belong to the community, which extends across 18 such groups, each with up to nine members who meet, usually once a week, in dorms, chapels, and other campus spots. Students from all the groups come together frequently, for communal prayer services lit by candlelight and for retreats, Masses, coffee house–style social gatherings, and other occasions. They also meet in twos for “prayer dates” at the Chocolate Bar or the Eagle’s Nest.
The quiet and reflective time Cura carves out “gives me a great perspective on the things I really value in life, which is not the homework assignment I have to do that night,” says Katie Ring ’14, a biology major and theology minor. “It’s much more about my relationships,” with others and with God. Ring co-leads the Thursday night group in St. Joe’s chapel together with first-year graduate social work student Paula Charbonneau, a Gonzaga resident and peer minister who helps coordinate dormitory programs sponsored by the Office of Campus Ministry.
Cura is supported by Campus Ministry. It came to Boston College in 2005 (introduced by former campus minister Catherine Brunell and former campus ministry director James Erps, SJ) as an affiliate of the Christian Life Community, a Rome-based lay association that promotes the signature Jesuit spirituality of “finding God in all things.” This international movement is almost as old as the Society itself, with beginnings traced to the 1560s, when lay students in Rome banded together to help one another practice the spirituality of Ignatius Loyola, founder, in 1540, of the Jesuits. The association has nurtured faith-sharing groups among adults and young people in some 60 countries. It has student affiliates at 16 Jesuit universities in the United States, a few dating to the early 1990s, with close to 2,000 members altogether, according to Elena Mireles, the organization’s U.S. liaison to university programs. She is also a Boston College graduate student, pursuing dual master’s degrees in pastoral ministry and social work.
Steering Cura at Boston College is a 10-member council made up mostly of juniors and seniors—four men, six women—each of whom leads a small group. They meet every Monday afternoon to conduct business and have further Ignatian conversations.
“Let’s talk about the retreat,” council co-leader Kevin Decusatis, a junior majoring in theology and Hispanic studies, said after the opening prayer at the February 6 meeting in a McGuinn Hall lounge. A weekend retreat attended by Cura’s 34 group leaders (most groups have two) had ended the day before at Boston College’s conference center in Dover. The general sentiment on the council was that pasta was a good choice for dinner Saturday night and that, as one member said, “the talks were incredible” (these included presentations by seniors about how they plan to continue the spiritual journey after college). After that, the council divvied up names of group leaders to get in touch with for lunch and discussion of points such as identifying helpful prayers for opening and ending sessions.
The lion’s share of conversation, however, went to Highs and Lows. At first the accent was on the latter—grueling exams were lamented by a couple of students. Another said a bit ruefully, “I started my job today,” eliciting laughs across the two conjoined tables from a group that evidently knew something about her situation at work. Then the talk swung upward: “I deactivated my Facebook page,” one young woman said cheerfully. “It’s already made me more intentional about my relationships.” To most Highs and Lows, Cura members typically add another level of discernment, whether it is how, through the event under discussion, they “saw God” or how the event will serve as “seed”—germinating in a plan of action. One student responded with the thought “to call all of my family this weekend.” The Facebook defector said she was arranging to have lunch with a real-life friend.
Stories of how members came to Cura take on a familiar ring. Decusatis, who leads the council together with philosophy major Ellen Walsh ’12, is typical. He attended a Catholic high school in Wilmington, Delaware, liked going on retreats and participating in prayer groups, and, during what he describes as a “rough transition” to college, sought out fellowship among students of similar spiritual leanings. Michael Boughton, SJ, who directs the University’s Center for Ignatian Spirituality, says he thinks students who participate in Cura are acting on a “desire for community, and community with other believers.” He also says the Cura spirituality is Ignatian through and through.
Boughton pointed out that the Highs and Lows echo an Ignatian exercise called “the Examen” (from the Latin word for examination). It’s a spiritual self-review that involves prayerfully recollecting moments during the day and reflecting on how God was present in those moments, followed by a decision to act in some way. “You’re asking God for light, and letting your mind roam over your day. And you’re looking forward to tomorrow, planting that seed,” which might mean deepening a friendship, reaching out to the poor, or strengthening one’s prayer life, said the priest.
The full Examen (which also involves rigorously analyzing one’s motives) is offered occasionally in Cura’s small groups, and Boughton notes that Boston College students are invited to try it out in other settings as well. These include Campus Ministry’s undergraduate Kairos retreats, offered 10 weekends a year as an opportunity for spiritual contemplation, and the several-weekends-a-year Halftime program (sponsored by the Center for Student Formation), which is not explicitly religious but seeks to enable reflection on the choices that lie ahead, roughly halfway through college.
Mireles of the Christian Life Community says the Highs and Lows are the spiritual exercise most popular with Cura student groups, though there’s no hint of it in the prodigious study materials produced by the international lay association. “It’s more an organic thing that developed among the students,” she says.
At Boston College as elsewhere, participation in Cura tilts toward freshmen and sophomores, partly because many groups taper off when juniors leave campus to study abroad. It is also somewhat by design. The Christian Life Community’s discussion guides often focus on questions of belonging—“how I fit in”—which most urgently concern students early in college, Mireles says. Still, 30 of the nearly 140 current Cura members at Boston College are juniors and seniors, and eight graduate students are involved. An off-campus network of small Ignatian groups is developing in the Boston area, facilitated by campus minister Christine Kamp Cichello ’82, MA’89, working with Cura seniors and recent alumni. “They want to keep the Cura way of life part of their life when they leave,” Cichello says.
At 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 7, a few dozen students, mostly Cura members but some friends as well, gathered in the darkened sanctuary of St. Ignatius Church. They turned out for Cura’s monthly “Taizé Prayer,” named after an ecumenical Christian monastic order in Taizé, France, known for its message of reconciliation and its worldwide following among young adults. As they arrived at St. Ignatius, the students were handed programs for the evening, together with small clear-glass candleholders containing lit candles. They stepped up to the altar, where they sat cross-legged or knelt on pillows in a circle on the marble floor behind the altar table. For the next hour, they sang hymns to the muted accompaniment of a young man on piano and occasionally chanted prayers, including Psalm 84 (“How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord”). In between the prayers and hymns they kept comfortably still for long stretches of meditative silence.
Read more by William Bole