by Jim Bowman
Reviewed by David H Werning
Jim Bowman’s memories, as he shares them in “Company Man: My Jesuit Life, 1950-1968,” spring from his experiences as a member of Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s order, the Society of Jesus.
Memories, of course, produce quite a bit of mental material themselves, growing out of the experiences and providing, sometimes, consolation or condemnation or explanation or, other times, just more cogitation.
Do we ever stop remembering and reassessing our lives?
Bowman looks back at his 18 year old self riding “a tidal wave of piety” into the embrace of the Jesuits in 1950. Like the young man in the gospel who seeks assurance from Jesus (see Mt 19:16-22), Bowman just prior to leaving for the novitiate tells a high school buddy, “I wanted to do something that gave me full guarantee of doing God’s will.”
The buddy does not ask if Bowman’s desire corresponded to what God wanted, which in any case may not have helped at the time. It’s hard to see what God wants when one is atop a wave of piety. Better to wait for the solidity of the shore, which is to say “more experience,” both with God and with oneself.
For Bowman, landing on his feet took 18 years of Jesuit experience, which is the main thread in his book: the various stages of education and formation and ministry in the society. He was introduced to prayer, philosophy, and theology. More than anything, he was enculturated into the Jesuit way of life, which according to Bowman emphasized academics more than the priesthood: “We Jesuits…were first of all students and teachers and maybe scholars.” Still, the reader gains an appreciation of both the academic and the spiritual regimens required of Jesuits in the fifties and sixties.
There is, however, another story that unwinds beneath the rolling wave of piety: the inner movement of Bowman’s heart toward a deeper desire, which may have been what God had in mind from the start. Bowman hints at it on the appreciation page, where he mentions the “loving” wife and the “perfect” children, who came after the Jesuits. The adjectives bespeak more than contentment with the vocation of husband and father. One could even say joy and happiness, indicators as good as any that one is in step with God’s will.
Yet the reader will not get the details of what led to the courtship, the marriage, or the raising of children. Perhaps a second volume is forthcoming. The present volume provides only the impetus for Bowman’s departure from the Jesuits. He calls it the “demon sexual desire.” This is a phrase that prompts questions. Why “demon”? Was leaving the Jesuits the only available exorcism?
Context is crucial here. Bowman entered the Jesuits at 18, not the typical age for full sexual maturity and understanding. Also, his time in the order spanned the 1950’s and 1960’s, not the most enlightened period in matters sexual for the U.S. either. To make matters worse, the Church during the same period was experiencing an upheaval in the area of sexuality as well, producing the bad fruit with which we are so familiar today.
So what does a good, young, pious, and Catholic man do, if he is unsure how to manage the powerful feelings he is experiencing? He either surrenders to the demon, which is a one way ticket to hell, or he chooses the most heroic path he can think of: the priesthood. Actually, it’s not an either/or situation, as Bowman would find out.
Even as he entered the novitiate, Bowman acknowledges that he missed the “beer and babes.” And the rest of his memoir is peppered with comments about tempering desire: “close your eyes and grit your teeth;” “modesty of the eyes;” “cold shower.” For most young men interested in following Christ, such tactics are common and part of the maturation process. Both celibates and married men must grow in the virtue of controlling the sexual appetite. What may seem like a demon can become a vehicle for service to others when the gift of sexuality is seen as cooperation with God’s power to create life. Sexual energy involves more than procreation, which is reserved for marriage, for it also promotes a healthy intimacy that under girds active charity for married and celibate alike.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that both the sacrament of Holy Orders and the sacrament of Holy Matrimony are ordered toward service. It goes so far as to say that the two sacraments “are directed towards the salvation of others; if they contribute as well to personal salvation, it is through service to others that they do so” (No. 1534).
The connection between sexuality and charitable service may sound strange to some readers, but for one who has been struggling to know God’s will and has perceived God’s love the connection imitates God’s outpouring gift of life to others.
Bowman had the desire to participate in God’s life-giving love from the beginning of his Jesuit experience, but he needed time to understand sexual desire not as a demon but as a gift. With time, he comes to two important conclusions about himself. One, the priesthood never really had much interest for him. And the appeal of the Jesuits was mostly their academic bent. Two, sublimating one’s sexual desire, even with good intentions, leads to trouble and bad vocations. Sexual desire needs to be integrated into one’s life in a manner appropriate for one’s call (celibate or married) and according to God’s plan.
Toward the end of his 18 years with the Jesuits, Bowman acknowledges the unease with the priesthood and a life of celibacy that had been with him from day one. Despite the best of intentions in entering the society, he was meant for something else.
“Company Man” is really a portrait of a young man, at a particular time in his life, coming to a decision through prayer and thought and experience. The temptation for many, if not everyone, during difficulties is simply to drift along, allowing oneself to be moved by outside forces. Bowman intuited through his struggles that such a course was not God’s will. Yes, God has a will for each of us. Yes, we must contend with external forces. But we do so as free men and women, made in the image of God, capable of coming to know and choose the path God has set for us.