Gaudium et spes: What Not to Do in Your Last Semester

January 19, 2018

For some of us, it’s already here: the final semester. For fewer of us, we know where we’ll be and what we’ll be doing when it’s done. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people.

But even still, like most of us, I am fairly confident everything will work out. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel even if I don’t know precisely where it’s shining. With that confidence can come a sense of complacency.

Now more than ever, Georgetown can feel like a layover. Only a few more pages to read, a handful of basketball games, some M Street dinners, and then it will be time to board our flights at the end of the semester. Our GPAs are more or less settled. Our academic and extracurricular commitments are starting to dwindle. We begin to think about the end of our relationships, at least as we’ve known them here.

So what do we make of our last semester? Well, considering I have no more expertise than you do, I’ll turn to someone else.

Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, came up with a prayer called the Examen in the first half of the 16th century. Hopefully some of you have heard of it. Although it is designed to focus on a single day, I think it can help us find meaning in our time at Georgetown, no matter how long we’ve been here or how long we have left.

The Examen is basically a review of the day. What happened? What did we do? Who did we see, and how did we treat them?

The idea behind this prayer is as old as philosophy: the unexamined life is not worth living. Especially at Georgetown, some days can be a blind rush of Google Calendar alerts, class, meetings, caffeine, and one to five hours less than a full night’s sleep. Not much room for examination.

I try to call home every Sunday. Inevitably, the first question my parents ask me is what I did the week before. Freshman year, I could give a pretty comprehensive account because there wasn’t too much to keep track of. By the end of sophomore year, when some of my commitments began ramping up, I started having trouble. By the end of junior year, I couldn’t remember Saturday.

This was a pretty disturbing phenomenon when I first recognized it, and a fairly disconcerting one for my parents, I’m sure. By the time Sunday came around, the previous Monday through Friday felt like one big tree falling in the forest, but I wasn’t around to hear it. Did it really happen if I couldn’t remember it?

It is not bad to be busy. The Jesuits certainly don’t think so. In fact, you might be surprised at how busy some of Georgetown’s Jesuits are, balancing teaching, writing, administrative, and religious obligations every day.

But busyness becomes destructive when it distracts us from the things in which we find purpose, joy, and meaning. And for Ignatius, action and contemplation are mutually reinforcing, not mutually exclusive. Time spent in contemplation does not equal less action. Instead, contemplation yields enthusiasm and resoluteness, and action at its best is inherently contemplative. This is what Georgetown and the Jesuits mean by “Contemplation in Action.” Both together, every moment of the day.

The first step toward contemplation in action, and the first step of the Examen, is to give thanks for what happened in our day. A minute’s reflection will reveal a handful of things worthy of thanks—a kiss, a meal, a song, a smile. Most of them are forgotten not because they are unimportant. In fact, Ignatius would have us believe God makes himself known to us in each of them. Instead, we forget them because we do not take the time to reflect on them.

All of us have experienced an abundance of good things at Georgetown—the most fundamental one being that we get to be here at all. Our relationships have been a source of growth and consolation. Our professors have challenged us to read and think in new and better ways. Our Georgetown community has become a home.

Consider the blessings you have found over your time here, as small as you can remember, because giving thanks leads to gratitude. Calling on ourselves to attend to those moments in reflection opens us up to the ones awaiting us today and tomorrow and for the rest of the semester.

I can’t pretend to tell you what to do in your last semester, let alone your last three, or five, or seven. I’ll leave that to the Stall Seat Journal. I’ll only say that, in our last semester, the time when we’re not ‘doing’ anything matters just as much as what we do.

Gaudium et spes is coordinated by the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus. The Knights of Columbus is a Catholic, fraternal, and service organization. This column focuses on how Catholic values, principles, and teachings can inform the lives of all Georgetown students, regardless of faith. Additionally, this column attempts to facilitate dialogue about matters of faith and inspire conversations about topics that impact the daily lives of Hoyas, from national politics to campus news. Gaudium et spes appears online every other Friday.

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