When I walk into the library at St. Andrew’s Hall at around 10 on a Friday night, I don’t know what I expect to see, but it isn’t a group of twentysomething men sitting in a circle listening to Taylor Swift’s new album, Reputation. It’s late November 2017, and I’m in Syracuse, New York, at one of four Jesuit Novitiates in the country—that is, an institution where men (called novices) spend two years deciding whether they want to take vows to become a Jesuit, which is a specific type of Catholic priest.
One of the novices in the room also happens to be among my best friends, Shaun. “Oooh, put track five on,” he says, and I muse at how the novices have regressed back to CD language. Just behind the circle of young men sits a boombox of the shape and size that was customary in 2004. None of the men here have access to iPhones, Androids, Bluetooth speakers or anything more modern, because under the vow of poverty they’re supposed to use only what St. Andrew’s Hall has provided them. This includes the outdated CD player.
The CD itself came from Shaun, who informed our friends of the purchase with an email whose subject line read, “I only get $75 per month.” In the body of the email, Shaun disclosed he had spent $14—nearly 20 percent of his monthly allowance—on Reputation. “I feel liberated,” he wrote.
Track five is actually called “Delicate.” It’s an intriguing choice for the moment and the crowd: young men who have all taken a vow of chastity. In the song, Swift navigates the fragility of an undefined relationship, internally struggling with the phase in which you’re trying to play it cool and care the same amount as the other person.
Is it cool that I said all that?
Is it chill that you’re in my head?
‘Cause I know that it’s delicate
I wonder if the guys relate. I wonder if they’re okay with never experiencing those fragile romantic beginnings with someone again. They’re probably wondering the same thing.
Otherwise, though, in many ways, the novices could be any group of millennial dudes, listening to music and even drinking craft beers—Shaun’s mom signed them up for a Beer of the Month club, which, they clarify, doesn’t violate the vow of poverty. But the setting throws me off: They’ve congregated in a carpeted library whose walls are lined with religious texts. And then, perhaps most importantly, there’s what’s operating under the surface: All of these men are processing, on their own, and together, whether they’d like to devote their lives to being Jesuit priests and permanent members of the Society of Jesus.
As we settle in, the conversation turns toward the Enneagram, a personality test in which you’re assigned a number after completing it. Each number correlates to a certain type of person: 3 is the Achiever (that’s me); 8 is the Challenger; 6 is the Loyalist and so on. What’s interesting about the Enneagram is it highlights your strengths and weaknesses and describes how your personality type affects the way you deal with trauma and problems in your life. So just like that, I’m talking with a bunch of future priests I met only a few moments earlier about our innate natures, how we hurt and struggle and how, with applied wisdom (or maybe lots of therapy), we can harness our true nature to be our best selves—each of us delighting at the infinitely elusive process of understanding ourselves.
It feels good.
Almost a year after my first visit, I’m once again sitting around drinking beers with Shaun and some of the men I met the night we listened to “track five.” This time it’s summer in New York City. We’re at a gay dive bar in the West Village, and none of the men I’m with are still enrolled to become Jesuit priests.
Just a few weeks after my Syracuse visit, Shaun left the novitiate. In the months that followed, others left as well. Some of the men have boyfriends now, or girlfriends. They’re teachers, or maybe enrolled in graduate school. They live in cities across the country; they have roommates, and once again, smartphones. And while they’re no longer professionally considering a religious path for themselves, there’s a feeling I experience when I’m with them that remains the same—they still delight in the process of understanding themselves.
“There’s so much you have to consider about your own vocation, your own relationships with others, your own internality,” Dan Apadula, a former novice who went straight from undergrad to the Novitiate, tells me. “There’s so much packed into that, that it necessitates being very candid and very open with people in a way that’s maybe unusual, even among friends in school.”
Alex Cipoletti echoes these sentiments. “I became very close with them very, very quickly, in ways I wouldn’t had I just met them at work, or through college courses or something like that. While I was there, I shared things with them about my life a lot quicker than I did with some of my best friends that I met in college.”
Obviously, it’s hard to compare the incredibly unique process of discerning a commitment to the priesthood with regular life. “The stakes were high,” Shaun says. “You were deciding whether or not to give your whole life to this journey.”
And when the stakes are high, shit gets real. One former novice I talked to experienced another high-stakes lifestyle that rivals the priesthood in gravity: the Marines. Gage Marzloff enrolled at 18, after he finished high school. Two years later, at 20, he joined the Jesuits. He says both groups are characterized by the experience of male camaraderie and serving a higher purpose. “There’s a lot of emphasis on being missioned and sent places,” Marzloff explains. “That element of it, and the communal brotherhood—there’s a lot of similarity between the Jesuits and the Marines.”
Marzloff tells me that in the military, as well as at the Novitiate, he went through intense experiences that bonded him to the other men in his respective cohorts. He describes a summer in the Novitiate where he and a group of the novices were tasked with providing end-of-life care at a hospice in the Bronx. “Some of us had the experience of bringing bodies down to the morgue,” Marzloff says. “Doing that together with our brothers in the Novitiate was extremely painful and difficult. There was an element of grief in that you had really given yourself over to loving people, and then move on. To share that experience is very fulfilling and consoling.”
I ask Marzloff about that word—consoling. On the one hand I wanted to know: How could something that sounds so emotional, so painful, provide solace? I tried to imagine carrying bodies down to a morgue with my coworkers. They’re wonderful people, but it’s hard to picture. At the same time, some part of me longed for such a unifying experience with the people in my life. Marzloff says that St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, speaks a lot on the idea of consolation and desolation. “Something on the surface that can feel very difficult, but below that has a lot of richness and depth,” is how he characterizes it to me.
But it’s not just about experiencing something together—it’s how you learn to process it. “I think especially my going from the Marines, which is the most macho tough culture there is, to the Novitiate, where you’re expected to be deeply vulnerable and deeply open, further emphasized that for me,” he reflects. “I knew men who had seen scary and difficult things during their time in the Marines. But it would’ve been much more difficult to open up about inner experiences in your life.”
It’s no secret that adult men, especially heterosexual adult men, struggle with creating intimate friendships with each other. Studies have shown that there’s a loneliness epidemic among them, which relates back to a period in teenage boys’ lives when they begin to associate masculinity with not needing friends. But the truth is, men need and want intimate friendships just as much as women. “It’s very much present, that longing for depth and vulnerability,” Marzloff confides. “But the opportunities are lacking.”
Perhaps that’s why the Novitiate struck me as such a significant experience. It was an opportunity for adult men to work on themselves within a close network of support. One of the biggest steps in the two-year Novitiate process is a 30-day silent retreat called the Spiritual Exercises. Imagine a world in which everyone was required to take an uninterrupted, month-long journey of introspection. What Shaun found on that retreat was a God “yearning for my freedom,” he says. “A God who longs for me to … get past whatever is keeping me from being the human being that I’m supposed to be. So I take that with me.” And he left.
It was a numinous experience, but also a deeply humane one. Shaun also tells me about how he recently met up with one of the directors of the St. Andrew’s Hall Novitiate, and how he was moved to tears when telling his former director how grateful he was for the investment the Jesuits had made in his own self-growth, with no expectation that he would commit. “It was tens of thousands of dollars, just so that I could take the time to discern if this was what I wanted to do, and also discern who I am as a person.”
I picture the oversized boombox playing track five, the carpeted library, the industrial-sized kitchen, the simple bedrooms with twin beds. All of it could seem so ordinary if you weren’t paying attention. It was, of course, anything but. As Shaun says, “Every person should have two years to look within and see who they are.”