Ora et Labora et Magis: A Response to Skipping Class

It wasn’t just that they wanted to get out of class; our students were earnestly seeking ways to manage the demands placed on them . . .

by Mark Dushel

In a recent issue of The Hawkeye, the student newspaper at St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia, one of our seniors wrote an Op-ed piece calling for leniency for seniors to skip class in the midst of completing college applications. Unsurprisingly, his recommendation was met with great enthusiasm by his classmates. However, what I was surprised by was why his classmates were so receptive to his idea. It wasn’t just that they wanted to get out of class; our students were earnestly seeking ways to manage the demands placed on them and skipping class to work on something else seemed like a reasonable suggestion to them.

The student who wrote the article is certainly correct in saying that the pressure of completing college applications, excelling in their teams and clubs, along with the challenging workload we give our students takes a toll on everyone. As a campus minister at the Prep, I see how this stress affects our students everyday. I also began to think about what we, as a Jesuit School, and I myself, as an Ignatian educator, can offer spiritually in order to help our students grow from these challenges.

For us as a school to help provide students with the tools to respond to these challenges, I felt that it was important for me to offer my own suggestions for how each Prepper, (and in turn, those of us entrusted to care for these students), may approach the demands our responsibilities place on us.

            I first encountered Ignatian Spirituality as a student at Boston College where I met many great Jesuits and Ignatian educators who helped me understand what it means to strive for the Magis: to seek more. However, it took meeting a Benedictine monk for me to conceptualize exactly how I could go about striving for the Magis in my day to day life.

As a graduate student of theology, I had the fortune of getting to know a Benedictine monk named Michael working on his PhD. Michael invited me to visit his monastery in Minnesota to learn about what it means to be a monk. For Benedictines, the core of their spirituality is captured in the phrase ora et labora, prayer and work. Anselm Grun, a Benedictine monk and writer, explains in his book Benedict of Nursia: His Message for Today that “more crucial than a balanced partnership of prayer and work is their internal connection. Work is to help us to pray well, and prayer is to help us to do our work well.”

As I spent time in a Benedictine Abbey, I was amazed at how full each day was. I woke up early, exercised, prayed, worked in the woodshop building furniture, prayed again, studied for an exam, prayed again, cleaned the monastery, prayed again, made candles, prayed again, and watched college football before I went to bed (after night prayer, of course).

It was a lot of prayer and a ton of work. Through each I built friendships, deepened my relationship with God, and stretched myself physically and intellectually. I had the kind of days I hope our students have every day they come to 17th St. and Girard Ave. Most importantly, I learned that surrounding myself with a community built on ora et labora helped me accomplish much more than I can on my own. Grun says that “when we work out of prayer we will still get tired, but we will not be exhausted. It is a good tiredness. We have the feeling of having done something for God and other people.” In short, working out of prayer gives us a clear way to strive for the Magis.

Dealing with our busy schedules and increased responsibilities is not something that goes away. Our students will learn after graduation that as we get older, people will ask more and more from us. Building the skills to deal with them here and now is an important step for our students to become “Men and Women For and With Others.” Building the skills to deal with them requires us to learn to entrust our work to God so that we approach our work generously and lovingly.

I don’t think the answer to our busy lives is to do less. In fact, as the great charisms of both the Jesuits and Benedictines teach us, these busy times may be where God is inviting us to learn how much more we are able to do.

Lord, teach me to be generous,
to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to look for any reward,
save that of knowing that I do your holy will.
Amen.

Mark Dushel is Campus Minister for Retreats and Liturgy at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, Philadelphia, PA

A New Season of Ministry

. . . instead of seeing my role as a parent as taking away from the energy I could give to my work, I was able instead to notice all the ways that this can enrich my work and faith life

By Huy Huynh

Looking back on my last school year, I can now see there were some places where my work had become stale, stagnant, and routine. Having been in this position for over ten years, I was able to run some programs and retreats on autopilot. However, the danger of being complacent became clear during my last retreat of the year.

I was unsure of whether or not I wanted to write about this. Would it be a poor reflection of my ministry, my workplace or, in general, me as a person? The more I thought and prayed on it, the more I believed that at least some of you would be able to relate. So here it is. 

It was a retreat that I had created and run many times. However, this time it would be different because two other high schools were joining us. I made some adjustments to involve the other schools but, in large, kept the program the same. I think the retreat was fun, relaxing, and valuable to some degree, for all the students. However, as the retreat finished, I knew that I had missed the mark. I had used a program that was planned for my students. I forgot to start with the “who.” Who was I ministering to? Where were all of these students coming from? What were their needs? In short, how could I meet them where they are?

What had led to this complacency? I have come up with a few ideas.

Having run these programs so many times, I could treat these programs like a formula. I lost sight of the fact that the variables are always changing. The students and leaders are always different. Their chemistry and the spirit of the retreat is always different. The context, or what is happening in our lives is different. No program, class, or retreat is really the same and I tried to make it that.

There was something else that was different. Me. There had been so many changes in my personal life. My second child was just born a few months before and my daughter had just turned two. While, for me, becoming a parent has often felt like the best thing that has ever happened in my life, it has also changed everything. There is more to balance. More to do. More to take care of. More to love. 

I can also say parenting is ALL consuming. It has taken up so much time, energy, and attention. There is more worry and more gray hairs. There is less sleep and less time for relaxing. It can seem like there is no time for hobbies, personal care or my own spiritual wellness. There are few opportunities to go for a run, go hiking, read, be silent, pray or go on a personal retreat.

But being a father is not all sleepless nights and busy days.  It has also enriched my life in so many ways.  It has helped me to remember that everyone was someone’s little baby, everyone is a child of God. It has helped me to learn to trust my instincts.  I have had to learn how to be more flexible and ready to reset when things don’t go according to plan.

I think that last year I was so consumed by trying to manage the busyness of family and worklife, that I allowed myself to become stagnant at work.  But this year, instead of seeing my role as a parent as taking away from the energy I could give to my work, I was able instead to notice all the ways that this can enrich my work and faith life.

With this new perspective, I felt different coming back to school. Something shifted. It did not feel like just another school year. Rather, it felt like a new school year with new students and new possibilities. I engaged my work with a sense of openness, freedom, and creativity. I started with the questions of who am I serving, what is our goal, how do we get there, and how is God in this? I have loosened my grips on planned agendas and programs to leave space for new ideas from students, co-workers, myself, and of course the Holy Spirit. My ministry has felt alive and fulfilling.

And so what has changed? Perhaps it was the humbling experience of a tough retreat that woke me up. Perhaps it was finding more confidence, peace, and trust in my role as a father. Perhaps it was being more intentional about making the time to take care of my mind, body, and spiritual life.

In all of this, the thing that has surprised me most, is my comfort with the lack of balance and my imperfection. In my younger years, I would have spent so much time beating myself up for not running a “perfect” program. There is nothing like parenting to remind you that “perfect” is just not possible. I can only give what I have to give and that has to be enough.

I wonder if anyone can relate to this. Have you experienced these different seasons of your ministry, your personal life, and your spiritual life? How do you see them connecting or affecting each other? How have you made peace with imperfection?

Huy Huynh is a campus minister at a Catholic high school in the Boston area.