The Society of Jesus is also unlike any other religious order. The men whose lives we have seen in this book are organically united not only by the presence of Jesus Christ in their lives, but by the specifically different thrust given to the Society by Ignatius Loyola and by the dynamism he capsulized in the Exercises, the Constitutions, and the rules.
To specify further is as difficult as it is for a man to give specific reasons why he loves and chooses one woman rather than another. — from Chapter Five, Life in the Society Today, p. 155
My reasons for embarking on Project SJ—essentially, for going around asking Jesuits to explain themselves—are more or less three.
Firstly, because I like Ignatian spirituality. I attend a Jesuit church; I have a spiritual director; I have Jesuit friends and confessors and beta readers. The Society of Jesus is part of my religious and intellectual landscape. I want to understand it better.
Secondly, because Jesuit stories incorporate a lot of the things that preoccupy me as a writer: vocation, identity, masculinity, military and quasi-military structures, narrative self-representation, mysticism.
And thirdly, because deep down, in the face of all the evidence, there’s part of me that still can’t quite take in the whole concept of religious vocation as a positive choice: as a taking-on and not merely a giving-up. I am not proud of this, and yet there it is, lurking. It’s partly down to culture, partly experience—I was thirty before I met a Catholic priest. (But there’s a useful side to this inbuilt distance: it makes me more likely to ask awkward questions.)
It follows that, although I read The Fifth Week some time after I first decided to undertake these interviews, it still surprised me. What was surprising about it was not the pithy, uncompromising stories of sainthood and suffering at the beginning, or the rigorous old-school Jesuit formation described at the end, but the bit in the middle: the wry candid voice of William O’Malley, telling his personal vocation story.
To say that O’Malley is a man of his time would be insulting, and not just because he’s still around. It would reduce a strong, distinctive character to the echo of an imagined past. The experience he describes is, to a fair extent, moulded by circumstances and conventions that no longer apply, within the Society of Jesus and beyond. But that’s all detail. The meat of this story is in the emotional narrative; the turbulent and sometimes violent reshaping of a soul. There’s anger in there, and confusion, and determination, and love.
To me, standing outside the frame of reference, the most astonishing part was the love. Such is the strength of feeling in this narrative that even the baffled and cynical part of my brain could only shut up and listen. There can be no question that, for O’Malley at least, the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are not a joyless rejection, but a joyful embrace. This is not news: my interviewees thus far have all told me the same, although in different words. It makes perfect sense that men who become and remain Jesuit would frame their commitment in positive terms. And yet it bears repeating.
It is hard to sum up the value of The Fifth Week in just one post, and I may have to return to it. But I will add, for now, that it is perhaps the most striking illustration I have yet encountered of the extraordinary balance of individualism and collectivism at the heart of the Jesuit identity. (Or so it appears to me. Once again, I am learning.) I think it fair to say that there is nobody like William O’Malley, and yet he is part of something quite distinct, something that stretches all the way back to Ignatius. It isn’t a corporate identity, or a set of values, or an ethos: it’s something at once more concrete and harder to define, and it is fascinating.
Loyola Press, paperback, 218 pp. ISBN: 0829409289. First published 1976.