Life in the High School Seminary and What I Learned: Personal Reflections (Pt. VI)


A good friend of mine responded to last week’s “Personal Reflections” by observing that my studies in the minor seminary from 1954-’58 hardly sounded  like what I described as “a standard high school curriculum.” To begin with, there was all that emphasis on classical languages. And then there was the rigor and regularly of the study regime in the absence of television, newspapers, and the distractions of girls and the accompanying social life.

So on second thought, I think my friend might be right. You be the judge.

However, the point here is not to convey information about my youth. It is rather to explain the foundation for my growth in consciousness towards those “crazy ideas” my kids complain about. I’m trying to get at how I grew from American nationalism and Catholic exclusivism to what I’d call a Cosmo-centric Mysticism that centralizes a “preferential option for the poor.” Surprisingly, all of that got its start in the high school seminary I wrote about last week.

Let me say a few more things about that experience and what it taught me. A lot had to do with discipline, survival, and introduction to the spiritual life.

As far as I can recall, our days at the minor seminary in Silver Creek, New York (and throughout my seminary years with suitable variations as we got older) were structured like this:  We got up each morning at 6:30 (7:00 on Sundays). We were in chapel at 7:00 for Morning Prayer followed by Mass and time for prayers of thanksgiving afterwards. Except on special occasions, meals were taken in silence, while we all listened to one of us read from Sacred Scripture, the lives of the saints, or some inspirational book. After breakfast (8:00-8:30) we had “free time” to make our beds and get ready for class at 9:00. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays we had three classes in the morning and one in the afternoon. Wednesdays and Saturdays there was no afternoon class; it was replaced by extended recreation periods during which we engaged in organized sports or outdoor work projects.

Except on Wednesdays and Saturdays, afternoon recreation ran from 12:30 till 2:00. Afternoon class would occupy us till just before 3:00. Then we’d have supervised study hall till 4:30 followed by a half-hour of spiritual reading. (The study hall priest-supervisor would patrol the long lines of desks making sure we weren’t reading novels on the sly.) After that, there was Rosary and Vespers at 5:00, then supper at 5:30. This was followed by a period for chores and recreation till 7:00. Study hall would resume then and run till 8:30, when we’d be allowed a half hour for recreational reading of approved novels.  Night prayer began at 9:00. Lights-out came at 10:00. The Great Silence reigned from night prayer till after breakfast the following morning.

Sundays we’d have a second Mass. And then there’d be intra-mural sports in the morning and extended free time in the afternoon. That’s when we could go on hikes to a nearby Howard Johnsons or somewhere for milkshakes or sundaes. Late Sunday afternoons we had a letter-writing period from 4:00-5:00 to keep us in touch with our families (no phone calls were allowed). Sunday evenings we’d have meetings of the Literary, Scientific, and Debating Society one week and of the Catholic Students’ Mission Crusade the next. We all took turns delivering papers at those meetings and serving as club officers. On special occasions, there’d be a movie. And on really special feasts (like St. Columban’s Day) we’d perform dramatic or comic plays (which, of course, required lots of rehearsals). Most of us got used to being on stage. Much later, in the major seminary (at the age of 24 and 25), I actually had the lead roles in Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,” and in “Brother Orchid.”

Of course, not everyone responded to seminary discipline in the same way. Early on I saw that there were three seminarian types. There were those who “jacked around” (That’s what we called it) as much as they could. They took everything with a grain of salt and were always in trouble with the authorities. They fooled around in study hall. They habitually broke the Great Silence.  Eventually all those Jackers got bounced.

Then there were those who were mildly serious about the whole seminary routine; most of the survivors fell into that category. Psychologically they were probably the healthiest of any of us.

Finally there were the “saints.” They never jacked around, or broke the Great Silence. They practiced “custody of the eyes,” and always kept the rules. Almost invariably they were good athletes and smart students. I quickly decided to become like them.

I was “rewarded” (although it didn’t feel like that) by being made senior of my class mid-way through the first term of my freshman year at the Creek. That meant I was the liaison between my 31 classmates and the dean and rector of the seminary. That put me in line to be the Senior of the House (student body president) during my fourth year. That sort of thing happened to me throughout my 13 years of seminary training — mostly because I was a pious, obedient rule-keeper. My guides were a behavior manual called The Young Seminarian along with Thomas a Kempis’ classic The Imitation of Christ.

It also helped that I was trying hard to be a straight-A student. However I never quite made it into that category in the high school seminary. That would come later. Intellectually, I was a late bloomer and in high school had to settle for “Second Honors,” as they called it. My status in the eyes of seminary authorities was also helped by the fact that I liked sports and was good at them. That was important as well in the seminary pecking order among my peers.

While at the Creek, I used to hear our dean, John Healey, repeat, “You can take a boy out of Silver Creek, but you can’t take Silver Creek out of a boy.” I believe he was right. So much of Silver Creek remains part of who I am.

But what exactly has remained from the unusual training I received there. How did it contribute to my crazy ideas? After all, I’ve forgotten the rules for Latin ablative absolutes and how to form the conditional tense of irregular verbs ending in ere. I can no longer even pronounce Greek texts, much less translate them.  When I look at pictures from those days gone by, I can’t, of course, remember everyone’s name.

Yet many lessons remain valid for me. They come largely from the spiritual seeds that were planted so long ago by our unquestionably caring professors. They also come from living in community with boys like me who were the first in their families to aspire to post-secondary education. My peers were the sons of policemen, firemen, delivery truck drivers, and construction workers. (I don’t remember a single one referring to parents who attended college.) I remember all of my companions as clever, high-spirited, and often comically gifted. Many of them remain good friends – among the best I’ve ever had, even though these days we rarely connect directly.

Here are a few of the lasting lessons we learned together from living together, from our professors and from The Rule. Despite appearances, none of them are intended as clichés. I treasure these learnings:

  • There is a fundamental opposition between “the world” and its values and what Jesus called “the Kingdom of God.”
  • The values of “the world” are deceptive, illusory and not worth the effort. They promise happiness as the result of pursuing power, pleasure, profit and prestige. None of those things are what life and happiness are really about.
  • Instead, life is about what I identify as “working-class values:” family, hard work, cooperation, shared common property, and hospitality as opposed getting ahead and accumulating differentiating wealth. (Later on, I’ll share the theory about this – i.e. how the poor actually know much more about life than the rich.)
  • I don’t need much to be content – and I don’t believe anyone does. Shared community, nourishing food, a roof over one’s head, decent clothes (in the major seminary we wore the same outer garments every day) and stimulating ideas (education) are enough. Simple is better than complex.
  • One’s interior life is far more important than exterior comfort. In the end, life and “salvation” are about waking up to the illusions foisted upon us by “the world” and replacing them with the simplicity of the working class values just mentioned.

Personally, it would be many years before I would realize that I learned those things in Silver Creek and later in the major seminary and novitiate. In so many ways, when I left Silver Creek I was still asleep and would remain so for many years. To a great extent I’m still shaking the drowsiness from my head.

“The World” is seductive.

(More about seminary life and its painful lessons next week)