Late in the summer of 1963, I entered the novitiate at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Covington, Louisiana, thinking I’d arrived into a tranquil and unchanging world. The community was of medium size for Benedictine monasteries, with a total of about sixty monks garbed in the distinctive Benedictine habit: a simple black tunic with a leather belt around the waist, over which was a scapular with cowl, or hood. The main work was administering and teaching at St. Ben’s, the adjacent minor seminary from which I had recently graduated, but the common life demanded that all the monks play a variety of roles—cantor, organist, mechanic, barber. The community consisted of choir monks and lay brothers: the former solemnly professed and either ordained as priests or in training for ordination; the latter having made simple vows and performing the bulk of the practical work required in a large community. The monks lived a radically communal life, in which all possessions were shared; the practice of a community of goods expressed the virtues of obedience and humility. All of this was standard and had been for centuries.
Appearances, however, deceived. As I began this new life, forces of turmoil and dramatic change were at work below the surface. The reforming ferment of the Second Vatican Council was already stirring. It was also a time of cultural upheaval around issues of sexuality. Much emphasis was placed on personal fulfillment, and the celibate life was an easy target. Monastic life could seem, even to its adherents, out of touch in a religion that was rapidly privileging the active over the contemplative life. The effect of these upheavals was the disaffection and then the departure of many monks. The depletion of the Catholic religious orders had begun. Perhaps as an indication of the lean years to come, I was the only novice to enter St. Joseph’s in 1963.
On making simple vows in 1964, I took the name Luke, partly because it was biblical and partly because it was short and difficult to twist by the clever young boys I thought I would someday teach. Thus, my authorial name, Luke Timothy Johnson. Holding on to my monk name is deliberate. The mark of monasticism on me is permanent, and the name reminds me that, in addition to my baptism into the faith, I also carry with me the effects of another initiation into a special form of discipleship. By my vows, I also signed on to the system of preparation for the ordained priesthood as prescribed by canon law. This meant that my next years would be spent in the formal study of philosophy and theology.
The young monks studied philosophy at Notre Dame Seminary, located on Carrollton Avenue in New Orleans, and in 1964 the classic curriculum of philosophy classes remained unchanged. Lectures and exams were in Latin. Students moved progressively through the categories of philosophy that date back to Diogenes Laertius in the third century. The framework was the form of scholastic philosophy that had been dominant within Catholicism since the time of Leo XIII, namely, neo-Thomism. Thomas Aquinas was the unsurpassed authority and the abiding spirit. Students began with logic (Aristotelian logic, to be sure), then they moved to epistemology, cosmology, metaphysics, and ethics. Although the schema was rigid, I was deeply grateful for learning it, first because Thomas’s philosophy is a remarkably sound and sane perspective on reality, and second because this framework allowed me space to explore all other philosophical voices without confusion.
The work of a monk-student was to study, so I was free, apart from the regular round of prayer, meals, and recreation, to indulge as never before my passion for wide reading. Actual work on classes took little time. Instead, I went on a spree of freelance reading in philosophy, indiscriminately and with no thought to sequence. I was drawn to thinkers who might be called existentialist in orientation and whose approach was concrete and phenomenological. Human experience as the object of thought and the shaper of thought summoned my attention, and would continue to do so for the rest of my life as a scholar. The two thinkers who influenced me the most were Søren Kierkegaard and Gabriel Marcel. I cannot remember how I found either, but once discovered, they galvanized my mind. Kierkegaard thrilled me first not only because of the sheer brilliance of his writing and the daring character of the dialectic he was working out through his use of pseudonymous authorship, but also because he thought directly on the face of existence. In Marcel, I found a French Catholic existentialist philosopher who would be an intellectual companion for life.