Sexuality and Ignatian Spirituality
~ Conway Fellowship Project Report ~
Dr. Jennifer Beste
The purpose of my 2010 Conway Fellowship, funded by Xavier University’s Ruth J. and Robert A. Conway Institute for Jesuit Education, was to foster dialog (within Xavier and among Jesuit institutions) about how to integrate Ignatian Spirituality and values of care of the whole person, careful discernment, and justice and peace into students’ experiences of sexuality, embodiment and intimate relationships. My concern for students’ wholistic development in regard to sexuality and relationships has arisen from teaching Christian Sexual Ethics and learning from students about hookup culture on college campuses. As I read students’ anonymous papers and listened to their experiences and perspectives on hookups, I was struck by the dramatic chasm between many college students’ positive expectations of “wild” college life (fueled by the media and pop culture) and their actual experiences of hookups, which are described by most men and women in anonymous papers as empty, unfulfilling, and/or psychologically damaging. A substantial percentage of college women experience a dramatic psychological downward spiral, leading to loss of self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and even posttraumatic stress symptoms. Such a chasm between expectations and actual experiences led me to press my students with an obvious question: “If the consensus among most of you (college juniors and seniors) is that hookups don’t make you happy and are often harmful, why is this culture perpetuated year after year?” The answer, according to my classes, was no great mystery: “The hookup culture is perpetuated only because there’s a new crop of freshmen each year who are clueless and think that hooking up is expected of them.”
If this is correct, the key to undermining the predominance of hookup culture on college campuses is to break the cycle by giving first-year college students a dose of reality that includes perspectives of sophomores, juniors, and seniors along with the space to reflect critically about what they really want in regard to sexuality and relationships. The Conway Fellowship enabled me to interview another diverse cohort of Xavier students and substantially revise the 2009 “Hooking Up?” video I had produced the previous summer. The 2010 “Hooking Up?” DVD explored actual Xavier students’ experiences and perspectives on hookup culture, the way in which this culture is a breeding ground for sexual violence, and fresh ideas about how to create a more just sexual culture on campus. This DVD was shown at a required “Hooking Up?” event for all first year students on September 27- 28, 2010. The purpose of this event was to offer first year students a dose of reality about the negative effects of hookup culture and invite them into a conversation about discerning what they really desire in regard to sexuality and relationships during college. Between video clips, upper-class peer leaders facilitated small group discussion among first year students. This event was grounded in Ignatius’ belief that God reveals God’s desires for us through our human experiences; the overall message was that we have the capacity to discern which choices regarding sexuality and relationships will truly fulfill us if we take the time to reflect carefully about our and others’ human experiences.
Furthermore, the Conway Fellowship enabled me to develop further programs for fostering conversation about Ignatian spirituality and particularly Ignatian insights about integrating human dimensions of sexuality and spirituality. Given all the subtle ways in which the media influences us to objectify sex, bodies, and our very selves, and stunts our imaginations about how to envision and realize healthy sexuality and relationships, I felt students needed opportunities to develop a deeper spiritual foundation to ground their sense of what they really desire in regard to sexuality and relationships. Besides organizing faculty and staff lunches about how we integrate Ignatian Spirituality and values into our teaching and programming and how to empower students create a more sexually just culture, I organized and led a “Sexuality and Ignatian Spirituality” retreat for undergraduates. I invited Xavier students to commit to a five-session retreat during which they would interact with diverse Ignatian spiritual directors and faculty about how to experience God and identify God’s presence more deeply within their daily lives. After delving into their image of God and relationship with the divine, twenty six students explored the resources that Ignatian spirituality offers in regard to discerning which desires regarding sexuality and relationships will lead to consolation (genuine happiness and wholistic flourishing) and which desires, by contrast, lead to desolation (emptiness and suffering). Ultimately, students wrestled with what it means to be a deeply relational and vulnerable human being, capable of wounding and being wounded, as well as loving and being loved by God and others in a deeply fulfilling way. They were highly engaged in listening to spiritual directors’ and faculty members’ frank stories and their ideas of how Ignatian spirituality affects them as sexual and relational beings. Challenging spiritual directors with insightful questions, students openly explored together what such integration might mean for their present and future selves. See student responses here.
Lastly, a primary goal of my Conway Fellowship was to offer resources to foster honest conversation among students, faculty, and staff at all Jesuit colleges and universities about Ignatian spirituality, hookup culture, and healthy relationships. I have been producing and editing a dvd on clips of Ignatian spiritual directors and theology faculty who participated in the “Sexuality and Ignatian Spirituality” retreat. While these video clips do not capture the rich reality of what students experienced during this retreat, they can be used during future Ignatian spirituality retreats at Jesuit institutions (both at the high school and university levels). Faculty at Jesuit institutions may also wish to draw on these video clips to integrate Ignatian spirituality into their courses. These video clips on integrating Ignatian spirituality into students’ sexual and relational lives will hopefully assist Jesuit institutions to empower students to identify and speak prophetically against dehumanizing and violent aspects of contemporary American sexual culture and create more sexually just norms and practices on our campuses. With better-integrated intellectual, moral, and spiritual lives, students will enhance their ability to form and delight in healthy relationships with God and others, ultimately leading to a greater sense of flourishing throughout their lives.