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Emersonian Self-Reliance and Jesuit Spirituality

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) March 18, 2014: Around a year ago, the cardinal-electors of the Roman Catholic Church elected a new pope. For the first time in history, they elected a pope from the New World: Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina became Pope Francis, the first pope to choose the name Francis -- in honor of St. Francis of Assisi.

Cardinal Bergoglio was also the first Jesuit to be elected pope. The Jesuit order was founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola, who is also the compiler/editor of the Spiritual Exercises. Early Jesuit missionaries were sent to China, India, North America, and South America. The Jesuit missionaries to South America were commemorated in the 1986 movie The Mission, starring Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons. I wonder how many, if any, of the cardinal-electors saw that movie.

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Unfortunately for the Jesuits, Pope Clement XIV officially suppressed the Jesuit order in 1773. However, subsequently, Pope Pius VII restored the Jesuit order in 1814. I am reasonably sure that the cardinal-electors knew about this history of the Jesuit order when they elected Cardinal Bergoglio to be the first Jesuit pope.


I was reminded of all of these events recently as I read Lawrence Buell's book Emerson (2003). No, Buell does not mention the Jesuits. But he devotes considerable space to discussing Emerson's famous idea of Self-Reliance (Buell's capitalizations) and Emerson's theorizing about greatness (pages 87, 89).

Of course it still remains to be seen if Pope Francis will achieve any lasting greatness as pope.

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But certain early Jesuit missionaries achieved a measure of greatness that Emerson would probably give them credit for.

Even though it may sound to some people like mixing apples and oranges, Jesuit spirituality involves cultivating Emersonian Self-Reliance, as Buell delineates it.

But first a word about why this may sound to some people, including perhaps Buell himself, like comparing apples and oranges.

Ignatius Loyola was a Roman Catholic. Indeed, he is a canonized saint in the Roman Catholic Church -- and the patron saint of spiritual directors. So he represents the Old World, even though certain early Jesuit missionaries were sent to the New World -- for example, in the 17th century, some French Jesuits were sent to New France (now known as Canada).

By contrast, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was born and raised and educated in the part of the New World known as New England. He is the intellectual descendant of New England Puritans -- Calvinists. (Oddly enough, Ignatius Loyola and John Calvin had both been students at the University of Paris at about the same time.)

For a time, Emerson was an ordained Unitarian minister. However, he gave up that position. Subsequently, he became the ring-leader of the Transcendentalists, a self-appointed bunch of American cultural missionaries devoted to advancing "advanced contemporary thought (particularly, German, French, and British) about philosophy, theology, education, social reform, literature, and the arts," according to Buell (page 32).

To spell out the obvious, Catholic spirituality, including Ignatian spirituality, is transcendentalist in spirit, but not necessarily connected with the New England Transcendentalists.

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But in time "Transcendentalist" Emerson transitioned into "later" Emerson (Buell, page 36).

DIGRESSION: The American novelist William T. Vollmann has written a 1,000-page historical novel, Fathers and Crows (1992), about the French Jesuit missionaries in New France, drawing extensively on their written reports. For an accessible account of 17th-century Massachusetts Bay Colony, with special attention to John Winthrop (famous for the city on a hill imagery) and Roger Williams (famous for insisting on the separation of church and state), see Sarah Vowell's book The Wordy Shipmates (2008). END OF DIGRESSION.


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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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