Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Father's Day remembrance

With Father's Day ahead, I have been thinking more about my own father, whom I saw twice a year in my childhood. This would be at Christmas or on my birthday, and of the gifts he brought I best remember the books. One was a self-study guide to Spanish, and every summer in my high school years I would start with the first lessons, quickly faltering as I struggled with how to roll an "r." Another had been a magnificent two-volume set on the wonders of the past, something which I looked at with the best intentions of someday reading but somehow never did.

Books, for me, were these promises of access to a greater world. They were the keys to open door after door to all the knowledge handed down through the ages. I'm not at all sure why I did not read the books my dad brought me, since otherwise I was constantly reading. Perhaps it was because I was far more excited, as I am still, by a good thriller, and once I discovered a favorite author--Sax Rohmer was one--I would hunt down all his books either at our local library or, better yet, at the fabulous central library in downtown Los Angeles.

No, I do not think it was any suppressed resentment at my dad's absence. Despite the fact that I had grown up hearing the litany of his sins from my mother--not least of which was his failure to pay any kind of child support at at time when she was supporting us by peddling handmade potholders from store to store--I always looked up to him, and later, when I became an author appearing on radio and television, I found that his was the approbation that mattered most.

Perhaps, had he been more a part of my life, I would never have been drawn to the Jesuits. He had vague thoughts of my applying to West Point since he knew a congressman who would put in a word for me, but I was going by that fearsome logic that drove so many of us to the priesthood or religious life: it was better to be a priest than a layman, and it was better to be member of a religious order than it was to be part of the diocesan clergy, even if I could have been accepted as the offspring of a marriage that the church did not recognize.

As a Jesuit I did have a hard time of feeling that I really belonged. Unlike most of my fellow novices, I had not attended a Jesuit school, I was both an inept athlete and even a worse singer (the split seemed to be between the jocks and the choirboys, with the most promising able to fit into both camps), and I was resolutely attempting to divorce myself from my past. What saved me, I think, were the books. As a novice one of the jobs I held was as the individual responsible for distributing books from our own library, and then upon taking vows and moving to the opposite wing of our house of studies in Los Gatos, I found I could freely wander through the stacks availabkle to the priests and other scholastics. It's not that I read so much as the very possibility of being able to read whatever I chose.

At our scholasticate in Spokane whatever I understood a Jesuit library to be was almost unbelievably expanded. Following the Second World War Jesuits had bought up and transferred much of the material available in Europe, and here I could pull out leather-bound volumes printed three hundred years before. Again I did not really read much out of these fantastic collections, but the idea that they were there was what mattered most. As a regent living on the campus of USF, again I was enthralled by all the options that were there.

I presently have an enormous library with shelves in several rooms and boxes upon boxes in storage. I have history and philosophy and so much more, and, again, I have to admit that it seems to be the possession that matters more than the use. If I choose, I can open more doors, see more vistas. I will still buy books, often compulsively when I develop a sudden interest, and most remain in pristine condition (I just counted up my cookbooks and realize I have close to a hundred), and I realize that much of this only continues that tendency I had as a kid and again as a young Jesuit. Books were my silent friends, willing to open themselves to me if I so chose but never holding it against me if I ignored them.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Memento mori

The Latin phrase memento mori, possibly best translated as "remember that you will die," apart from challenging anyone's knowledge of Latin grammar, keeps taking me back to what is called the first week in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. As a Jesuit novice more than half a century back I was to reflect on the fact of my death during the intense meditations making up what is called the Long Retreat, and on a yearly basis I was to go back to these somber reflections during an annual eight-day retreat. As a former Jesuit now in what are called the golden years of my life, I find myself coming back to them.

Just as it has been said that youth is wasted on the young, I think these reflections on death are just as wasted. As a young guy I could even imagine my death in some heroic manner, like those described in the daily readings that accompanied our noon dinner in the novitiate. Yes, chop away at my fingers like Isaac Jogues at the hands of the Iroquois, or let me suffocate over sulpherous fumes like the Japanese martyrs of a few hundred years ago. Or go the full "third degree" thing and be willing to be tortured in the same manner as Jesus himself.

In my final year as a Jesuit, ten years in but still three years away from ordination, I came to recognize how dishonest this was. No way could I want anything like this, and God help me if the time came when I would have to accept it, ready or not. As my dad, a vet of World War II once commented, he'd have said anything asked of him if had been a prisoner of the Japanese. He did not think this was being cowardly. I was a bit taken aback at the time, but I was still a young guy at the time. As I got older I came to realize that honoring stubborness in the face of pain might not be quite as admirable as I had once imagined, especially if its sole result is to ratchet up the intensity of what someone has to endure until at last he is broken (and I'm told that eventually anyone can be broken).

However, the dramatic stuff was actually a distraction. It is more likely that if we live long enough we do not die in some heroic manner but in a way that takes us bit by bit back to the stage of being bawling, puking, pissing infants. As a novice I spend a few weeks assigned to help with the care of a couple of the elderly priests in our infirmary. What this meant in practice was just providing some companionship since there were no actual nursing duties assigned. One of the men, formerly a brilliant theologian, was a highly irascible soul who suffered from what today we know as Alzheimer's and had a memory span of a minute or so. The other, once seen as a holy terror in the Alaskan missions, had a sweet disposition, seemed completely lucid, and wanted only to talk about the wonders of the heaven awaiting him. It never really occurred to me that, were I to remain a Jesuit, there was a chance I'd be anything like either of them. But then I was a young guy.

Some of the men who were novices with me and have remained Jesuits have already died and a few others see the end as close enough. They have been well cared for, and there is a part of me that says I too might have had a complete life as a priest, just as they have. And there is that other part that says I have no regrets that I chose a different path, even with all the slips and falls that came with it.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Belief and unbelief

With apologies to Michael Novak, who once wrote a book with this title, I keep coming back to this topic, both to make sense of the different stages in my own life and to understand better what may be needed to hold a society together.

As a young Jesuit I was as strong a believer as they come, even if intellectually I found myself a nascent agnostic and emotionally I never experienced the warm and fuzzy feeling of rewarded faith. In my first book over three decades back I attempted to compare faith to a love affair: it can take hold without invitation and it can disappear without expectation. Of course, I was writing this with a somewhat greater experience of doomed love affairs than had been mine as a young Jesuit scholastic, but I still think the analogy accurate. Faith is not something one can will (the psychological reality that Augustine understood so well when he came to talk about faith as an unearned grace from God), and the hard truth of the matter is that faith can be assaulted so readily, unfair as it might seem to those who, like Mother Teresa (as we now know from her correspondence), find themselves calling out in the darkness despite lives of total dedication.

I thought of this today when I went over to Loyola-Marymount University to have lunch with an old friend still a Jesuit. I stopped in the campus chapel where, years before, I had attempted to attend Mass when another friend was pronouncing his final vows as a Jesuit and yet was unable to remain as a wave of depression came crashing in. Today a group of students were preparing for some type of service as one of the Jesuits guided them, and I thought how I could have completed my study for the priesthood and today been in his place. The question, though, is whether that earnest faith I had once held would have survived. The point had come as the ex-Jesuit when I no longer could say I believed as I had, and now I think it so likely it would have come even when I was the priest who was to set the example for those he led.

I still have the greatest respect for those who, like my remarkable Jesuit friend, remain believers, not because they have successfully weathered the storms that sank the rest of us, but because they are able to access a separate dimension in their lives that I am denied. Like those who find themselves still loving and in love, their relationship provides a basis for their identity. I wish I could be like them although I know it is impossible.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Jesuit conspiracies

Up until recently I had not thought to look at the websites, blogs, YouTube videos and whatever that are meant to explain the "truth" about the Jesuits and their worldwide conspiracy. Now I am much better informed. The Society of Jesus, headed by the "Black Pope" who actually dictates to the "White Pope" in Rome, is a Masonic, Jewish, Nazi-linked, Communist militaristic organization dedicated to implementing something called the New World Order. Damn, and all those years I spent as a Jesuit no one thought to tell me. And, oddly enough, no one thought to tell the Masons, Jews, Nazis, and Communists. Now that is a conspiracy to end all conspiracies!

Well, to be honest, I had been told something of the sinister plans of the Society of Jesus even before I became a novice. I had been given a little Catholic pamphlet which recounted something of the portrayal of the Jesuits in literature that included a bit of the plot of one of the sequels to The Three Musketeers. In Twenty Years After Aramis is secretly appointed the new Father General, and in the novel there is this description of the "eleventh-year" Jesuit as "one of those men who had been initiated in all the secrets of the order, one of those for whom science has no more secrets, the society no further barriers to present." Of course, any of the youngsters attending a Jesuit high school might be expected to get a good giggle out of this, since the priests and scholastics they dealt with on a daily basis might be more or less admirable but they hardly came off as superspies with their fingers on the pulse of world events, just waiting for the moment to take over.

Naturally, the Jesuits wanted their students to think them just ordinary human beings with a special dedication to their church, and this was so that more callow youth could be lured into their ranks as part of their process to infiltrate American society. As time went on, those students who did become novices would learn the true mission of the order and eagerly assent to a role in which they would know who they really were but would conceal this from everyone else. Sure, but maybe it was because I had not gone to a Jesuit school that I was kept in the dark, since the Society already knew I would leave somewhere along the line but would use me as long they could.

Now the true conspiracy buff, like some of the bloggers I have read, would respond that I really do know the truth but had been assigned by my Jesuit superiors to be a double agent in ordinary society in order to spread disinformation. I claim to be a former Jesuit who was never let in on this great conspiracy, so it must be that my protestations are themselves part of the insidious plot and, if anything, proof that the conspiracy is as active as ever.

Now I realize where I've gone wrong in my own literary career. Several of my books, such as my study of Sinn Fein and the IRA some years back, do contain autobiographical references since my Jesuit past has shaped my interests in examining why people come to believe what they do. Whether I have been looking at the Irish rebels or at modern-day witches, I have attempted to understand what I have called an atmosphere of faith in the sense of how individuals are socialized to accept one or another interpretation of what is real. My contributions here have been modest with not that much notice and certainly not that much reward. Had I only opted to "tell the truth" like a California version of the supposed ex-Jesuit Alberto Rivera promoted by Jack Chick's comic books, I would have had much more attention and maybe much more opportunity to rake in the dough.

On a more serious note, I do wonder about the danger posed, not by a non-existent Jesuit conspiracy, but by the ease with which bigotry can be promulgated and reinforced. When I look at some of the more hateful blogs, I think of a character invented by mystery writer John D. McDonald, a solitary individual culling newspapers and magazines for the coded messages about a coming catastrophe and feeling himself privileged to be among the elite who saw beneath the surface. The philosopher Herbert Marcuse once commented that the problem with a marketplace of ideas is that the bigot has an edge--something I see whenever a well-meaning friend of mine forwards one of his alerts (most recently that Barack Obama is an agent of an Islamic conspiracy to infiltrate the American political scene). In uncertain times, there is something almost comforting about being able to see oneself as a victim of a deliberate plot.

The tragedy is how such an outlook can be manipulated for political benefit and innocent human beings--the Jews in Nazi Germany just being one example of this--can be destroyed. The isolated individual who indulges in vituperative blogging can be easily ignored, but what happens as a virtual community begins to build and calls for action are made? At what point does a crackpot idea take such hold that a real conspiracy takes form--one that grounds itself in a belief that only through direct action can another perceived conspiracy be thwarted?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

These new novices

A year back, while assembling the contributions from former Jesuits that appear in my book Unexpected Company, I was struck by how mixed were our reactions to the two-year period of training we all endured as novices. Those of us who aspired to become Jesuits were effectively isolated from the world--certainly no radio or newspapers, and limited visits from our families--in the religious equivalent of a Marine boot camp. Above all, we learned to conform to the expectations of our superiors to be part of what, sometimes disparagingly, would be called the long black line. For some of us this is a time we look back to with nostalgia while for others it is just a succession of less than pleasant memories.

The Second Vatican Council, which called on religious orders and congregations to revise traditional patterns, made a difference in two ways. One was clearly unintended when the old notion that it was just better in God's eyes to be a priest or a religious was discounted with the result that there was a steep drop in vocations. The second was that in adapting to today's world members of religious communities were no longer to be cut off as they had been in the past.

For the Jesuits the changes were possibly far more striking than they were in other groups. The old houses of study were largely abandoned or converted to other uses, and as the novices now ceased to be teenagers just out of high school it became possible to allow a far greater degree of independence than would have been the case before. At the same time the notion of what has come to be called a preference for the poor shifted the Jesuit emphasis away from education to a social ministry. I spent much of my time as a novice perfecting a skill in reading and even speaking Latin, at the time still the universal language of the church, with only a brief period away from the novitiate to work at one of our two retreat houses in the province. Today's American novices do not study Latin at all, and it is expected that they will spend much of their time away from a novitiate in one or another ministry, often enough out of the country.

Recent blogs and news articles have cued me to just how different things have become around the world. In several provinces novices are sent on pilgrimages, in one case being given a one-way bus ticket and just thirty dollars and no clear directions on what to do next. In others there are definite assignments, as in the note on an Irish Jesuit website about the work placement of two first-year novices in Dublin.

It is obviously far too early to determine how successful this new approach is in training men to be Jesuits who will meet the needs of the church in the twenty-first century. In particular, the sociologist in me longs to see data establishing the retention rate for these new Jesuits (essentially, how many complete the long period of formation leading to final vows for both priests and brothers). For the men of my generation, only a small percentage did not leave the Society at some point, often years after ordination. That alone would suggest that the old way of doing things was not all that successful, especially when we all were aware of the priest or brother who did not leave but perhaps should have. One possibility with these new novices and scholastics is that, even if their rate of retention is not significantly different than was ours, will be less likely to be as alienated from both the church and the Society as many of us have been.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Kaiser and the Cardinal

Late last year former Jesuit Robert Blair Kaiser, who has been writing about the church since his days as a reporter at Vatican II, finished his first novel. The plot is that a prominent American cardinal is kidnapped by liberation theology-type guerrillas, put on trial in Mexico for the sins of his church, rescued through a commando raid that kills off all but one of his kidnappers, and through a stunning change of heart begins his own process of reforming American Catholicism. What makes the novel rather distinctive is that Kaiser uses the present Archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Cardinal Mahony, as his main character, and throughout the book he mixes in actual individuals with completely fictitious ones.

Granted, other writers--especially mystery novelists--have used deceased personalities in their novels, and sometimes, as has Dean Koontz in his "Odd" series, they have used their ghosts. Using a living person, though, can be problematic, which is the main reason a number of publishers turned down the novel before Kaiser arranged to bring it out on his own. The title, of course, is Cardinal Mahony and the cover depicts the Cardinal in a chasuble representing the American flag, which Kaiser explains as an effort to express his concept of an American Catholic Church that is, in his terminology, "autochthonous"--in communion with Rome but operating independently and democratically.

I have to enter a certain disclaimer here. I was one of the individuals who had a chance to read an early draft of the novel as well as the finished product before its release, and I helped Kaiser set up his website robertblairkaiser.com. Obviously I cannot claim to be a disinterested reviewer, and I certainly have my own motives for following the reaction the book might stir up. A review in the National Catholic Reporter and an article in a newspaper in Kaiser's hometown of Phoenix, Arizona were relatively bland, but, probably alerted by a Google alert for the term "Jesuit" that cited the article, a blog from someone at the highly conservative Saint Ignatius Press was anything but. Kaiser is "still lost in the Sixties" and his idea of what his fictional Mahony supports is an "Americanized Sixties-Flashback Church of Democratic WCC-Styled Anarchy."

Of course, my own question is just what part of the Sixties Kaiser is supposed to be lost in. If it is the Second Vatican Council, Kaiser probably could not object at all, since his theme over the years has been that it is the hierarchy which has blocked full implementation of the reforms accepted by the Council. But, assuming I understand what this is supposed to mean, "Democratic WCC-Styled Anarchy" is something of a stretch. What this may come down to is a debate on whether the Holy Spirit can guide local communities or whether such guidance is limited to a small area in Rome. Kaiser supports the notion that the top-down governance familiar to an older Catholicism is not an appropriate model everywhere, and certainly it is not appropriate to the United States.

Whether he is on solid ground or not is a theological issue that is not going to get much discussion among Catholic theologians who do not want their careers cut short. Perhaps it is the best case for why Kaiser has in fact done his church a service by posing the issue in a novel. It may lead ordinary American Catholics to ask some very reasonable questions.

Friday, February 15, 2008

When it's still Greek to me

Currently I'm back in the classroom teaching an honors section of a course in the history of Greek philosophy. It's an all-day affair once a week for eight weeks with presumptively the best and the brightest of our community college's students. After retiring a few years back and teaching only online, it has been a chance to see if I can break with the lecture style I used before and engage my students more directly. The goal I've been setting is not just to learn some details about the great figures of the past but to try to get into what it means to ask a philosophical question.

In some way this has been a return to my own Jesuit past. Fifty years ago I was working on a master's thesis about one of the men to head Plato's Academy toward the very end of its history several centuries into the Christian era. At the time I thought it would make an interesting analysis to see how this writer, a man named Proclus, talked about the world in which he lived. Specifically, how as a pagan did he respond to the challenge of Christian orthodoxy? To do this, I tried to get hold of copies of everything he wrote, most of which had never been translated from Greek. With my faithful Liddell & Scott lexicon I skimmed through text after text before arriving at the realization that the man, writing in the same Attic Greek as Plato, absolutely ignored what had happened to the world around him. It was as though he and his intended readers, faithful to the old gods, could live in an encapsulated society that the Christians now left alone.

Today I cannot any longer claim much ability to sightread Greek philosophy in Greek, yet something I learned long ago was that conventional English translations of the old philosophers could often be misleading and fr that reason I prefer to look back at the Greek itself when I can. A couple of examples came up with a text that I was reproducing for my students. This was from Xenophon's treatise on what he called "economics," purportedly a discussion in which Socrates analyzes what it takes for good household management. The section, which offers fascinating glimpses into Greek life, involved the training of a wife, and most of it is the report of someone Socrates describes as an exemplary "gentleman." Now that English term chosen by the translator is redolent of British life in the Victorian era (think Jane Austen) but somehow I wondered just how well it fit the Greek picture. Since I was using the online Perseus texts from Tufts University, I was able to go back to the transliterated Greek and find that the term was kalokagathos, literally "beautiful and good." Ah, maybe we could use the term "one of the beautiful people" and so update the image to fit in with our own celebrity culture.

Another term in the text that at first perplexed me was "illiberal arts." Going to the Greek I found that the term referred to the type of activity of those craftsmen who had to work with their hands, especially at a forge. Aha, we were talking about the activity expected of slaves rather than free citizens. I remembered the thesis of sociologist Alvin Gouldner's Enter Plato that the fact of slavery explained the reason Greek philosophers, who as free citizens would not engage in "illiberal" arts, did not think of doing experiments to test their ideas about how nature worked.

Ah, the perils of translation. Since many terms, like the common words filling up column after column in the large Liddell & Scott I have on my bookshelf (logos, for example, takes up nearly three pages of dense type), can have multiple connotations depending on context, I began to appreciate the intentions of those who first translated most of the old Greek texts into English. "Gentleman" and "illiberal arts" were understandable examples of how scholars who did know the Greek mind tried to use words that might begin to approximate what was present in their own culture. Our trouble today is that, likely as not, the Victorian mindset is alien in itself, so using it to get at a Greek mindset is not always that helpful.

I run into this rather often in my other courses, especially when I am dealing with classic texts from Asian thought. I am coming more in my old age to appreciate the fact that, much as I resented it at the time, as a young Jesuit I spent a couple of years concentrating on Latin and Greek in a pattern that still echoed the goals of Renaissance education. I may not have fully seen the importance of being able to read Plato in the original Greek or Thomas Aquinas in the original Latin, but whenever I pick up a translation of either I often find myself cringing. I understand how translators are doing their best, but I also see how readily the reader lacking a background in the classics can be misled.