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At age 29, the author placed the initials “SJ” after his name and assumed the life of a “resident stranger”
Editor’s Note: Andrew Krivak entered the Society of Jesus—the Jesuit order—at Syracuse, New York, in 1990, beginning what is commonly a 10-year or longer regimen of education, training, and guided self-examination that leads to, or leads away from, final vows in the society. He was 27 years old, a graduate of St. John’s College (Annapolis) and the Columbia University master’s program in fine arts, and a native of Dallas, Pennsylvania—and he would not, in the end, take final vows, withdrawing from the society in 1998. His journey is recounted in A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life (2008), from which this essay is drawn. The story here begins in 1992, just after Krivak took his first vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity and embarked on First Studies, three years of philosophy training and part-time ministry that bring Jesuits to the midpoint on the path toward ordination.
In 1992 there were four universities in the United States where young Jesuits could study philosophy: Fordham in New York, Loyola in Chicago, St. Louis University, and Gonzaga in Spokane, Washington. Of these, Fordham was the truly urban environment. While inside its gates the university’s Rose Hill campus remained a beautifully mapped out expanse of gothic buildings, leafy trees, and sweeping greens, outside was the South Bronx, loud, gritty, diverse, and dangerous. One classmate, John, was robbed in the foyer of our residence. The mugger relieved him of his wallet, which held five dollars and a student ID. (That’s poverty.) And Justin was held up on Bathgate Avenue by a man wielding a shotgun. The thief ran off with Justin’s backpack, netting a cache of Latin books, the loss of which hurt the scholar more than the sight of the gun had. The univer-sity was scrupulous about security yet felt its own vulnerability at times. Like when a coed was dragged into a stairwell and raped one night as she walked home late from the D train, a half-mile from the campus. The police hunted for the perpetrator until a young man slinked into the 48th precinct station house and confessed to the crime that evidence confirmed he had committed. Remorse and a change of heart? Not if you believe the story that moved quietly around the streets that week. Some of the men in this proud and tight-knit Italian neighborhood found out quickly who the rapist was and told him he’d be better off turning himself in and going to jail than letting them decide what he deserved. Of course, this was strictly rumor.
One year before, when the Jesuit provincial’s formation assistant came to the novitiate and asked me where I saw myself studying philosophy, I told him I had been thinking about Chicago. It has a large population of Eastern Catholics (my father was baptized in a Byzantine Catholic church), and I had already lived and studied in New York, at Columbia. But the question was a formality. I would be sent to Fordham because it was in the New York Province, and New Yorkers were expected to be residents in their own houses. I felt in that first real test of discernment the sting of obedience, but at the time it didn’t sting too badly. I wanted the hardest philosophy program the Order could throw at me, and Jesuits like Avery Dulles, Robert O’Connell, Gerry McCool, and Norris Clarke were active on Fordham’s faculty. Besides, I imagined something of a homecoming.
Change is a constant character on the stage that is New York, and once I moved back after two years in the novitiate, I realized I was on that stage but not of it. I could retain the props of what I once knew: the address of a favorite bar and pizza restaurant on the Upper West Side, an alumni card that let me read at the Columbia library, and the phone numbers of a few friends still around. But the city was different now, and so was I.
Home was the Bronx, and I felt my new neighborhood was trying, in its own way, to follow the script in that play about change. Italian families with money were moving farther north for bigger houses in better neighborhoods. On their heels, Hispanics—increasingly, Mexicans—were moving in. Catholic parishes watched attendance at Italian Masses dwindle and their Spanish Masses overflow. In the 1990s, Bosnian immigrants started coming, displaced by the war in the Balkans. (There had always been Albanians in the neighborhood; they ran some of the best bakeries.) With the Bosnians came Islam. By the time I moved out of the Bronx in 1995, a makeshift mosque had gone up on our corner of East 189th Street and Belmont Avenue. In our house, we thought this seemed culturally, economically, and theologically right. But no Italian American we spoke to ever saw it as anything other than the end of an era.
In a four-floor walkup named Ciszek Hall (because Father Walter lived and died there after his return from imprisonment in Russia in 1963), with gardens and grapes growing below in the backyards of our neighbors, jets approaching LaGuardia Airport in the distance, car alarms, fireworks, and occasional gunshots interrupting the night (the gunshots went pop! pop! once or twice; fireworks exploded in running streams), we gathered from all over the world, 16 Jesuits, some of us just starting out, others already a year or two into First Studies, sent by the provincials of New York, Maryland, New England, New Orleans, California, Puerto Rico, the Antilles, El Salvador, Vietnam, Nigeria, and Ghana. No longer novices, we were called scholastics now, from the Latin that means both “schoolboy” and “an elite troop of soldiers.” We had placed the SJ after our names for Society of Jesus, and taken up the next stage in the long period of formation the Jesuits require before ordination to the priesthood, under the tutelage of a triumvirate of formators.
Gerald J. Chojnacki—a.k.a. Jeff—was our superior. He fit the image of the fat priest: round hands, thick shoulders, big belly. But he radiated the slow, calm bearing of the most austere monk. A photograph he kept in his office showed him as a young Jesuit from Jersey City on his ordination day, late twenties I’d guess, collected and immaculate in his priestly vestments, full head of hair, face clean-shaven, and skinny as a rail. He was a gentle man who was in no way, for as long as I knew him, weak. He took stock in tests of personality, like the Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram, believing that strength of community and faithfulness to God began with a humble knowledge of the self. In meetings he made notes unobtrusively on a yellow legal pad, keeping everything for future reference. Some of the guys called him Big Daddy.
Raymond Swietzer was our minister. Ray was reserved and efficient. He loved opera and ice hockey. He read Karl Rahner (in German) and the New York Post. Outside the house he taught Latin and modern Romance languages at Fordham Prep. In spite of or because of all this, he had an air of inflexibility about him, the surface appearance perhaps of his deeply classical mind. Yet, once when a scholastic asked in community meeting why we had season tickets to the symphony and not the New York Rangers, Ray stood up and said in his reasoned tone: “We have symphony tickets because they were a gift subscription to the house from a very generous donor.” There were groans from the hockey fans. “But, it seems to me,” Ray continued unfazed, “that William has a point. We should offer the scholastics both, or nothing.”
Charlie Mutenot, our third priest and guide, was an adjunct professor of theology at Fordham. Charlie was one of those intensely direct Jesuits and he cultivated an irreverent sense of humor. When Mike mentioned a few weeks into the semester that he had more work to do than he could possibly handle, Charlie, who’d done a tour in Vietnam as a chopper pilot, answered: “As my old flight instructor used to say, ‘Step into this chopper, son, and you’ll be busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.’ So buckle up.” His Ph.D. was in liberation theology. Out of graduate school now, he was working on “apostolic analysis,” a kind of cross between practical theology and social science, assessing the material as well as spiritual needs of a community, then organizing people to meet those needs. He likened the renovation of a crack house or the installation of a stop sign on a corner where two kids had already been hit by cars to the biblical feeding of the five thousand.
Anyone who wants to be ordained a priest in the Catholic Church has to study a certain amount of philosophy before training in theology and divinity. It’s the tradition of Holy Orders, whether you’re a Franciscan, Dominican, Marist, or diocesan priest. Because we were Jesuits, though, philosophy was considered our first mission, which is to say we were sent to studies, in the same way that Avery Dulles was sent to Fordham to teach theology, or Matteo Ricci (long ago) was sent to China.
So, much like other graduate students, those of us who were directed to the Bronx applied to and enrolled in the master’s program at Fordham. We took survey courses on Plato and Aristotle, Aquinas and Augustine, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and seminars on political philosophy and the role of the public intellectual. We considered the philosophy of art from the medievals to the modernists, and delved into the postmodernism of contemporary thinkers like Levinas, Derrida, and Rorty. Ethics, too, had to be part of the training, and so we studied a range of positions, from natural law to the emotivists and the new virtue theorists. Then, at the end of three years, we were given a two-hour oral examination on questions from any period or problem in the history of philosophy, which we were expected to pass.
To keep track of our progress, a Jesuit on the faculty was appointed our program director (although we studied with non-Jesuits as well). He made sure we took a precise set of courses to suit not our but the Church’s needs, and he led a philosophical integration seminar in our last year, which gave us practice in the discourse. That sounds as though we sat around a table and memorized rote answers to questions requiring doctrinally correct positions (on abortion, birth control, divorce, women’s ordination . . . you get the picture). But no. We discussed philosophy as a discipline, extant and relevant in our lives as men wanting to be priests. What is the freedom of responsibility? What constitutes an informed conscience? Does God stand aloof from our suffering? Is there, in the end, something rather than nothing? There was, certainly, an obedience to orthodoxy at work here. But so, too, was there wisdom and desire. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; wisdom and instruction fools despise,” Proverbs says. And no one seemed to despise fools more than the Jesuits.
“You’re studying to be a priest and they let you read Nietzsche?” a friend of mine asked when I called to tell him I had moved to the Bronx. I had studied Nietzsche as an undergraduate. Religious life hadn’t imposed amnesia upon me. We were supposed to be modern men ministering in a modern world—where a maelstrom of social, ethical, and theological opinions swirled—so ideally there should be nothing we did not know. John Henry Newman, the English convert and cardinal, thought the same in the 19th century: “Whatever the risk of corruption from intercourse with the world around, such a risk must be encountered if a great idea is fully to be understood and much more if it is to be fully exhibited.” Or, as an old Jesuit I met, whose own philosophical formation came at the hands of some of the Church’s greatest intellectuals, once said: “The mind unfettered finds its way to God.”
We understood this responsibility to form our minds and our consciences. We had come here for something far greater than a great idea. Yet, to be given this mission meant also that we were trusted in our faith and in our prayer to accomplish what was required of us. If those “long and exacting tests” of the novitiate had done anything, it was to turn us into men who could return from a course on Nietzsche’s thought week after week, immersed in the pull as well as the problems of the mind that wrote Zarathustra, and gather at liturgy as brothers and a community of believers, right there in the Bronx, because, no, God was not dead, not if we were somehow to be living proof of that.
But if philosophy is, as Clement of Alexandria said 200 years before Augustine, “a handmaid to theology,” proof seems always to be a sticking point. Never mind philosophical atheism. How are we, or any philosopher who professes to be a Christian, supposed to believe rationally in the existence of God when human reason—corrupted by the Fall that the Christ was said to redeem—can never stand on the same plane as faith?
It’s an ongoing question. Some, like Immanuel Kant, answered that reason has no place in faith, and so kept philosophy separated from faith. Others, like Kierkegaard and Karl Barth, said that faith outstrips reason in the running, and preached their inspired theology accordingly. But the Catholic Church has always refused to let the two separate, because both are part of what’s considered the “not yet” and the “already” of human salvation. Can we know God entirely in this life? No. And so faith keeps us moving toward that promise. But is it, then, useless to say that we can know God at all on the journey? The First Vatican Council in 1869–70 (famous for its pronouncement on the infallibility of the pope) didn’t think so. We can know God through reason, the cardinals all assented. “Even though faith is above reason, there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason, since it is the same God who reveals the mysteries and infuses faith, and who has endowed the human mind with the light of reason.” Leo XIII’s encyclical on the restoration of Christian philosophy, Aetemi Patris, in 1879, shored up that contention.
And in 1998, John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio reminded Catholics (in case there was any doubt) that the relationship between faith and reason extends back to the ancients and their search to “know thyself.” The journey to “engage truth more and more deeply,” that indefatigable pope wrote, is a journey “which has unfolded—as it must—within the horizon of personal self-consciousness: The more human beings know reality and the world, the more they know themselves in their uniqueness, with the question of the meaning of things and their very existence becoming ever more pressing. This is why all that is the object of our knowledge becomes a part of our life.”
So it became as well for us scholastics. We knew that Anselm’s proof for God’s existence is of “a being than which no greater can be conceived.” That Thomas Aquinas’s Five Ways argue for an immovable, originating, noncontingent, perfect, and governing God. And that René Descartes suggested that the idea of a perfect being could not exist in his mind as something unreal or as a deception. Others found their own subtle and ingenious ways to assert or shore up belief. Yet this “reason,” these “proofs” in Christian philosophy are not like the elements of Euclidean geometry, which rest within a hermetically sealed world of two dimensions and can be worked through elegantly to their final Q.E.D. They are more like an interactive map of the created world that we need to get home. And the maker of this map wants us to get home. That’s the thing, because, along the way, if the traveler were to study the map closely enough, it would become clear that no one, no being, has been left out of its design and scope. This isn’t the Deist who creates and sits by. This is the kind of Mapmaker who goes out on the road with the traveler. And when the traveler is curious, lost, tired, or all three, somehow (as though the Maker has seen to it) someone arrives or emerges along a similar path, pulls up a rock, and tells the traveler a story of another who passed through this same way and eventually got home. Then, when both are rested and certain that this is, without doubt, the road to be on, they give their blessings and part, because there’s a ways yet to go.
Are these “proofs” of where and from whom this seemingly endless source of detail originates (and which reside in fellow pilgrims and innkeepers on the way) true? Does God exist? Find God in them and as a result of them, and God exists. The answer, as with so much else, emerges in the pressing on. There’s something rather than nothing when there’s searching rather than standing still.
What we learned was that as public servants and vowed religious we were being given the responsibility to be guides on the path of what the Church understands as its earthly pilgrimage. Map readers in the service of the great Maker. “Salvation comes from God alone,” the Catholic catechism asserts: “We believe the Church as the mother of our new birth, and not in the Church as if she were the author of our salvation.” What would be the use of faith—its life, its proofs, its landscapes, its ongoing narrative—if there were no element of what St. Paul calls “the substance of things hoped for”? Faith is certain, in its way. “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt,” Newman wrote. Yet the catechism also asserts that “faith seeks understanding,” and cites Augustine: “I believe in order to understand; and I understand the better to believe.” Faith as both certain and seeker is no paradox. It’s the nature of belief, and the way in which we studied our philosophy.
Formation as constant trial continued. we had our primary mission: studies now. Yet, because we were Jesuits, when we weren’t reading, eating, doing house chores, or praying, we set out in twos to do whatever we could with the 10 hours a week allotted to us for apostolic work outside the community. Mike and a Californian named Scott ran the youth choir at the parish of St. Anthony of Padua. David, Rocco, and two men from Africa, Chuks and Greg, got involved in Campus Ministry’s retreat program at Fordham. Justin and Sean taught a Wednesday night confirmation class to 16-year-olds at St. Martin of Tours. Anh and another student at the university ran a youth group for Vietnamese teenagers. Harlan and Charlie (with my help sometimes) taught a group of high school students from the neighborhood how to put out a newsletter they called The Bronx Tale. I went to the Bronx’s St. Barnabas Hospital with Tom and worked as a chaplain for patients with HIV and AIDS.
We weren’t proselytizing Catholics, scouring the Bronx for souls. Our hope was to take care of those who needed some taking care of, which we knew from our formation was as much a tradition of the Order as scholarship. “Our main aim (to God’s greater glory) during this undertaking at Trent,” Ignatius told his theologians en route to the reforming council in 1546, “is to put into practice (as a group that lives together in one appropriate place) preaching, confessions and readings, teaching children, giving good example, visiting the poor in the hospitals, exhorting those around us, each of us according to the different talents he may happen to have.”
The pastoral care staff at St. Barnabas Hospital was small: a shy, bantam priest from the New York Archdiocese, Fr. McGary, and a nun from the Sparkill Dominicans, Sr. Miriam. I was given a list of patients and sent out on rounds. There were charts that recorded details for the benefit of doctors, nurses, and caregivers, but none for me. I had to go looking among the myriad of convalescents for those who might be in need of a little healing.
One day (not long after we had begun reading Augustine’s City of God with Professor Deal Hudson) I walked into a room where a young black man—French surname, early twenties, Haitian—was lying in bed. He was thin and looked to be in the kind of pain that is a constant companion. I introduced myself. He said hello. His name was Laurent. He looked somewhat puzzled when he saw me, and I asked him if there was anything he needed.
“I called the nurse for some water,” he said weakly, “but she’s busy this morning.” I filled his cup and found a straw. After he finished drinking he said, “There’s probably nothing else you can do.”
“Okay, well, have a good day. I’ll be certain to keep you in my prayers.” It was my standard leaving. Nothing forced.
I started for the door and, just as I was about to walk out, heard him say behind me, “You can’t do that, can you?”
I turned around. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Of course I’ll keep you in my prayers.”
“But I’m, you know, sick,” he said, his eyes fixed on me.
I was puzzled. “That’s why you’re in the hospital, Laurent. That’s why I’m visiting you as a chaplain.”
“But I’m sick because . . . I’ve sinned.”
I realized then what he was getting at, or rather, what he had been going through. I had heard this before from those who call themselves Catholics and Christians and who believe that AIDS is a punishment for homosexuals. “As far as I know, theologically,” I would say, trying to hold back my anger, “we’re all held accountable for sin, just as we’re all entitled to forgiveness. As for what I know about epidemiology, HIV is a virus, one that I’m certain doesn’t give a good goddamn about what you believe.”
Caught among the righteous, no doubt, Laurent had become his own punisher as well as the punished.
“I thought that, as a priest, you would know this,” he said.
So that was it. The collar. We never wore the collar to class or around the house. But we put our “clerics” on for the apostolate. I was ambivalent, I have to confess, about this detail of religious identity. My vows as a Jesuit were spoken from the heart, not written in white across my neck. Yet there was something defining about wearing the collar. As I approached the age of 30, I wanted those other laborers and professionals around me to know that I, too, was engaged with work in this world. It happened to be a different kind of work. So, most days, I was glad to walk down Arthur Avenue and over to St. Barnabas with the white tab showing through my black overcoat, especially when it evoked a friendly “Morning, Father!” from someone at a market stall or in a café doorway.
I sat down in the chair by Laurent’s bedside. “I know why you’re here,” I said. “You’ve got AIDS. How you got it, I don’t know. I don’t care. What I’m supposed to care about is your spiritual well-being in this hospital. For what little time I’m allowed, that’s what I try to do, for everyone. The collar means nothing in that respect.” I took the plastic strip out of my black shirt and undid the top button. “I’m just a guy trying to do a good thing for someone who’s stuck here and not feeling so well.” I could see him relax.
“But if this collar makes you think you’re being punished for something you did in the past, something so horrible you can’t be forgiven, then let me tell you, with this collar on”—and I slid it back into position—”God doesn’t condemn us out of vengeance for any sin. That’s the truth. Our sorrow is His. You’re sick because of a virus, not because God won’t forgive you. Do you understand?” He nodded. “That’s official, my friend.” I tapped the white tab showing again at the base of my neck. “Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Right now, you need to try to get well. God will forgive you anything if it’s what you want.”
He seemed changed now. His smile widened. “Thank you, Father,” he said.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I wasn’t a priest yet. It’ll complicate a complicated situation, I thought. I made a mental note to tell Fr. McGary, in case there was something else Laurent felt he wanted to say.
“Get some sleep,” I said. I refilled his cup, pushed the chair back into the corner of the room, and walked out. “the great mistake” in studying augustine, Hudson said to us, “is to equate the younger man of Confessions with the older, quite worldly man writing City
Like some unknowing prophet sent to remind us that things never unfold the way we plan them, Hudson—plowing through the Bishop of Hippo’s massive apologetic tome with only a few weeks to go before our first four months of life as vowed Jesuits in philosophy studies came to their natural, end-of-semester close—would not let go in class that day of this one point, Augustine’s notion of the civitas peregrina in Book 18:
I undertook to write about the origin, the development, and the destined ends of the two cities. One of these is the City of God, the other the city of this world; and God’s City lives in this world’s city, as far as its human element is concerned; but it lives here as an alien sojourner.
“We’re not engaged in wholesale condemnation or flight from the so-called city of men,” Hudson said from the edge of his desk. “We have to live here. A better translation of this sojourner, as [Augustine’s biographer Peter] Brown suggests, is resident stranger, someone grateful for the city, working in it, improving on its good, yet condemning and walking away from its evil.” He lowered his head, deep in thought no doubt, then gazed out over us all again, smiled, and said, “It’s quite simple in the end. We belong and we don’t belong.”
Andrew Krivak has written for the New York Times, DoubleTake, and Boston College Magazine (“After Paul: Chasing a Saint,” in Fall 2001). His essay is adapted from A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life, published in March by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. (Copyright © 2008 by Andrew Krivak.) On March 18, Krivak read from the book before an audience in Gasson Hall. The event may be viewed here.
Read more by Andrew Krivak