Your story calls to mind the major differences between the corporate world and the spiritual life. Do you ever see similarities?
Yes, I do. First of all, they're both organizations. The Catholic Church is a big organization, and General Electric was a big organization. There are a lot of parallels in terms of hierarchy and efficiency. The Jesuits are pretty efficient in what they try to do and General Electric is as well. They're worldwide organizations, so there's a sense of the international aspect, say GE and also the Society of Jesus and the church certainly. There are many more differences, though. At least where I worked at GE, I found that there was less of an emphasis than I would've liked on kindness, compassion.
I was amazed reading the horror stories from GE. Especially the story of the woman who had asked about overtime, and the supervisor was really rude to her.
All of the stories I tell in the book are almost verbatim. I eventually got tired of what I saw as a lack of humanity in the corporate world and the way people treated each other. I mean, the church is not perfect and the Jesuits are not perfect, but I have to say that that's one thing that I really appreciate in the church, and as a Jesuit, that sense of treating another person as a human being, not as just a means to an end, which is what I think happens a lot in corporate America.
In the book, you describe how you went from this job in a severely corporate atmosphere to a vow of poverty.
And only a stipend.
Yes, $35 a month...
Surprisingly, it was not hard. Everyone says that it must've been hard to go from this high-flying, high-paying, yuppie lifestyle into this very (what some people consider) austere regimen of the Jesuits. It was great. I went from this stressful job, an insane 24/7 life, to a life in a religious order that was much more contemplative, relaxed, human...focused more on prayer and service to the poor. I had no problem shifting gears at all. I think the first year as a novice was the happiest year of my life up to that point. I welcomed it, and I was so happy when I left the corporate world.
Have you heard about the book from any of the people who were at GE?
All my friends who were at GE with me at the time tell me that they feel it's very accurate. One friend of mine called me after reading it and said that I had left out some of the worst stories. It was something I definitely wanted to move away from.
But the specific people that you speak about in the book--like the manager who arrived at a company picnic too late and missed lunch--you mentioned that he was so angry that he "glowered wordlessly" before storming out. What would he think of what you wrote about him?
In the book I say that the names are changed out of charity in these corporate horror stories. These are all real people at GE, but I didn't really think it was necessary to name them and point fingers at them. But I thought it was very necessary to tell some of these stories as explicitly as I could to just give people an idea of what I was reacting against, and what it was that compelled me to look for something else.
It seems like it helped you to get to that place where you'd say, "God! Give me a sign!"
It did in a way. I think God always takes us where we are. One of the hallmarks of Jesuit spirituality is to always ask people, "Where is God in this situation?" And so even in the midst of this misery of working in the corporate world, working at GE, God was working. God allowed me to see why I was miserable. I think that feeling of wanting something more came from my bad experiences in the corporate world, and God was even working through that. To lead me to something better, or something else.
Initially I knew almost nothing about the Jesuits. It was just a chance comment by my parish priest who suggested that I get in touch with the Jesuits at a nearby college. What appealed to me was that they seemed to be able to do almost anything as priests and brothers. So you would have Jesuit architects, lawyers, and doctors...I have a friend who is a Jesuit architect who helps design low-income housing for people. I found this notion of being able to use your talents and use them at the service of the church really appealing.
As I continued on in my Jesuit training, the spirituality really appealed to me. This notion of finding God in all things just fit me very well. I like to tell people that at the beginning, being a Jesuit was something that I was doing, and now it's more something that I am.
In the book, you mention that even after you were in the novitiate, you were saying, "Yeah, I haven't really studied Catholicism since I was 10 years old!" I'm used to hearing stories of people who have studied from birth until they were 13 and then gone straight into the order.
Yeah, I knew very little. Friends of mine used to joke and say that if you had gone to a Catholic school, you probably wouldn't have become a priest! I knew very little, like a lot of adult Catholics, and it wasn't until I entered the novitiate that I really started my education. The experience for a lot of Catholics these days is that they need to reappropriate their faith.
Can you say more about the precept of "where is God in this situation?"
If I could encapsulate Ignatian spirituality in just a few words, it would be finding God in all things. No matter where you are, there's always the opportunity to find God there. And to find out what God is trying to say to you in this situation. The thing for me was that at the time, I wasn't aware of that. But at the time, I think what God was doing was helping me to see that there might be something else that I'd want to do with my life.