Playing by the Rule

Regular Order 1945

The Novitiate was entirely automated. It was run by a cybernetic device known as the Regular Order. The Master of Novices was a kind of systems engineer who checked the numbers once in a while, read out the passengers’ temperatures and made a few minor adjustments. It is conceivable that he could have propped up his silhouette in the door of his room, coughed occasionally on tape and absented himself or two years without the train either stopping or derailing.

His actual silhouette was a novice called the Manuductor who operated the Novitiate by adhering literally and eternally to a mysterious manual referred to as “the Diary.” The Diary presumably recorded– no one of us had ever seen it – every Jesuit daily order back to the days of St. Ignatius and so, like the Talmud, was tradition grown sacred in the use. And like a good Talmudist, the Manuductor had the Regular Order in his bones.

The Latin title “Manuductor” meant either “leader of the band,” or “leader by the hand,” and it was acceptable conversation to meditate these two meanings, though without lapsing into either cynicism or irony, a most improbable task in that environment. He was appointed by the Master from among the second year Novices. The choice of Manuductor was simply announced, usually at one of the Master’s conferences. There was no encomium of the departing Paladin, no underlining of the virtues of the new Elect. No need; his virtues were usually transparent enough. First, he was almost always from Buffalo. The Master knew intuitively that the 80% of the Novitiate population from New York City were by and large untrustworthy. The Buffalonians, on the other hand were the Caliph’s Turks, observant, loyal and pious, qualities that only rarely emerged from the halls of Xavier High School or Brooklyn prep and never in human memory from Regis.

It was probably his prolonged and intimate contact with the Master of Novices that rendered the Manuductor an object of constant Novice contemplation and speculation. Most Novices entered the private presence of the Master only when summoned to the sacred precinct, and that was never for a benign purpose. The Manuductor, on the other hand, like some High Priest of Election, parted the curtains and entered the Holy of Holies as part of his regular duties. One could only imagine what that was like, what relaxed and pleasant little chit-chat—“Care for a cigar, Brother?”–went on in Room 202 on those occasions. It was a transparent fallacy, of course, as transparent and as fallacious as most of what went on in Novices’ minds: the Master was Master and the Manuductor was Manuductor precisely because they did not indulge in idle chitchat.

Most of the Manuductor’s duties were perfectly visible. He sat in the rear of the ascetory near the door, from which post he was readily available both to the Master across the hall outside (the Master only very rarely came into the ascetory himself) and to the bulletin board behind him on which the daily order was posted. He made all the work assignments on the basis of what seemed to be a satisfactorily rotating order. He kept the Diary. He led common prayers, and he set good example everywhere and all times. It must have been an exhausting job.

The Manuductor posted the next day’s order of activities in the ascetory on the way to bed. It glowed there under a single bulb in the darkened room like a theatrically illuminated Dead Sea Scroll. It was tomorrow, our tomorrow, and whatever happened then would occur around and between its terse lines. When a new group of Novices arrived, the daily order was spelled out in some detail for their benefit:

1:00 –1:45: Recreatio vel Mandata [the latter, the post-meal cleanup]
2:00-2:15: Preces [Common prayers]
2:30-2:45: Lectio spiritualis [etc.]

The detail was misleading. The daily order was in fact extremely detailed, but there was no need of spelling it out. Every one of us soon had it by heart, and eventually the lectio plenior was replaced by the single grim line:

Feria tertia: Ordo regularis

That was it and all of it. “Tuesday: Regular Order,” the Novices’ routine that stretched back to the Age of the Patriarchs and would presumably continue even unto those Novices will entered the Jesuits just this side of the Crack of Doom.

The order was indeed regular, but it was also regularis, prescribed by the Rule. Devotion to the Sacra Regula was a very old tradition in the religious life, and the rules of some monastic orders spell things out in elaborate detail. The Jesuit Rules were in fact very few and ranged from the very general (avoid worldliness) to an elegant Latin imprecation that all, etiam si sacerdotes sint – even if they be priests – should make their beds in the morning.

The written Regular Order was not, then, Rule, but Tradition, some of it a century old and some a hoary week and a half, for all we knew. In their folly the first year Novices prayed that tomorrow perhaps tradition would dictate an entire morning of sports followed by a long nap, a table staggering feast at dinner and a movie to top off the evening. Their seniors knew better: one had simply to look down the calendar of the ecclesiastical year, identify every single holy day, measure its specific liturgical gravity and draw the appropriate conclusions as to the likelihood of a softball game after lunch or a fruit cocktail before dinner.

In deep, rock-bottom, bone-crushing Regular Order we rose at 5:30 AM, got our bodies, if not always our minds, to the chapel by six for silent prayer together. At the stroke of six – at St. Andrew chapel bells tolled every 15 minutes – we went to the ascetory for an hour’s meditation. Mass was at seven, breakfast at eight. As each finished breakfast he went back to the dormitory, made his bed (and removed the chain from his thigh if that seemed like a good idea) and put on work clothes. Then began the morning’s work: cleaning up after breakfast and setting up for lunch; or helping prepare lunch and dinner in the kitchen be the refectory; or general cleaning around the huge house. All in complete silence.

Each morning at 11 there was a conference by the Master of Novices in which he laid out for us the ideals and practices of a Jesuit life. This was followed by some free time, a fifteen minute examination of conscience, and lunch. After lunch some had cleanup and the rest had a common recreation period for about forty-five minutes, outdoors in tolerable weather, indoors in foul. Then came “Prayers” in chapel, spiritual reading, more work, the afternoon’s half hour meditation, dinner, an hour recreation period, more spiritual reading, a sliver of free time, preparation for tomorrow’s meditation, community litanies, another examination of conscience, a final visit to the chapel, and lights out at 10 PM.

Almost everything the Novices did, we did in concert. The work duties were spread around and changed every week or so, but for the rest we moved like a large black centipede between dormitory, ascetory, refectory and chapel, always in single file along the wall at the right hand. The system delivered bodies in an efficient and quiet manner, but also focused an inordinate amount of attention on the gait and carriage of the person immediately ahead. Long before John Cleese, I had matriculated in the College of Funny Walks. All these activities were carried out in silence: the only time conversation was permitted was at dinner on Thursday and Sunday and during the daily recreation periods after lunch and dinner.

As the Long Retreat had taught me, recreation was an event of great magnitude. Nothing could be performed in absolute silence of course. Brief talk was permitted when absolutely necessary, and the fertile Novice mind discovered more necessity in the world than a deranged Stoic in a lifetime. But these were not real conversations, and they had, moreover, to be conducted in Latin, which was inhibiting, to say the least. We had all studied Latin for four years in the Jesuit high schools we had attended, but no one imagined you could actually speak it. But eventually we did, after a fashion. Cucina Latina the cynics called it, but it for all its barbarisms, it worked, and some even scaled the dizzying heights of a conversational subjunctive or two. But genuine social communication, the analysis of the day’s events, the evaluation of motives, simple gossip, and the all-important prognosis of what tomorrow might bring, all had to await recreation. We had to make some sense of what was happening to us, to sort the sense from nonsense in a world that now appeared to be completely sensible and now the very attar of nonsense, and for this we all needed counsel, another perspective, an audience for large pinch of soul saving humor and a metaphorical shoulder for our equally metaphorical tears.

That is what recreation was about; what it was for, the Master explained, was to provide us an opportunity to practice charity. So the Manuductor’s first move at recreation was to dispatch some willy-nilly “bands,” groups of three, a second year and two first-year Novices to recreate together. As these disconsolate trios disappeared into the gloaming, the Manuductor and the survivors of this terrible triage moved slowly and noisily down the paths and lawns of St. Andrew toward the river. There in a large rustic gazebo overlooking the Hudson we all learned to talk very rapidly indeed because sooner or later the Manuductor’s finely attuned biological clock would go off and he and his cortège would ascend the same paths to arrive at the back door precisely as the chapel bell tolled 8 PM and the end of recreation. The assigned bands were frequently there before the Manuductor, bloodily battered by their encounter with charity.

Recreation was a tricky business in the Novitiate. It could be depressing, particularly in the company of abrasive cretins in the assigned bands lurching eyelessly through a dark winter night toward the frozen Hudson. This was one of my two daily opportunities to say something coherent, and to spend it listening to Brother Looney dither on about the beauties of the liturgy or Brother Zweifel explain how the rain we were tramping through was part of God’s providential care of vegetables required patience and the firm conviction that I would live to see recreation on the morrow. In his conferences the Master tried desperately to lay out some of the acceptable topics of Novice conversation, like “the virtues of Ours, particularly the dead,” but was quite obviously a lost cause. Cut off from books, news and ideas, we had only ourselves and our microscopic range of activities to pick over. How to praise the Holy Father when we were not even sure who was the current Holy Father, much less when he was presently up to? We had only the most slender idea of even Jesuit history, and so we wallowed in contemporary biography, our own. Or we explored, for our own amusement and instruction, the intricacies of “The Life,” or at least that tiny fragment of it exposed to our view.

The Regular Order prevailed every day except Thursdays and Sundays and on special feast days of the Church and the Society of Jesus. Every Thursday was a holiday and a minor revelation in that it was really a much better place than Saturday to break up a week. On Thursdays we burst out of doors, and there were marvelous new opportunities for charity on the softball field and in the woods. Sunday afternoon too was a relaxed, out of doors time, and the ordinary work assignments were left untouched on Sunday mornings. It was almost as if the Church had created a vacuum into which some later genius had dropped The New York Times. But not on us novices. We had long since forgotten there even existed such things as newspapers, radio or movies.

Novices did two kinds of work. Mandata, “assignments,” were the cleanup details that worked in the dining room and the scullery after the noon and evening meals. Manualia, the more straightforward “handwork,” took place after breakfast when we were sorted out around the great house to dust, scrub and polish for two hours in the name of Holy Obedience and a more perfect self-denial. We rotated through these tasks without demur, though each assignment doubtless had its own place in the forbidden but inevitable order of preferences tattooed onto the mind of everyone who had not perfectly adapted himself to the will of God.

The work we were assigned to do was not particularly strenuous, nor was it very interesting: it was housekeeping and housecleaning. The least interesting and probably the only terrible task we were set to was gathering in the basement laundry room on Saturday mornings and sorting out the Novices’ dirty laundry for shipment to what was thought to be a convent of the Good Shepherd, the haunt of nuns who reputedly rehabilitated wayward girls by making them do the laundry of sanctified but very dirty Jesuit Novices.

We were always filthy, some by inclination, but often out of sheer circumstance. We each wore the same cassock, winter and summer, day in and day out. Summer in the Hudson Valley is not a kindly season, and a sweat dripping cassock hung up by the bed at night was still damp in the morning. Meals dribbled down our chests despite the best of intentions, and attempts at cleaning the front of the cassock, which already had previous owners when it was handed to us, inevitably turned the black serge to a vile color somewhere between green and gray. Arms and elbows became frayed and discolored from constant rubbing on desktops. We were issued four pairs of shorts, T-shirts and socks each week, all of them Army surplus, which some Jesuit had obviously bought for a chant. Everything came in one size, and though the shorts could theoretically be adjusted by little tie strings on the side, the immense or dwarfed GI who first tied them on Okinawa in 1944 had tied them forever.

Cleanliness, it was understood, was a virtue in some remote sense that didn’t really count, and it was not much pushed at St. Andrew except that you were expected to shave daily. The Master was always clean, though not to noticeably so. Some of the other Fathers clearly indulged in such worldly affectations as Mennen Aftershave, but not Robert Grissom, S.J. He preached, in the subtle gnostic fashion in which such things were done, some undefined but perfectly clear code of “manly virtue.” It was not machismo – the sexual corollaries of that rendered it useless in the circumstances – but a striving to be a “real man,” and whatever that meant, it did not include foppishness or even a remarkable care of your fleshly envelope.

If we avoided foppishness by a margin that would have put a Pharisee to shame, hypochondria was a more subtle temptation of the flesh. In that life of intense self-inspection and constant striving for an extraordinary variety of goals, the spiritual athlete might easily find an astonishing range of aches and pains that carried with them the not inconsiderable bonus of providing acceptable grounds for dropping out of the Daily Order for a few hours or a few days. But no one got to the infirmary and its blessed beds without first passing the terrible scrutiny of the Master of Novices, who was notoriously unsympathetic to anything short of a ruptured spleen and who enjoyed, in the divine order of things, a quite perfect health himself. Headaches and colds went absolutely unrewarded at his stern tribunal. We all prayed for a ruptured spleen.

I and the other proto-Jesuits arrived at the Novitiate had seen the Regular Order before. It coursed through the arteries of every Jesuit high school, though in that setting it had no particular religious significance. There it was “The Game,” rules to be evaded or outwitted in the most elegant way possible, where one could produce the desired effect with only lip service to the means. The Jesuit educational system rewarded verbal and literary precocity and the power of quick absorption and recognition; it taught us to distinguish with brilliance and rationalize with aplomb. It liked its young academic scholars slick and sassy.

It was many of the same achievers who reported to St. Andrew on Hudson to discover that The Game was now The Life, a system as richly and invitingly complex as the one they had just left. For me the issue of the Novitiate life was not the classic struggle that was fought on the ground of the vows, but the contest between the mordant and mocking spirit of the Jesuit-trained and the officially simple-minded acceptance of the Jesuit trainee, between high religious seriousness and amused detachment. Rich veins of irony grew even richer within those grave halls, but there was an interior point at which the publicly expressed cynicism had to end and acceptance prevail. Regular order could be and was treated as an adversary by many Novices in an easy, familiar and even affectionate fashion. But if The Life was only an adversary, then one’s Jesuit days worked really self-numbered.

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