Playing for Keeps

The Two Ways 1946

The figure of two ways or paths is a well-worn trope in religious traditions. The moral pilgrim is confronted with a fork in the path of life. One way represents the way of virtue, an arduous and even dangerous path, but in the end rewarding; the other, the passage to evil, is temptingly attractive but ends in damnation. The wayfarer must choose. This metaphor of the moral life first shows up in the Bible in Deuteronomy 30 and it makes its formal appearance in Christianity in two early second century documents, the Letter of Barnabas and, at some length, in the anonymous treatise called Didache or The Teaching. I encountered it in neither place but in the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius’ manual and program for spiritual renewal that I had undergone in its full form in the Long Retreat. In the Exercises the Two Ways are transformed into the Two Standards or Battle Flags—Ignatius was a soldier before his conversion to the spiritual life. Christ and Satan are poised beneath their banners in a field outside Jerusalem, each inviting the questing soul to join his forces. There is no meandering down pathways here; the call is to action, to combat. In which army will you enlist, young man?

Well, I had already signed up as a miles Christi and the Long Retreat had been a way of nailing that decision to the floor, so to speak. But that was by no means the end of the matter. Although I was on the Right Way, there kept appearing, on this side or that, secondary paths and shortcuts that represented not Moral Choice but distinctly lower case moral choices, like those faced by a dieter who has already ordered the broiled halibut instead of the spaghetti carbonara and must now choose between whole or skim milk in his coffee. The spiritual life is filled with those devilish little volitional asides—What harm in taking a pass on litanies just this once?—and particularly so in that swarming petrie dish that was the Novitiate where the choices were microscopic but subjected to constant reexamination. And in this instance, Jesus and Satan were standing beneath their recruiting posters not in a plain outside of Jerusalem but on a softball field just south of Hyde Park, New York.

At the front of the Jesuit house was a neatly trimmed lawn that sloped gracefully toward the Hudson River. Calm and tranquility reigned over this manicured sward, the silence broken only by the soft and sweet chatter of family visitors who could come to visit on three or four Sundays each year and sit and chat a spell with their Novice son or brother. Behind the house, however, other sounds and other moods prevailed. There were our playgrounds: handball, tennis and basketball courts and a softball field.
The Novitiate experience was unabashedly constructed upon calculated privations. If there had been, for example, a special Jesuit language with a vocabulary of only ten words, the Novices would have been constrained to conduct their business in five of these vocables chosen randomly out of the entire set. There was, in fact, a special Jesuit language. It was called sports, and the Novices were inevitably forbidden to play with a full deck. The Juniors might engage in whatever sport they would; the Novices were confined, without rhyme or any visible reason, to softball and handball. In the Novitiate, as in Heaven, one didn’t have to supply reasons to us young aspirants to a perfect obedience.

The naïve Extern might cluck approvingly over our little sportive exercises and pronounce it a capital idea that the youngsters should have lots of fresh air and exercise. And I suppose it was. But to confuse what we did out there on our playing fields with exercise would be tantamount to thinking that the Pittsburgh Steelers were putting on their pads to go out and have some fun with a pigskin. No, we had something else in mind besides exercise. For some sports was a grueling ordeal; for others, a veritable debauch.

Novitiate life had its terrors, numbered and unnumbered, but one of the most terrible must’ve been the fatal choices forced upon the uncoordinated, the uncompetitive and the just plain uninterested, those high school kids who for one reason or another did not care about sports. But the explicit tradition of The Life was that you had, at one time or another, to do everything prescribed, and an even larger part of the unspoken ethos was that sports were as good a way as any to relieve adolescent males of their physical – read libidinal – energies.

To fulfill the letter of the law, the athletically inept generally chose to play handball, where they would be safely out of the way of the vicious samurai who were bloodying talon and claw on each other’s person on a softball field. Many of them descended, even within the modest handball galaxy, to the feeble asteroid called paddleball, which, by enlargeing both the ball and hand, increased the odds of making some kind of contact and so constituting a game. The paddleball players didn’t really care whether they made contact or even generated a score. They were “playing,” as was prescribed for that time and not place, and that was enough. Nemo dat quod non habet, “Nobody gives what he does not possess,” was a favorite Novitiate aphorism, and its truth was illustrated every Thursday afternoon between two and four on the handball courts of St. Andrew on Hudson.

Thursdays and Sundays were our holidays, when the ordinary work assignments were suspended and other, more tantalizing dishes were put before the Novices. Sundays were generally peaceful affairs, and the common form of Sunday afternoon recreation was the walk, in the inevitable bands of three, around the hundreds of wooded acres within our Jesuit reservation. But Thursday was different. The daily order posted for that day put it to us direct: ludi vel laborandum, sports or work. The choice was ours, the dulcet ludi or the ominously gerundive laborandum.

Let’s see, what do I feel like doing this Thursday? That innocuous thought never, I am sure, entered a single Novice head. Choices were not offered to Jesuits to cater to their whims or fancies. Rather, they were proffered like a little whetstone upon which one could hone one’s self-denial to such a fine edge that it could cut the World in half. If there was any exercise in our Thursday sports, it lay in the choice of whether one would go out and frolic self-indulgently under the sun or would choose to give the Self a good thrashing in the form of laborandum. There it was, another Thursday, another crossroads, another chance to graze in the woods with the sanctified sheep or gambol in the outfield with the smelly goats.

The sheep didn’t exactly graze; laborandum was more like a season in Hell. On went the heavy boots, the Army surplus pants and jacket. You shouldered something called a mattock and headed, together with the others who had chosen well, into the Ardennes of the soul. I had never even heard of a mattock before I went through those sacred portals. It had an ax handle, but the head was on one side a blunt pick and on the other an unsharpened blade. It was an instrument for inhuman activity, for hacking, hacking at stone, if you were fatally deranged, or, as often there, at fallen trees and brush. It was not effective, it was not satisfying, and it certainly was not fun. It was perfect laborandum.

The Master believed in the hearty outdoor life that seems to characterize most of downtown Buffalo. He also believed in underlining choices for the dim-witted. So every Thursday afternoon he stood outside the back door in his boots, pants and jacket and awaited those Novices who had made the virtuous sheep-like choice of clearing the woods for two hours. He held no mattock in his hand, however; he had a sharp and shiny axe, something even more remote and forbidden to the Novices than basketball. The Master was known to hand that bright and dangerous blade on occasion to a very experienced (and solid) Novice to take a few whacks at the timber. As in all such cases, it was assumed that he had his reasons and no one, not even the prayer-addled, dared aspire to the high favor of wielding Excalibur, the Master’s own axe.

Or so I speculated. In the hundred-odd Thursdays I spent as a Novice, I here now confess, I never once chose laborandum. That was not perhaps, playing the game; or, rather, it was playing quite another game. The sportive goats no more gamboled on the softball field than did their sheepish brethren graze in those terrible, brush-filled woods. Ours were not lazy, summer afternoon outings redolent of root beer and the quiet thud of bat upon ball. Waterloo may indeed have been won years earlier on the playing fields of Eton. The more economical Novices simply fought their Waterloo at Eton. Every ounce of suppressed adolescent hostility, every homicidal design and Hunnish impulse to rapine and destruction was released on that softball field and later, when we were Juniors on the basketball court. We were turned out of our cages and for two hours we could commit sublimated rape, murder and mayhem. For those who chose ludi, Thursday afternoons were like Mardi Gras.

After lunch and an ambulatory rosary said in bands of three, the ludi types collected at the softball field. By a secret but swift process – time was at a premium here – two were made captains and chose their teams by alternating selections from the pool of available players, just as they had in the World. And the World’s rules prevailed: the strong, the skilled and the competitive were chosen first; the others, those slumming a little in their search for perfect self-denial, followed in descending order of desirability and were assigned to innocuous positions like right-field where they were permitted to play but were expected to have the good sense not to interfere with the point of the game, which was to win at all costs.
Good spirits prevailed for an inning or two until we reached the nether part of the batting order when, by the inflexible rules of our National Pastime, the inept had to be allowed a turn at bat. Balls whizzed close to clueless heads. There were near-fatal collisions at all bases – the wisdom of not permitting football to the Novices was patent – and the desire to win slowly came to a boil, painfully unvented by even the slightest obscenity. Softball may have been invented as a sport, but the Novices played it like Miltonic warfare on a darkling plain.

No one of our company understood that better than Brother Charles Gilligan, no one perhaps in the entire history of the Society of Jesus. Chuck played everything in high school. He was smallish then and not very skillful, but he was totally committed to playing and winning. At sixteen he had the perfectly formed psyche of a jock; at nineteen Jesuit food and Jesuit sleep had given him a body which, if it was not the graceful instrument of the true athlete, was large enough and powerful enough to give a bloody conviction to his playing. Playing? Chuck did not play, of course; he was in this war for keeps. He kept personal statistics of everything he ever played. He wore his sneakers to lunch on Thursdays, his fatigues the under his cassock.

Brother Gilligan never missed a game. He suffered no groin pulls, no torn ACLs or other newfangled injuries. On Thursday afternoons he stood impatiently outside the back door swinging a few bats and waiting for those who improvidently had to change their clothes. When he said a rosary before softball game, he defied, even by the somewhat lax Jesuit standards, every liturgical canon known to Christendom. “Yeah,” said Chuck after a particularly satisfying rosary “broke seven minutes today.” It was well known that he led his band around the infield during his speed-rosary so he could inspect the playing surface, and that by the time the last Hail Mary had flown from his lips, he had already checked out that day’s player personnel for draft choices.

The Chucker and other fanciers of the sport were already assembled and choosing sides when the Master and his dour band of hackers rosaried past on their way to the woods. We started at 2 PM and we were expected to be re-collected and recollected at the back door when the chapel bell sounded 4 PM and the end of Thursday recreation, The Master sometimes brought his sheep home early, however, to give them a head start on the showers and unwittingly teach them the timeless lesson that virtue is not entirely its own reward. The shower edge tempted no one from ludi to laborandum, of course, and certainly not Chuck, who thought the constant references to showers had to do with the weather.

On occasion the Master showed his own superb self-denial by releasing his troop of virtuous hackers early to the showers and requesting a turn in the despised and self-indulgent softball game. He was an indifferent player: no power, mediocre hands. Chuck had scouted him early on and pronounced the Rev. Grissom incapable of handling the curve tight inside on the hands. Maybe so. But I doubt if he had factored in the all-important “attitude.” The Master did not care about winning. He too did not regard softball as a game. For him it was an opportunity to work up a sweat, to exert oneself; it was not playing through pain but paining through play. It was enough to make Chuck retch.

“Who’s the captain here, Brother?”

“Brother Gilligan, Father.”

Slight frown, slight controlled smile. The Master is forced to advert to the fact that Chuck had chosen ludi once again. I try to disappear in the outfield grass.

“Do you have a place for me, Brother Gilligan?” The Master asks ever so quietly.

“Sure, Father.” The Chucker is already revising his batting order for the next inning. “Why don’t you play shortstop.”

Craven Chuck. The Master loved to play shortstop, where he could pepper the action and keep the game “moving,” as he understood that term. He trots briskly out of his position, which Brother Navins quietly vacates for short-center-left field.

“Let’s play some ball here,” quoth the Master from the Book of Life. Chuck obliges in the only way he knows how, by sending the next batter sprawling into the dirt. There is another magisterial frown.

On the way back to the house I told Chuck he was a coward for yielding the Master shortstop.

“Oh yeah?” he retorted in his usual sophisticated way.

I have my own shot at Father Big soon enough. Another Thursday, another game.

“Do have a place for me, Brother?”

Let him give me that look. Ludi really is a choice, isn’t it? Isn’t that what vel means? And do I have a place for you, Father!

“Let’s see.” A dramatic pause to suggest reflection. “Why don’t you play right field, Father?”

Silence under the sun. The Master of Novices is sent to right-field, the graveyard, the haunt of the athletically pathetic and the incompetent ninth-place batters. There is now a different kind of frown and a different smile: he knows he’s been had. A triumph becomes a rout: the Master discards his glove and heads for the showers right after the third out of the inning. Not even a time at bat. He can be had, and not only by an inside curve! As the Master disappears toward the house, no word is spoken. The game proceeds silently, even solemnly. Not even Chuck wants to dilute the immense satisfaction of one of our own striking out the Master of Novices.

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