Learning the Jesuit ropes on the Western Frontier

Mi cava no es su cava – 1953

The Jesuits are a caste society, not so colorfully garbed as the Hindus perhaps, and with a slightly less florid mythology, but more upwardly mobile and with a much richer diet. The Jesuit candidate was made to stoop to enter that society through a cellar door as a lowly Novice. Purged of all worldliness by two years of spiritual and corporeal exercises and vowed to poverty, celibacy and obedience in the Society of Jesus, the aspirant had then to turn either left or right, to embrace the life of the Jesuit Scholastic and so take the first step on the long and steep path toward the priesthood, or to choose to be a Temporal Coadjutor, a Lay Brother in the common tongue, and embark upon the level lifetime task of tending to the lawns, the boilers or the feeding of his fellow Jesuits.

Above the Scholastics and Brothers were the Brahmins, the priests or “Fathers.” The priesthood was a distinction conferred by the Church not by the Jesuits. Priests, with their sacramental powers were the elite of the Church, standing under only the bishops, who possessed the meta-sacramental power of making other priests—and bishops!—and who held in their hands the magisterium, the power to teach. The verb is transitive in Catholic circles: to teach The Truth. The Jesuits didn’t much worry about bishops; they reported directly to the Pope.

The caste lines or “grades,” as they were called, were always maintained, though wardened with varying degrees of severity as circumstances dictated. At a place like St. Andrew on Hudson, where I had begun my Jesuit career and where all the grades were represented, and in large numbers, the divisions were strictly observed. The Fathers might speak to anyone they chose, of course, but they and everyone else was advised to stay well clear of the Novices whose delicate spiritual formation was entrusted to the Master of Novices alone. Novices  were in fact rarely permitted to speak to anyone, even themselves. The brand new Scholastics who were engaged in studies in the other wing of that large U-shaped house were kept carefully segregated from their former Novice  companions, nor did they have much to do with the Fathers or Lay Brothers.

Though they all wore the same Jesuit soutane, prayed in the same chapel and ate in the same refectory, the grades slept in different parts of the house and each had its own “aula” or recreation room. The Novices’ was furnished right out of the Lacedaemonian Handbook—no matter, it was only rarely used—while the Fathers’ was festooned with the remains of clerical debauchery, ashtrays, Scotch tumblers and crumpled copies of the New York Times, The Scholastics’ aula flirted with the thin outer edge of debauchery with an LP player and a couple of slices of Tchaikovsky and Grieg. And God only knows what the Brothers were up to: their recreation room appeared to our curious eyes like Hidden Tibet. Beer and cigars, I’m guessing. And copies of Popular Mechanics?

As a teaching Scholastic in Buffalo, I had progressed to the Jesuit high minor leagues, and the Jesuit community at St. Peter Canisius High School, where I was then assigned, was more representative of Jesuit living than that great Georgian House of First Formation that sat above the Hudson. At Canisius there were two Lay Brothers, twelve or so Fathers and nine Scholastics. I have no idea where or how those two Brothers “recreated,” but the Fathers and Scholastics had side by side rec rooms in the residence on Delaware Avenue. They were identically furnished with a non-working fireplace, armchairs, newspapers and a radio, but the Fathers had hard liquor—beer was served to whoever wanted it at dinner—and that unmistakable 50s status signifier, a TV set. At breakfast and lunch, both buffet, the seating was promiscuous, but at dinner the three castes sat apart in the dining room, which I think was pretty much OK with everyone concerned.

This was a new, unregulated phase of the clerical life for me. During my previous seven years as a Jesuit, I had always lived in large communities where we marched in silent lines to and fro at the sound of a bell, stood and knelt and lay down to sleep in unison. Here at Canisius we were a companionable group of nine for whom the bell still tolled daily at 6 AM for meditation and Mass, but from there on out my life was like that of an impoverished and (very) bachelor high school teacher: off to work—though not very far; I lived at the school—home for lunch, back to the classroom, extra-curriculars, the newspapers, dinner, correct papers and exchange the day’s gossip, maybe a late beer and then to bed. I was clothed, fed, supplied with toothpaste and cigarettes, but I had no money. But I also had no mortgage or insurance premiums to pay and no mouths to feed.

The community owned a couple of cars and occasionally the Scholastics would pile into one or two of them and go to a drive-in movie or to a basketball game at the Aud or even on an outing to Niagara Falls, all on a few bucks drawn from the common coffer. It was not heart-stopping entertainment, to be sure, but it was a light-year or so different from what had previously passed as such and so, yes, my heart may have stopped once or twice. And in Buffalo it was permissible for the Scholastics to make their excursions in mufti. It was a disguise that deceived no one, however. Who else traveled in a pack of nine males all wearing black pants and shoes and a white tee-shirt? And when it rained or snowed, as it sometimes did in Buffalo, there was a black sweater and a black raincoat finally to convince the World that we were just some regular guys looking to have a good time.

A door opened and I caught a very brief but very pleasant whiff of the World. It was pleasant but not quite seductive; a sense not of sin, which was very remote indeed from our mild cavorting, but of freedom. I had never really minded the regimentation of Jesuit life—at the very worst I was occasionally bored—but its even temporary and partial withdrawal seemed to put new energy into me. The classroom pumped me full of adrenalin and the relaxed social restraints gave me space to act out. Most of that acting out was in the all-male high school classroom, but there were other stages as well with more diverse audiences. I was now not merely in the Society but also, as they put it in the English novels I never read, “in society.”

That “society” began, modestly enough, with my own students who were as inclined to hang out after hours in school as I had been at Regis. We sat around together in the Yearbook office, at Dramatic Society rehearsals and in the stands at basketball and football games. For the first and only time in my life I could relax at my ease and watch my teams grind their helpless opponents into the hardwood on Delaware Avenue or into the frozen Buffalo tundra on playing fields from East Aurora to North Tonawanda. It was satisfying. It was delicious. And in those happy settings I met my students’ parents and I met Canisius alumni, some of them gentlemen of my own age.

The Fathers were not often seen at those contests. Too exciting, I thought. Or maybe just too cold. I was sadly, terribly, nearly fatally wrong.

The grown-ups of my new acquaintance were generous in their hospitality. American Catholics have always treated their clerics well, and I was often invited by younger alumni to movies or to drinks, always their treat—I walked about the world with empty pockets–and always with the greatest consideration and respect. I had discovered the Catholic layman and I loved him. From their elders there was even the occasional dinner invitation when we young savages—Jesuit training wasted no time whatsoever on grooming, manners or civil discourse—had to learn how to deal with Cornish game hen, artichokes and polite conversation. The refectory habit of wiping off the cutlery before eating seemed to die particularly hard for some.

The student admirers of the Jesuit Scholastic were necessarily more restrained. Generally they just hung out, listened, joked and occasionally indulged in some light mockery, with just a twist of that favorite Jesuit spice, irony. I’m sure it went exactly that way with Ignatius and his pals at the University of Paris: ”No, Lainez, in France we don’t eat the shell, just the snail inside.” Or “Hey, Xavier, did you swallow a lemon or are you just speaking Basque?” Or “Iñigo, here’s another letter from the Inquisition for you. What’s up with that?”

Sometimes, however, there was a more grandiose thought.

“Hey, Mister, why don’t we stop off at my house on the way back to the residence and say hello to my parents?”

That from Master Richard Heppner of 4B, plaid jacket, white bucks and all smiles. Canisius was beating the bejeebers out of the Franciscans’ paid athletes of Bishop Timon High this Saturday afternoon. It was an Athol Springs early October bloodbath. I was feeling very good indeed.

“Sure, Richard, why not.”

Well, I can now think of one reason.

Like every high school senior in the land, Richard had a car, a rather handsome green Pontiac, since the Heppners were reputed to be–how should I put it?– perhaps “loaded,” as one Jesuit vulgarian described them to me, though not so loaded as the parents of Jimmy Dunnigan, also of 4B, who were said to own the Buffalo Raceway. The Heppners were comfortable, very comfortable. Their house certainly looked very comfortable, as did the two very large Chryslers parked in the driveway.

“This is it,” Richard announced, like the Sophoclean messenger from Corinth.

The front door let into a foyer which immediately let into a large and brightly lit living room where the Heppners and friends were assembled.

“We’re here,” Richard announced.

They turned, all eight of them, drinks in hand, away from their guest to regard the intruders.

Holy Crap! It was Dollar Bill!

I was introduced all round, not, however to the guest, whom I knew. I muttered something about having to be back at the residence for dinner and we were back in the driveway in, oh, rough estimate, 45 seconds. .

“Let’s go, Richard. Get this thing moving!”

Of course the Fathers didn’t go to sweaty arenas or sit in frost-raddled stadiums. They had other forms of entertainment, which took place in what was called, in the Jesuit tradition, a “cave.” And I had stumbled into one that late Saturday afternoon in October. No, not just a cave; this was the Mother of All Caves, the one inhabited by Dollar Bill Beeman, S.J.

Like all Jesuit institutions, the origins of the cave are clouded with legend, but I would not be very surprised to discover that after a hard day of working on the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola retired to a small apartment owned by Elizabeth Roser on the Pla de Palau in Barcelona, took off his clerical biretta, loosed his Roman collar and shared a glass of spirits with his devoted Jesuitophile patroness. A glass of cava perhaps.

Whatever its etymology or history, a cave in the Jesuit lexicon was a place of refuge and resort, usually a comfortable living room in the home of a sympathetic and hospitable Catholic family, where a Father might take off his jacket and clerical collar, take a tumbler of aged Scotch in hand, light up a cigar and regale his host and hostess with a tale like this.

“…and you can imagine the look on that dumb Scholastic’s face when he walked in a saw me there.”

The story told, there would be a dinner nicely laid on for the revered guest. A truly successful Jesuit cave was a long-running venture, carefully set up and tenderly nurtured over many years, Sunday after Sunday. “And you’ll be with us of course for Thanksgiving, Father.” And Christmas. And Easter. The welcome mat was always out, and I noticed there were generally many vacancies at the Fathers’ tables on Saturday and Sunday dinners.

The first look on this dumb Scholastic’s face was surprise, but that was almost immediately replaced by terror as I began to realize what I had done. I had unwittingly stumbled into a Father’s cave, sure, but this one was the richly endowed grubstake of the meanest Jesuit gunslinger west of the Gesu. Dollar Bill first came to his superiors’ notice when he raised $100,000 just from bingo in a broken-down Jesuit parish on the Lower East Side. He was quickly pulled out of there and set on the trail of bigger game, at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, the new McQuaid High School in Rochester, and now at the Jewel of the Wild West, Canisius High. In each place Bill had a cover assignment—at Canisius it was the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine—but his real job was simple and straightforward: raise money for the Society of Jesus. Which he did. Relentlessly. Like a blackrobed Donald Trump, he parlayed his world class set of cujones de bronze into pesos de oro. And he took to marking his place in his breviary, the daily office read by every Jesuit priest, with a crisp new dollar bill.

None of my business. None. But I had made a very careless error of trespass: I had wandered, like some clueless Gentile, into the Holy of Holies.

“But look,” an older and wiser Scholastic advised me. “What’s he going to do? Even the Lay Brothers know he’s an alcoholic and it’s quite possible that his liver will explode before you have finished serving your time here. So stay out of his way—he’s never around much anyway—and you’ll be alright.”

He was right. Dollar Bill, whose face in repose resembled a very ripe tomato, was never seen in the Canisius chapel, ate breakfast late and rarely shared either lunch or dinner with the community, possibly because he had undermined the entire Greater Buffalo area with his industrious burrowing. Athletic contests interested him only for their gates. I had only to pass up the midnight beer in the kitchen, where he often held forth, and I’d be OK. Dollar Bill, as it turned out, was as easy to avoid in a Jesuit house as summer in Buffalo.

I did not, alas, persevere long enough in the Society of Jesus to have a cave of my own, but I am proud to say that I now run a very elegant and expensive one for an exceedingly needy Jesuit Father. There are no more Roman collars to doff, no more breviaries to soil with filthy lucre and no Scholastics within miles, and so a lot of the old spelunking ritual is missing. But the Scotch is the same, and so are the stories. And both are better for the aging.

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