In the middle of my senior year at Regis High School, and without losing a step of my steady pace in the tracks of Miss Maloney and her fellow steeplechase artists, I, the infant moyen sensual, told the Reverend Thomas Burke, S.J. of my intentions of signing up with his Company. Father Burke seemed neither surprised nor gratified. Eventually he did give me a talk about “tapering off” my social life, a talk couched in such convoluted subjunctives that I construed it as a least possible future potential and wrote it off as faulty syntax. And though I wasn’t making any noticeable headway against the perpetual virginity of Rosemary Maloney, I did seem to be picking up some ground on some of the other chaste sprinters, so why give up the chase now, I thought. Another lap or two around the track wouldn’t hurt, and besides, celibacy and exercise were not after all incompatible, as I later had occasion to observe in detail in the Jesuits’ own basic training. So I kept on social jogging, now cheered by the new knowledge that on one lap soon Rosemary Maloney would look back over her freckled shoulder and her pursuer would not be there.
It’s one thing to be rejected for another woman, but quite another to be deserted by a beau who had gone off to fling himself forever at the feet of the Blessed Virgin. The announcement of this unlikely turn of events triggered a whole series of tearful farewells as the hunter made his final rounds and kissed all the game goodbye, that untouched tiger named Maloney, who seemed quite unmoved by the news, and the smaller, shyer creatures who never even got a decent shot in their direction. The pathos was almost unbearable since I perversely insisted on wearing my new black and starkly clerical suit on my last dates. Miss Maloney shed a single chaste tear, Sister Gabriel’s dabbed at her moistening eyes, possibly masking a small sigh of relief, and my mother wept outright, though in her case the sigh, and the relief, were as audible as a hurricane.
There were other, wordless farewells. The Regis Jesuits and my father merely shook hands with me, the former with knowing smiles, my father in perfect astonishment. He knew even less about the Jesuits, or his son, than I did.
I had gotten to know many Jesuits during four years of high school and so I thought I knew what Jesuits were like, though I had little idea how they got to be that way. But on July 31, 1945, I and a number of others were willing to find out. There were nine of us who rendezvoused that late July afternoon in Grand Central Station. We were not exactly a catholic representation of the Universal Church, but a pretty fair replica of Irish American Catholicism and its clergy. We were all moderately bright, tolerably virtuous and now visibly nervous, though obviously eager for what then seemed more like an adventure rather than a change of life so absolute as to be unimaginable.
We established ourselves in the New York Central club car as if we had never known any other abode and bravely attempted to contrive a debauch out of loud laughter, a few Tom Collinses and a great many Lucky Strike cigarettes. We argued the merits of – what else? – Regis and Fordham prep and Xavier High School, already our past, and yet we showed only minimal curiosity about each other, oblivious of the strong possibility that we might be spending the next 60 years of our lives in each other’s company. And some in their haste to embrace the clerical style already wore black suits and fedoras.
The clothes were not impromptu. Like feckless campers heading into a summer that might last a day or a lifetime, we had been provided with a list of clothes to bring with us, and on it was the black suit and the black hat now being flashed so self-consciously by some. The entire enterprise of my going off from home, family and familiar ways had taken on its first, and perhaps only note of reality a few weeks earlier when my mother and I made our cautious way into Rogers Peet men’s store and bought a black suit, black shoes and socks, and a strange token of elegance, a collarless white shirt with French cuffs, possibly against the day when I might be named Father General of the Jesuits. There were other things too, underwear and such, none of which I ever thought about – or saw – again. It was the full extent of my trousseau; nothing further was ever assessed or asked in specie or kind for my upkeep for as long as I was a Jesuit. I was giving myself, and I suppose that was enough.
We shared a couple of cabs from the Poughkeepsie train station to the Novitiate near Hyde Park and pressed an extravagant tip and all our remaining cigarettes on the drivers. They deposited us directly in front of the towering Georgian façade of our new home and disappeared back down the curving driveway toward US 1. Before us was the large oaken front door of St. Andrew on Hudson, and directly behind us a statue of the Sacred Heart looked dubiously at His new recruits. Behind Him were lawns, paths and woods that slipped down to the Hudson, which glided silently back to New York City in the July sunlight.
The nine of us were not even Novices. We were the lowest of the low, Candidates for the Novitiate, and so we were briefly greeted by the Master of Novices, an encounter that meant nothing at the time, and committed directly to the care of five real Novices, our “Angels,” who introduced themselves as “Brother,” a new Jesuit term to all of us. Brother David Crowe was in charge – someone was always in charge – and he was assisted by Brothers Crowley, Carmody, Colombo and Scally, all of them Novices entering their second year. Their task was to walk us through the Novices’ life and an easy and reassuring pace, to break us into the tougher but panted-after reality that lay within the cloister of that Jesuit house.
We took our little dance lessons at the “Front Door,” the public rooms across the front of the building where Externs might resort. Two of these rooms were converted into a miniature Novitiate, one into a kind of study hall and the other a small dormitory. We ate in the guests’ dining room, though well sequestered from the real guests, whom I already regarded with a kind of condescension as mere Externs. We kept our worldly trousers and shirts but now wore vaguely clerical black jackets of the type once worn in the gray version by some grocery clerks.
It was a skillful performance all round. The Angels were affable and relaxed, as well they might have been since I later discovered that “angeling” was one of the cushier assignments in the Novitiate. They were nicely chosen. David Crowe was superior stuff, noticeably pious without being overwhelming; very calm and very reassuring. Crowley and Scally were our delegates from the “OK guy” category, marvelous companions who convinced us by his simple existence in this place that the familiar classes of being had not been annihilated. Colombo was sober and circumspect; steady or, better – the word was already emerging in Angel conversation as the ultimate compliment –solid. There was a hidden social message concealed there as well, but it was too early for me to detect it. Carmody was our first eccentric, a flake in the grand tradition, and I later surmised that the Master of Novices had chosen him to be an Angel as part of some personal reclamation project. A year later I found myself hoping, in vain, that even if I couldn’t play the Frank Crowley part, I might still slip into next summer’s angelic cast as that season’s Thomas Carmody.
We prayed a little in the morning, went to Mass, cleaned our quarters in silence, and afterwards David Crowe gave us a brief and exceedingly unrevealing conference on the Rules, whatever they might be. After lunch we went on walks together or played whatever sports our numbers permitted. All the Angels were passably athletic, but brother Colombo was just inept enough to convince Candidate LaBella that he could get through this. And perhaps it was then that Candidate Toland, who abhorred sports, decided that he could not get through this. Jocks can smell jocks of course, even in our mild cavorting. Crowley and Scally, jocks to the core, mentally embraced Candidate Gorman and myself, and made an urgent private note to keep an eye on Candidate Gilligan, who had World Class Competitor written all over him.
It was a pleasant, almost jolly life and it lasted two weeks. By then I had gotten over smoking. There were simply no cigarettes available. We were informed the Jesuits could and did smoke, which I knew, but only with the permission of their Superior. I presumed that at some point, but not for four or maybe seven years, the permission would be automatic. The silence while working did not seem very difficult, and there were few other real privations. It was a little like going to camp, we all said. I had never been to camp and I’m not sure any of the others had, either.
It was not exactly like camp, however, even our imagined version. We were introduced enigmatically to the “Rule of Touch” – Don’t. None of us particularly wanted to touch the other, but it never occurred to us that we shouldn’t. No one dared ask why, but minds were doubtless turning. In my first year in high school, a very small Jesuit priest, who was for his sins assigned to teach a state-mandated hygiene course to us on hygienic savages, one day enter the classroom, deliberately folded his hands on the desk before him, cleared his throat and shouted in a whisper, “Boys, if there are any problems about taking a bath see me in private.” Problems about taking a bath? That single sentence was our entire sex education, and the effect was electric. Forty adolescent minds promptly descended into the bathtub and found there in the tepid water the problem that Father Zema had so thoughtfully pointed out. The Candidates too knew with the same adolescent instinct that there would be a lot more to this. The Rule of Touch was filed for future reference.
If the full import of the Rule of Touch was a present mystery, two other revelations had more substance. Brother Crowe must have rehearsed this one a thousand times. “Many religious orders have penitential practices… of the flesh… [Oh?]. Nevertheless… [It was coming, whatever it was] obedience is really the highest and most rewarding of the virtues… [Will he make it?]…” Suddenly they were out on the desk before him, a foot-long whip of braided white cords and some sort of contrivance of thin chains. My spirit screamed inwardly with delight. Now this was more like it!
What Brother David Crowe was attempting to and finally did explain was that Jesuit Novices flagellated themselves every Monday and Wednesday night, holidays accepted. After the lights went out in the dormitory, each Novice knelt, stripped to the waist, at the side of his bed and at the sound of a small bell flogged himself on the back for the space of an Our Father. It was, in my experience at least, difficult to flog yourself, to inflict pain willingly in this fashion. The chain was another matter entirely. It was kept, like the flagellum, rolled in a ball, beneath the pillow. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings its inch and a half width was wrapped around the thigh (my left-handed instinct told me it should be the right thigh) with its tiny wire prongs pressed inward against the flesh. Once you fixed it around your leg, there it remained until you next returned to the dormitory after breakfast, three hours hence.
The chain required considerable experimentation. If worn too loose it would simply slip down the leg like an ungartered stocking, and the loss of face was incalculable. If bound too tightly, you saved face but possibly lost a leg. The somewhat blunted prongs were supposed to press into the flesh just enough to hurt but not to pierce. It was obviously impossible to compare tensions, torques and pain thresholds; I was reduced to checking out, as inconspicuously as I could, the red tracks on the others’ thighs when next we went swimming. The really tricky part was moving. The chain was put on while standing still, but once you started walking the thigh muscles came into play and it was an entirely new deal. And in spades for genuflection. And double, redoubled and vulnerable when sitting down, since you sat right down on the goddam chain.
We adapted. I learned to walk in a different but not a very noticeably different way that had a lot to do with pivoting on the ball of the foot. We had to sit during sections of the daily Mass and then all of breakfast. And in that part lay the beauty. On those same Tuesday and Thursday mornings we were served not breakfast but a glimpse of the Beatific Vision in the form of cornbread and maples syrup. For New Yorkers who thought that God had invented breakfast simply to finish up the Wheaties, hot cornbread slathered with butter and maple syrup was like a foretaste of Paradise, the righteous’ reward for celibacy. It was our sex and our drugs, and of course it was put before us on the two mornings when we had to eat it sitting on steel prongs. It was the chain that yielded however. Cornbread taught me that any pain could be borne if only the motive was strong enough.
I doubt if any Candidate ever made for the door at the stunning revelation that he would be expected to afflict himself in this manner. Like the proto-Jesuits we already were, we smiled the flagellum and the chain back into perspective. “Just what I’ve been looking for, a religious order that prescribes self-abuse twice a week.” What was infinitely more difficult about the Candidacy was being on the outside looking in, sealed off from the real Jesuits. We could see the Novices on other parts of the grounds playing their own games, and from the visitors’ gallery in the upper rear of the chapel we could look down during Mass and see the entire 200 man Jesuit community spread out below us. We come to join them, and here we knelt in funny little black jackets.
In the inscrutable Jesuit way we were not told how long the Candidacy would last. When Habit Day finally came we did not know it until after breakfast, when we returned to our dormitory to make our beds. There they were, a newly dry cleaned black soutane, with a black cloth cincture to hold the buttonless front together, a celluloid clerical collar to be worn under the cassock, our black trousers and shoes carried with us from the World. Now dressed like Jesuits and not Externs, we were led in silence inside the cloister, down a dark hall we had never seen and into the basement where in a large unadorned room the Novices were waiting to greet us.
The Novices, it turned out, had been inspecting us even more closely than we had been marking them. We were, after all, their entertainment and fodder for the entire next year and, as they realized better than we, their companions and friends for the rest of their lives. Silent judgments had already been made, some of them based on tales carried between the two groups by the Angels, others on appearances alone. We had invested each other with an entire personal history before a single word was spoken.
We were now part of a larger Jesuit community, Fathers and Lay Brothers, who lived in rooms across the front of the large, U-shaped building, the Junior Scholastics in the west wing and Novices in the east. The entire kingdom was ruled, as was every Jesuit house, by a Father Rector. The Rector governed the community, but the Novices were governed – how wretchedly inadequate the word – by the Master of Novices. The Novitiate was sacred, extraterritorial turf – “Let no one,” quoth the Rule, “speak to those in their First Probation” – and the Grand Seigneur of this haram was the man we called, then and forever after, whatever he or we might be doing down that dim road, the Master.
The Master was the Rev. Robert Grissom, S. J. He was from Buffalo, and though at first I did not know what moral landscape lay behind that geography, it became clearer with the passing months. He was a rather short, wiry man of forty, with an outdoor complexion and a quick but somewhat forced smile that suggested that he could be amused, but neither as often nor as deeply as might first appear. His frown came almost as quickly but lasted longer, was somewhat more convincing and was frequently punctuated by a vein that throbbed in quite spectacular fashion from the top of his rimless glasses to his hairline. He was not a man to be trifled with, ever.
The Master lived, like all the Fathers, in a combined office and bedroom across the second floor hallway from the large room where the Novices pondered their spiritual progress. The Novices lived quite otherwise. We did not have rooms; we had two very public perches on which our lives unfolded in full view of our fellows. One was in the ominously named “ascetory,” which would have been a study hall had we anything to study, and which was in fact two large connected rooms that ran the length of the second floor of the Novices’ wing of that large building. Each Novice had a desk there, or rather a wooden table, with a straight-backed wooden chair and, at the right of the chair, a two inch high wooden kneeler. There was a shelf on one side of the table to hold our meager reading, and the table drawer contained all our earthly goods, a few pencils, a notebook or two to write down one’s thoughts—“lights” they were called, mostly of a very low wattage–and an eraser to erase them. Each of us also had the missile or prayer book that he had brought with him and so was not standard issue. On almost the very first family visit each of us contrived to exchange the déclassé English-language missile of our entry for the elegantly Latin Missale Romanum.
On the fourth floor of our wing were two identical rooms, now divided into sleeping alcoves by suspended metal piping from which hung thin curtains. These were drawn closed only when changing or sleeping. At the far end of this floor was a washroom with rows of sinks, each with a very bad mirror and a shelf for toiletries. Sinks, beds and ascetory desks were reassigned every couple of months, and though the object of the exercise was to train us in the fine art of detachment, the effect of even that simple change in the immovable Novice universe was as stimulating as the arrival of a shipment of prostitutes.
It would have been difficult becoming attached to the sinks in any event, since they produced nothing but cold water, very cold water, and for four years I began each day by shaving in that frigid stream. The bathrooms were in a room off the main hallway on the fourth floor. There were toilets in the basement as well, along with showers. The true Athlete of God took a morning shower, which demanded the preternatural effort of bolting from bed, seizing your clothes, dashing down four flights of stairs with all due modesty, and plunging your body under a stream of tepid water. Within a half hour of our 5:30 AM rising we were expected to be present in chapel, shower or no.
The reverse trek upward at 10 PM unfolded with far less élan. Every day was bone-wearying in the Novitiate and a four-flight climb at its end was tolerable, as were most things in the Novitiate, only by its absolute lack of an alternative. The Novice dug into his laundry box in the hall for his next day’s change of shorts, socks and T-shirts, if there was such, and deposited them on a wooden chair next to his bed. There was a reluctant nod in the direction of the cold water sink, then the silence was shattered by curtains being drawn around each bed, enclosing chair, bed and rapidly expiring Novice. The cassock was hung from the piping on a too frail wire hanger and the Novice changed from underwear to pajamas. Twice a week he awaited the sound of the bell to signal flagellatio, but otherwise he uttered some private prayer, carefully took the chain from under his pillow and placed it on the chair and sank onto his cot, a steel frame with metal straps instead of springs. The mattress was straw-filled. None of it mattered a jot or a tittle. There were no insomniacs in the Novices’ dormitory.
Novitiate life was just becoming familiar when I was overwhelmed by a new reality, one that still towers over anything I experienced before or since. The new Novices of the first year were suddenly separated from those of the second and plunged into something that had been darkly alluded to but never really explained– the Long Retreat. Every Jesuit of whatever grade or category had to make an annual retreat, an eight-day period of total silence and withdrawal from one’s normal occupations and preoccupations. But twice in his training, at the very beginning and the very end, he was required to spend an entire month in such an exercise.
Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th-century Spanish founder of the Jesuits had himself devised the Spiritual Exercises whose full form we were about to experience, and he left elaborate instructions on how they were to be carried out. On the first day of October the first year Novices were moved into one ascetory and one dormitory, and we began. At the end of the second day at the very latest it was already apparent to me that this was going to be a very long haul. Two essential changes took place: recreation disappeared and we were to meditate on our knees four times a day. It does not seem like a very radical change, given the basic premises of Novitiate life, but in fact it was.
Jesuit silence was never total; if you had enough Latin, you could always ask someone to pass the salt or inquire where the dust mops were. But the twice daily recreation periods that broke the habitual silence were actual communication, the only exits out of your own mind. We were now in effect being held incommunicado, sealed within ourselves and set down on our knees to think about it. Work went on as before. We sat and ate in the refectory with the same people, but all the lines were down; we were neither sending nor receiving. No hermit was ever more solitary.
Four times a day the Master presented, straight out of St. Ignatius, the matter for meditation, and we trudged back to the ascetory, sank to our knees on those unyielding wood kneelers and reflected upon it. I’m not sure I had spent four consecutive minutes of my life reflecting about anything, and now I was being asked to spend four hours every day for a month braiding the life of Jesus and that of His newest recruit into a seamless skein of thought. From the outset I could not believe it was possible. It probably wasn’t, but we all attempted it.
I fared poorly. I grew more restless and distracted with each passing day. I could not bear the empty solitude with myself. I counted minutes and hours and days. I thought a great deal – how could I not – about what I cannot even recall. But I felt nothing but the desire to end a dreadful suspended animation and throw myself once again into the comforting arms of process, of life. Then as abruptly as it had begun, the Long retreat was over. “The Life,” which was now my life, was about to begin.