I thought I wanted to be a writer, so I chosE to go to a university in the South where so many outstanding American writers have come from. I planned to major in English, but I found the English professors too pedantic, and critical of my spelling and grammar mistakes; so I switched to history. There was one English professor I liked very much, though–Russell Fraser, who had a student literary discussion group that I participated in with relish. It was called Areopagus, after the original Supreme Court of Athens.
One person was particularly influential on me among my college teachers. That was Dr. Harold Parker, a brilliant modern European historian. From him I first discovered that history was not so much a collection of facts but the interpretation of the relationships among facts. Equally important for me as mentor at this time was Prof. Ernest Nelson, who was a specialist in Renaissance and Reformation history.
My freshman essay was on Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. I tried to demonstrate that Werther was a symbol of his age and that Goethe managed to resolve his own personal inner conflicts through his creativity. I had my own share of personal emotional problems at this time myself which I read into Goethe’s novella, identifying with Young Werther myself, as people have since the day the books first published.
. At Duke I sought to write for the Archive literary magazine but my work was not puaccepted there. So instead I wrote copy for the theatre Playbill programs. I have always been better at re-working source material than creating it from scratch.
I recall my first year Duke where I made friends with young men like Bill Spann, Rusty Stahlnacker and Tyson Underwood, Fred Chappel and Reynolds Price. Tyson came to visit me in California during our summer vacation in 1955. He had stopped at the bus station en route and dyed his hair black, so I didn’t recognize him at first when he arrived t the bus station not far from where I lived in Hollywood.
My first heterosexual experience, which occurred at Duke, was with Betsy, a beautiful blonde southern belle, in the college dorms. She was so sweet. Yet I rejected her after a while and went for Joanie, a dark haired beauty, who I met on a blind date arranged by my roommate, Dick Phillips. I felt so close to her and we had good sex, but I felt really guilty afterwards, and I rushed to Confession as soon as possible after we had sex.
I was also troubled by what I was learning in my relativistic philosophy classes. I wanted to find out my own identity, my own personal values and beliefs, but I was also afraid to look into my soul not knowing what I might uncover there. I had good history teachers like Harold Parker, Bill Holley and Ernest Nelson, the Renaissance and Reformation scholar. I admired Dr. Nelson very much, and in my sophomore year I took a class from him about the “Intellectual Foundations of Western Civilization.” I will never forget that class. We read Heroditus and Thucydides and Sophocles and St. Augustine. I have always loved reading the classics.
When I was supposed to go to work for Brunswig Drug Company, the summer after my freshman year, I could not face it, and read Greek tragedies as a way of protesting my fate. Eventually I got a summer job as a law-clerk instead.
Because I felt guilt about sex, and confusion with the secular modern philosophies I was being exposed to at Duke, by the end of my sophomore year, I decided to transfer to a Catholic Jesuit university where I was guaranteed of being taught the TRUTH. However, I was disappointed with the philosophy and theology I was taught there.
During my sophomore year at Duke, my mother gave me a book by a Benedictine monk, Father Bede Griffiths, The Golden String. It meant a lot to me. This was the first time that I saw that a religious quest could be taken seriously by an intellectual, which was what I aspired to be someday. At this time I also first read St. Augustine’s Confessions. He became one of my lifetime heroes. Soon afterwards I read the Outsider by Colin Wilson, which introduced me to Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Pascal and other existential thinkers who became my heroes as well. I was also fascinated by the life and thought of Friedrich Nietzsche.
When I entered Duke I was supposed to join the ROTC, but I did not want to. I did not have the courage to say no directly, but I resisted letting the orderly take a blood sample from me. He told me that I had better get used to it because there would be a lot more of such unpleasant experiences awaiting me in the military. On the basis of my fears and what he said, I decided not to enroll in ROTC. My advisor Prof. Tom Winner, was teaching a survey Russian on 19th Century Literature; so although I knew nothing about the amount of reading I was getting myself into, I signed up with him to do his course instead. With him as my knowledgable guide, for the first time in my life I encountered Lermontov, Pushkin, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Thus began my lifelong interest in Russian history and literature. (Later in graduate school I wrote a paper comparing modern Russian and German intellectual and cultural history).
At the end of my sophomore year I transfered to Georgetown. The summer between Duke and Georgetown I drove a traveling bookshop around Cape Cod. Got to know soem interesting people on the Cape including Paul Chavchavadze, a Russian emigré writer. I’ve always had a weakness for Russians.
I was scheduled to go to Europe at the end of my Junior year, but instead, so as to be near Joanie, I spent the summer working as a counselor at the Big Toe River camp for disabled children. I see a familiar pattern here: sacrificing an activity which requires my being alone and taking a risk with loneliness for the security of staying in a familiar place in order to stay with a girl or woman I think I love, but mainly need.
Beginning in the fall of 1956 I transferred to Georgetown University in Washington DC.I recall reading Jung and Freud and philosophy and searching for the truth and listening to Fr. William Lynch lecture on literature and philosophy. Also Father Martin D’Arcy, Dr Rommen, reading Samuelson and Schumpeter and studying the History of Economic and Political Thought.
I found the Thomism and Scholasticism at Georgetown dry and boring. Instead I turned to the French existentialists and to exploring philosophy through literature. I found great inspiration in a literature class taught by Fr. William Lynch.
To this day literature is my favorite way to access philosophical and religious or spiritual ideas. I enjoy encountering ideas in the contest of personal drama. The evocative images speak to my heart. On the other hand for religious feeling I prefer sacred music. I had some courses in philosophy of religion with Father Martin D’Arcy who I found inspirational, but he was often over my head.
The one philosophical work I remember reading in college that really opened up new vistas on religion for me was William James’ Varieties of Religions Experience. Even today I can hardly think of a work of greater significance for me, because James introduced me to the psychology of religious experience. I also became interested in the psychology of Freud and C.G. Jung at this time, as I was looking for some therapeutic- ally relevant alternative to the old Aristotelian/Thomistic psychology that we were being required to study, which I felt was useless to help me cope with my depressions.
I want to mention one person and a place that had an influence on my spiritual development–Father Damasus Winzen, at Mt. Saviour, a Benedictine community in Elmira New York where I made several retreats before I went to Europe. “Incline the inner ear of the heart and listen to the world of God” Benedict said in the prologue of his rule. Through Father Damasus and Brother Gregory I discovered the Desert Fathers and the classic Fathers of the Church, such as St. Augustine, St. Jerome and Origin. At Mt. Savior I sometimes had the sense of being in the presence of God, of experiencing wonder and gratitude at his majesty and glory. With the Jesuits this had been only an intellectual concept for me. Among the Benedictines I experienced it in my heart. From them I also learned to appreciate the beauty of the Bible and the liturgy.
In my senior year in college I became interested in French literature and philosophy, particularly after reading Wallace Fowlie’s book, A Guide to Contemporary French Literature. This led me to embark for a year of study in France. However I did not really know French well enough to read the literature or criticism required in the original. I did read some Camus and Claudel and some other modern French writers and I even wrote a play modeled on Claudel’s work while I was in Paris. I was still troubled by guilt feelings about sex. It took some years of psychoanalytic therapy to finally move beyond that place in my spiritual and emotional life.