When I wrote “A Corner of the Veil” about the death of my mother, I mentioned an article by Father Dwight Longenecker in This Rock Magazine (July/August 2009) entitled, “Weird Things Happen: How Catholics Should Deal with the Paranormal.” Father Longenecker, who hosts the “Standing on My Head” blog, wrote of a strange experience while praying in France in the presence of the uncorrupted remains of St. Bernadette:
“I kept silence there for 15 minutes and noticed a beautiful fragrance of flowers – but there were no flowers. As I prayed, the fragrance grew stronger, and I felt transported by a presence that was beyond my understanding.”
This caught my attention because I had the same experience, though I’ve kept it to myself for 21 years. It was 1989, and I was in the back seat of a car in northern New Mexico. In the front seats were two other priests who had invited me to ride with them to visit a Franciscan shrine in the village of Chimayo that drew pilgrims from throughout North America.
One of the priests up front seemed determined to visit every shrine he possibly could. I cared not for pilgrimages to shrines, and was just along for the ride. Nothing more. The two priests up front were arguing about the shrine’s “holy dirt” and its supposed miracles. Then they launched into an argument about Marian apparitions. I stayed out of it, but I found myself secretly siding with the more skeptical priest in the passenger seat.
My own skepticism is sometimes a hindrance to faith. I have always empathized with Thomas, the Apostle who could not believe until he personally probed his Risen Lord’s wounds. You may have gleaned from my post, “A Day Without Yesterday” that I once deluded myself into believing that a good scientist-priest should always filter faith through reason in the modern era.
So I sat back there in my smug but silent skepticism as the two priests argued about apparitions. I dismissed, in my mind, the various accounts of visits by the Blessed Mother. I did not see the apparitions as a threat to faith so much as unnecessary to faith. I had long ago – and now I know wrongly concluded — they were just so much emotional baggage inflicted on the Church by well-intentioned, but hysterical faithful.
As described in “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” my seminary training in the “Enlightenment” of the 1970’s did not lend itself to a faith that employed the heart as much as the mind. On top of that, as a younger priest, my intellectual arrogance sometimes knew no bounds.
HER SOUL MAGNIFIES THE LORD
Then IT happened. I say “IT” because I can’t really convey what IT was, but in effect IT was a lot like what Father Longenecker described. It came over me that day like a wave. In that back seat, I suddenly felt a sensation of great distance between myself and what was happening up front. I experienced the faint scent of roses that grew in intensity until it was overwhelming.
Like Father Longenecker, I too felt ”transported by a presence that was beyond my understanding.” It lasted only a few moments, something for which I was grateful for that was all I could bear. In those moments, I felt as though I was given a sort of lesson, a demonstration of the Divine Authority manifested in God’s choice of Mary as a model of faith. I didn’t “see” her. It wasn’t a vision or apparition. It was occurring only inside of me.
For just a few moments, I was in a feminine presence of inconceivable power. That presence was superimposed over a momentary awareness of my own relative … well … “insignificance” is the best word. I was taught a much needed lesson in priestly humility, and the teacher, I believe, was one whose living presence in our life of faith I doubted. It was the last time I doubted it.
Her light was felt, not seen, and it was a refracted light. It wasn’t from her. She was a sort of lens, but it pierced me and left me with terror. It wasn’t really fearful terror. It was more like awesome terror, as though I had just become aware of something I only hoped in my essence to be true but didn’t quite dare to really believe. It was a momentary sense of great confidence in a fact far beyond my own meager resources.
It was a sense that the truth is much more than the snippet of hope I had been clinging to. The truth was this: that the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never overcome it. But it was also more than that. It was a sudden, momentary awareness that despite all appearances in this world, the darkness we all fear so much doesn’t really even stand a chance, and never did.
The Gates of Hell cannot prevail over Christ. I don’t know if I’ve explained anything. I’m not even sure of what took place, but I know I will never forget it. The only words that could begin to describe what I experienced that day are “awe” and “triumph,” and a yearning to trust in it. When it was over, I was still in that back seat and the two priests up front were staring at me.
They had pulled the car over. “Are you all right? You look awful!”, one of them said. I told them nothing. I had no idea what to say. Later, just as with Father Longenecker, the experience diminished somewhat. Over time, my scientific mind grasped for a rational, more physical explanation, and I settled on one.
It came just months later in 1989 when I was diagnosed with epilepsy – specifically, temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) resulting in periodic complex-partial seizures bilaterally in the temporal lobes of my brain. The seizures occurred during childhood, but stopped when I was twelve. 23 years later, they came back. These electrical storms in my mind are sometimes manifested in dream-like experiences. It must have been that, I told myself, and I put the event aside.
I have a very good friend, a man of deep faith, who has the same illness, and who had some experiences similar to mine. I remember telling him once that a natural explanation doesn’t mean a spiritual experience wasn’t a spiritual experience. By accident one day, I came across a fine novel by Mark Salzman entitled Lying Awake.
It’s about a Discalced Carmelite nun with temporal lobe epilepsy. In the book she had an experience very similar to mine and Father Longenecker’s, then she feared that surgical “treatment” may end for her what became an expression of love between her and God. Why can’t God use the ordinary to communicate something extraordinary? At the time I had that strange experience, and for the four years afterward, I was in ministry as a priest at the Servants of the Paraclete center for priests in New Mexico.
I was Director of Admissions, and it was my job to arrange for troubled priests from throughout North America to come to the center for spiritual and psychological support. At about the same time as my ride to Chimayo, the center had come under a very public attack in the news media for its treatment of a notorious priest, Father James Porter, two to three decades earlier. Dozens of lawsuits were filed against the center and the Servants of the Paraclete Order. It seemed to be the only such facility in the world to be held liable for the future behavior of those who sought treatment there decades earlier.
A VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS
I plan to write much more about this story in coming months, but it was an irony that at the height of news coverage buzzing around the center, I was accused of sexual abuse alleged to have occurred over a decade earlier. I was indicted, arrested, and then released on personal recognizance to prepare for a trial. You may have already read of that trial on These Stone Walls.
As you know, I entered into a deeply trying time of great sorrow and injustice in my life, and wondered why such a thing happened to me. It seemed a time of great darkness and near despair. Every step of the way for those first months after being accused, I begged the Lord to reveal the truth and take this cup from me. I remembered the Risen Lord’s words to Peter near the close of the Gospel of John (John 21:18):
“when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and another will bind you, and carry you off where you do not want to go.”
I have never written of any of this before now. Those months awaiting trial became so stressful and depressing that I began to give up. I stopped accepting treatment for epilepsy, and ended up hospitalized at Albuquerque Presbyterian Hospital for a week. After a traumatic night, my good friend and co-worker Father Clyde Landry, came to see me.
He brought from my room at the center a portable short wave radio to listen to. Later that night, I plugged in my earpiece and turned on the radio. It was close to midnight, and I was not even aware it was the Feast of the Visitation, May 31. I also didn’t know my radio was on the short-wave band. Father Clyde must have moved the band by accident. I raised the antennae and played with the tuner, then stopped. I had stumbled upon EWTN’s short wave broadcast from Birmingham, Alabama. As I lay there in the dark in that hospital room, I heard the Salve Regina intoned and chanted in my ear.
Then a very familiar and melodic voice resounded, and I could not suppress a smile. It was the voice of Father Benedict Groeschel whom I’ve known for some 35 years since my early 20’s. I hear from Father Benedict periodically since I’ve been in prison, but I have never told him this story. From across the miles, Father Benedict prayed the Magnificat with me in that hospital room during my dark night of the soul. Then he preached a reflection on the fiat of Mary.
When I heard the words in Father Benedict’s unmistakable lilting voice and Yonkers accent – “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior” – I thought of that day in the back seat of the car on the road to Chimayo. I remembered the words I would much later write in a post called “February Tales” – the words of Simeon the priest to Mary as she and Joseph presented their newborn son on the Day of Purification:
“Behold, this child is set for the rise and fall of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts will be revealed.”
I realized at that moment that it matters not at all whether my experience in that car that day was miraculous or just another symptom of something in me. God uses whatever means He wishes to reach us. The message became clear. Despite appearances, the darkness doesn’t really stand a chance against the light of faith, and faith dawns even on the brokenhearted if we respond in trust like Mary, our model of how a resounding “yes” to God will turn sorrow into triumph.
Thank you, Father Benedict, for this lesson about trust delivered in the dark and across the miles on the night of my undoing. Thank you for reminding me that night that the life here surrendered by Mary’s assent to be Our Lady of Sorrows is depicted in Cosmic Time with her foot triumphantly on the head of the serpent.
At the Cross her station keeping
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to Jesus through the last.
Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length, the sword had passed.