September 24, 2013

MISSION MATTERS: One Vision, One Voice

Reflect on what the Jesuits mean when they say "Magis."

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After the Second Vatican Council, the Jesuits and other religious orders renewed their efforts to understand and integrate into their lives the foundational experiences of their founders. Much that has been written about the character of Jesuit education attempts to ground educational philosophy and practice in The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. In attempting to communicate the vision of Jesuit education to their colleagues, Jesuits have begun by explaining the words that have a special meaning in the context of the Jesuit life. Unfortunately in some cases, the words and phrases are discussed outside of their original context. Some of these words have taken on meanings that are removed from their source in the foundational experience of Ignatius and the Society of Jesus.

Perhaps the most misused Ignatian jargon is the term magis, a Latin adverb which means "more." The word occurs in a key passage of The Spiritual Exercises, known as The First Principle and Foundation. After explaining that our purpose in life involves the service of God, Ignatius encourages people praying through The Exercises to reflect on the importance of using created things, in so far as they help one fulfill one's purpose. On the other hand, one should avoid whatever proves to be an obstacle to choosing to do God's will. Ignatius concludes the First Principle and Foundation with these challenging words.

Thus, as far as we are concerned, we should not want health more than illness, wealth more than poverty, fame more than disgrace, a long life more than a short one, and similarly for all the rest, but we should desire and choose only what helps us more towards the end for which we are created.

In the context of Ignatius, magis means making the difficult choices involved in submitting oneself to God's plan.

Taken out of its original context in the writing of Ignatius, the term has been misapplied so frequently that it has become the justification for attitudes and practices some of which are not in harmony with the spirit of Ignatius. Magis has been frequently misused to mean simply more: more faculty, more success, more championships, more donors, more buildings, more programs, more students.

The title magis has been given to many programs in Jesuit high schools, colleges and universities. There are Magis golf tournaments, Magis awards, Magis societies (for donors), Magis conversations, Magis learning centers, Magis orientations, Magis service programs and Magis evenings for the faculty. One of the computer servers at this university is named Magis. Yearbooks and student newspapers are titled Magis. One Jesuit organization calls its periodical Magis-ine.

Forty years ago when Jesuit educators were looking for roots of their educational practices in the Spiritual Exercises, one Jesuit described magis as

... a thirst for the more, for the greater good, for the most courageous response to the challenge of our time. The Jesuit school, in its faculty and curriculum, must foster the frontier spirit, encouraging its students to seek always to transcend the boundaries and limits. This implies, of course, that students will master the skills and understandings expected of the well informed and competent high school student. A Jesuit school should encourage its students never to be satisfied with mere mastery, but rather to explore the deeper human dimensions and implications of their learning.

These are certainly admirable goals for educators, but these concepts do not reflect the use of the word magis in The Spiritual Exercises. In the foundational experience of the Jesuits, magis means choosing to conform one's will with God's plan, even if that plan calls one to accept heroic challenges in a spirit of indifference to one's natural desires. In the writings of Ignatius, one does not strive for "the Magis." Rather magis denotes the degree to which one surrenders oneself to the plan of God.

At times God's plan may involve less rather than more. Using magis as jargon obscures its meaning and dilutes the spiritual challenge of Ignatius.

— Anthony McGinn, S.J., special assistant to the Missouri-New Orleans Province of the Society of Jesus.

Higher purpose. Greater good.
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