*This story will be available to read until January 25th.
William J. Cook
MONDAY, APRIL 22, 2019. “You were moaning in your sleep last night,” my wife says over morning coffee. “Again.” I hear the impatience in her voice, and I wince. She picks up the paper and reads the headlines. “It’s been a couple of months. What do you suppose triggered it?”
“I don’t know.” I take a deep breath and let it out slowly, unable to stifle my discouragement. “The fire at Notre Dame?”
“So it’s anything Catholic?”
“I guess. It’s like I’m a fly in a spider’s web. The more I struggle, the more tangled up I get.” I don’t tell her that I feel like Alice with the Red Queen, running as fast as I can to stay in the same place.
“You left fifty years ago. That’s a helluva long time to be stuck. I’ve only known you for twenty of those years, but it’s getting harder and harder for me to put up with this.” Her frown darkens the room.
“But you do get some benefits, right? I make the bed every morning. I keep my side of the bathroom clean. I wash my clothes and do a good job with the dishes.” My objections sound desperate, even to me.
“So you’re a good soldier. I could’ve married somebody with obsessive-compulsive disorder and got the same thing. Your being a clean freak doesn’t necessarily make me happy.” The newspaper rattles her complaint as she slaps it on the table.
My shoulders slump. “I’m not the husband you signed up for, am I?” I’ve spent our entire marriage standing on the edge of this precipice, staring into the abyss, afraid to jump and ashamed not to.
“That’s not what I said.” I feel the frustration rising in her voice. It’s been happening more and more over the last year. “It’s just that I keep expecting you to get better. You know? Smile more. Be less irritable. Seem more content with your life. You have two beautiful grown children, and your fourth grandchild is on the way. Quit your damn poor-me routine.” She shakes her head back and forth and raises her left hand the way she does when she gets annoyed with the evening news. “Is your therapist even helping?”
She’s got me on the run now, and I try to retreat. “She’s a good listener. And she’s smart.” I pause, looking for a graceful way out. “But I don’t think she really gets it.”
“Gets what?” She’s tapping the fingers of her right hand on the table.
“Why I left. Why I walked through that door.”
“That’s a good question. Why did you leave?” She glares at me, lips pursed, awaiting an answer she knows I’ll avoid.
It always comes back to this. The biggest failure of my life—walking away from the seminary and the priesthood. How can I tell her why? I’m not sure I know myself. I stand and walk out of the room. “I’ve gotta get to work.” I hear her snort of disapproval.
“Sure. You do that,” she snaps at my back. “You walk away from everything when it gets hard.” I grimace at the barb. Her voice catches, as though she’s trying to hold back a sob. “Maybe you’ll walk away from me next, like you did your first wife.”
I drive south on 101, just as the sun crests over the Coast Range and ignites the foam of breakers crashing on the beaches to my right. My flight from God, such as it was, began and ended here, at the western limit of Oregon. It was a short, unsuccessful journey.
The clinic is a modest brick structure, one level, with offices for two psychiatrists, two nurse practitioners, one psychologist, and five clinical social workers. Coastal Behavioral Center we call ourselves. It’s just north of Depoe Bay and about five miles south of my home in Driftwood. I pull into the small parking lot and enter through the STAFF ONLY door. I need to be here today.
Work usually pulls me out of my self-absorption. My problems seem so minor when I listen to those of my psychotherapy patients. They’ve suffered real physical trauma, afraid they were going to die—or worse. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, even some old guys from Vietnam. Parents whose children were murdered in a school shooting not far from here. A woman who survived sexual abuse more horrific than anything I’d ever heard before, and I’ve heard a lot of stories in my thirty-five years as a clinical social worker. I am a dilettante of pain compared to them, a rank amateur, so I tread lightly and do my best to help them in their paths toward healing. They honor me by sharing their ragged lives, and I renew my vow each day never to abuse that privilege.
My last patient of the morning brings me up short. I gape at the thirty-year-old veteran of three tours in Afghanistan, the scar under his left eye, the prosthesis hidden under his pants leg.
“I think I’m going to enter the seminary. Study for the priesthood. Father O’Grady at my church thinks I have a calling. You know—a vocation.”
And in an instant, I’m back there.
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 22, 1961. “You have a Divine Vocation, boys. God has chosen you out of the world, and you belong here.” Monsignor Macallan is delivering his weekly address to us, the students of St. Francis Seminary. The school sits high on a ridge in the foothills of the Coast Range, overlooking the deep blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Dense Douglas firs form a barrier around the manicured lawns. The Gothic structure, with its tall tower and parapets, looks as though it would be more at home in a suburb of Paris or Vienna. I’m a freshman in high school, my first year as a seminarian at what we call “Frankie’s.”
We’re sitting in the chapel, where the tall arches of the stained glass windows, usually kaleidoscopes of color, have gone dark after sunset, and the sweet aromas of burnt incense still linger in the air from the Benediction service earlier. The high sandstone walls radiate cold like a refrigerator, keeping us awake and alert.
The Monsignor has said the same things—and multiple variations thereof—many times before, but tonight, we all hear the edge in his voice. He’s mad. Michael, a popular senior, left the seminary this morning. In a stunt we gossiped about all afternoon, he returned just before lunch, speeding up the main driveway in a bright blue convertible, his right arm around a blonde-haired young woman who laughed as we stood gawking on the sidewalk.
The veins in Macallan’s head swell, and his face turns purple with rage. “Your friend Michael will burn!” he declares. “As will any of you who insult God by throwing away your vocation.”
Then he changes tactics, from fear to flattery. “You have the highest calling on earth, dear boys. Each of you will become an alter Christus, another Christ on earth, able to forgive sins and to consecrate ordinary bread and wine into the body and blood of our Lord.”
It’s a heady mix indeed, stroking our egos till the underlying peril dims. Much later, we will appreciate that great power comes at great cost. In our case, it will be the sacrifice of our sexuality. Each of us will have to take a vow of celibacy, promising never to marry, never to engage in sexual intimacy with another person. We are young and foolish and think we can do that.
“Where did you go?”
“Forgive me. I got distracted.” I feel my face redden. A therapist’s nightmare—caught thinking about something else and not attending to a patient’s disclosures. The very thing I promise myself not to do. Some would fire their therapist for such a faux pas, but Andrew is kind.
“That’s OK. I was just saying that Father O’Grady calls it a ‘delayed’ vocation. He said that because of all my life experience, I would probably be more stable in the seminary than someone entering in high school or early college.”
“I’m sure he’s right,” I manage. “We’re apt to make lots more mistakes when we’re young.” The session concludes without further event. A quick lunch, four more patients, and a half-hour of dictation bring the day to a close. I log off my computer and head out toward the parking lot.
The sun is low in the sky, casting elongated shadows in the chill spring air. I’m driving a 13-year-old BMW that still runs like a Rolex. It’s time to empty my head and my heart of the pain I’ve absorbed. Good loud music usually turns the trick, but not today. Andrew’s story still nags at me.
I’ve come to believe that’s what life is—stories. Stories we tell ourselves, stories that others tell us, stories we’ve fabricated from fragments of dreams and things we’ve read. The stories are never the truth, but rather amalgams of truth and fiction we’ve repeated enough times that we believe them as gospel. I’m no exception. I spend my days trying to correct the stories of others’ lives while I can’t amend my own.
When I pull into the garage, I see that Amy’s car isn’t there. I enter the kitchen and see the note on the table.
I’m going to my mother’s. I think I need a break from you, and I’m sure you need a break from me. Lindsey lives just down the street, and I’ll spend time with her after work. She says I’m an enabler—that I enable you to get away with all the crap you pull. So I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m giving you time to do whatever it takes to get your act together.
My advice? Go back there. Go back to the seminary and face it once and for all. That place is your own private haunted house, filled with all the ghosts of your adolescence. Fight back, goddamn it! I swear, you’ve got more chains than Jacob Marley.
Anyway, just do it. When you’re ready, give me a call.
I let out the breath I’d been holding while I read the letter. Knowing she’s right doesn’t make it any easier, but I have to do something. I can’t continue living this way. I pull out my phone to check my calendar. I’ve got time on the books. If I get our receptionist working on it first thing tomorrow, I’ll have her move up all my patients into extra hours between Tuesday and Thursday, freeing me to go to Frankie’s on Friday.
I shake my head back and forth. It’s a pilgrimage I’ve avoided for fifty years—the way I go around streets that I know have a Catholic Church on them, skip movies with any reference to priests. The only exception has been my attention to the nightly news on television. How often have I sat like an unquiet acolyte before the TV, terrified I would recognize the name of a former classmate as the latest perpetrator of sexual abuse by a priest? I walk to the liquor cabinet and pour myself three fingers of Irish whiskey.
That night the demons come back. I’ve never told Amy that I hear voices sometimes, reminding me of all the things I’ve done wrong in my life. Once I even saw Macallan, sitting at the foot of my bed like Banquo’s ghost. Occasionally, I’ve felt his presence in my bedroom, as I’m drifting off to sleep. Then I jump as though I’ve just touched an electric outlet. I know. I’ve got all the classic symptoms. So why don’t I take medication? I usually tell myself that I don’t want the sedation and the side effects. But when I’m alone like this, I wonder if a part of me thinks I deserve what I get.
As Amy said, I’m a good soldier. While the days are flying by, I keep the kitchen clean, make the bed, sort the mail into his and hers stacks. I even vacuum the rug in the living room. Amy’s forever teasing me about it, saying I act as if the Pope were about to pay us a surprise visit. I laugh it off, never explaining that it’s a tool I use to keep my anxiety in check.
When Friday finally comes, I’m not ready. My stomach is tied in knots, and it’s all I can do to get a cup of coffee down. But no excuses. It’s now or never. After my shower, I put on a white shirt and tie, dark pants, and a sports coat—the traditional daily dress at Frankie’s. I take a last look around the house, as though afraid I might not come back, but really just stalling for time. My grandiose fantasy suggests I’m the Knight Errant embarking on a quest to slay the dragon, but I’m sure the reality will be far more ordinary than that.
I drive south to Newport under a canopy of gray cloud. The weather report said the rain will be here by noon, but I’ll bet that was an overly optimistic prediction. Sure enough, I haven’t gone two miles before a fine mist mottles the windshield. In a moment, a light but steady rain is playing a familiar rhythm on the roof of my car—classic Northwest percussion. I turn left at the old road and begin to climb into the hills.
How different it all looks. Eager buyers, fleeing the bloated highways of California, are staking claims to the forest. Frankie’s is no longer tucked away from the world behind a wall of Douglas firs. Neighborhoods encroach upon its spacious lawns.
I stop at the base of the main driveway and look up to the crest. Silhouetted against the weeping sky are the stark battlements of the seminary, looking like an ancient castle, complete with its foreboding tower. A thrill of panic makes my body shiver. It’s been so long since I’ve seen this massive edifice, this place of power. The panorama takes my breath away.
Four other cars are parked around the front circle. I pull in behind a black SUV. Before entering the main building, I decide to walk around the campus, check all the old hangouts. Thankful I’ve brought a trench coat and a hat, I brave the rain and stalk around the senior dormitories. The enormous ginkgo tree, with its fan-shaped leaves, still presides over this corner. Every fall it would burst into its brilliant yellow finery, an explosion of autumn sun against an azure sky. Today, the stately gentleman’s cloak is an olive green. A keeper of secrets, it’s been a witness to all that transpired during Frankie’s reign on this hill. I lay my hand on its trunk, sure it recognizes me, wondering what stories it would tell if it could.
A few more paces bring me to a widening of the path on the way to the tennis courts and beyond—the Butt Grounds, the only place on campus where seminarians could smoke, and most did. Cigarettes were a part of our daily ritual, something to do during breaks between study halls, after meals, before night prayers. Rain or shine, sleet or snow, we were out there, backs to the wind, huddled together, bound by clouds of tobacco smoke. I had quit cigarettes reluctantly at the age of twenty-five, ten years after I had begun smoking. I still miss them.
Another fifty yards, and I’m surprised that no one’s been minding the tennis courts. Several trees, now almost twenty feet tall, have sprouted up in the middle of them, making me feel as though I’m walking through the set of a post-apocalyptic movie—civilization wiped out, the earth reabsorbing the detritus of society. That feeling is heightened when I reach the handball courts, now enshrouded with English ivy, completely obscuring the sixteen-foot walls in tangles of green vines.
Wading through the knee-deep plants on the surface of the courts, my last bit of exploring takes me to the pond. As I push my way past shrubs that had once been a path, I feel cold rain sneak past my collar and trickle down the back of my neck. When I look ahead, I find there is no pond. The dam must have been taken out decades ago, draining our playground. I’m surrounded by a young, almost impenetrable forest where once we had poled our trusty raft, hunting for painted turtles and fishing for bullheads.
A kind of melancholy settles over me, as gently as the rain. What had I expected? I hear the poet whisper, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/”* I force my way back through the jungle. I have an appointment to keep.
Ten minutes later, as I approach the intimidating structure, I see the cornerstone to the right of the front doors. Its inscription brings me to a halt.
SPES MESSIS IN SEMINE
The translation of the Latin rolls off my tongue. The Hope of the Harvest is in the Seed.
But what about the seed that doesn’t sprout? The bad seed?
When I walk through the front door, I recall that, as I seminarian, I had used this door only once a year, when registering in September. Inside is much the same as it had been—marble floors, three broad steps leading up to the doors of the chapel and to the main hallway. To the immediate right is the office. A gray-haired receptionist now sits where the Sacristan had once done secretarial tasks between episodes of homework and duties in the sanctuary. She looks over a computer screen and greets me.
“May I help you?”
I fumble for words. “I used to go to school here.” I’m not sure what kind of expression is on my face, or if it matters to her. “A long time ago. Is it OK if I look around? I don’t mean to disturb anybody.”
She smiles. “We get that all the time. You’re one of what we call ‘the Old Guard.’ I don’t see a Roman collar. Your day off?”
“No,” I confess. “Never made it all the way to the priesthood.” I feel my face get warm.
“Most didn’t. Feel free to explore. You do know we’re not St. Francis Seminary anymore, don’t you? Now we’re just administrative offices for the Archdiocese, though we do have some conference rooms for meetings. And we use the chapel for parish retreats.”
“That explains why the grounds out back have fallen into...” Again, I search for the right words. “...some disrepair.”
Her smile broadens. “The tennis and handball courts? We can’t seem to get the funds to restore them since nobody lives here anymore. I’m sure you can understand.”
“Yeah. Money’s tight everywhere. Well, thank you. I’ll just wander a bit. I won’t be long.”
She nods and returns to her computer.
I leave the office and climb the steps. The large oak doors of the chapel beckon me. My heart skips a beat. “Not yet,” I tell myself as I back away.
The hallway I’m in is hung with old paintings of saints and photographs of former rectors and bishops, unchanged from days of yore, except for one addition. I see Macallan’s picture hanging there, bald head gleaming, crimson sash—what we called his “red belly band”—around his opulent waist. If I didn’t know better, I’d describe his smile as “angelic.”
To the right, the hall leads to what had been the refectory, our dining room. I walk toward it, listening carefully. I can almost hear the sounds of cutlery on dinner plates and the buzz of conversations. Amy always had trouble believing the stories I told her about the food—the morning I found a centipede in our oatmeal, the evening of the ants in the egg noodles. We ate bad food with equally bad names—monkey dicks, mystery loaf, kangaroo meat, hockey pucks. I stayed thin until I left.
I turn and walk back in the other direction, toward what we called “Hogan’s Alley,” the priests’ private quarters. I would meet my confessor there for weekly Penance and spiritual direction, in a dark-paneled room that smelled of leather and tobacco. Preparation for that encounter would be a thorough examination of conscience. Had I spoken angrily to a fellow seminarian? Had I taken the Lord’s name in vain? More importantly, had I consented to impure thoughts? We never used the term “masturbation.” It was “self abuse,” a big ticket item. It was called a “mortal sin,” a category it shared with murder and adultery. Those who die with that sort of sin on their souls go straight to Hell for all eternity.
Before I realize I’ve turned back around, I’m standing before the immense doors of the chapel. I lay my hands on the polished oak and imagine them thrumming with the energy that dwells within. I feel like Bilbo at the threshold of Smaug’s den. As I grasp one of the handles and pull the heavy door open, I can hear the priest beginning the Mass with his Latin incantation:
Introibo ad altare Dei.
Ad Deum qui laetificat iuventutem meam.
I will go in to the altar of God.
To God who gives joy to my youth.
I enter the dim enclosure, lit only by the stained glass windows with their vivid reds and blues and yellows. In the twilight ahead, hanging above the altar, is the red sanctuary lamp, its flickering candle standing vigil over the consecrated bread—the Body of Christ—present in the golden tabernacle. Suspended on the back wall is an enormous sculpture of the crucified Jesus.
I can’t catch my breath. Sweat bathes my face. My hands are shaking, and my knees wobble. I stumble forward and grasp the back of one of the pews to keep myself from falling.
“Panic attack,” my clinician self tells me. “You won’t faint. That takes low blood pressure. Yours has spiked. Distract yourself from your physical symptoms. Any mindless exercise will do.”
I begin to count the rows of pews. When I’ve done that forward and backward, I start numbering the candles in the sanctuary. Then I’m picking out individual panes in the nearest stained glass window. After a few minutes, my breathing returns to normal, and I sit down.
This is the heart of my haunting. This is where I had spent my adolescence, aching with loneliness, ashamed that I didn’t feel holy, angry that I couldn’t stop imagining what it would feel like to have a girlfriend. The hours on my knees, the drudgery of prayer and meditation, the fear of sexual temptation. When I had decided at last that I could not take the vow of celibacy, I had tried to escape, but failed.
I remember that little boy of fourteen, sitting on this stiff wooden bench decades ago, flush with ambition and idealism. He had imagined himself a gallant warrior fighting in the battle of good versus evil, embarking on a quest to save souls. Lulled by seductive words and traditions, by the adulation of his parents, he had never seen what lurks here in the shadows.
That adolescent is the Tar-Baby from whom I can’t get unstuck. Of all the stories I’ve told myself, this is the most egregious. All my life, I’ve been the judge-penitent, accusing myself of betrayal, condemning myself to fevered dreams and half-truths. Looking up at the vaulted ceiling high overhead, the walls of hard stone, the cold glass, I finally understand what that frightened boy could not.
No loving Father dwells here. This is not the home of his son Jesus, who told his disciples to let the little children come to him. It’s Zeus in disguise, fulminating from Mount Olympus, demanding sacrifice. Or better, Saturn eating his children. That thought staggers me. Who knows what perversions a god like that could lead his minions to perform?
I sit there and bury my face in my hands. I weep. I shed tears for myself and for all the young boys who had been sacrificed on that altar. What scares me most is what I might have become had I remained. What if I had taken the vow of celibacy, condemning myself to a life of infantile relationships, without normal adult intimacy? I tremble as I recall again the horrendous reports of sexual abuse committed by priests—hundreds and hundreds, all over the globe, a litany of unspeakable crimes. Would I have become one of those unholy malefactors? Would I have fallen into that awful gravity, victimizing children who were as innocent as I had once been? The revelation blinds me. Who knows what perversions he could lead his minions to perform?
I am not a Knight Errant after all, only a wayfarer, one pilgrim among many. I had imagined my sword would be my upraised arm, fist clenched in defiance; my shield, my ability to reason and my years of training as a therapist. But it’s not like that at all.
Instead, it’s a kind of disappointment. The dragon cannot be slain, only kept at bay. A deep weariness washes over my body and soul, like a receding tide sweeping debris from the beach. I feel exhausted but cleansed, more at peace with myself than I have been in years. I take a deep breath and exhale slowly, allowing that new-found calm to penetrate to my core. I’m not a failure, not a bad seed, despite the story I’ve been telling myself since I left St. Francis. My instincts had been accurate from the beginning. There is no shame in what I had done, however incomplete. I can finish my escape today.
“No!” I shout aloud, the word echoing in the cavern of the Beast, mingling with the cries of all those forgotten children, wailing in the dark. “No,” I repeat with firm conviction. “You couldn’t have me then, and you can’t have me now.”
I stand as straight and tall as I can manage, turn, and walk toward the exit. I go through that doorway one final time, whole and free, ransomed at last.
Outside, the rain has stopped. The air has been washed clean, perfumed by something blooming nearby. It feels good on my face and tastes sweet when I breathe. I pull the phone from my pocket to make the call.
Amy answers on the first ring.
* “The Second Coming,” by William Butler Yeats, 1919.
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