I had a college ring that my parents gave me upon graduation with my PhD. I imagine these days this ring is not worth much but, to me, it is priceless. Getting my doctorate in chemistry was a victory for someone who dropped out of college as an undergraduate years before. The semester I dropped out was a tough one. I was not quite sure who I was or where I wanted to go. Like many high school kids of that era, I was sold on a dream that was not mine. While coming home and pressing “restart” was ultimately a gift for me, it did not feel so at the time. While he never said anything, I imagine my dad was quite disappointed and did not understand what was going on with his unmotivated son. Getting that ring was a celebration for me and, just as importantly, a celebration I shared with my dad.
I do not wear the ring very much anymore. After 30 years it is the same size but unfortunately I am not. However, whenever I come across this ring I smile. I think of my parents and I laugh at how a goofball like me gamed the system to enable using “Dr.” as a surname. I recall my sister-in-law asking me at the time, “You are not going to call yourself Dr. are you?” “Of course I am,” I replied. “I earned it.” I do not recall now but I probably gave her the lecture on how medical students march ahead of PhD candidates at graduation. My academic rank is higher. Over the years my mother would voice her disapproval when I commented “not bad for a college dropout.” Dad would smirk as I embraced my past.
This all came back to me recently as I considered getting a new ring with the second doctorate program I just finished. My delay in ordering a second ring has been mostly due to not knowing my current ring size. But then, something Ignatian hit me. I asked myself – why did I want the ring? Was it for me? Was it for a sense of accomplishment? Or, was it to show others? I began to consider now how a college ring fit in with “humility” and “spirituality.”
I was a late bloomer in realizing how much humility played a role in spirituality. My PhD was from a mid-major. It was those “Big 10” guys that were full of themselves. I goofed on my peers who thought where they went to school or who they worked under was important. They would cringe when I told them it was professors at little Governor State University, south of Chicago, that laid the foundation for my success in analytical chemistry.
In formation, a priest who I considered quite full of himself often spoke of humility. That was kind of like Jackie Gleason giving dieting tips. It was not until Ignatian spirituality hit home did I realize that I cannot embrace the cross and myself at the same time. I cannot attest to being a man of humility but, I know when I stop thinking of “me” I can hear God much better. I had to learn that true humility is a focus on God’s Kingdom and not mine. It is only when I leave my kingdom that I can rise above the pettiness of this world.
A nurse recently asked me what kind I exercise do I like to do. I told her, “The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.” I thought it was funny. She, on the other hand, did not seem amused. Yet, I have come to realize that one must approach the Spiritual Exercises, like an athlete. One must be dedicated, persevere and as Paul said, “finish the race.” (2 Timothy 4:7) I had planned on continuing this series with several more themes from Ignatian Spirituality but, I decided that to embrace Ignatian Spirituality one has to experience the Spiritual Exercises for themselves. No short cuts, no skipping laps. Spirituality, like faith, takes work. It requires prayer, discernment and commitment. Like Sunday Mass, it takes more than simply showing up. Spirituality is not measured in performance and execution but in contemplation and renewed focus on Christ. I do not hit a “PR” every week, but I stay with the training.
That is where my ring comes in.
Never would I have imagined that a college ring would lead me to discern my attitude. I’ve become a contemplative! Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam – For the Greater Glory of God. I realize now that if that second ring celebrates my interest in Catholic bioethics or reminds me of my support network in tough times, that’s cool (probably even cooler if I wrote the same check to “Feed My Staving Children” than to Jostens). If the ring is for bling or vanity, I need to walk away and celebrate seeing past the near occasion of sin.
The war with myself is over. Certainly, there are still battles to fight in regard to faith, action and love. I still need to better ignore The Accuser. I celebrate that most days I do not fight myself as much. When I get riled, I am much better at looking at why I am so irritated. I smile now when I realize its “Greg’s ego” trying to pull him back to the emptiness of his kingdom. On a good day, I pray for Jesus to help me take the emotion away. I have learned that even when I cannot forgive, Jesus can, does and will teach me. With prayer, the emotion subsides. Amen! I am not at the end of my spirituality project; I have simply reached an important milestone. May our paths continue to journey to Christ.
When I write of Ignatian spirituality, I am not writing to the theologian or the Jesuit. I’m writing to the person in the pew who, like me, got lost in struggles with career, with the pressure of responsibilities and the anger that was consuming me. Ignatian spirituality does not take away the labor, it calls for us to change our attitudes and focus on it. In Ignatian-speak, it is moving from desolation to consolation. It is in changing the attitudes that move us away from God to those that return us to God’s freedom. Each of the major spiritualities has a way of dealing with this. As a man raised to “not eat quiche,” I found that the spirituality of St. Ignatius speaks in a manner that easily resonates with me. It does not have to be Ignatian Spirituality. Try Benedictine, Carmelite, Alphonsin, Franciscan, Dominican… they have all successfully led people to realign themselves to focus living above this world and on the Gospel. Explore the treasures of the Church and find your flavor. Climb the Seven Story Mountain. Leave the funk and emptiness this world promises behind by living the faith we profess. A faith that requires action.