I waved to Marie as I got out of my car. I slung my weekend bag over my shoulder, and shut the door, careful not to loock my keys in my car.
“Hey, James, you made it!” Marie’s husband, ?, gave me what I’m sure he thought was a hearty slap on the back, but was really more like getting congratulated by a gorilla. I tried not to cough, and grinned. “Hey, ?, how’s it going?” He grabbed my bag and tossed it into the trunk with a pile of other bags. “Ok, I think that’s everyone, the Barishes left earlier, so I think we’re good.” He folded his tall frame into the driver’s seat, and slid the seat back. I took the seat behind Marie, hoping for some leg room, and buckled the seatbelt.
The car coasted smoothly out of the parking lot, and ? took the turn towards the freeway. “Hope everyone’s comfortable, it’s gonna take us about two hours, if we don’t hit traffic. Once we hit the ?, it’s a nice drive by the coastline.”
Marie turned around slightly in the seat as ? accelerated to merge onto the freeway. “So, how are things going lately? You seem a little stressed at church, and I know it’s been a rough year. It was a really a hard blow to the community when we lost Angie.”
I nodded, and shifted slightly in the seat. “Well, yeah, it’s been rough, but I think I’ve been dealing with that ok. School is busy as usual, and Dr. Russell’s classes are pretty popular, so he’s been keeping me occupied with papers to grade and classes to assist. I think he’s going to be pushing the administration to make me an official tutor so I can get a raise and start working with students one on one.”
? glanced up into the rearview mirror, his warm brown eyes surrounded with laugh lines. “We haven’t seen much of you at church. You used to be pretty involved, but I mostly just see you at the services now. Anything wrong?”
I shook my head. “Nothinh in particular. I’ve kind of had a rough patch for the past few weeks; I’m normally an introvert, and I enjoy being around people, but I’ve just been so busy lately I haven’t had the time for the usual stuff. I should probably get started again, I think I need to be around people. As a matter of fact, that’s part of why I’m going on the retreat this weekend. I know we’re mostly going to be silent, but it’ll be good just to be around a lot of people for a while.”
Marie smiled at her husband, and nodded. “I know what you mean, I think. Of course, I’m a total introvert, but the retreats are a nice way to be around people.”
The conversation hit a lull, and I leaned back into the seat to stare out of the window. The sound-dampening walls rushed by in a beige stream. Some effort at beautification had been made, but the exhaust fumes of millions of passing cars quickly covered the walls in dust and oily residue. Every so often, the walls would part, and a commericial section of town would flash past, billboards sprouting up like trees of metal and paper, screaming empty slogans into the onslaught of traffic. Sometimes I could catch a glimpse of a church steeple, graying the afternoon sun, lost amid the thicket of telephone lines and advertisements for restaurants with endless buffets.
Angie loved the city, and when I was with her, I loved it too, but now it seemed cold, hard, and grey. Like the ruins of a city, that simply hadn’t noticed their own decay yet. Maybe it came from growing up in an area where I could step out any day and see the massive blue dome of the sky arcing over plains as far as the eye could see. The city feels cold and impersonal. When I read Dante’s Inferno, the city of Dis reminded me of Los Angeles, and I’ve never quite shaken the feeling.
My thoughts stratyed back to the wild and barren desert de[picted in the coffee shop photographs. That was a barreness that meant something, that knew it was barren, and knew that the barrenness had a purpose. The city of sttel and concrete and architecture that only looked like something instead of being something, that was a barrenness sthat thought itself complete, that looked into its own empty heart and was satisfied.
The car grew warmer, though there was a cool current of air conditioning from the front of the car, and I grew drowsy. Slowly, I allowed myself to drift off into sleep—I think Marie glanced back once but decided not to wake me.
As my eyelids closed, the roar of the traffic seemed to grow louder, and I dreamed that I was walking along the freeway. The cars roared by on every side of me, but they were all empty. Music blared from open windows, horns honked, and tires screeched, but I could see no-one driving the vehicles.
The river of traffic was approaching an overpass, and a long tangle of vines hung down from the level above. I put my hand to the vine and began to climb, though in real life, such a flimsy thing would never have borne my weight. In my dreams, however, it not only bore me, but seemed ot carry me upward of its own volition. There was no traffic on the bridge, only a warm static light, and the sound of birds in the distance. I looked over my should, and saw the Los Angeles skyline. It looked grim in the warm light, and seemed to be covered in smoke. Fires burned in the lower levels, giving it an eerie glow. A flock of vultures circled over the towering skyscrapers, and as I watched, the vulture’s tattered feathers lengthened and became dusky robes, and their beaks shrank back and spread into grinning skulls.
In horror, I turned away, and saw the blue robed figure standing at my side. For the first time, I could almost see through the veil, and saw finely shaped female eyes looking down at me. The eyes were not cold, but lit with an intense blue fire, and I could feel her judgement of me.
“Lady,” I struggled to get the words out, “what would you have me do? The city is burning, and enjoys the warmth of its own destruction. I am one man, and I can do nothing.”
She extended a hand towards me; it was the palest skin I have ever seen, lined all through with blue veins. Her grasp was cool but strong, and as she took my hand, she twisted my so that I was forced to look once more at the city. The fires had not lessened, but were changed into a gleaming brightness, an incandescence so bright I had to shield my eyes. The circling vultures had shed their dusky garments, and now wore robes in every color of the rainbow. Their faces were clear and shining, and I could hear music rising from the city streets.
The Lady dropped my hand, and the vision changed again, and now I could see both Cities, on superimposed upon the other. Angels and vultures circled over a city that flickered in changing light, and a cacophony of mixed noises echoed against the skyscraper walls.
I turned to look at the Lady again, and the veil slid from her eyes. The moment those warm blue fires looked into my eyes I knew what she expected of me, and I reached out….
Only to smack my hand into the warm, sticky glass of the car window. I blinked my eyes, and shifted, realizing that I had slumped down into the seat, and now had an aching crick in my neck.
“Ow,” I muttered, raising myself from the seat.
“You ok back there, James?” Carson called from the driver’s seat. Marie turned around to see what had happened.
“Yeah, sorry, fell asleep. You ever have those dreams where you’re falling, and falling, and just before you hit the ground, you wake up, but you jump when you do?” I grinned sheepishly, and tried to hide the fact that my hands were shaking.
Marie laughed, and nodded. “I do that all the time. Everyone else I know has dreams about flying, but I only get the ones about falling. Carson’s always getting woken up by me lurching awake in the middle of the night.”
I stretched and yawned, looking out the window. We were making our way through small, narrow streets, and up ahead I could see a large open space. “So, where are we?”
“We’re about to turn on Mission St, and the retreat house is right next door. Have you ever been to the Santa Barbara Mission? It’s really quite lovely. One time, I came here with some time to spare before a retreat, and they had had a display of sidewalk art. It was truly fantastic, and the roses are often in bloom in the rose garden. We don’t have time to stop today, but we’ll be driving right past it.”
I looked to my right as we turned the corner, and saw a field of dark green, sparkling here and there with the bright colors of various roses. The Mission rose up on the left, a towering building covered in warm adobe, with a large plaza in front. Beyond it was a tangle of trees, but as we drove by, an opening appeared, and we pulled into a steep private driveway. At the end of the driveway was a large white house, and beyond it, a much larger stone house and a small chapel, surrounded by a garden.
As we stepped out of the car, I was struck by the silence that surrounded the area. The retreat house was several miles from the freeway, and a row of trees blocked most of the noise from the Mission. I could hear the chirping of birds, and the gentle breeze rustling the leaves of the trees. The air was light and cool, and the scent of several flowers drifted by.
Carson popped the trunk open, and began unloading it. I grabbed my tote, and slung it over my shoulder. The gravel crunched underneath my feet as we walked up to the white house, and rang the doorbell. The screen door was closed, but the inner door was open, and I could see a large entry way, and beyond it a living room. The living room looked like the sort of room I always imagine rich elderly aunts would have: lots of dark wood, faded upholstery, and a large faded rug on the floor. A large fluffy white cat was curled up on one of the chairs; it lifted its head at the sound of the doorbell, then blinked and went back to sleep.
“One moment!” A cheerful voice echoed from the back of the house, and a few minutes later a red-haired man in a black cassock came down the stairs with an armful of papers and envelopes. “Sorry, I was just getting everything ready for checking in. You’re with Our Lady of Angels, right? I thought so.” He smiled, and set everything on a small table before unlocking the screen door.
“Please, come in, let me get you checked in.” He held the door open as we trooped into the entry, and latched the door behind us. “We tend to have the occasional raccoon, so we usually latch the door to keep them from getting in.” He settled into a small wooden chair behind the table, and slipped on a pair of reading glasses. “Ok then….names?”
Carson gestured to Marie. “Carson and Marie Lawson. We’ll be sharing a room.”
The monk scanned his list. “Ah! Yes, here you are. You’ll be in St. Joseph’s, the main house. Your room is the St. Aidan room, you’ll see the name above the door. Here’s the code for the door in St. Joseph’s, don’t forget it. And here’s your schedule for the weekend. And you, sir?”
“Ok, here’s your code and schedule. You’re in St. Joseph’s, too, in…ah, St. Edmund. Dinner is at 6, you’ll hear the bell. Please be on time—there’s Compline before that, if you’d like to join us in the chapel.” He smiled, and unlocked the door again. “Please feel free to let us know if you need anything!”
We walked over to the large retreat house, gravel scrunching under our shoes. I looked to my right and saw an open patch of grass, surrounded by trees and hedges. Around the border of the lawn, facing inward, was a series of the Stations of the Cross, and at the west end, a small open wooden structure held a huge crucifix. I couldn’t see it clearly from the driveway, but made a note to examine it more closely later.
Carson punched in the code to the house, and the door clicked open. As we stepped inside, our footsteps echoed faintly against the wood floors; they seemed almost deafening loud in the silence of the house. The short lobby opened into two rooms; straight ahead was a small kitchen area, lined with bookshelves. In the middle of the room was a long table, and a small basket of teabags and hot chocolate mix was perched on the end. To the right, the lobby opened into another small room with more bookshelves and an armchair, and beyond it, a large living room. Marie tapped me on the shoulder. “Just take a left there right before the living room, and go up the stairs. You’ll find your room up there. We’re going to take a look at the books first.”
The staircase curved around the outside wall, and on the landing, a bay window gave a view of the patio below, and the hillside beyond that. In front of the mirror was a small statue of the Holy Family. The child Jesus stood at the feet of his parents, pointing ahead, and Mary crouched down beside him, laying a hand on his back and gesturing towards his face with the other. Joseph stood behind the others, looking down towards them. He held a staff in his gnarled hand, and he looked outward, as if scanning the horizon for anything that might threateen the safety of his family. His face was strong, but lined with concern.
Somehow, that simple statue, framed by the glorious view outside the window, was exceptionally powerful. I stood looking at it for a few minutes, before finally walking up the rest of the stairs. The upper floor was simple—beige carpeting over a wood floor that creaked with every step, and a long hallway with doors on all sides. I scanned the tops of the doors until I found one labelled St. Edmund. It was a tiny room, but on the left a large window opened out over the balcony, and diffuse light was streaming in. A small bed was pushed against the wall next to the door, and an armchair was in the other corner, beside a small chest of drawers. I set my tote bag on the bed and went over to the window.
The retreat house had been built on the top of a small hill, and the patio overhung the hill by quite a bit, and from my window, I couldn’t see the ground below. It gave the illusion of being at the top of the world, looking down on the trees and buildings below, and feeling the breeze. Towards the coast, the fog was still clinging to the hills, and made the faint noise from the road sound muffled and blurry.
But off in the east, the hills rose golden, covered in dry grass. The late afternoon light struck the hills at right angles, highlighting every little ripple and bump in the landscape. The dry foliage gleamed against the clouds, and as I looked out over the landscape, the mission bells began ringing. The clanging peals reverberated through the air, the sound spreading from the house grounds, to the city, and all the way out to the golden hills.
I lay on the bed, looking up at the ceiling, just letting my mind drift. Though the rule of silence wasn’t being enforced yet, there was hardly a sound from the rest of the house. The breeze from the open window was stirring the curtains, and could hear a few faint voices trickling up from the patio. I was tempted to go downstairs and join the conversation—I wanted to join in the discussion, but was mesmerized by the swaying curtains.
Finally, a small bell tolled; I glanced at the clock. 5 o’clock. It was time for Compline. I debated with myself for a moment, then got up and went downstairs. The chapel was mostly empty, except for a few parishioners from Our Lady, but the small chancel was full, since the monks had already taken their seats. Most of them were older men, and one was in a wheelchair, but there were two young men who surely weren’t any older than me. One had a clean-shaven face, and hair cropped close to the skull. He squinted at the hymnal pages through coke-bottle glasses with thick black frames. The other one had dark brown hair, and a substantial beard. He seemed to be struggling to hide a grin, and was busily marking his place in the breviary.
With one movement, the monks stood, and we hurriedly followed. Little sheets of blue paper carried poorly Xeroxed orders of service, and looked to have been used repeatedly. The breviaries were well worn, and marked with homemade bookmarks. The red-haired monk served as cantor, calling out hymn and page numbers. His voice shook slightly, and grated, but carried the chant without stopping. When time came for the responses, the monks answered in something resembling unison and we tried to match them.
I have always been a supporter of excellence in church arts: I don’t ask that a performance be flawless, but I do insist that beauty and excellence bring glory to God. But hearing these monks chant, often off-key, sometimes without much passion, and almost always in a less than perfect voice, it woke something up within me. I could hear the young monk with the thick glasses struggling to keep up the tempo, even as his surprisingly clear voice soared with ease over the notes.
The chanted psalms surged forward, timeless and unchanging, churned out by gravelly voices, and I could feel the thrum in my chest as I raised my own voice in the song. The kneelers creaked and groaned as we knelt at the appropriate moments, and the pews were hard and uncomfortable. I didn’t notice—that dingy little chapel was full of the saints of God and the song of the saints, wrong notes and all, surged forward.
I don’t know how long he was standing there, but all of a sudden I became aware of a shadowy figure standing in the back of the sanctuary, behind the monks, and to the side of the altar. The form was indistinct, as if not fully present, but it was shrouded in black robes, and the face was hidden by a deep hood.
What should I have done? I didn’t know. The figure didn’t move, and I’d become nearly accustomed to these sights by this time.
The monks settled back into the pews for a moment, then stood and walked down the aisle and out the door. When I looked back, the figure was gone.
A few moments later, a bell clanged loudly from the steps of the main retreat house, and the screen door opened. We trooped up the steps and into the dining room, which opened off the main entryway. The room was open and inviting, with pictures of saints adorning the upper walls, and plants near the large bay window. There was one long wooden table, and heavy wooden chairs along both sides of it. On either side of the room, buffet tables steamed with vegetables and roast chicken. Nothing too fancy, but it smelled homey.
The red-haired monk directed us to pick a chair and stand behind it until the blessing had been said. I glanced up and down the table, and quickly manuevred myself into place beside Father Time and across from Carson and Marie.
“Hello everyone, I already know some of you who’ve been on retreats with us before, but for those of you who don’t know me, I’m Brother Frank, and I’m the leader of the monks here at St. Joseph’s.
“Now, let me explain a little bit about how this retreat works. You need to be present for every meal, but for the most part your time is your own. Your retreat director has set up some addresses, which are on the schedule you received when you arrived. We do, of course, highly recommend attending those, and of course, you are welcome to worship with us at any time. The service schedule is printed on your schedule as well. Please don’t leave the grounds, but do feel free to explore the gardens and the Stations of the Cross which you’ve seen outside. Make sure to keep the doors in the house closed so we don’t have to deal with any pests or critters.
“One final note: silence begins after your retreat address this evening. Now, this does not mean that you absolutely cannot speak. For instance, it is perfectly fine to ask someone to pass the salt at dinner. However, please try to keep the silence as best you can. Don’t speak unnecessarily, or make excessive noise. This includes slamming doors, jangling keys, and humming or whistling. If you need to talk to someone, please make sure that you do not disturb anyone else. Myself and the brothers are always happy to counsel anyone, and Father Tim is also available to you, as you know.
“I think that covers the basics! Let’s go ahead and have the blessing.” Brother Frank placed his hands on the back of his chair, and bowed his head—we followed suit. “Dear Lord, please make this a successful retreat for those gathered here today, and bless this food to our bodies as we try to listen to Your voice. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, amen.” There was a flurry of motion as the retreatants crossed themselves.
After loading up my plate at the buffet line, I slipped into my seat, and looked around. Having joined the list so late, I didn’t know who else was on the retreat. Besides Father Tim, Marie, and Carson, I saw several people I knew. Kathy, a rather plain woman, sat at the end of the table, carrying on an animated conversation with Julie, a pretty athletic young woman—both of them taught at the same graduate program, and they were laughing about a recent classroom experience. On the other side of Father Timothy sat Monica and Matthew, a couple a few years older than me. Monica was a vivacious brunette with curly hair and a perpetual interest in everything. Matthew, quieter, usually wore a sardonic smile, and had, as Angie had phrased it, ‘a voice meant to make women swoon over the radio.’ Angie had been close to both of them, and we’d had dinner together, but I never felt as though I knew them well. Matthew nodded slightly as I turned toward him, and I smiled in return.
“So, James…” Monica leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table. “We keep meaning to have you over for dinner sometime, but I don’t know what your schedule is like. You seem to keep dashing off after church is over.”
I shrugged slightly. “I guess so. I’ve been pretty busy with school. I’m a teacher’s assistant this year. It doesn’t pay much, but it’s enough to get by on. I’m usually free later on in the week, and it’s not too hard to rearrange my schedule.”
Monica emptied her water glass, and nodded. “I know what you mean, it’s been pretty crazy in our department too.” She looked intently at me, as if trying to gauge my reaction. “I hope you don’t mind me asking this, and you totally don’t have to answer if you don’t want to, but…How are you doing since Angie died? It was last year, right?”
I took a deep breath, and nodded. “Yeah, almost exactly a year ago. You know, I think I’m doing ok. Not great, I mean, I don’t think it’s exactly the sort of thing that you just get over. But I’ve been able to move on. I know she’s happier where she is, and she’d be upset with me if I just sat around moping. But somedays it’s hard. We’d planned to be married during the summer, and sometimes when I think of that…well, it’s hard. I couldn’t get my deposit back for the apartment we were planning to move into, so I’m still living there, and my best friend is my roommate. I’m glad I don’t have to stay there alone, but sometimes I’ll come across a towel she picked out or something, and it’s difficult.” I jabbed my fork at the pile of asparagus on my plate and took a bite.
“So, is this your first retreat?” Matthew drawled, setting down his fork, and leaning back as far as the stiff wooden back of the chair would allow. “Not to interrupt…”
Swiping a napkin across my mouth, I shook my head. “No, not at all. Yes, this my first retreat. I’m enjoying it so far, but I’m looking forward to the silence.” I tapped a finger against my temple. “I think I need a little more silence up here, instead of all the voices, songs, and advertisements that are swirling around in there. Hoping to get all of that cleared out a little. I’ve got some things I need to think about.”
“Oh?” Monica asked, covering her mouth with her hand as she took a bite of garlic bread. “Mind if I ask what?”
I paused, unsure.
“Dear, not everyone has to bare their souls during lunch.” Matthew smiled and patted his wife’s arm. “Let him have some peace, ok?” Monica laughed and agreed.
“Let me make you a deal,” I responded. “Ask me again when silence is over. I just need some time to process and think about things. Then I’ll let you know.” I set my used napkin on my cleared plate, and leaned back in the chair.
“Sounds good to me,” Monica agreed, and Matthew nodded.
Brother Frank, seeing that most of us were finished with the meal, stood up and prayed a quick dismissal blessing. “Don’t forget, you have your first retreat address at…what time, Father? 8 o’clock? 8 o’clock in the chapel. You’re dismissed, and please remember that we are now in silence.”
I woke the next morning to the mission bells ringing through the open window. I rolled over and looked at the clock for a moment, before deciding to get dressed and go to Matins. After pulling on a worn and comfortable pair of jeans and a hoodie sweatshirt, I made my way downstairs and found a few people already gathered around the table in the kitchen, reading or browsing the available titles.
I stepped out the front door just as the bell rang, and crossed the short breezeway into the chapel. Only a few members of the group were there, and the early morning prayers seemed sluggish as we all sought to stay awake. My mind drifted during the antiphonal psalms, and only the fact that the chapel was chilly and damp kept me from dozing off again.
After the service was over, I strolled out through the dew-soaked grass towards the patio behind the main retreat house. Kathy was the only one sitting out there, and she gave me a smile and a silent wave as I walked by. I returned the smile, but headed towards the opposite side of the long patio, beyond the small fountain. I pulled up a chair, and was about to sit and look out over the valley, when I noticed the small stairway. It was set off from the main patio, underneath a small stone gazebo. I left the chair where it was and made my way down the staircase. It hugged the line of the hill, and switched back and forth as it descended. It ended below the patio; the upper level hung over the path, so no-one on the patio could see this level. As I came to the end of the path, I saw a hooded figure tracing out a slow path through the morning mist; this, however, was no vision, but a flesh and blood man, one of the monks, with hood pulled over his face. As I drew closer, I could see that he was not simply pacing or walking, but making his way into the center of a small blue labyrinth painted onto a slab of concrete. The blue path wound inward in a convoluted pattern that I recognized as a small scale duplicate of the famous Chatres cathedral labyrinth.
There was a small bench near the labyrinth and I sat down on it, trying to ignore the dew that soaked into my jeans. As the monk neared the end of one curve of the labyrinth, I saw a beard poking out from under the hood, and realized that it was the young monk I had noticed earlier. He moved slowly, pausing to mutter silently with each step. I was mesmerized; his slow unstudied movements were almost hypnotic, and he seemed unaware of my presence. He finally stood in the center of the labyrinth and paused, lifting his arms to the sky. His hood fell back, and the morning light fell on his face. It was intense, but not ecstatic, and he looked up into the sky as if searching for something. After a moment, he let his arms fall to his sides, and began walking slowly out of the winding pathway. As he took the last slow steps, he turned towards me and bowed slightly, not willing to disturb my silence.
I debated with myself for a moment, then stood up. “Hey, do you mind if I ask you some questions? I don’t want to be a bother…”
He grinned, and shook his head. “Not at all! What’s on your mind? I’m Brother Andrei, by the way.”
I turned and began walking aimlessly around the paths, and Andrei fell into step beside me. “Well…I’m not sure how to start. What…what’s it like living here? As a monk, I mean?” I stammered slightly, aware of how silly I sounded.
Andrei didn’t respond right away, and I noticed again how quiet the grounds of the retreat center were. “I love living here. I love being a monk, except when I hate it. But it’s never been about what I like or don’t like. I happen to like it here, but that’s not the point. The point is that this is what I’ve been called to do. This is where I’m supposed to be.” He paused again, looking out over the valley. The sun was rising high enough to begin clearing away the mist, but the fog that remained had turned gold and pink. “Have you been thinking about entering a monastery? Or is there another reason for asking?”
“I hadn’t thought about it before now. I don’t want to seem like I’m overly swayed by emotion or by something just because it’s new and interesting. But when I came here, it all just seemed…right. It’s hard to explain it better than that.”
He sighed, and turned towards me again, and I could see him sizing me up. “normally, I’d advise you to just get over it. Get back to your ordinary life, get some sleep, and in a few weeks, you’ll be glad. But…there’s something different about you. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t know what it means. I can’t tell you what to do, though I’d recommend you start spending some time with your priest.”
I was a little taken aback—I don’t know what response I’d been expecting, but that wasn’t it. A small bell clanged through the air. “I need to go, that’s the bell for Nones.” He pulled his hood back over his head, and turned to go. “You know, it would be nice to see another young dude here.” He grinned. “Brother Mark and I go a little crazy sometimes.”
Saturday I spent mostly alone, or in the living room reading. It wasn’t until late Saturday night that I even went outside again, save for meals and prayer services. After Compline on Saturday, most of the others went to bed, and the silence settled over the grounds. The stars rose bright in the deep cobalt sky, and the hills shone silver in the light of the moon. I went up to my room but couldn’t seem to settle down. Finally, I tossed on my jacket, and went outside, making sure to close the doors behind me. I wandered across the patio; the statue that guarded the fountain looked like a ghost in the pale light.
The stairway was a mixture of light and shadow, and I had to watch my steps as I went down. The lower level was brightly lit from the moon, and I had no trouble finding the labyrinth. I shivered, as the damp rising from the ocean began to sink through my jacket, and placed a foot on the path.
“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner,” the words came almost unbidden to my lips. With every step, I recited the prayer, clinging to it as I might to a rope. The air quivered and thickened, and I again saw the shadowy hints of forms moving around me—I was moving deeper and deeper into one of my seeings. I tried to merely accept what I saw, moving slowly and steadily, but it was difficult to keep my eyes from darting around. As I stepped toward the center, a form slowly solidified in the center of the circle—the lady in blue. With every step, her outline became clearer, more distinct, and her eyes shone as brightly as the stars. She stood perfectly still as if carved in stone. Finally, I stepped into the center of the circle, and stood facing her.
“Lady…what are you doing here? What is it you want me to do,” I whispered, my voice hoarse as I spoke.
She did not speak, but gestured to the outside of the circle. I looked, and like flames, the creatures in red stood surrounding the labyrinth. Though the night sky dimmed and muted all other colors, they shone as crimson as if they were lit by the noon sun.
“Who are they?” I asked. The Lady shook her head, but pointed again, this time to the stars overhead. I looked around at the brilliant points of light, millions upon millions of them.
“The morning stars sing for joy,” I heard whispered, but could not hear who spoke them. “The silent planet cannot hear their song.”
“Lady,” I repeated, “what do you want me to do? I can’t help anyone hear the song of the stars, I don’t hear it myself. How can I help?”
She shook her head again, and pointed above her. She was bathed in a light as pure as moonlight and warmed than sunlight. I looked up, and in the top of the dome of the sky hung three pure and brilliant lights.
I turned back to the Lady, and she held out her hands. Roses rested in her palms, and petals fell from them like drops of blood. “Please, Lady, what is it? Why do I see things? What do you want?”
“The City is in need of you,” the whisper came. “The City will fall, unless those who love her are willing to sacrifice. Blessed are those who pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”
I started to say that I did not love the city, that I loved peace and quiet, not rushing, noise, and pollution. But the words stuck in my throat and would not come, and I found myself standing alone on a faded slab of concrete, clothes soaked with dew, and shivering in the night wind.
From a great distance, I could hear the sound of traffic on the freeway.
I woke in the morning, and wondered if it had been a dream. I saw my jacket, draped over a chair to dry, and knew that I’d gone out in the middle of the night. But the sight? I stared up at the ceiling and sighed.
I didn’t want to be special in any way. I just wanted to live my life. If that life involved becoming a monk and living at the monastery, so much the better.
I skipped Matins and Nones, not leaving the house until the bell rang for breakfast. As soon as Brother Frank finished the dismissal, I found Father Time.
“Hey, Father Tim, can I talk to you for a little bit? It doesn’t have to be now, just sometime before we leave?”
He looked at me for a moment, grey eyes scanning my face. “Of course, James. Just let me go put my things away, and I’ll meet you oout in front of the retreat house in about ten minutes. Will that work?”
I nodded, and thanked him. I went outside, closing the screen door behind me, and settled down to wait on the bench in front of the main house. In a few minutes, Father Tim came, and took a seat beside me.
“So, what did you want to talk about, James?” Father Tim had a calming voice, very quiet and measured. It made it easy to ask him questions. Angie and he had had a very close friendship, and he preached her funeral sermon. He’d been calm during the funeral, but afterwards I was wandering through the cemetery and had seen him from a distance, tears pouring down his face. He hadn’t seen me, and I never brought it up, but I’d always remembered it.
“Well, there’s two things, really. The first one’s easier. I was wondering…How do you know what it is that you’re supposed to do with your life? Does God have something specific in mind, or is it really more up to you?”
Father Tim adjusted his glasses, and spoke quietly. “Well, I’m inclined to think that God does call some people to very specific things. There’s plenty of evidence of specific calls, think of Mother Theresa and Saint Patrick. But I think, for most of us, we are simply called to lead holy lives, and it’s up to us the path we follow.”
“Ok. But what if someone is given a special gift? I mean, something really unique, something that could help people. Is that a sign of God’s calling? Or is the person still free to do what they want? Things like that happen for a reason, right?”
He thought for a few moments, seeming to pause and collect his words.
I cleared my throat, and desperately cast around for the best way to phrase this. “I’ve been seeing things lately. Not crazy things, just…odd things. I’ve other people tell me that they’ve seen the same things, but I do have an appointment with a psychiatrist in a few days. The health center on campus tells me that all my blood work is normal.” I leaned back against the bench, and ran my hands through my hair. “I know, it sounds crazy, and I’m almost afraid to talk to a shrink about it. I’m pretty sure they would take the things I’ve been seeing as evidence that I need medication, instead of seeing if there’s actually anything physically or mentally wrong with me. What I wonder is…Geez, I hate to say this, it sounds like pride, but…what if these things that I see really are from God? What if He wants me to use them? I don’t want to be different, I don’t want a major gift like this. I just…wanted to have a normal life. But what if it’s not what God wants?”
Father Timothy stared off into the distance for a while, and I fell silent. The breeze quietly rustled the leaves of the palm trees, and the grass rippled slightly.
“First of all, I’m very glad you are going to be meeting with a professional psychiatrist. That being said, I don’t want to give you the impression that I don’t believe you. I don’t know you as well as I knew Angie, but I do know that you are a stable person, and that you don’t seem to be the sort of person who would invent such a story, nor the type who would be prone to hallucinations.”
He paused, taking a moment to gather his thoughts. “Just so you know, I do believe in the veracity of some visions. We do have to test the spirits, so I’m going to encourage you to do something. Please record everything you see, and make a record of every time the information in your visions matches something in your ordinary life.”
He took off his glasses, and began cleaning them wearily. “I think the deciding factor is often this. What is it that the visions tell you? Do they say you’re special? That you’re better from anyone else? Anything that comes from God will increase love, increase understanding, and probably ask for a sacrifice of some sort. The things that come from the devil will separate you from others, will tell you that you are special, and that the normal rules don’t apply to you.” He put his hands on his knees and hoisted himself out of the bench. “Obviously, this is a complicated issue and something you’ll need to think about. I hope you’ll keep me updated.” He patted my shoulder, and walked out into the gardens.
Lunch was an almost raucous affair, since the silence was no longer in effect. All the extroverts, having pent up two days’ worth of talking, were laughing and talking at full speed, and the noise echoed around the room. I found a seat next to Matthew and Monica, across from Carson and Marie.
As I set my plate down and took my seat, Monica leaned over, and said, “Hey James! Enjoy the retreat?”
I nodded, and unfolded my napkin. “Yeah, I did, actually. I really enjoyed the silence. Wish I was able to stay for awhile longer, in fact.”
Monica laughed. “You introverts, I love you guys! Matthew’s the same way, he loves the silence. It must be really rough on you, having all this time when no-one can talk or interrupt you, and then all of a sudden, noise noise noise everywhere!” Matthew grinned, and nodded.
“Oh well, we’re only twenty five percent of the population, we’[re pretty much used to it by now,” he said. “But after a while, you do learn to set some pretty good \booundaries.”
“That’s true,” Monica admitted. “I can always tell when it’s time to get you home from a partry, it’s like there’s this little switch inside your head that flicks off when you’re had enough, and you just down. A little blinking light goes off in your eyes that says, ‘Ok, I’ve had enough of being social for one eveining, please go away quietly now.’”
I laughed, knowing exactly what she meant. While the noise of conversation was pleasant, it was also very distracting, and I often felt that I couldn’t hear myself think.
“By the way, James,” Matthew intoned, setting his fork down. “I knlow you rode up with Carson and Marie, but we were wondering if you’d like to ride back with us. We’ve got plenty of space, and we really would like to get to know you a little better.”
I glanced at Carson; “Sure,” he said. “It’s certaintly no problem for us.”
Part of me was hesitant to agree. The Greys were nice people, but Monica was quite talkative, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to have to carry on a conversation for the entire trip back. But, at the same time, they were interesting people, and I knew that Monica taught at a spiritual development program at the college, and bpoth she and Matthew were graduates of the program. They might not be bad people to ask about the visions.
“Ok, that works for me,” I said, trying to butter a small roll without having the butter rip all the way through the bread. “I think we’re supposed to be out of here by one, so I’ll pack up my stuff after lunch and bring it down to the entryway of the main house. Will that work?”
They agreed, and within thirty minutes their car was loaded and ready to go. Matthew slammed down the hatchback, and climbed into the driver’s seat. “Ok, folks, time to hit the road.” He pulled slowly down the long winding driveway, and back onto the small road that ran by the mission.
The streets were small and narrow, obviously not originally constructed to be part of a major city. Pedestrian traffic was steady, and once or twice he had to slam on the brakes before we were able to get back onto the freeway.
“So James,” Monica said, twisting around in the seat to look at me face-to-face. “It seemed like you had some significant experiences on the retreat. You just have that kind of stunned ‘i-need-to-think-about-this sort of look. Do you mind if I ask what the retreat was like for you?”
“No, that’s ok. I was actually wanting to talk to you both about it, in fact. You see…ah, it’s hard to get the words out, it still sounds strange. I’ve been seeing things, spiritual things I think. I know it sounds weird, but it’s true.”
I explained about how the visions had started, and the precautions I’d taken to make sure that I wasn’t going crazy. I described some of the visions as best I could, but didn’t mention Scott or his group of people. As the story wound down, Monica wore a very thoughtful expression, and I could see Matthew’s eyes studying me in the rearview mirror, in between monitoring the traffic.
“So…well, so that’s it, really. Strange, but true.” I leaned back in the seat, and took a deep breath—I hadn’t realized that I’d barely been breathing as I struggled to explain.
“Well, you know, it’s really not that strange. I have friends that have seen angels and demons at various times, though usually not that distinctly. It’s definitely an amazing gift from God, but it seems like it’s been bothering you.” Monica’s voice was calm and relatively quiet. “First of all, do you mind if I pray for you? I think that’s really important, that you pray and guard your heart against the spiritual world.”
I laughed, and quickly sang,
“Against the demon snares of sin,
Against false words of heresy.
The hostile lusts that war within,
Against the heart’s idolatry,
Against the wizard’s evil craft.,
Against the death wound and the burning
The Choking wave,
The poisoned shaft
Protect me Christ til thy returning.
“It’s from St. Patrick’s breastplate,” I explained. “It’s Angie’s favorite hymn, and she was always mad that that part usually wasn’t sung. It was one of her favorites verses; in fact, she used to sing the whole thing each morning as she was getting ready for the day. Said it helped her get herself together, and find her place in the world. I always kind of liked it, how it brought it every part of the physical and spitirual world.”
“A great song,” Matthew tossed over his shoulder, glancing back as he changed lanes.
“James, I’m really glad you felt like you could oopen up enough to talk about this, I think that’s amazing, and I can’t wait to see what God’s going to do with this gift.”She closed her eyes, and began praying. “Lord, we want to thank You today for the gift you’ve given James, and the amazing door you’ve opened in his life. And we ask that You guard him against all evil that would come against him…”
I felt the blood creeping up into my face in a sudden flood of embarrassment, and tried to keep from shifting around in my seat. I’d never liked having people pray for me, and hearing them pray out loud made me especially uncomfortable. I’d grown up in churches where it was very much the norm, but I’d always felt as if they were trying to assert their own superior spirituality over the faith of those who were being prayed for. I knew that Monica meant well by praying for me, but I felt immeasurably relieved when she had finished, and the car ride continued with simple casual conversation.