Monday, June 21, 2010

Jesuit subcultures.

Two years ago this month, I spent a few days in the Netherlands on the way to and from Jerusalem. At the conclusion of my stay in a large Jesuit community in Nijmegen, I was given an interesting parting gift: a set of postcards illustrated with photos of the Jesuit residence, which happened to be a grand and not-unattractive building constructed in the early 20th century. Most of the cards in the set showcased aesthetically or architecturally significant elements of the building and its grounds - the old high altar in the domestic chapel, details of a large mural in the refectory, a well-kept garden surrounding a fountain - but one card depicted one of the truly unexceptional aspects of the place: the refectory napkin box, which was nothing more than a grid of identically-sized wooden cubbyholes providing space for each member of the community to store the cloth napkin he used during meals. Napkin boxes like this one are a standard element of Jesuit domestic architecture: one can find them in Jesuit residences across the globe, regardless of differences in local culture or custom. This isn't to say that every Jesuit house has such a napkin box - indeed, I've come across a few communities that eschew cloth napkins altogether - but enough of them do have them to give the image of the Jesuit napkin box a sort of universality within the unique and distinctive global culture that is the Society of Jesus.

Jesuit communities come in all shapes and sizes. To some extent, Jesuit houses throughout the world are are all alike: they are all bound by certain norms and rules pertaining to the universal Society, and all are peopled by men who have been formed by a shared tradition. In another sense, however, all Jesuit houses are unique: the practices common to all Jesuit communities are invariably supplemented by purely local customs (which may be 'local' insofar as they apply to all the houses in a province or region, or may also be unique to a particular house), while the culture of each house is perceptibly affected by the individual and collective traits of the individual Jesuits who live there.

To be a Jesuit is to belong to a universal culture. Despite differences in national and social origin as well as ideology and personality, all Jesuits are united by certain shared experiences and common customs. The Exercises, the Constitutions and our public vows are part of what holds us together, but so is the oral tradition of the Society - the inherited attitudes, practices and pastimes that have been passed from generation to generation within the context of community life. Some of what has been passed down as distinctively Jesuit differs from place to place - each Jesuit province has its own culture, as does each apostolate and each community. The existence of these differences makes it possible to speak of Jesuit subcultures, which overlap with one another and coexist within the universal culture of the Society.

All of this has been on my mind lately on account of the travel that I've been doing and will do in the coming weeks. Spending a week in Chicago and a weekend in Milwaukee offered many vivid reminders of the differences in the culture of different Jesuit provinces, partly as the experience gave me an opportunity to spend a lot of time with Jesuits from three Midwestern provinces (Chicago, Detroit and Wisconsin) and to reflect on what makes each province unique. Returning to Philadelphia, I also returned to another province (Maryland) with a distinctive ethos of its own. When I arrive in Innsbruck in early July, I'm sure that I'll find a mix of the strange and the familiar as I immerse myself in the culture of the Austrian Province of the Society of Jesus.

If it may be said that each Jesuit province has its own unique culture, the same may also be said of Jesuit communities associated with particular kinds of apostolates. Individual 'university' communities often have a lot in common with other 'university' communities, even if those communities are located in different provinces or countries. The same might be said of high school communities, or parish communities, or communities attached to retreat houses. Between the unique subculture of each province and the universal culture of the Society, one might speak also of other subcultures that cross national and provincial lines.

The above reflections might seem a bit vague, partly because I've had to write in haste and haven't had the time to provide illustrative examples that might clarify what I'm trying to say. I suspect that a lot of what I've written above might also have an 'inside baseball' character that might bemuse readers outside the Society of Jesus. My hope is to write more on this topic at a later date; for now, I simply wanted to present some initial thoughts that may be of interest to a few readers. If you're one of the interested few, please be patient and stay tuned. To the rest, please accept my thanks for your patient indulgence. AMDG.


At 6/22/2010 7:53 PM, Blogger Barbara said...

Glad to hear the Jesuit subculture prefers cloth napkins/serviettes. Good for the old environment! I prefer them myself, but often I find guests are intimidated because they fear they are creating a laundry chore for their hostess. That's a very minor concern, really.

From my very limited observation, Benedictines store their cloth serviettes with identifiable napkin rings in a drawer in the refectory rather than in cubbies. Perhaps this is another subculture.

On the subculture topic, I once stayed in a CND convent in Japan which was indistinguishable from French Canadian convents I have seen around Quebec. It may the culture of the nation in which the religious community took root that is carried down through the generations.

At 6/23/2010 9:44 AM, Blogger Joe said...


Thank you for the comment - now that you've mention it, I've actually been in a couple of Jesuit communities that take the napkin-ring-in-a-drawer approach.

I think you're right that the culture of the religious community's nation of origin has a key influence on the collective identity of the community - this has certainly been the case in the Society of Jesus, both in a big picture sense (our 16th century pan-European origins still matter) but also on more of a microscopic level - for example, particular provinces in the U.S. have subcultural identities which are said to derive in part from the origins of the Jesuits who founded them (Italian in one case, French in another, German and Flemish in a third).

What you observed of the CNDs in Japan makes me think of an old book that I have on my shelf at home, "Le Canada francais missionaire," by Lionel Groulx, published around 1960. It's basically a very laudatory account of the missionary work done around the globe by French Canadian religious (including CNDs in Japan). From a historical perspective it's very interesting, and from a cultural and religious perspective rather poignant.

At 6/27/2010 3:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, if you do happen to pass through the Netherlands again and have time, do get in touch.

And I recognise subcultures thing. Although I wouldn't be able to account for why, I would never be able to confuse a Dominican and a Jesuit community!


At 7/03/2010 2:53 PM, Blogger Joe said...


I'll definitely let you know - sadly I won't be passing through the Netherlands this summer, but I hope to get there again - God and the Society willing!


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