The Magis: An Ignatian Antidote for Burnout

This summer, I finally got around to cleaning up the tall bookshelf in my office overflowing with books and binders. I soon came across a somewhat dusty binder from my second year of teaching high school. I cracked open the binder, remembering myself as the young, enthusiastic newbie who had all the time in the world. That year was particularly exciting for me, because in addition to a full math teaching load, I was given the opportunity to work in campus ministry. My enthusiasm and passion led to tons of ideas I felt I had to implement right away. If they were even tangentially related to ministry, I wanted to do them and do them well. This particular binder contained details for 11 new events in addition to the other annual ministry offerings. Between retreats, fundraisers, and guiding students through geometry… well, I was exhausted just remembering it!

As I flipped through the binder, another memory from that year came to mind. It was probably mid-March when the director of campus ministry called me into her office. She took a deep breath. “Gretchen, you’ve done good work this year. But I want to invite you to consider slowing down.” Her reflection was that our staff was doing too much. Though each event had value, she was not sure they were all in line with the mission of providing for the spiritual life of the school. “And,” she reminded me, “You are still a full-time math teacher as well!” As a stubborn 23-year-old, I was certain she was wrong. Sure, I had been sick a little more than usual that year and was feeling worn down, but I was getting it all done and done well. I was having success! Wasn’t that the point? 

RELATED: 5 Proverbs to Make You a Better Employee

I kept working at the same speed, but as the year went on I realized — I was burning out. Most critically, I was running out of passion for both teaching and ministry. In May, I left to work in another school in the math department. They did not need me in ministry, and at first, I was disappointed. But as I settled into teaching and participating in other areas of the school, I realized I had more time for personal prayer and reflection as well. I was able to take a deep breath and regain perspective and passion for my work.

When I finally returned to ministry, it was at a Jesuit school. I was still teaching math as well, but the pace to settle in to both roles was slower. I was invited to get to know the school the first year before suggesting anything new. This job was also my first experience with Ignatian Spirituality, so I learned a lot of new vocabulary words. One of the new terms I learned was “magis.” A Latin word meaning “the greater,” magis is used in Ignatian Spirituality to mean doing more, the greater, for God. It’s a willingness to be open to change and a willingness to go deeper into something. It means to have big plans and great dreams, just as I had back when I started in education, but with a more concrete focus. It means that when you dream big and plan boldly, you also reflectively direct those plans and dreams toward a deeper relationship with God. 

St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, lived the magis in his own life. He started off wanting to be a great knight and win the hand of a woman. However, when he got hurt in battle and had time to reflect, he discovered that the “greater” life he could lead was one in which he served the Lord in a more direct way. He was open to change directions and to put all of himself into something new. He formed the Society of Jesus and Ignatian Spirituality emerged through his Spiritual Exercises. He dreamed big and planned boldly, but he was lifted up in his work by the passion and energy he felt when he was finally living into the person God created him to be. 

RELATED: Meeting God Through Ignatian Spirituality

As I delved into this word, I realized that in order to truly live the magis, I had to be more generous in my response to Christ. That didn’t mean taking on more tasks or work, but rather discerning which work best utilized my gifts and met God’s desires for me. I had to ask, “How can I give myself to Christ in my life and my work?” which led me to ask, “Where is God really calling me and how can I give myself more completely to that call?” For me, at that moment in time, it meant deciding between math and ministry. And then, when I felt that God was calling me back to ministry, reflecting on how my unique gifts and talents could serve this particular call.

Today, I am no less busy than I was those first couple years, but my work is remarkably different. First, I am filled with energy and excitement every day I get up and go to work. This energy and excitement, I believe, comes from living deeper into the person God created me to be. It comes from both narrowing and redirecting my focus towards God instead of towards my own individual success. It comes from being open and willing to change direction. For me, the focus became ministry. For another person, it might be medicine, finance, motherhood, or another field. If you are truly living into the person God created you to be and seeking the magis in your life and in your work, I believe God graces you with the energy and passion to succeed.