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08 June 2010

Belt Line Road

The problem with the theory that this vivid image I have was actually a memory is that I distinctly remember that the image came to me as a man was telling me of the horrible events.

I only found the vividness of the images note-worthy because it had all of the “feel” of a vision-dream— the empathy I felt for the man so powerful as to nearly overwhelm, my images mirroring what he described but as a non-participating observer above and to the side of the events.

Yet, just like with vision-dreams, I was able to continue doing the mundane tasks of the temporal world (in this case, driving down Belt Line Road) while being acutely aware of, and able to focus upon, the details of what I was seeing in the images.

Odd that what I saw in the images seemed to have no emotional content, although I very much wanted to stop seeing them— at least not so close. I was very afraid (yes, that is the correct word although it doesn’t seem to fit) that the slightest detail beyond what I was seeing in my mind’s eye would break the barrier between the empathy I was feeling upon hearing the man’s story and the images I was watching play out before me.

It was like watching a television— in that I could not make the camera angle change, even though I would rather look somewhere else. It was not like a television in that I could see the dark stretch of Belt Line Road before me, the traffic lights, the other cars, and the street signs I was passing. I knew I was driving toward my old neighborhood.

What a coincidence that this man who I had agreed to give a ride would ask me for a ride home, and that his home would be in my old neighborhood. How odd that he hadn’t bothered to tell me that, even though it was thirty miles from the Diocesan conference where I had been, and meant a ninety mile drive home for me instead of less than ten.

I remember thinking that I didn’t care where he was going because it meant I did not have to go home. I do not remember exactly what had been happening at home, but (I think) this was before either of my children had been born but well after my wife (as I write, my ex-wife for almost six years, now) had become something of a Mrs. Hyde on a frighteningly regular basis. Odd that I was trying to avoid trauma (drama which harms to soul) only to find myself trapped in my own car for and hour or so as I hear someone else describe their own trauma in such painful and heart-breaking detail.

I don’t think the stranger ever actually told me that these events happened to him, but only a person who had been there could tell it in such detail. I wanted it to stop.

Odd, too, that he had directed me to where he wanted to go, but, while a direct route, it was not the much quicker highway route. I was mildly annoyed, but said nothing because I knew he needed to tell me the story. I think I have always been that way, but I was also cognizant of my training as a Priest: “Listen, with caring concern” (Thank you, Father Caldwell).

But my caring was beginning to get uncomfortable. It was almost as if it were happening to me, and that person there, one of those near the center of the horrors being described, that person I did not want to see. Please don’t make me see him!

And the more detail the man described, the more I was certain that the images would continue until I did look at that person. The horrors were bad enough without adding a face to whomever that poor soul might have been.

How I had agreed to give this man a ride home is not really clear to me. After the conference was over, he either approached me or was introduced to me by another priest. I remember thinking at the time that I had a history of this. There was that one time, after the Christmas Eve service (the “midnight Mass”) and I was a teenager, that the man with the thick African accent and new to Texas, had asked me if I could give him a ride home. I remember asking my parents (rather putting them on the spot) and our amusement afterward, that we drove from St. Michael’s almost all the way to Lake Dallas to take him home.

Miss D

Just a few years ago, I knew a beautiful young woman. I fell in love with her but kept it to myself— or tried to, anyway. She was, like me, broken. As I got to know her, and our friendship developed, she hinted at some terrible trauma that had occurred to her. One of the manifestations of my brokenness, was that I had lost my ability to fear anything. Along with that inability came a regret for those things I had once feared in the past, but which I would now have liked to have known if I might have made a difference by acting upon them. Actions which I had not taken because of the fear.

Dread still has power over me, but not fear.

I do not miss having fear, even though I suspect the lacking will get me killed. I also do not fear death. At all. I m not brave, but I am faithful and there is nothing I can do about what I feel and do not feel. I don’t feel fear, and it has been so long, I have reason to doubt I ever will again. I am broken.

Very much like that long drive fifteen years ago, my pretty friend told me enough of the horrors to her that I could begin to “see” what she was speaking to me about, the images providing more detail than the words. She stopped well short of the detail of the man in my car, but the situation was very reminiscent of that night.

Later, as my heart worried about my new friend, more detail came and a place, not anywhere near where her incomplete story was assumed by me to have taken place, came to me and it was inextricably linked to that dark road near Lake Dallas which I had been on with the strange African man on Christmas Eve. I also saw and understood more of the woman’s horrors, and they seemed too real for my imagination.

Telling me of a tragedy, once, a friend of mine stopped and focused upon my eyes and said, “There is no way that you could possibly understand, but I believe you do.” I was afraid that I did. I only answered, “Go on.”

While a part of what I am trying to explain, or chronicle (or merely give voice to) is in the preceding paragraphs, I needed to break away from reliving that strange night driving down Belt Line Road as the memory of it flows through to my keyboard. It is too fresh to relive en total. I was hoping to finish this in time to go to Church, but I don’t think I am going to make it although I am still going to try. The story is very insistent.

Just Before Belt Line Road

Then, fifteen years or so ago that is, I believe it was the night that I had first seen a Priest whose humanity had been exposed and found that humanity was not something to be tolerated by his own parishioners or brother clergy. I had always admired that man, and still did even though the story was well known. In fact, he made a public confession because the scandal had been made public.

Just because we are ordained does not mean we do not notice a pretty woman. I was married, that made it easier for me to deal with. He had a vow to celibacy, and broke it. Very human. Yet, he was shunned by the clergy I was accustomed to seeing accompanying him— men I had believed were his friends. I imagine he had believed them to be his friends as well.

Briefly, I want to say that by that time, my ex- had become a monster, broken as she was. I have meant every vow I have ever taken. I knew I was married to a monster, and had opportunity and even offers to break my marriage vows with beautiful women— women my heart, not just my body, desired. I never did, but when I saw that Priest who had failed to hold his vow, I knew the kind of human need for intimacy he had been denying himself, and I understood (but had not known) the humanity in failure to always observe ones vows before God. A quick review of the clergy who were now shunning the still honorable man and what respect for them I might have held evaporated. I was seething.

That priest was something of a hero to me before any scandal. He really was a holy man, and human—all at once. It has been my sad experience that few priests allow their humanity a voice, and the weight of taking on a persona of someone they are not drives them to a terrible life and terrible actions. This man had no false persona, just a very strong will to do what was right and occasionally failing his own self-expectations. As I said, he was very human and a very good human at that.

So, because he was a hero, and because I was seething on his behalf, I had a moral dilemma. On the one hand, no one is worthy to befriend their hero. On the other hand, no good man should be shunned. I chose to risk humiliation and sat down next to him at the start of the conference. There was plenty of room. Others chose to stand or squeeze in elsewhere. I remember who was who. What I remember more vividly, was his warm smile in greeting to me. I felt so very honored to have my hero greet me in such a way— as if I was worthy.

Afterward, after the speaker finished and when vocal greetings were appropriate, I said something like, “Father, it is always good to see you.” I believe he answered likewise and suggested we go find a cup of coffee. It was dark already because it was winter, but the conference had just begun. Outside, it was blustery and threatening to rain. Others were keeping their distance, and I felt compelled to break the awkward silence as I sensed his recurring anticipation of a former friend greeting him and the anxiety when the shunning manifested itself instead.

I spoke more directly than the small talk we had begun with. I grew up a bit on the upper side of “upper middle class.” But, my family had deep southern roots and I know, well, how to evoke a casual tone.  So, I drawled.
“You pretty much got hit by a truck, didn’t you?”
He laughed and relaxed, in an instant, to my drawl.
“That is exactly how I feel, Father.”
I am very sorry this happened to you. I want you to know, I am angry about how you have been treated. I need to say that for me as well as say it for you. I hope I am not alone in that.”
“Thank you for saying so.”
While those words were formally correct, his tone and facial expression communicated them with the same casual honesty as my Texism had.

We got the coffee from whatever building we had followed the crowd into and then went back outside where I was able to say more of what I believed needed to be said.
“Father? I have known you to be passionate about teaching reconciliation and the power of forgiveness. T___ and R____ both told me how that is a principle foundation of your work.”
“You went to seminary with them, right?”
“Yes, we were all in the same graduating class.”
“That’s right, you and R___ were ordained at the same time. I was there.”
“What upsets me so, Father, is that despite your teaching, it appears to me that none of your parishioners ever heard you—ever took it to heart. That they asked you to leave, frankly, infuriates me.”
“Oh, I know what you mean, and thank you; but it is not fair to expect them to meet our own standards for ourselves, as clergy.”
“It is fair for me to expect them to be human. It is fair for me to expect them to expect you to be human. They failed the test, and I am disillusioned.”

You see, I think that my expression of being disillusioned, just then, has much to do with what took place later that night. I think it was a trigger in the power of the heartfelt words. I think I was ready to stop exercising in delusions. Realty began thirty miles away, headed east on Belt Line Road.

So it was, that I seem to have the vague impression of it being that good Priest, shunned by friends and parishioners alike, unconcerned as they were with his pain— that it was he who introduced me to the man who needed a ride home.

Back on Belt Line Road

Well, as I have already written, I was near panic, desperate to not see the face of the person in the images, and desperate for my passenger to stop evoking these images with his descriptions when he did stop. It was merciful. I was trying so hard to “listen with caring concern,” and so terrified by what I feared was coming— what I would see (what I would know!), that I knew I was on the verge of interrupting this poor soul who needed so much to tell me of it, and ask him (beg him!) to stop.

I was approaching Meandering Way when he stopped himself from saying any more. He said, “Oh, this is good, right here. If you could just let me out here, this would be fine.” What an odd thing! This was the intersection of the start of the neighborhood I had grown up in. It was only a mile or so from the Church where I understood these events to have taken place. In retrospect, I seem to be confused on that matter.

Before the sickening details, he had begun with telling me of a parish church. He told me about how some laity and the priest of the church were involved. How it included teenagers in the youth group— who I had understood him (implicitly) to have been one— and youth group leaders and parents, as well as a few very young children. If it were not for the dreadful images, I would not have believed him. I think I might not have; thus the narration he provided may have been a necessity.

I told him that I had grown up in the neighborhood to the northeast of where we were, and knew it well, so would be glad to take him directly to his doorstep. But he, oddly, insisted on getting out there. I stopped at Meandering Way and he opened the door, thanked me and walked away. I drove home with the horror still with me.

As I drove, alone with my thoughts, this time taking the highway, I decided that no matter how much time had elapsed, I could not allow such unspeakable acts to go unpunished. He had told me that the truth, or part of it, had gotten out; and the bishop had removed the priest, broken up the parish, sold the building and sent the parishioners to various other parishes, as no one parish would be safe with that many perpetrators descending upon them at once. He said threats were made about future behaviors.

The next day, I asked the priest I worked under about this, telling him a very vague summary of what I had heard. He thought he knew something of it, and gave me the name of the parish church he thought it had been, saying that it was a mission and not at all near where the man had told me it had been. He suggested I ask at the Diocesan Office if I was still concerned— that perhaps something needed to be done to help the man since he needed to be talking about it.

I did. I got yet another Church name and location. I was told that the priest involved, although not the instigator or “ring leader” had been forced into psychiatric treatment under threat of criminal charges, and that the police and newspapers had all known about the incidents, and as was the way things were done by the church, the newspapers and the district attorney, in those days, the scandal had never become public.

A few years later, I received an email from a priest who I had heard had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals, and wondered if it was the same man. Because of the psychotic nature of the email, I forwarded it to the Diocesan Office without comment, as I recall, other than, “FYI.” I received a call asking if I had any other communication with the man, and if so, I should notify the Diocesan Office and the police. I have wondered if there was a connection, but never looked into it further, and never heard from that priest again.

Since that strange drive down Belt Line Road, and beginning with some intensity, I went through a period of time when I would be overcome with disturbing images, similar to those I “witnessed” that night in my car. They shared the detail, the empathy with the victims, the vivid reality and the perspective of an unseen observer that the events shared with me that night contained. Unlike the Belt Line Road images, there was no dread in seeing a face of a victim. Each of the many of these I endured over the next few years seemed haunting. I mean, by “haunting,” that the images came to me with a sense of desperation, and a sense that they came to me because I would understand.

I did not like them.

They reminded me of something a priest speaking as a guest lecturer at my seminary said in class one day. He told us about the danger of the modern view that there is no personified evil— no entity which was actually evil. He passionately admitted, and only for example, that when he was deepest in prayer, sometimes images of the most horrific sort would invade his thoughts. He expressed to us his rage at being invaded in such a way. He described it as a violation of evil upon him. The images I received for several years and with some frequency were like that, except that they somehow had the perspective of the victim. The vileness was not to be shut out, because it was shown me not by evil, but by the one who endured such evil. They were very real.

After a time, I came to suspect that they vile events were, indeed, real; and indeed haunted for the very purpose of some mystical necessity of being expressed as a means of exorcism— a purging by expression, giving voice to victims being a requirement for healing those victims.

You know, I hope, that words have real power.   It is, for example, why Moses demanded to know the Name of God.

I sometimes feared that I knew the victims, and once had a stranger tell me of events which had happened to her before I had been born but which were very similar to one of the experiences I had “received.” I, of course, said nothing of it.

And all of the above demanded I tell it after teaching, informally, a friend of mine about how the souls of all men at all times speak to and hear the souls of others, living and dead (The Communion of Saints) as well as God. I had also taught, that this is so because we are mystical beings with souls, but that it is rare that the mind hears or sees or senses the mystical reality, and those rare instances are called “mystical experiences.” These things I know, and have experienced.

I do not know who I might have seen had I not so feared looking at the face of that one particular victim I felt as if I was being forced to look at while driving down Belt Line Road. I suspect that the solution to that mystery is the obvious one, but I do not know, and never will. Subsequent experiences give equal weight to the expression of the pain of others which has nothing to do with my own.

I do not know if there was ever a man sitting beside me in the car that night. Maybe an Angel? Maybe a ghost? At any rate, I now find his physical, temporal existence to be the most questionable part of the experience.

The mystical reality is more real than the temporal reality, because the mystical reality sees, hears and experiences all of the temporal and the spiritual, whereas the temporal reality is almost always blind to the spiritual one.

Only after I shared the story in its rawest form did I learn that such a description was, as she put it, “a classic description” of how a person who had been traumatized as a child begins to remember an experience later in life. That was just about a year ago, and only today did the story demand I write about it— that I felt a need to question if the man was ever actually in my car.

About five years ago, I went through one final, horrifying climatic end to an ongoing trauma— a long endurance of soul damaging events. The climax was tragic. But tragedies are the most human of all stories. It has been suggested that I endured those events because I could— I had already the skills to endure trauma before these news one had begun. My soul raged, but did not recoil.

The problem, of course, is that since most of our experiences are blind to the greater reality, the rage is mostly impotent against an unseen enemy.

I have an unseen Sword that was given me. It is very real but unseen, “invisible” if you prefer that term (and I do prefer it). I think I have long known why it was given me. Years ago, I buried its tip into the earth just below an ancient Cross, making its own cruciform image when I did so.

That was sixteen years ago that I received that gift and attempted, upon the direction of another, to return it or exchange it. If He had spoken to me from above as I knelt there (on one knee—as anyone who carries a sword would understand) beside that ancient wood, He might as well have said, “No take-backs.” No. It is still there for me to take up again, because it is my sword, a gift from the One who rages with and on behalf of the victims (and as one).

I have begged for something in prayer which I did not believe could ever be granted to a mere man. I have prayed to God and my soul has begged it of the Angels to whom it is allowed. I have asked that when I die, I do not “rest in peace.” Instead, I have begged of my Lord to allow me to take part in the just and righteous battle against the Enemy whose despicable work I have seen all of my life.

It was another contemplative, another mystic, who told me that I would receive an image which would come in the form of a gift. He was my formal Spiritual Director at the time, sixteen years ago. I trusted him, being my superior (in many ways), and I was not disappointed. As directed, in my contemplative prayer which he somehow knew was “my secret” (that is, he somehow knew I was a contemplative or as it is more frightening called, a “mystic.”) I received a gift, just as my Director had assured me I would.

I had no idea what to expect the gift to be, but a sword was not repugnant even if it was not quite as secure and comforting as I might have hoped. Then again, who would give to me, say, a lily? Ha! When I next met with my Director, his reaction did surprise me, and that reaction of disappointment and even fear of the image given me has befuddled me ever since.

Until now.

His soul's desire for me was peace, which I have not known. He wanted my soul to know peace. He wanted my soul healed, and he felt certain that the gift would be a healing one. He was right, but he misunderstood God’s love for me to be a call like his own— a gentle shepherd in a gentle land.

Gentle lands are rare, you know, don’t you?

I was not born into a gentle land. God bless Fr. S. for wanting me to live in such a land, but it is alien to me— I see, hear and experience the battle. Once powerless, I survived to know the battle. I no longer have fear because I am no longer powerless. When I first began to understand that I could and should wield a sword, I sought out an opportunity to do so in the temporal world— fighting the good fight. Once again, I did not believe I was worthy to fight amongst such good warriors as those I knew and lived among, but I was asked to consider trying.

Only because I considered my newborn daughter and my fine toddler son to be most in need of the loving presence and constant protection I believed I could offer them, that I did not try to join those men who made Camp Pendleton their home.

Then, I lost my children— brutally taken from me in a spiritual battle which I fought alone and lost alone. I mark that anniversary alone and in agony every year, as I do many such anniversaries. But there is one anniversary approaching which I have known would have great meaning. Sixteen years as a priest. I knew long before I was priested, before I went to seminary, that it would be a new beginning for me— a maturity and potency which I would not know until then. I knew this mystically but it had been repeated to me many times then and since.

“Rest and Heal.” and “Like a polished arrow, I have hidden you away.”

Those words were of some, but seemingly insufficient, comfort for the last seven years. Now, as my sixteenth anniversary of my priesting approaches, they offer a new hope. That sword, still, with its tip in the sand has been much on my mind.

“If you strike me down now, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” Again, the mystical truth of the Communion of Saints, told as part of the “collective consciousness” of all persons. Luke and Leia helped even more by a spiritual than by a temporal father. I am ready to take up the sword, perhaps only now ready, and it has waited sixteen years for me to rest and heal. No matter how the spiritual reality may appear in temporal description, my prayer is and has been one for action instead of rest; my soul’s cry for justice and righteousness against the Enemy that so few see, has been answered.

“Yes. I gave you that sword. I gave you the gift before you asked it of me. To the Angels it is given to fight, but My justice demands that some men be allowed to fight along side them and Me.”**

** See: Buried Alive! in the entry entitled, The Mystic Alley

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