Where I Met My First Protestant

A Different League 1957

Princeton looks like no university made by human hands. It has the flashy Technicolor perfection of an old Hollywood back lot or the backdrop for a Vogue layout designed to show off chesterfield coats or dazzling women in expensive clothes. That was in fact the first thing I saw when I put my inelegant Thom McAn foot to the perfect Princeton sward—it was perfect because no one was ever observed manicuring it—on my arrival there in the Fall of 1957. My assigned residence was to be in the Graduate College, a stunningly authentic reproduction of an Oxford “college” that served as a kind of celibates’ prison, or, to put it more kindly, as housing for Princeton’s unmarried graduate students, all of them, in that day, males. And as I walked through the groined archway into the grassy quad of my new home, there before me was arrayed a tableau of furred ladies who, save for their miraculous thinness of limb and hollowness of cheek, might have been taken for real women. Lights blazed. Cameras whirred. The tableau came suddenly to life, a masque, I knew, to celebrate my own delayed coming into vogue.

I walked around the photo shoot, found the entry to my suite at the far back corner of a second, inner quad and climbed the slate stairs to the second floor. A heavy oaken door opened off a landing into a cozy sitting room for two. Deep leather chairs faced a fireplace which neither I nor any other graduate student ever thought to light. Outside the ivy curled gracefully around the lead-mullioned windows and within was a bedroom with twin oak beds. On one of them was already seated Joseph Oakes of Ottumwa, Iowa, who had graduated that June from the Iowa State University with a B.A. in Physics.

“Iowa,” I remarked to my new roommate, “So I guess they put all us hicks together.”

Oakes raised his head a trifle and a greasy slab of his thin straight hair fell across his left eye.

“You’re from New York?”

“Can you tell from the funny way I talk?”

Oakes did not smile. He may not have been exposed to this style before, but he already knew –and I knew– that he didn’t much like it.

No, they didn’t put the hicks together. Princeton had something more malignly idealistic in mind, to yoke a humanities and a science student together for their mutual edification, a marriage, or at least a cohabitation, of the Two Cultures. The principals were neither edified nor even engaged. I could not discuss arithmetic, let alone physics, and so we played of necessity in my yard and with my ball, religion. Truth to tell, I would have preferred sports, but Oakes knew as little of that arcane discipline as I did of the dynamics of gasses. So it was religion, where both of us at least knew the names of the players. And when we wearied of that, we could always return to square one, my proposition on the teleological implausibility of the Midwest, and Oakes’ relentless counter-thesis, to wit, that New York City was a pile of urban shit.

Oakes’ words, not mine. Though I had by then almost learned how to say “fuck” –I still found “intercourse” easier, but the reflexive forms gave me trouble– I possessed no really respectable scatological vocabulary, as I soon became aware. Whatever Joseph Oakes original religious convictions, they had long since been shattered by a constant battering by matter in motion. I tried to lure him toward at least the basics of Catholic orthodoxy with the cosmological argument for God’s existence, which had worked marvelously well in bars in the Bronx. Oakes quickly characterized it as “shit and shinola,” a refutation I had not heard before. OK, he wanted to play hardball so I quickly switched to the full range of the more classical and presumably more convincing Five Ways. “That sucks,” Oakes allowed. I thought that I had discovered all the possible types of adversarii in the footnotes of my Jesuit textbooks. I was wrong. They neglected to include scumbags and pigshit eaters, from whom Joseph Oakes drew some of his most devastating arguments.

Joe, I eventually concluded, was just plain stupid. And so was I. But he served me well, for all his dim-witted anger against Mother Church. By forcing me to mouth my Jesuit platitudes again and again out there on neutral ground, he finally made me admit to myself, though never to him, that I didn’t believe them either. No, belief wasn’t the issue. Oakes had trouble with belief; he actively disbelieved. I just didn’t care. Our conversations ground down to a slow sullen crawl and then to a halt. In the end we stayed out of each other’s way as much as possible. He bored me and I’m sure I angered him with my condescension. He found Princeton alien and difficult, and he deserved to, I thought, the scumbag.

In time the fun went out of my arm-wrestling with Joe Oakes. I don’t think I much liked him to begin with, and then as it became clearer to me, perhaps even before it dawned on him, that he was not going to stay at Princeton, I began to put some space between us, as if I had discovered an acquaintance had a fatal disease. Oakes actively disliked Princeton; he loathed its eastern, Ivy League airs, hated its husk of traditions left over from an era when they meant something but were now no more than a harmless and sometimes colorful residue. We all took our dinner together, for example, in a cathedral-like hall in the Graduate College. We were required to wear academic gowns over our street clothes at table, and I, who had my head filled with tales of Yanks at Oxford, loved it. I felt like Rupert Brooke dining in Hall, even though the distance between me and any poet was too infinite to calculate. Joe Oakes loved it not at all. He rolled back the long black sleeves and defiantly pinned them to his shoulders so that he appeared like some kind of donnish longshoreman. Little wonder, then, that in his second year, when he and I had long parted company, Joseph Oakes transferred to the University of Colorado, where they let him do physics without the theology minor and to eat in peace.

Schooled in nunnish pieties and Jesuit sophistry, I think I expected nothing short of a transformation from this, my very first encounter with secular learning at Princeton. And I flew right into what I reckoned must be the dark godless heart of that Ivy League citadel, the Religious Studies Program. I sadly misjudged. The learning on those academic high-places was not so much secular as it was failed Protestant, which was alright with me since Protestants, those I had met on the floors of sacristies aside, were as rare as the totally godless in my admittedly narrow range of experience. And they were, as I soon discovered, satisfyingly unlettered in the things of the Spirit, or at least all the recorded workings of the Holy Spirit between Saint Paul, where they got off, and Søren Kirkegaard, where they tardily rejoined what they liked to call the Great Tradition.

There were transformations, however. Early in that first Fall, somewhere in the octave of Reformation Sunday it may have been, a small man with leather patches sewn to the elbows of his jacket sat at one end of a long seminar table and chanced to remark that the question I had just raised was about as important as discussing the number of angels who could dance on the head of a pin. I understood quite otherwise, or so it seemed, since my mouth flew open and there, quite unexpectedly, after decades of sitting passively in classes, my graduate career began—or just possibly ended. I was delivering a lecture. A harangue, actually. It was perhaps unfortunate, I instructed my instructor, that he had chosen that particular example to illustrate irrelevance since the location, the ubi one might say, of spiritual beings was in fact…

It may have been Princeton’s first public dissertation on the ubiquity of angels. It was certainly the professor’s, who thought he had been hired to teach Near Eastern religions and found himself instead under the penitential lash of some kind of religious deviate. My student peers were more amused than appalled, naturally, but they would receive no more such treats. Next semester it was arranged that I should have a private course—administered by and to myself—where I could pursue my bizarre interests without bother to anyone except some long-dead Latin authors.

I went to graduate school with my educational expectations at high pitch, and in the end I was allowed, or rather, counseled, to educate myself. I did, after a fashion. I wasn’t terribly interested in theology—I had spent altogether too many years in its chilling grip—but this chance revelation of an exotic expertise almost doomed me. I was anointed, without advice or my own consent, but to the audible relief of the agnostic faculty, as the house theologian and sent off to work silently in those leaden scholastic mines.

No one much cared about courses or credits there amidst the insouciant Princeton ivy and so I was allowed to graze where and how I would. The faculty shunned me in a friendly way. Here was the most docile student they were ever likely to find at their feet, and they were frightened because I knew some Latin and Greek, classical philosophy and medieval theology. Academics have their own pecking order of difficult, worthwhile and arcane learning. I regarded mathematics with awe, and mathematicians in their perversity revere linguists and idiot savants who can sight-read string quartets. In my own milieu, however, I chanced to hole-in-one. The students and faculty of Religious Studies looked upon Greek as the ultimate Gnosis, outranking even German. And when it was accompanied by a modest ability to think in form, their admiration was almost beyond containing.

But it would obviously not do for the faculty to permit itself to be intimidated by a mere graduate student and so I was made to seem something dangerous and sent off into penal servitude in the library stacks. It only made matters worse. With each casual reference over coffee to Evagrius Ponticus or Cardinal Cajetan, I acquired new and unsolicited registrations in courses called “Advanced Individual Study”. My final Princeton transcript looked like a sentence to solitary confinement.

It did not much suit me at Princeton, though I stuck it out. I suppose I wanted more. In the Jesuits religion had meant only Catholicism. At Princeton, on the other hand, Religious Studies was a potpourri capacious enough to hold everything except Christianity, which seemed to be regarded as some kind of ethnocentric embarrassment. The graduate students fed lavishly on Buddhism and the Tao, on peyote and cargo cults, which interested me not at all. The faculty rendered slavish academic worship at the altars of the aborigines and the Navaho but rarely or never at that of the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, who was thought to have been around too long to require further notice. And maybe He was, at least as far as I was concerned. If Princeton was going to give me my freedom, I was not, I decided, going to squander it completing the missing part of my Jesuit theology course.

I found what I thought was an ingenious substitute, Islam. Islam was only a slightly exotic hybrid out of that tradition from which I had been feeding for so many years. Its great-uncle was my old friend Aristotle and its nephew once removed was another old companion, Thomas Aquinas. So it was on that already half-familiar ground that I finally pitched my tent, and when I finished reorganizing the landscape, Islam looked like nothing so much as a slightly deviant form of Catholicism which somewhat unaccountably chose to celebrate its liturgy in Arabic. And now at last I had to be permitted to enroll in at least one real course, Arabic.

There was trouble there too. My language teachers were mostly Arabs and so obviously had learned Arabic as a living language. I, however, had the tin ear of a classicist and was incapable of learning a language until I had killed it as dead as Latin or Greek and carefully packaged it in intelligible parcels labelled “moods” and “tenses” and such. Native speakers do not much regard such careful parcels, unhappily. I inquired about iteratives and indirect discourse, the only kinds of questions that meant anything to me. They meant little or nothing to my teachers, however, but they could not quite dismiss them because they knew the questions must mean something and that just conceivably they might be expected to know what. “Interesting,” they said. “Why don’t you look it up?” Back to the Firestone Library.

My trail through the Firestone Library, though I wandered it in solitude, was strewn with my own tracks. The names of users were in that day inscribed on little cards inside the back covers of books. Most of the cards in my reading were unmarked, like a virgin snow that had fallen in 1897 and gone untrodden ever since. Some few books did have another name on the users’ card, however, always the same one, but it was written in a script so miniscule that I could never make it out.

But the other made out mine. His deciphered name was Rudolph Mach and everyone knew him, or rather, knew who he was. Doctor Mach was some kind of indeterminate Middle European, possibly a Czech or a Hungarian, of uncertain age, though not very old, it was agreed, who had somehow come to Princeton and in some way worked in Special Collections in the Firestone Library. The notable scarcity of biographical and personal details was due to the fact that the gentlemen spoke to no one, neither faculty nor students. It was rumored that he might even be on the faculty –one oral tradition maintained that he had a Ph.D. from Uppsala, or possibly Lvov– though he taught nothing and the certifed faculty ignored him in public and in private. But it was also noted that they neither deprecated nor dismissed him, as they did with most of the library staff with pretensions to learning. But whether on the faculty or not, Rudolph Mach, it was reliably rumored, was the most learned man in Princeton University and that the gowned academics were thoroughly intimidated by him. The students certainly were.

The graduate students in Religious Studies worked together in their own Firestone seminar room which had a collection of reference books and was convenient to both the library stacks outside and the coffee lounge upstairs. Each staked out his own territory like a homesteader at one of the long tables there and tilled the soil of learning within his palisade of books. I arrived there every morning at 8:30, and an hour later, like an equally accurate but slightly slower clock, George Najjar made his smiling appearance and posted himself across the table.

George Najjar was a pal, as was clear to everyone since I allowed him to borrow my books and there, before my very eyes, to make marks in them. There the two of us sat day after day, pondering and scribbling, and sometime every morning and again in the afternoon, Rudolph Mach marched heavily through the study room on some unfathomable mission. We observed him closely as he passed, and though he said a word to no one nor even raised his eyes, he was noting us as well.

In the middle of my second year of graduate study an earthquake struck the Religious Studies seminar room. On his path through our midst, Mach had slightly but unmistakably nodded at me. It was somewhere between a greeting and an acknowledgement, but the gesture was the equivalent, on my and the other graduate students’ scale of values, of an existential affirmation, an act of communion, almost a profession of love. I received an immediate peer elevation to paradise.

But there was more. As time passed, a nod became a grunt. I grunted back, terrified at my own forwardness. A grunt passed into something which was deciphered, only by the most strenuous efforts of ten graduate students skilled in arcane tongues and the various subtleties of exegesis, as “Good morning”.

In April of that year Mach essayed actual converse, no social pleasantries or chitchat but a direct “Why do you read those books?” The unread and unreadable books mysteriously withdrawn from the library only by him and me had finally hooked him. I had no satisfactory answer –what does one say at the Last Judgment?– but it was no matter. Mach had concluded to his own answer: if he could read German, I must be serious. After Mach remounted his solar chariot and left, George Najjar leaned across the table and snickered “Wie gehts.” It was the only German he possessed.

One morning in May George and I were sitting over coffee in the lounge. Rudolph –Oh God, how we loved the new presumed familiarity– was seated at a table next to us, staring as usual into his undrunk cup of coffee. I nodded, but I was by now familiar enough with the unwritten Machian rules of conduct not to engage in conversation until Rudolph chose to begin it. So George and I began our own on the personal and professional habits of the faculty, and in the usual deprecating manner that pleased us and probably entertained Mach as well, though of course he made no sign. Thence it was an easy and well-worn transition to the familiar limitations of the Religious Studies Department. Rudolph was now forgotten as they ritually mourned the absence on the staff of a religious sociologist or a bona fide Islamicist. And how could the faculty possibly expect them, for Christ sake, to be serious about Zoroastrianism when the university didn’t even offer a course in Middle Persian?

A monitory grunt from the next table.

“You want to study Pahlevi?”

The talk stopped dead and we both turned. Rudolph was looking at us.

“This summer we can do it, if you want. Together. I do not know much Pahlevi, but maybe we learn a little together, ya? You buy Nyberg’s Lesebuch and we start in June.”

George and I and Rudolph and Pahlevi? I did not know what plans George had for the summer, perhaps only the completion of his dissertation or a visit to a dying father in Beirut, but whatever they were, they were immediately cast into the limbo of Lesser Goods. We both allowed, as casually as we could, that his suggestion seemed like a useful and practical idea. We strolled calmly out of the lounge and then bolted headlong downstairs in search of Nyberg’s suddenly precious Lesebuch: if Mach was going to invite us to a feast, neither of us would be found without a wedding garment.

By the time we began in June, the university was clear of its last revelling alumni and the final clots of milling undergraduates. The other graduate students went off to their petty summer excitements, their neglected wives and children, their pedestrian lives, while George and I settled in for the Ultimate Bazaar, a one-on-one with Rudolph Mach; the name of the game, Pahlevi, as excitingly exotic and dangerous as Rollerball or Afghan pig-sticking, except that neither of us knew the rules or could even predict what might be the outcome of the contest.

The outcome was, quite simply, that George and I learned Pahlevi. We sat down with Rudolph Mach every morning, Monday through Friday, from one end of that palmy summer to the other, and parsed and translated our way through the Middle Persian texts collected by the estimable Dr. Nyberg. They were inscrutable to the eye –Pahlevi was notoriously careless in the way it joined one letter to the next and the effect was often that of an entire line of “m’s” or “w’s”. Upon decipherment they turned out to be pleasant little tales of the early Shahs of Iran and a Zoroastrian cosmology as simple-minded as the one that I had long ago learned at the good nuns’ knees.

We worked that summer with an industry unknown to mere graduate students. Rudolph Mach was not an exciting teacher, but his mastery of the subject was dazzling, and well out of his hearing we often repeated to each other with mock groans the by then notorious Mach remark “I do not know much Pahlevi”. But mastery was not all that extraordinary: almost every teacher who had ever stood over me appeared to me, at that time and place, to have had a perfect mastery of his subject. But then one morning a propos of nothing, Rudolph turned it on, the overdrive, the afterburners, everything. A Magian priest wandered out of the dense ligature of the text. And he smelled good, it was reported by the anonymous author. “So,” said Rudolph Mach as he turned the Lesebuch on its face before him, “he smelled good. The odor of sanctity.”

I had heard the expression before. Various Christian saints were advertised to have died “in the odor of sanctity.” In my folly I had thought it was a metaphorical expression, but then rudolph Mach cleared his throat and proceeded to weave a web of learning of such overwhelming subtlety and complexity that I still find little shreds of it clinging to my person.

Rudolph picked up the scent in the Far East, then turned to Buddhism and the wondrous career of Central Asian shamanism. Everyhere the history of the “odor of sanctity” was glossed in elegant and stunning detail, entirely from memory and with profuse reference to the original sources. We learned about that good smell of the holy in the Avesta and in both the Massoretic and Septuagint texts of the Pentateuch, in Sufi literature in Arabic, Persian and Urdu, in the Mishna and its twin gemaras, in the singing lines of the Iliad, in Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus, in the Fathers of the Desert and the curious Hesychasts. We sniffed it again in Augustine, Hugh of St. Victor, Julian of Norwich and Moses Maimonides, the divus Rambam. Without a note, without pause or hesitation. At length Rudolph reached the Eastern European Hasidim, when the smell seems to have disappeared for all time from the noses of men, and then he rested.

From someone else it would have been a mere performance, the kind of dazzling tour de force that flashy professors can enact once or twice a semester for wondering undergraduates. With Rudolph Mach it was only a whiff, however, a sensual hint of what he knew and how he knew it. I had managed to snare a small corner of Mach’s attention and interest, but behind it lay an entire life of the mind and, by implication and calling, mine as well. That, God help me, was what professors were supposed to be, holy. Sitting in that classroom that summer with Rudolph Mach and George Najjar, I discovered my true vocation.

I thought Princeton might be very different from my Jesuit experience, and of course it was: the Society of Jesus could never afford that much Gothic gimcrackery. But in other regards my first two unmarried years in graduate school were not very different from those nine in a seminary. I still lived in an all-male community, went back and forth to regularly scheduled exercises, read, studied and took my recreation remote from the World, with only an occasional fall from grace at the Essex House to remind me of the pleasures of the flesh. My Princeton professors didn’t give much spiritual counsel, but then again neither did the Jesuit Fathers. The Jesuits ate, drank and smoked and swore more, however.

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