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Retreat from ManresaA Jesuit Story
By Frederick Vaughan
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Frederick Vaughan
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Chapter OneGarbed in the simple black cassock of the Society, with a light gray sweater draped over his shoulders, Father D'Arcy Enright stepped out the rear door of the main building onto the asphalt pathway that had seen generations of wear and looked up as the orange glow of the distantly rising sun began silently to claim the day from the retreating darkness. Father Enright was tall, about six feet four inches; today, showing signs of age, he stooped to six two. He had a head of thinning gray hair and wore simple wire-rimmed classes as thick as Coke bottles. His colleagues used to joke that they accentuated his deep blue eyes. To those who met him for the first time, he gave the impression of severity; but when he smiled, his face lit up and dispelled the first impression.
As he stopped this morning to listen to the chirping of birds awaking to the new day's challenge to find food, he was struck by the freshness of the early morning moist fall air, and he drank it in with deep breaths. It made him think of Hopkins's The Virgin Mary Compared to the Air We Breathe. The words, "World-mothering air, nestling me everywhere," came into his mind in a flash. There was something special about these early moments of the day, and no one captured them better than Hopkins. The farm air surrounding the novitiate was sweetened by the sharp aroma of stubble-hay wafting in from the distant mown fields. There was no scent quite so agreeable, so soothing to the senses. It was as if the clear night air were enjoying its last moments of purity before the smogs and noises of the industrial towns nearby—produced by the fumes and sounds of noisy bus engines—began to elbow their way rudely into this quiet time of early dawn. In the distance, a solitary farm dog barked, telling the day to come alive, as the sun banished another night for the work of another day.
It was just past 6:00 a.m., his favorite time of day. It was his private time before his hour of meditation, or quiet prayer, on the life of Christ, which he performed in the silence of the house chapel. Before proceeding further than a few steps from the door, he stopped and took off his glasses; he polished them with a handkerchief he kept up the left sleeve of his cassock. The glasses were simple round ones with wire rims, dreadfully unfashionable, but he liked them and refused to trade them for the larger aviation glasses that had recently become the style. He walked slowly—slightly stooped and lost in memories—along the path, long cracked with age, toward the barn and the community cemetery. The path had been named the "via dolorosa" many generations before by novices who walked it daily during the brief period of recreation following the evening common meal at 6:00.
Father Enright had walked this way every day since his return two weeks before from Rome, where he had been an English assistant for six years to Father General Pedro Savillo. He knew the path well; it was a favorite walk for those in private prayer or on retreat. It consisted of a convenient loop: down past the barn and the potato patch, up the slight rise to the cemetery, and back to the main house. Father Enright had served for twenty years as master of novices at the novitiate but left the position ten years before to take up his new duties in Rome, first as personal secretary to the general and then as assistant for English-speaking members of the Society. He sought neither of these positions at the Roman curia of the Society, for he was happy at the novitiate introducing young men to the history of the Society—especially to the life of the founder St. Ignatius—and introducing them to the spiritual culture unique to the Institute of the Society. The course of studies, thirteen years from novitiate to tertianship, was crowned with ordination to the priesthood at the end of the third year of theological studies.
Above all other things, Father Enright treasured the opportunity to help shape the spiritual life of those aspiring priests and brothers by guiding them through the precepts of mystical theology contained in the Spiritual Exercises, the bedrock of ascetical theology crafted hundreds of years before by the founder of the Society, Ignatius Loyola, at Manresa in Spain. It was these exercises that shaped the unique character of the priests and brothers of the Society; and it was the chief responsibility of the master of novices to stamp the impress of those exercises upon the hearts of the newest recruits so that they would truly become milites Christi, "soldiers of Christ." It was a voluntary impress; no one forced it upon the neophytes. It had to be willingly embraced by each aspirant.
Those exercises contained the stamp that set members of the Society apart from all other religious orders and congregations in the Catholic Church. They constituted an invitation to become the great priestly paradox, contemplative priests deeply engaged in the active ministry, teaching, preaching, and administering. "Contemplatio in actione" was the expression used by St. Ignatius four centuries back. Those who could not embrace the spiritual commitment contained in the Exercises left the novitiate with the generous blessing of the master of novices. No one was ever pressured to remain; all were free to leave at will. And Father Enright, with cheerful and gentle enthusiasm, strove to instill that great inspiration into the hearts of his new charges.
The peace of the overhanging trees—now starting to drop their yellow and crimson leaves with the coming of fall—and the quiet of the six hundred–acre farm that encompassed the novitiate property always brought peace to the aging priest's soul. Farming operations had been closed down several years before he had arrived back from Rome; the closing became necessary with the decline of novices and the death of dedicated brothers. Today the large farm property showed signs of overgrowth and neglect; the hay fields were now rented out to neighboring farmers.
Father Enright took in deep breaths and recalled the beauty of the early spring back in his own novitiate days, fifty-five years before, when the hundred apple trees of the orchard exploded in pink petals, giving off the sweet, delicate aroma unique to apple blossoms. He could see that even those trees had been neglected for several years; many of the larger branches had broken and lay bent into the soil overtaken by crabgrass and weeds. He recalled how Brother Hendricks had attended those apple trees with an uncommon devotion. He used to call it his garden of Eden.
Father Enright had served at the Society's curia in Rome; the experience left him with many fond memories as well as a few troubling impressions, which he took with him during his morning walks. He recollected with sadness when the Society began to undergo internal divisions leading to the temporary intervention of Pope John Paul II. He had, of course, as English-speaking assistant, attended the thirty-third General Congregation in 1983 and participated in the election of Pieter Vanderkampt as general, succeeding Father Pedro Savillo, who had succumbed to a debilitating respiratory illness a year before.
He had hoped privately that the spirit of dissent unleashed by his predecessor's encouragement of "inculturation" would begin to abate somewhat. But the new Father General only made matters worse when he appeared to encourage dissent from the formal teachings of the church by pressing the edges of orthodoxy in the name of aggorniamento. Father Enright found those years distressing and longed for the day when he might return to the United States and a quieter life away from the turmoil of internal Society politics in Rome. Few people were privy to these darker thoughts; he was a very private man and never, ever engaged in gossip. He pushed those recollections out of his mind this crisp fall morning as he walked through the novitiate grounds.
Despite the peace of the surrounding rural property, Father Enright continued to hear in his head, from time to time, the loud, cacophonous sounds of the noisy Rome traffic, the car horns and the pedestrian shoutings, but they became increasingly more distant as the days passed. He looked out toward the distant fields, which in his day would have been a sea of waving hay awaiting mowers, which would bind them into bales, looking like giant shredded wheat. But not today. He saw the stubble left behind by the neighboring farmers who worked the fields. Neither did the great Herefords of his novitiate years appear in the green fields beyond the central barns; the cattle had all been sold off when the farm became too big and too expensive to maintain in the wake of the declining number of novices.
He walked down to the old faded red barn, which now looked forlorn surrounded by ragweed and an array of derelict farm machinery. What couldn't be sold off had been left to rust in retirement. He carefully negotiated the broken concrete steps of the side entrance of the barn and pushed open the old wooden door tottering on its rusting iron hinges. He stepped cautiously into the vast, dark, musty interior of the cavernous old barn, illuminated by a spray of early-morning sunlight, yellow shards that intruded through the cracks of the neglected barn board structure, capturing the googol of dust mites that filled the space.
The sunlight gave the interior an airy, ghostly aura to the barn. It was empty now, of course, but it used to house about fifty beef cattle. Now it smelled damp and tinged with the lingering pungent aroma of cattle manure. Cobwebs hung everywhere from the ancient beams like rotting lace. Over in the far corner, he noticed the large, iron-enclosed box stall that used to be home to "Jerome," the community bull who kept the herd up to size for over a decade or more. Today there was very little sound except for the scurry of the occasional barn cat in search of mice. It seems that they, at least, were still able to make a go of the place.
After standing there for a few minutes looking around the large, empty space, shaking loose old memories of farm animals bawling for food and the grating of farm machinery, he retraced his steps along the path, a favorite for those who sought solitude, now well-worn from generations of prayerful priests, thinking that old men, not the young as the poet said, think "long, long thoughts." Try as he might, he still could not banish the nostalgia for things long gone. Those days, he recalled, were so full of happiness, so peaceful, and so alive with the presence of God. So holy! Today, everywhere he looked he saw decay and couldn't help wondering whether what he had done for so many years had been worth the effort. On such occasions, he used to pray the old prayer about God's ways not being man's ways and continued on. But today, that prayer brought little consolation as he walked slowly through the scattered fragments of a once-thriving religious farm community.
On this October day, he could not help noting that the entire community consisted of only four novices and two "juniors," those young men who had completed the novitiate and taken their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and were now attending classes in the arts faculty of the local state college.
Although he acknowledged that the decline in membership was not unique to his province of the Society—or to his religious order alone—it puzzled him and saddened him at the same time. Why had so many young men—almost 90 percent of the class of 1955—left the Society in the past two decades? He recalled the concern in Rome over the exivit numbers he heard discussed for the English province. The average number of entrance into the English province of the Society during the war years, from 1940 to 1945, was eleven. Immediately following the war, the numbers increased dramatically to an average of thirty-six per year. The same percentages held true for the novitiates in the United States.
Why so many young men left in the 1960s, either in the first two years or later, was a question superiors had wrestled with, formally in Rome and informally throughout houses of the Society all over the world. No one seemed to have a satisfactory answer. He mused on this problem as he turned along the path toward the cemetery to converse in prayer with many of his departed friends. He knew the answer lay in the more fundamental question: why had so many young men entered religious life in the decade immediately following World War II? Seminaries and convents alike were overcrowded following the war; not a few of the entrants were ex-servicemen who had discovered their vocations amidst the horrors of battle.
Father Enright was aware that a few sociologists of religion attempted to ascribe the large influx of religious vocations in the 1950s to the end of the "great cause" that was the war against Hitler; those war years gave a whole generation of young men the exciting real-life drama of a war against the Nazis. He had taught many young men of the postwar generation and knew how they walked in the vacuum left by the veterans who returned with medals, full of exciting stories of gallantry and heroism and scarred by the death of friends. They were received home with fanfare and celebrations. Where else were young Catholic men to find a similar great cause other than in the church?
During the war, they were altar boys and attended Mass and devotions, praying for the safe return of young servicemen not more than ten years older than themselves. These young Catholics were especially impressed when so many of the younger priests they began to encounter in the parishes and in the high schools had fought in the war and were now dedicated to the cause of Christ. These were real war-hardened men—manly and full of energy—men youth were inspired to emulate. It was an exciting time to be a young Catholic male. And the church was offering a quiet sanctuary, an exciting redoubt where young men could mix with veterans now dedicated to a life of prayer in an atmosphere of peace and tranquility; where the Society, especially, offered a transcendent life dedicated to the "Greater Glory of God," following in the footsteps of their soldier-founder Saint Ignatius Loyola. What could be more exciting? Here was a cause worthy of the postwar generation. Father Enright still felt the excitement and enthusiasm this generation of men brought into the Society. The more he thought about the problem, the more uncertain of the answer he became.
But, by 1965—a scant ten years after the great influx of 1955—the exit rate from the Society had begun to swell, and the Society's ranks were seriously depleted almost overnight, or so it seemed. Father Enright had heard younger members of the Society explain how one day they were sitting in class in philosophy or theology alongside a fellow they had known for ten years and the next day the seat was empty; then you heard the whispered question from someone in the class: "Haven't you heard? Ted left last night." It was like a death in the family. You had no idea why he had left or whether you would ever see him again; and he never gave the slightest indication that he was thinking of bolting. That's what hurt; you were close friends and yet he shut you out of his thoughts. Just like that, the seats in the classroom began, one by one, to fall vacant and the atmosphere became a buzz of "Haven't you heards?" It struck hard at morale of the those who remained ... at least for a time. However, in time, the trickle became almost a flood.
The most facile explanation for the large exodus from religious life frequently offered—and he had heard them all, even the socio-psychobabble of Peter McDonough and Eugene Bianchi's Passionate Uncertainty—was that it was the inexplicable result of the Second Vatican Council, which had ended in 1965, the year of the beginning of the great flight from religious life throughout the Catholic Church. "The law of unintended consequences," some of the cynical called it. There was no question that the winds of aggiornamento blew things around inside the cloistered walls of most religious congregations; rules were relaxed, and devotional practices were abandoned. Casual dress replaced the cassock; guitar music—beginning with French nuns with the Gelineau psalms—replaced the inspiring tones of the ancient organ with the solemnity of Bach and the pristine tones of Gregorian chant and the majesty of Benedictine solesmes. All, it was said, prompted by the "spirit of Vatican II." There was no question about that. But Father D'Arcy Enright remained unsatisfied with the answer. He asked himself repeatedly over recent years, did the spirit of the Exercise not arm these young men from the internal disruptions following Vatican II?
Excerpted from Retreat from Manresa by Frederick Vaughan Copyright © 2011 by Frederick Vaughan. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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