My University Experiences

After graduating from Webb in 1954. I choose to attend Duke, a Southern university, because I wanted to become a writer and was inspired by Southern writers such as Carson McCullers, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Thomas Wolfe. I planned to major in English, but I found my English teachers too pedantic and pickey. Their red pencil marks covered my essays. They did not seem to realize what a great writer I going to be. At Duke I submitted some poems and stories  to the Archive  a literary magazine, edited at that time by Reynolds Price, who later did become a distinguished Southern writer, but to my chagrin he rejected my work. I soon discovered that I was better at re-working  material than creating it from scratch; so I wrote  copy for the theatre  Playbill.

When I was 18 I discovered that I had a calling to undertake a personal spiritual quest and to develop a personal relationship with God. During my second year at Duke I met Sali Wali an Egyptian mystical thinker who worked on ESP at the parapsychology lab with Dr. Rhine. Through guided reading and Socratic conversations conducted over many months Sali instructed me in the rudiments of Vedanta, Buddhism, and the perennial philosophy. To my surprise I found myself becoming seriously interested in mysticism and began devouring books on the subject. I decided I wanted to become a saint.

Even as a freshman I was impressed with the poetry of the English romantic poets, particularly Wordsworth and Shelly. I think this set the tone for my religious ideas and feelings. There is a strong continuity between my early romanticism and my later idealism. I have never felt willing to accept mundane “reality” as it is, as the only world we can know and experience. Long ago I accepted the idea that we live in multiple realities and embraced the Buddhist view of the world as an illusion, though I often get caught up in identifying with my own personal suffering and am unable to practice this view consistently in my daily life.

There was one English professor I liked very much, Russell Fraser, a distinguished Shakespeare scholar. He organized a literary discussion group for his students which met at his home once a month. It was called Areopagus, after the original Supreme Court of the Athenians, as described in the Oresteia. I was thrilled to be invited to participate. I had never been chosen to be a member of any group before. I was disappointed when he moved to Princeton the next year.

Professor Harold Parker, a brilliant military historian who specialized in Napoleonic battles, influenced me greatly. From him I first discovered that history was not so much a collection of facts or chronologies but the interpretation of the relationships among these facts. Another important mentor at this time was Prof. Ernest Nelson, a Renaissance man, who taught me to appreciate the Greek and Latin classics in translation. Partly as a result of the influence of these fine teachers, I later became a professional historian myself.

The summer between Duke and Georgetown I drove a traveling bookshop around Cape Cod. While on the Cape I met the literary critic Edmund Wilson, and a Russian emigré writer Paul Chavchavadze, who encouraged me as an aspiring young writer. I’ve always had a fascination with Russians, Poles and Eastern Europeans and later in my life I lived in Prague. 

In the fall of 1956 I transferred to Georgetown University in Washington D.C. where I majored in politics and international relations. I found the scholastic philosophy and theology taught  at Georgetown dry and boring. Instead I turned to the French Existentialists and began 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 context of personal drama.  The evocative images speak to my heart. On the other hand, to evoke my own spiritual feelings I prefer sacred music and art. I was fortunate to study philosophy of religion with the brilliant urbane English Jesuit and Father Martin D’Arcy, the former Master of Campion Hall at Oxford, but unfortunately much of the time I found his discourse to be over my head. 

The one philosophical work I remember reading with great interest while in college, a book that really opened up new religious vistas for me, was William James’ Varieties of Religions Experience. Even today I can hardly recall a work of greater personal significance, for James introduced me to both the phenomenology of consciousness and the psychology of religious experience. At this time I also became interested in the psychology of Freud and Jung, as I was looking for a therapeutic alternative to Thomistic psychology. 

Despite all my courses in philosophy and theology, I was still troubled by intense sexual guilt, and it took years of psychotherapy to enable me to move beyond that quagmire of sexual and religious abuse. I also lost  my first fiancé, Joanie Knowles, during my senior year because of my obsessive guilt about sex. We had been sleeping together regularly at my apartment but I felt so guilty that I usually rushed out to confession the next morning. Before long a less scrupulous guy replaced me in her arms. It took me years to discover that I was a sex addict as a result of my childhood sexual abuse and still more years to overcome it.

One person and place that had a profound influence on my spiritual development was Father Damasus Winzen, at Mt. Saviour, a Benedictine community in Elmira, New York. I made several retreats there during my senior year before going to Europe. “Incline the inner ear of the heart and listen to the world of God” Benedict said in the prologue to his rule. Through Father Damasus,  Brother Gregory and Brother David Steindl-Rast, I discovered the Fathers of the Church, such as St. Augustine, St. Jerome and Origin, and came to appreciate the beauty of the Bible and the Liturgy. At Mt. Savior I 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. Among the Benedictines I experienced it in my heart.  

In my senior year I also became interested in modern French Catholic literature and philosophy, particularly after reading Wallace Fowlie’s book, A Guide to Contemporary French Literature. Before I graduated I had read some Sartre,  Camus, and Claudel in French, and had even written a one-act play based on one of Claudel’s plays. This led me to Paris to embark for a year of study of French literature at the Institut Catholique and the Sorbonne. Even though I had spoken French at home, I was not proficient enough to read everything I wanted to in the original, so I made this my goal. 

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