Poughkeepsie, NY. August 25th 2018 marks my 50th anniversary as a Jesuit, and to celebrate, I’ve just had dinner with my remaining classmate (out of 17), Fr Daniel G. O’Hare (a professor at the New York Medical College and indefatigable world traveler). He drove up from New York, and I down from Boston, to meet for dinner at the Culinary Institute of America, just north of Poughkeepsie and just south of the Roosevelt estate at Hyde Park. The CIA was, until 1969, St. Andrew on Hudson, the novitiate for the Jesuits of the New York Province. Before dinner at one of the restaurants on campus, we strolled around the groups, viewed the Hudson River and, of course, visited the grave of Teilhard de Chardin, the great Jesuit scientist-mystic. It was, and is, a very lovely place.
Of course, 2018 doesn’t seem a particularly auspicious year to celebrate. The Church seems once again on the verge of collapse, its moral credibility in tatters amid the latest new burst of scandals, the ruined career of Theodore McCarrick and the suffering of those he victimized, the sinister depredations in Pennsylvania, and all the rest. Vague commitments to do better, without a hard and honest accounting for the past, end up being too little, unlikely to change things. It is a little consoling, I suppose, to remember how tumultuous 1968 was: the war still heating up, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, and the chaotic and violent Democratic convention in Chicago ( the first TV I watched as a Jesuit was of scenes from Chicago). Among Catholics, we benefited and suffered from the continuing tremors caused by the changes in the ‘60s, including the exodus of so many priests and nuns in a short time. (The Society in New York is less than a quarter now of what it was in 1968.) Around the time we entered, a Jesuit provincial ran off with his lover, and then a seminary rector did the same. There were 17 of us who entered on August 25, 1968, but most were gone in the first three years. Dan O’Hare and I, and our beloved classmate John Bucki who died less than a year ago, were the only ones able to stick it out over the decades.
Why become a Jesuit in 1968? Among Catholics in NYC in the 1960s, smart boys who went to the best schools (such as Regis High School) often became Jesuits. And if like me they had been baptized “Francis Xavier,” who could be surprised? And yet I had become a Jesuit for my own deeply personal reasons, most importantly through a palpable encounter with God when I was 15. In a way, I found my vocation when first reading The Brothers Karamazov, finding myself connected to the revelatory experience Alyosha had in the famous “Cana in Galilee” encounter with God near the elder Zossima’s coffin, and then under those billions of stars: "Alyosha had fallen on the earth a weak boy, but he rose up a resolute champion, and he knew and felt it suddenly at the very moment of his ecstasy. And never, never, his life long, could Alyosha forget that minute. 'Someone visited my soul in that hour,' he used to say afterwards, with implicit faith in his words." Overwhelmed by his theophany, Alyosha left the monastery; I entered it.
More important, though, is why someone stays in religious life, despite everything that gets in the way, and all the alternatives. I haven’t stayed because I had to. Like most of us, I (probably!) could have managed quite well on my own, at least financially. And I’m perhaps the odd person who is content with the vows, a moral and holy frame within which to focus, really focus, on what matters, nothing else. It was by grace, most deeply, the Lord enabled me continue to swim and not sink beneath the waves, despite uncertainty, distraction, and everything else that marks a long life. Most of my classmates who entered with Dan and I in 1968 soon left; so why stay? Every Jesuit has his own story, but there are particular gifts of Jesuit life that have kept me going all these years. I will mention but three. (Jesuits love threes.)
First, immediate encounter with God lies at the heart of our spirituality, no small point in a hierarchical Church. The Exercises are highly structured, and at times the Society’s way of life and theology and spirituality are too top-heavy as well. But deep down, there is the expectation of immediate encounter with God. Because there is so much as stake, we need to stay out of the way, and trust God’s work with each individual. The director of the Exercises is to “stand in the center like a balance, leaving the Creator to act immediately with the creature, and the creature with its Creator and Lord.” (15th annotation). This director should already be ready to say less, not more:
For, if the person who is making the Contemplation takes the true groundwork of the narrative and, discussing and considering for himself, finds something which makes the events a little clearer or brings them a little more home to him, he will get more spiritual relish and fruit, than if he who is giving the Exercises had much explained and amplified the meaning of the events. For it is not knowing much, but realizing and relishing things interiorly, that contents and satisfies the soul. (2nd annotation)
These lovely words conclude the opening annotations:
The more our souls find itself in perfect solitude, the fitter it become to approach and reach up to its Creator and Lord; and the closer it gets to Him, the more disposed does it become to receive favors and gifts from His supreme divine goodness. (20th annotation)
Perfect solitude, encountering God, in our hectic cities, wherever we are needed most. The Exercises cultivate immediacy of the kind I instinctively wanted from even before August 1968, and I’ve been ever grateful for Ignatius Loyola’s great respect for God’s direct encounter with the individual. Our saving grace in practice is the instinct to stay out of the way, trusting that God does lead the way.
Second, we are always engaging in self-critique, for the sake of mission. We are a restless bunch. While at times the Society seems timid and set in its ways (and so too each of us), on the whole we Jesuits have in our times done a good job in questioning, thinking outside the box, and imagining better futures. We try hard to discern what it is that God wants of us as individuals and as a Society, on a campus or in a parish or with refugees or at a university. What worked in the past is always a guide, but it may not be what God expects of us now: so pay attention, here and now. And so I’ve always been blessed to be in communities where we were a bit edgy (and bitchy too), discontented with the current way of things, seeking more. At a deep level, this is about the magis, the greater glory of God. And if we have a holy impatience and keep renewing ourselves and our institutions, we may in the long run help the Church too to find ways to be more relentlessly self-critical.
Third, I am a Jesuit who is a scholar of Hinduism, and proponent of deep and sustained interreligious learning. I surprised even myself in 1971, when I announced that I wanted to go to India for my teaching interlude (regency) before theological studies. This was certainly out of the ordinary for a New York Jesuit (though other American Jesuits had been heading to India for decades), and I am ever grateful to superiors to allowing it to happen. In fact, I was by instinct doing what the Society had done since the beginning: Francis Xavier, Matteo Ricci, Roberto de Nobili, Ippolito Desideri, the Jesuits in Peru and Paraguay and French Canada, and on and on. These were men who wanted to think with the Church and remain companions of Jesus, and who therefore went where the Church was not, and in their own way found God present everywhere in the world. Though not great liberals, they were nevertheless great experimenters, willing to learn interreligiously well beyond what was strictly required for their mission work and beyond what almost anyone else was doing. That history was for me practically useful too: particularly early on, it helped immensely to be able to point out that we Jesuits have a great history in this regard. We have for a long time already been living where religions meet — so why shouldn’t I, couldn’t I? It has been challenging and life-giving to keep trying to make sense of Christian faith in a world as religiously diverse as ours, whether India or Cambridge MA is the topic of discernment.
But I’ve only scratched the surface. Companionship with Jesus and friendships with one another in his company make up the vital life of the Society. We can also count on communal support in difficult times, and be grateful for a host of other things Jesuits love about the Society. But the three gifts I’ve mentioned — intimacy with God; questioning within and beyond our habitual ways of doing things; living in that borderland where religions meet — have helped make these 50 years life truly alive. If the problems facing the Church and the world continue to press in on us with scandals we keep tripping over, these virtues and others — as I said, every Jesuit has his own story — help us to keep pushing back, seeing things differently, imagining a holy future that the wicked reject and the timid fear.
Dan and I strolled the grounds of the CIA on a lovely Saturday afternoon, finding everywhere reminders of that hot summer day in 1968. Some of the trees are surely the same; the gazebos by the river are still there (though much improved); the Hudson rolls on, clean and fresh; the cemetery remains an oasis of calm; the meal at the CIA’s Caterina de Medici was memorable, rivalling what the good brothers served us in 1968; we delighted in each other’s company, paths crossing once more.
50 years on, we found that what began in 1968 has worked out well enough indeed, surprising us both. The rest is grace, as they say.
(Posted on August 26.)