I have long wanted to compile a collection of anecdotes by graduates of Catholic colleges and universities from (roughly) 1967-2000 as to how they survived the reigning agnostic materialism on campus. To what underground bunkers did they flee? Between which dusty old stacks in the university library did they repair? To which neighborhood bar–away from the collegiate ones–did they steal away to discuss those things that are unutterable in the modern academy? How did they keep their heads among the headless? Perhaps we might call this collection “Tales from the Crypt.” This idea came to mind again recently as I was speaking to a friend of mine who shared the same great professor and met variously in the same “secret society.” In one sense, this is a tragic state of affairs and one that must be fought for the institutional integrity of our Catholic universities. Seen from another angle, the situation was–and is–an opportunity for “testing by fire” and a means to get a very valuable and solid education in things that ultimately matter, in the really real.
My friend and I were happily recalling this little island of sanity and the figure who was the mentor and soul of that island– the eminent Thomist Fr. Leo Sweeney, SJ. Our group had various members throughout the years, which was understandable as people graduated and moved on in pursuing their careers and families. The students who gathered around Fr. Sweeney were mostly graduate students and undergrads with a few Jesuit Scholastics thrown into the mix. Oftentimes, the people who would come did not even have Fr. Sweeney as a philosophy professor, but they respected him as a holy priest and as someone who’s company was enjoyable. Each semester, on Tuesday evenings, Father would be scheduled to teach a philosophy seminar from 6:30-8:30pm. After class, there was an open invitation to attend the Mass he would offer at 9:00pm. Each week a small group of students would pray with him at Mass in a small chapel in the Jesuit Residence. Finally, after Mass, we all would repair to a small parlor for port and cookies and discussion. Father would hold court and would entertain all questions and discuss all issues. Anything from the hypostatic union to the prospects for Loyola’s basketball team. Oftentimes, we would discuss some of the finer points of Aquinas–especially the primacy of existence. Our discussions would last usually until 11:00 or 11:30pm, whereupon Father would look at his watch and let us know that he “had work to do”–which he usually did until about 2:00am. These weekly gatherings were most valuable to me and my intellectual formation. Even if not registered for Father’s seminar, the Mass and “seminar-after-the-seminar” were not to be missed.
I had several courses with Father, but the particular one I recall taking was “Augustine and Aquinas: Metaphysics and Morality.” As a seminar, Father was very intent on the discussion aspect of the class. The ultimate question in a metaphysics class is one of ultimate reality: God and existence itself. I recall vividly Father asking the students–mostly very astute graduate and PhD students–when and where they were first aware of themselves existing. This was a topic of endless fascination and in the midst of these conversations one got the impression that Father was like a little kid in a candy store every time the issue was discussed. These queries would spill over into our discussions over port and cookies. Indeed, several recollections of his students over the years in answer to this question were reproduced by him in his book Authentic Metaphysics in an Age of Unreality. Here is a sample and an individual student’s experience that fascinated Fr. Sweeney:
There were two windows in my bedroom. My bed was in such a position that I could look out both of them without getting up. I woke up once in the middle of the night amd sat up in bed. Somehow the night and the stars shot a message into me. I felt a real surge of joy in just being (although I don’t think the word being occurred to me at all). (Authentic Metaphysics, p. 91)
To one preoccupied with the cares of the world–which I dare say is most of us, most of the time–insights like this are difficult to come by. As Boethius stated poetically in The Consolation of Philosophy,
The mind is blunted when worry grows
swollen by earthly winds.
Drowned in darkness,
stretching into outward abyss,
its light is left behind.
Sadly, the modern preoccupation of the Catholic college or university (heck, even the Catholic high school) has been to capitulate to the utilitarian impulse for job training and preoccupation with this-worldly cares. This is not to say that jobs and the concerns of living in the world are not important, but what is missing is the ultimate purpose of life, the ultimate meaning of life, the preciousness of who we are and what we are. Neglecting this means that the graduate of these schools does not take the time to appreciate the absolute gift that life, existence, being is. He will be less inclined to have a sympathy with his fellow man and he will end up missing out on the great adventure that is life.
Amidst port and cookies, in reading Aquinas, and under the tutelage of an old priest, our circle was brought into the light of reality. We were taught to consider ultimate things and indeed we were also brought to the ultimate reality Himself every Tuesday evening in the Mass. As mentioned elsewhere, it only took twelve guys to change the world. Perhaps, similarly, it might take a small group gathered around port and cookies to do the same again.