The following events are true. The names have been changed for confidentiality’s sake.
Fr. Cornelius was a hobbit. He wasn’t as short as one, but in all other respects he might as well have been doing some freestyle karaoke at the Green Dragon with a mug of the Old Gaffer’s brew in his hand. The cloistered abbey over which he was pastor was his walled-in Shire in the center of an Orc-infested section of my home town where the only adventures were the kind undertook by prostitutes and crack dealers.
I had come to Fr. Cornelius because there was something wrong with me. Something bad. I had been discussing this ‘badness’ a week before with a friend of mine, in a conversation that—believe it or not—had started off lightly, just two guys drinking beer and chewing the fat in a local bar. After I had begun to share some details of the, ahem, ‘badness,’ he strongly recommended that I make an appointment with Fr. Cornelius.
I agreed, but with reservation—a part of me felt very, very stupid about it all, you see, and I will explain why eventually. Nevertheless, I bit the bullet and made the call. Now, here I was shaking hands with a big black-clad, white-collared hobbit in the shadow of an old abbey church on a positively freezing cold February morning.
Naturally, he chose a small, open air courtyard for our meeting on this positively freezing cold February morning. Why shouldn’t he? His vital organs were utterly safe from the frigid weather thanks to a thick gray sweater wrapped around an enormous round belly which I initially mistook for a stability ball strapped to his waist.
I took a seat across from him. He lit a cigarette. I thought about asking him if I could use the red hot tip of it to light my clothes on fire for the sake of some warmth, but I realized that it might seem excessive on our first meeting. Father started us off with a prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to guide us and for Our Lady to be present. I forgot about the cold and told him what was troubling me.
I was uneasy at first, wringing my hands and unpacking my darkest secrets to a stranger. It was his ‘hobbitliness,’ drifting over the whole scene, that lifted the pressure: the sweet tobacco smoke wandering around our little table, his rumpled black and gray priest clothes, his tousled hair and beard*, the way he had to occasionally swish ashes and crumbs from the slopes of his bulbous belly. Best of all was his voice. It was sonorous and gentle, carrying content that was direct, reassuring, firm, incisive.
I explained to him how my spiritual growth had reached a rock ceiling, that no matter what I did I could not seem to grow any more in virtue or in my relationship with Christ. After eleven years, following a profound conversion experience, I was beginning to be bothered by that. Shouldn’t I be making more progress in this and that area of my life?
And, in case you’re wondering, I am not prone to taking my faith for granted or to reducing it to a bunch of hollow formulas. I’ve been blessed to just get, on an instinctive level, that being a Catholic is primarily a relationship with Jesus, one which requires my full participation, with no excuse for lukewarm rule-following and ritualism. So, for eleven years I had been participating, giving it all I had, warts and all. After all this time, though, I was now forced to admit that there remained an ugly, nebulous blockade inside me, past which I simply could not go.
I had no joy, I told Father. I had theological hope and the peace of Christ, no doubt, and I received consolation from that. But where was the Christian joy that was supposed to be a part of the whole package? It wasn’t there. What was there, in my heart, was a kind of terrorist cell of anger, lust and pride. I could not shed them. Later, I described the experience to a friend: like trying to do bench presses, fully capable of lifting the weight, yet having something attached to my arms, always dragging me down. I had begun to suspect why, though I hardly dared say it.
Father Cornelius suggested what the root of the problem might be even before I did. In fact, he seemed quite a bit surer of it then what he was letting on, demonstrating a peculiar grace he had been given especially for these kinds of meetings. He just knew stuff. About me. Without me telling him. Throughout our meetings he did this with a fair amount of frequency. He wasn’t mind-reading, though. As he explained to me later, God simply revealed things to him about the person he was interviewing in order to facilitate the healing process.
My life had suddenly become an M. Night Shyamalan movie.
So, I’m sure you’re ready to punch me now. What was the ‘badness’ I had come to Father Cornelius to discuss? What was the reason for the darkness and the impenetrable vice in me which I felt ought to have melted before the power of Christ a long time ago?
Father C. worked with me to create a simple list, on a plain piece of lined paper, of things I had done in my past which were in any way associated with the occult. I was stumped, at first. Not much, Father—maybe a Ouija board, once or twice? Magic 8-Ball? Getting drunk in a graveyard, does that count?
But then a strange thing happened. The more we talked, the longer and longer the list got. And longer. Filled with all kinds of weirdo perversions and aberrant activities which I had been a party to in my more libertine years. Father Cornelius, using his Super Rad Miracle Priest Powers, told me some of them himself: crap I had totally forgotten. Yet apparently, as a result, I had become infected with an intelligent, evil spiritual presence.
That’s right, kids. Demons.
Cue ominous theme music.
End Part 1. Join me next week for Part 2 of this creepy-yet-poignant series.
*(yes, nerds, I know: hobbits don’t have beards. Cut me some slack, will ya?)