Scaling Parnassus

A Season in the Sun 1947

Novitiate time was like no other before or since. There were no calendars about and none of us had wristwatches, so time was a public rather than a private commodity. It was stored in large Seth Thomas clocks in the hall and the ascetory and dispensed to us in small particles by the Manuductor from the Ingersoll he wore suspended from a shoelace around his neck. It declared itself by bells, large chapel bells that tolled timeless metaphysical time, small ascetory bells that rang immediate, attention-getting, operational time. Time to go, to work, to meditate; time to sleep, to recreate, to pray.

What we were all counting off by toll or tinkle or tick was the passage of two years of a Jesuit Novitiate. Afterward I would have a wristwatch and keep my own private accounts, but for those 24 months we all swam together in time’s river. The landmarks floated by on the shore: my first Christmas, first Lent, first Easter, easier days of the first summer, and then the reassuring but dispiriting spectacle of the second-year Novices making their Jesuit vows and taking their leave of the Novitiate, group by group, in July, August and September, whence they ascended majestically to the Juniorate.

Each group of blessed emigrants to the Holy Land was followed by the entry of new immigrants from the Old World. And when the newcomers were all settled in, we began all over again, now with the added burden of setting good example for the new Novices. Novices didn’t evolve into Juniors; like nature-manacled caterpillars, we all remained Novices for precisely 750 days, the span that the inexorable code of the Society of Jesus had ordained should be the gestation period of its butterflies. We all knew that the Novitiate lasted two years – such monumental figures are easy to handle and mean nothing – but sometime in my second year, someone came up beside my ear–it may have been another Novice or the Evil Spirit himself–and whispered, “Do you know, there’s only one hundred days left?” One hundred days? How long is one hundred days? But ten days later I was murmuring to myself that there were now three months left to go and everyone knew how short a time that was. I had, alas, started Counting.

Counting was a not uncommon disease that infected Novices of the second-year. It was only rarely fatal, but it was nonetheless an extremely painful affliction. Tradition reported that it had been first explored by one James DiGiorgio, S. J., whose desire to escape the First Probation was so urgent that he had calculated down to days, hours and minutes the time remaining to Vow Day and his release. He was capable, so it was fabled, of rattling off that magic differential in any currency you chose: sheet changes, cornbread mornings or flagellation evenings; how many rosaries, softball games, even genuflections or bowel movements stood between him and Zion. Even now DiGiorgio lounged, filled with calm and remote from the slightest taint of Counting, on the sunny Juniorate side of the refectory, a black biretta resting rakishly upon his head like a triumphal crown of laurel.

There is even now no comprehending the enormous gulf that separated Novice from Junior in that odd world. It was not simply existential, like the difference between the Fathers and the Lay Brothers. That we understood and accepted. This was mockingly artificial, based on the calculated privation and bestowal of privilege, all under the roof of the same house. It had not so much to be accepted as gotten through, and like Zeno’s arrow heading toward an impossible target, I suspected I would never arrive. What Zeno’s arrow did not have to contend with, however, was the sight of all those flashily feathered darts already adhering to the opposite wall. There in front of me in the dining room before each meal were ranks of Juniors who only yesterday had themselves been Novices. They permitted themselves faint smiles as they faced us during grace, the knowing looks of superior beings who had met Novitiate Regular Order and triumphed over it.

It was the Regular Order’s final torture, this granting me by its terrible predictability an easy way of calculating exactly how many painful things I had to endure before the pain went away. My day of deliverance was July 31, the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Father of Us All, but more appositely it was exactly two calendar years after I had first knocked on that oaken door. And I could smell it, feel it approaching, see it coming, the morning when the messenger crept into my hovel, shook me awake and said, “There Is been some terrible mistake. You were not really a harijan; you’re a Brahmin and here’s your birthright. Sorry, sir.” Peripateia. Deliverance.

The vows that the occasion marked were overwhelmed by the occasion itself. Poverty, celibacy and obedience I had embraced from the first moment of the Candidacy. Their formalization now meant no extension of my commitment. Rather, it was the Society of Jesus reaching out to receive me. The Jesuits had tried me in the First Probation, and I had tried myself against their standards. The engagement was over and I was invited to enter into a contract whereby I would except to live in poverty, celibacy and obedience in the Society of Jesus and they accepted to receive me for another thirteen year probation. Until that other remote day I could still request a release, which was invariably given, and return, with my honorable discharge in the pocket of my rust-colored lounge suit, to the World.

At first light on July 31, right on schedule, the Blessed Seven arose from their tombs and put on not their filthy winding sheets of yore but the raiment of immortality, a new and startling black cassock tailored and sewn to the wearer’s own body I picked up the biretta, the peculiarly Jesuit clerical hat that even Saint Ignatius war in his portraits, carried it casually, almost jauntily in my hand out of the dormitory, out of the ascetory, out of the accursed Novitiate, and ascended, as lightly as a liberated butterfly, to the chapel.

The vow ceremony occurred in the middle of Mass when each of us would rise in turn from the front pew on the Novices’ side of the chapel and approach the sanctuary. The moment was now at hand. I too struggled to my feet, surprised that my knees were consenting to support me. I mounted the steps to the high altar and knelt before the Rector. With bowed head I recited the formula I’d surreptitiously begun memorizing a year before: Die tricesimo primo, mensis Julii…ego voveo paupertatem, castitatem et oboedienjtiam perpetuam in Societate Jesu… I rose again, steadier now, turned and went to my new place, front row, Juniors’ side. The arrow had hit the wall, gone straight in and stood there quivering. Viva DiGiorgio! A bas Zeno!

The day was a delirium. The extraordinary privilege of talking at breakfast, there amidst my lost and suddenly regained companions of last year. Smiling glances, already tinged with condescension for the wretched Novices on the other side of the dining room. A day of visiting with excited guests, impatient almost that it end so that I could enjoy being a Junior, a blissful state that existed inside the community and not in the visitors’ parlor. I wanted a Jesuit, any Jesuit, to call me “Mister” instead of the suddenly déclassé “Brother.”

In the evening there was an immense feast at dinner, and the cathartic din of it shook the refectory walls, I sat there with my biretta posed quite in the DiGiorgio manner on my newly sophisticated brow and loved every single, self-indulgent minute of it. Vow Day was the purest, most perfect pleasure I have ever experienced in my life.

The Juniors lived in the western wing of the house in quarters that superficially resembled the Novices’. The dormitories with their curtained alcoves were in fact identical. There were ascetories too with the familiar table desks. These were no longer the bear deserts of the ascetic Novice, however, but lush mountain estates covered with verdant blooms bearing the exotic names of Liddell-Scott’s Unabridged Greek Lexicon, Horace: The Complete Odes, Epodes and Satires and a fat volume from whose ancient spine blow the golden letters that both promised and delivered my reward, Gradus ad Parnassum, “A Stairway to Heaven,” a very secular heaven of Muses and poetry, of richly resonant words and new and dazzling thoughts.

Sometime shortly after vows I and the other newly minted Juniors began our first class, a course, somewhat inexplicably, in calculus. In my last year in high school I flunked the only course ever in my academic life, trigonometry. I had developed a splendid little block on mathematics, or so I thought. That summer I received an A in calculus, or the calculus, as I had very knowingly begun to call it. I had in fact homered at my first at-bat. Two years of silence had cleared my head. Two years of scrubbing pots and latrines had sharpened my eye and perfected my timing. The new Junior, a first-round draft pick, was, after two years’ seasoning in Triple-A, finally ready. I could feel it: I was in the zone. I was about to begin on a wild, a stunning, winning streak.

The Novitiate valued observance. The Juniorate, and in fact the rest of the Jesuit course, expected some recognizable degree of virtue, but as the Master knew very well, and as I and others suspected and hoped, it rewarded brains. The pious, it seems, often had trouble with irregular verbs, with metonymy and synecdoche, with making any sense of Demosthenes, to say nothing of Plato. In a rapidly fading Buffalo sunset, the hand of God had suddenly turned to justice. For me, it was just in time.

In the fall, after a triumphal summer of three successive Vow Days, we all assembled on the lower slopes of Parnassus and settled into what laughingly passed as the Juniorate version of Regular Order. There was no posting of schedules under pale ascetory lights here. Regular Order was still meditation and Mass in the morning and recreation after lunch and dinner. But all the time between, those arid stretches of the Novices’ day given over to manualia and mandata, was diverted entirely and deliciously to going to class and studying. Laborandum all but vanished from our vocabulary like some rare Sanskrit phoneme, and on Thursdays and Sundays we unselfconsciously played softball and basketball or, could one believe it, just sat around and relaxed.

The first year Juniors were called Poets and we read Virgil and Horace, Sophocles and Euripides, Keats and Milton. The second year class was called Rhetoricians and studied Cicero and Demosthenes and Burke and Newman. It was a marvelous 19th-century English university education of the type that Arnold Toynbee believed he was among the last generation to receive. At its heart it was untroubled by any science, hard or soft, and though we read some medieval and early modern history in our second summer, that was really a kind of dessert to match the amusingly imaginative calculus appetizer. Greek and Latin were the main course, and I feasted upon them. With all the fervor of a new lover I memorized Greek lyrics and assigned myself the task of translating Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon into Greek verse, the dialogues into Attic iambs, the choruses into Doric measures of huge complexity.

I passed across a bewildering landscape. We studied the ancients in English-University editions, and so the Greeks and the Romans came to us through a late-Victorian haze with the sensibilities of Jebb and Jowett and Mahaffy guided our own. It was as if we had been transported in spirit to the Oxford or Cambridge of 75 years ago, when gentlemen “read Classics” in an atmosphere immune to the blight of German scholarship or the pricks of social anxiety. Inside our classroom the sense of lawn and flannel was almost palpable, but outside where the sights and sounds and feel not of the Cam or the Isis but of the Hudson Valley in the first splendor of spring or the heavy glory of fall.

I had never truly experienced nature or the seasons before coming to St. Andrew; they lay somewhere beyond the urban horizon in a place where I never went. Here the liturgical and calendar year conspired in close harmony with the environment to thrust me, indoors and out, into the path of new experiences of the senses. Day after day the Palisades across the Hudson folded into new and unexpected colors. The river was as white and enormous in winter as the chapel was dark and closed in upon itself at 6 AM. As Easter approached, both liturgy and land thawed, and within a month I could lie out of doors and read Sappho framed upward out of the flowers against a pale-blue sky. Sometimes I catch the lush smell again and suddenly I can see Pindar with his maroon binding and ragged University Press edges lying next to me in the grass.

I have never quite recovered from that extraordinary education. I learned Latin and Greek in a way most undergraduates never could. For all of us, Latin was to some degree a genuinely spoken language. It was not very elegant perhaps and not always correct, but it was the classical tongue nonetheless, and it added an unusual dimension to the study of the texts; Latin became familiar. And both Latin and Greek studies were dominated by an elaborate and revealing rhetorical analysis.

I have learned only a few really useful things in my life. One was how to diagram sentences, the almost offhand gift of a nun in grade school, which in high school I discovered it could be applied, and even more convincingly, to Latin as well as English sentences. It was a revelation to see the structure of language exposed to my understanding in such a transparent and comprehensible way. Now in the Juniorate the complementary parts would deftly fitted into place. With Greek, words themselves yielded up their inner constitution, and with rhetorical analysis, paragraphs and entire bodies of composition. I was astonished. I had penetrated a mystery more profound than anything I later discovered in philosophy: I had found out how language and thought worked.

The price was literary. Jesuit education at almost any stage of the course came to a almost audibly grinding halt somewhere just short of the modern experience, not because the latter was thought to be morally threatening, but because that is where our textbooks stopped, in that literary twilight zone where the Great Tradition show disturbing signs of trailing off into some dubious and inscrutable minor key. In the Juniorate my initiation into English poetry ended somewhere in the neighborhood of Tennyson, and though there was a kind of underground attachment to Gerard Manley Hopkins, S. J., there was no real exposure to or understanding of modern poetry. I read some novels in a private, desultory and not very enlightening way, but we never studied the genre. Our English prose fodder was 18th-century essayists and 19th-century orators. American literature did not seem to exist.

While my contemporaries in the World where at least dabbling in sociology, anthropology and psychology, I and most of the rest of the Society of Jesus ignored the social sciences, which had barely forced themselves into the curricula of Jesuit colleges and not at all into the far more conservative pedagogy that prevailed inside the Jesuits’ own houses of study. My education at this stage was not intended to prepare me for any future work as a minister of the Word or a healer of souls but simply to educate me. And that still meant, as it had for so many previous generations, a literary education in the classics, and later in the classics of philosophy. Only far down the long course, when the survivors finally addressed themselves to moral and pastoral theology, would a carefully wrought training program turn its concern toward any souls other than the Jesuits’ own.

It was not only the moderns I neglected. I lived in ignorance of contemporary literary developments or even of thence pure and simple. I had had no real contact with the World for four years. Neither the atom bomb nor Norman Mailer had fallen upon me. Art was merely a word, and my only unwitting exposure to its exemplars was in the portraits of Jesuit founding fathers hung in halls so dark as to be inscrutable or in some Vatican Museum reproductions of Greek and Roman sculpture that showed up in our textbooks; some actually had brown paper pasted over the obligatory Vatican fig leaf, presumably for those easily inflamed by fig leaves. Pablo Picasso was rumored to be a Cuban second baseman whom the athletic grapevine assured me had been traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The Novitiate was filled with a bewildering variety of devices for self-abnegation, one more ingenious than the next. The Juniorate had equally improbable ways of putting the pieces back together again. When Jesuits sat down to eat, their attention was diverted from the pure bestiality of the act by someone reading to them from a pulpit in the dining room. That task was shared by selected Novices and Juniors in alternating months, and the matter was usually an unbeat version of Jesuit history or biography. But at one dinner each week a Junior took to the refectory rostrum to make essay of delivering a sermon to his captive, pruriently interested and utterly cynical audience of masticating superiors, inferiors and peers. The sermons were intended, one supposed, to provide us with some pulpit practice for that day in the millennial future when we took our spiritual wares into the World. The results were not encouraging, to put the best face upon it, and under ordinary circumstances those tyro preachers would likely have converted the most pious congregation of Irish nuns back to paganism before the final amen.
On occasion, however, the refectory sermon was the vehicle not for some dubious edification but for the straightforward glorification of the sermonizer. On the eve of the Feast of St. Peter Canisius, S. J., for example, who beat back the Lutherans in Bavaria, the best Juniorate student of German delivered a sermon in that language; the long-suffering Blessed Claude de la Colombière, S. J., was dubiously honored with a French sermon whose grammar was always letter perfect but which was invariably delivered in an accent so atrocious that it would have scarcely passed muster in even a Belgian Juniorate. St. Robert Bellarmine, S. J., our man at the Council of Trent, provoked a Latin sermon of considerable elegance from the current Mr. Latinitas. The Novices loved the Latin sermon because they fancied they spoke the language, and they could be observed listening and nodding thoughtfully between swallows.

Kid stuff. Lay Brother stuff. Hors d’oeuvres. The entrée was served on the feast of the golden-mouthed St. John Chrysostom in the form of a Greek sermon. It was an improbable tour de force, those thirty-five minutes of glorious and impeccable Attic prose delivered from memory with absolute aplomb to a dumbfounded and uncomprehending audience. It was a heady moment for a 21-year-old, and as I descended from the pulpit, I understood that now at last I had purged and forgiven all, the Master, the Manuductor, the manualia, the cold water sinks, even laborandum. It was easy to be generous when the mattock in your hand was no longer iron but forged of glittering gold.

To all appearances I was now on my own. There was little individual guidance of any sort, event or later, but I was still a member of a community and moved in the community rhythms of eating, sleeping, praying, recreating and going to class. But I now took my own spiritual temperature and shared it with no one. The initiative was now individual, and the vastness of that new situation vis-à-vis the Master’s earlier role in my life seemed more like a release than a promotion to a new responsibility.

My progress was not going on observed, however, in somewhat more remote quarters of the Society of Jesus. The Novitiate universe revolved so remarkably around the Master of Novices that we were generally unaware that each of us belonged as well to another, greater system – the New York Province and the Society of Jesus as a whole. I was too miniscule a particle to make any impression on that latter world as yet, but when I and the others passed out of the Master’s orbit we entered in some perceptible way into the workings of the provincial system and its still-mysterious agents who would steer our future course through the Jesuits. Somewhere on the campus of Fordham University sat the Father Provincial, the Superior of the 1500 Jesuits who composed the New York Province and he, or someone at his side, was observing this Junior Scholastic.

With the end of the Juniorate we would receive our first real assignments. We would all go on to the next stage of the Jesuit course of study, Philosophy, Most would be sent to the Jesuit house of studies at Woodstock, Maryland, where the Scholastics of the New York and Maryland Provinces worked over Aristotle and St. Thomas under the same roof. But not all. Some at least might be sent elsewhere, and that decision rested with someone in the Provincial’s office at Fordham, on the advice of someone at St. Andrew. We were being reported upon, though no one knew how or by whom, and the material on each of us was accumulating and would continue to accumulate, in Provincial dossiers in New York and eventually in Rome as well, where the Father General observed and ruled his 32,000 troops all over the world, from New York, the most populous of all his domains, to the twenty-two Jesuits of the Iron Curtain Roumanian Vice-Province and the eight mysterious figures who still toiled Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam in remote Soviet Lithuania-Estonia.

Something was stirring in my head. The World, which knows better about such things, would probably call it ambition, but that was not an acknowledged virtue of the religious life and so what was registering in me was not that taboo notion but something more seemingly described as the widening of horizons, the recognition of possibilities. My future was gliding almost imperceptibly toward my hands, and I reached out and attempted to take hold of it. I suggested – I did not yet request; human that was to bolt – that I might be sent not to Woodstock but rather to St. Louis University, with the Scholastics of the Missouri Province study philosophy and where I could also do additional work in Latin and Greek. In my rapidly opening eyes the university looked like a plum. I asked for it and I got it.

My first four years as a Jesuit were over. In that time I had been visited by parents and relatives six or seven times and by other vagrant, unannounced but welcome friends on two or three other occasions. I slept under that one roof. I had not seen a newspaper or listened to the radio or watched a movie in all that time. Four years of the life of the World had fallen out of my life, with no great consequence, I imagine. I was informed and entertained in other ways and on other matters; I had adapted to another culture as exotic and remote from my own as that of an Ainu or a Trobiand Islander. I was stuffed full of meditation, cornbread, softball and Sophocles. I was girt with cincture and chain. I had survived the Long Retreat and a twice-daily examination of conscience. I was pronounced ready to move on to the next stage of what was nicely described as my “formation.”

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