Forty years ago today, on the afternoon of Monday, August 24, 1981, I arrived at the Mount Paul Novitiate in Oak Ridge, NJ. We were a strangely assorted class of eight novices, who assembled there that late summer day, brought together by God’s grace and our own personal perception of vocation. In the end, of the eight of us, only three are active priests, and I am the only one still in religious life – an outcome no one would have predicted back in August 1981.
Our Novice Master, I later learned, had been praised by 20th-century America's celebrity monk Thomas Merton, who wrote in his Journal on August 9, 1962: “What is the Church becoming? When someone like Fr. Stransky is here, I think she is waking up.” Ordained in 1957, he had been sent to Europe as a young priest to study missiology. There, he had eventually gone to work for Pope John XXIII’s newly created Secretariat for Christian Unity and had been heavily involved in the exciting, transformative event that was the Second Vatican Council. From 1970 to 1978, he had served as President of the community, implementing the “experimental” post-conciliar constitution. After serving as novice master for much of the 1980s, he would then go on to serve as Director of an Ecumenical Theological Institute in Jerusalem, where I would spend a happy summer in 1993. Meanwhile, back at Oak Ridge in 1981, we were his first class of novices. So in a sense our novitiate was a learning experience for literally all of us!
Rounding out the priests’ community, there was also an Assistant Novice Master and a retired priest, who had been ordained in 1947 (the year before I was born). He had no formal role in the Novitiate Formation program, but he would become a particularly close friend and confidant in later years.
That was the 11 of us. As for the place, the Novitiate occupied some 1100 acres of rocks and trees in a then still surprisingly semi-rural region of New Jersey some 50 miles northwest of New York City on the way to the Delaware Water Gap. It may have been reasonable commuting distance from the city and part of the New York media market, but it seemed like a whole other world. For a thoroughly urban person such as myself, it really was a very new and different world, one which required considerable adaptation, but which in time I came to appreciate and love. It was about as ideal a location for a novitiate as I can imagine. (In 2010, when the property was sold to the State of New Jersey, I cried at the farewell celebration.)
The driveway (photo) was 9/10 of a mile long and led to a clearing in the woods containing a lovely lake and a (much less lovely) novitiate house, which could easily have passed for an ugly 1950s high school. At one time there had apparently been one or more nickel mines on the property (which was reputed also to have uranium underground). Then at some point it had become the site of a hunting lodge. (Our neighbors still hunted deer on our property and occasionally provided us with fresh venison to eat. They also cleared the snow from our long driveway, thus compensating for our Luddite-like lack of proper equipment.)
After the promulgation of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which standardized much of Roman Catholic religious formation, religious communities were required to have a proper, canonical-year novitiate. The old hunting lodge (of which only the foundation remained in my time) served as a novitiate house until the 1950s, when the increasing numbers of novices required the construction of the newer, more modern building.
The first floor contained a simple but attractive chapel, the refectory (dining room), an appropriately institutional kitchen (with a small apartment for our cook), a small reading room, and a bunch of bedrooms. The second floor (where I lived) contained many more bedrooms and a somewhat set-off wing with guest rooms and the priests’ common room. The basement had a laundry room, a library, and a large novices’ common room, which opened out onto the back side of the novitiate facing the lake.
The community's constitutions prescribe that the novitiate provide “a period of introduction, formation, and discernment … through a format of structured prayer, of a program of apostolic work, and of instruction.” My novitiate did indeed attempt to do all of that, although in a somewhat less structured, somewhat looser manner than might have been expected. Part of that was, of course, the era in which I was a novice. The post-conciliar confusion had taken quite a toll on religious life in general, and considerable confusion still reigned then throughout the Church.
Perhaps we all might have benefited in some ways from a somewhat more well defined approach. After all, the basic function of a novitiate is to facilitate the transition form secular life to religious life, a challenging task in any era but perhaps increasingly so in ours. On the other hand, the lack of regimentation and the tolerance of our individual idiosyncrasies was probably what somehow enabled all of those individual idiosyncrasies to be safely absorbed. Repeatedly, we were reminded that the novitiate was an atypical year, intended to prevent one from escaping from oneself, from others, or from God. And so, I believe, it turned out for me.
Our class of eight was amazingly diverse and fractious. Unsurprisingly, there were occasional inter-personal conflicts, with rippling effects on the larger group. In retrospect, it is amazing – and a true tribute to our Novice Master’s patience – that all eight of us made it together to First Profession in August.
While our novitiate was spiritually and emotionally challenging, it was (like modern life in general) physically much less so than in earlier times. We could keep and spend our own money (which perhaps highlighted the very contemporary problem of inequality in religious communities). We ate well. As for labor, we didn’t farm the land or raise chickens or pigs. Our work assignments were mainly more like routine maintenance. Probably the major physical challenge for us was the cold – not so much outdoors, but indoors. (I say this as someone who, all my life, has liked and preferred winter to summer’s heat and humidity!) That winter of 1981-1982 was an especially cold one in northern New Jersey, and hence something of a challenge in a building, built before buildings were well insulated as most contemporary structures now are. So, for most of the winter, we taped all the windows and extra doors tightly shut. To save money on fuel, we kept the central heating low and relied heavily on wood burning stoves. The chapel, for example, was almost always cold all winter, and we commonly wore coats and even gloves to Mass. We all were bought electric blankets. I had never used one before. But there I would often slip into my bed late in the afternoon to warm up under the electric blanket for 10-15 minutes before Mass! None of that was oppressive, of course, but it makes for good shared memories and some fun stories.
Our regular routine started most mornings with Morning Prayer, followed by breakfast and “Personal Quiet Time.” Typically, we then had a “Conference” – instruction on some topic or a talk by a visiting priest or some other invited speaker. Sometimes we might have another “Conference” in the afternoon. At least once a week, sometimes more often, we had a “work period” in the afternoon, which, as I said, was mainly more or less routine maintenance. Sometimes the afternoon was “free.” At 4:45 p.m., we had Mass in the chilly chapel. Then at 6:00 priests and novices had dinner together in the refectory, cooked by our old German cook, who had worked there for decades. After dinner, we usually had Evening Prayer and occasionally some other activity as well. Sometimes some or all of us would go out to a movie or to the shopping mall.
On Tuesdays, after Morning Prayer we went to our “apostolates.” I was one of three assigned to a home for the aged run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, a community of Sisters founded in France by Saint Jeanne Jugan (1792-1879). The Sisters were wonderful models of consecrated religious life and authentic service, and I truly treasured my time with them. I was fascinated by their founder’s story and spiritually uplifted by their community’s charism and history. (There was even a closer connection, since when they first disembarked in New York their first American donation was from Fr. Isaac Hecker.) Besides helping to serve lunch, we spent most of our time talking with the residents and joining with them in various activities. Obviously, many of the residents suffered from physical and/or cognitive disabilities, which inevitably limited our "ministry" there. But I learned to look forward to my Tuesdays there.
The Novitiate taught me two venerably traditional lessons, which I very much needed to learn – both of them formulated centuries ago in The Imitation of Christ. The first was that different people benefit from practicing different devotional styles “as each shall deem most profitable" (I, 19). The second concerned the importance of perseverance in the spiritual life, regardless of its apparent appeal or efficacy. "The profit and increase of spiritual life comes not only when you have devotion, but rather, when you can humbly and patiently bear the withdrawal and absence of devotion, yet not cease your prayers or leave undone your other customary good works" (III, 7).
In 1981, the eight of us were still considered a small class. There were some larger classes in the years that followed, but soon the many changes in Church and society caught up with us - as they have with most religious communities, contributing to an increasingly uncertain present and even more unknowable future, yet not without hope. That said, here I am forty years later. And I remain overwhelmingly grateful to God for the great gift, grace, privilege, and pleasure of still being here after 40 years!