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Schouborg, Gary (2002). "The Discerning Future of Jesuits".


The Discerning Future of Jesuits


Gary Schouborg


A possible future for Jesuits would be as spiritual guides. They could deepen their understanding of discernment and apply its healing clarity to our contemporary frenetic culture, replacing dogmatic conviction with profound understanding and rabid passion with deep commitment.


Discernment is our ability to be engaged in the world without being overly caught up in what we are doing. It is an experiential rather than a theoretical skill. It gives practical meaning to the Jesuit slogan to be in the world but not of it. Or, to paraphrase another Jesuit slogan, discernment is the ability to experience Godís presence in all things — to feel Godís presence rather than merely to believe in it theoretically. More like riding a bike than knowing our catechism, discernment can be learned only by doing (and feeling). We cannot develop it by memorizing, or even believing in, the most profound truths. Spiritual guides can point us in its general direction; they can identify our mistaken understandings of it and our unskillful practices in trying to achieve it; but in the final analysis we must each develop discernment for ourselves.


To date, both the Jesuit order and its admirers have failed to grasp the radical nature of discernment. It is inherently experiential; it is personal; it transcends any institutional authority. No formula, no belief is sufficient to give us discernment, no more than the best instruction manual possible is sufficient for us to ride a bike. Nor can anyone else, however skilled, ride the bike for us. Only we, within our innermost experience, can discern when we are possessed by what we are doing and when we are the free initiator of our action. Only we can acknowledge that we are obsessed and then let go. Just as being overly involved in what we are doing closes us off from our deepest resources and from others, so letting go opens us to both. This unconditional opening up has been labeled differently by various religious traditions: enlightenment, liberation, realizing Brahman, being one with God or Allah, union with Jesus, being born again. The labels are unimportant. We need to let go of them as well as of everything else. Then we can engage in our world according to its requirements, not our narrowly perceived needs. Then we can enjoy the world as a precious gift without being possessed by it.


The gigantism called the Roman Catholic Church is a bloated bureaucracy whose canonical structures once served legitimate public purposes that are now better addressed by secular institutions. Any religious institution with authoritarian pretensions misdirects spiritual energy by trying to harness it with authoritative pronouncements and policies. As an official Catholic organization, the Jesuit order only plays into this misdirection. Spiritual goals such as discernment require strategies more like the communicational methods of fan clubs than the authoritarian methods of totalitarian governments. An enthusiastic but non-rabid fan club of Humphrey Bogart does not insist that he is the best actor ever, that the club is the true interpreter of his films and his public comments, that those outside the club cannot possibly understand what films are really all about. Such a club merely expresses its joy in the acting and personality of Bogie and makes his films, photographs, and writings easily available to those who would enjoy them. Similarly, Christianity should be a Jesus fan club that makes him available to those whom he might inspire, knowing all the while that other historical figures will similarly inspire others.


It is beside the point to argue that my parallel between Bogie and Jesus is trivial because of the significant differences between them. The important parallel is this: just as knowing all the facts about Bogieís life cannot produce an appreciative experience of his acting and personality, so all the religious beliefs about Jesus are insufficient to produce the unconditioned openness that is at the heart of all the great religious traditions. At best, a system of beliefs can only draw our attention to Jesus as a person whose life and teachings have led many to a spiritual liberation. At worst, the system entombs an untouched heart in a hard cognitive shell. A religious institution that fosters such a system only simulates spirituality.


The Jesuits can rediscover the experiential practice of discernment, instead of remaining bound tothe dead letter of Catholic law, if they follow the example of many contemporaries who are seeking to discover discernment in themselves. There is nothing here for Jesuits to contribute any better than others. But it is something worthwhile, something that would restore them to their own spiritual legacy and to the deepest impulse in every religious tradition.

Gary Schouborg, PhD

Walnut Creek, CA

I am grateful to Frank Briganti and Ken Ireland for their immense help in improving earlier drafts of this article.