The Jesuit Novice of 72 years ago: a personal account
Plunged into a life of prayer, meditation, and silence
THE FIRST DAYS
We became nine-to-fivers, to bed at nine and up at five, sleeping on cots in six-man dormitories, each in his curtained cubicle.
Entering in early August, we met ferocious Ohio Valley heat and humidity. Curtains were drawn, the dormitory’s six ceiling-high windows were thrown open. Next to each window was a desk where we knelt for the daily hour of meditation, 5:30 to 6:30.
Not in the first few days. We had to learn how to meditate, which was more than saying a Hail Mary. One of us had been told [by a university dean] that the two years of novitiate would be hell if we didn’t learn how to pray, that is, as religious prayed, as Jesuits prayed.
The novitiate was to be our introduction to a life of reflection. Ours was to be an examined life.
A second-year novice from downstate Illinois, our “spiritual father,” gave us a motto of sorts: You succeed at prayer by trying. It’s a prescription for mediocrity but recognized the difficulty and gave us a sort of pep-talk incentive. What did we know? He’d been doing prayer for a year.
BOYHOOD PREP The prayer was meditation and not the petition I had made routinely during the war at bedtime, praying for peace and my brothers overseas or in preparation for an intramural boxing match.
For a fight I used a saying of St. Ignatius which I had picked up somewhere and have since found it’s as Jewish as it is Christian, not to mention Catholic: Pray as if everything depends on God, act as if everything depends on you. So I trained and got to bed early and in nightly prayer put my fate in God’s hands. It was not a bad exercise.
Indeed, I entered the Jesuits with precisely that purpose. I ran into a local bully boy at Austin and Madison and told him I was joining the Jesuits. “Why on earth would you want to do that?” he asked, stunned.
No less incredulous was friend George, who wondered the same thing. I told him I wanted to do something that gave me full guarantee of doing God’s will. He heard me out respectfully.
Friend Brad across the alley, who at one point considered joining the Trappists, resonated with my intention. We both had the habit of daily mass and communion at our parish church a few blocks from our houses.
Such a tidal wave of piety is worth noting. It came from inside the families, but also from school. In senior year at Fenwick High, in Oak Park, a Dominican school, we had a religion teacher who pushed the envelope for us with a taking-Scripture-seriously approach.
Even friend Bill, skeptical toward the church in ways I was not, found this teacher, Father James Regan, OP, worth the entire $150 annual tuition, so engaging were his classes, which he taught half from Scripture and tradition, half from Time Magazine and other news outlets.
For instance, discussing Jesus’ saying that the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light, Father Regan brought up Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigning hatless in the rain in an open car, trying harder to gain his earthly crown than we to gain our heavenly, to use the language of that day’s piety.
Such an argument struck home for the adolescent listener with half an interest in discovering the meaning of life. It was the sort of thing that got Brad and me off to church on weekdays.
More specifically, Father Regan asked repeatedly in daily quizzes until it had sunk in to his satisfaction, What’s priceless within easy reach every day? Holy Communion, of course. For the believing 17-year-old, it made perfect sense, especially for me who as a grade-schooler had gone to daily mass with my parents during the war, praying for the return of my brothers. It was a matter of home-fires burning with relentless piety, including nightly family rosary.
Combine such home and family experience with formal instruction in a school atmosphere that drove home Catholic viewpoints and exuded faith and prayer, and you had a formula for encouraging the religious bent.
More to come: Sister Alfred, J.D. Salinger, Thomas a Kempis . . .
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