“Introibo ad altare Dei.
Adeum Qui laetificat,
juven tutum meum.”
(I will go to the altar of God.
To God Who gives joy to my youth.)
Since I had turned 12, I knew that I was going to enter the seminary to train for the Catholic priesthood, and in the middle of my final year at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Grammar School, I proudly made the announcement to my parents. Naturally, they were delighted with the proposition. After all, offering up the first-born male to the Clergy was somewhat of a tradition among Irish Catholic families, even in America, and one which would surely yield special blessings and spiritual bonus points, both in this life and in “The Life To Come”. No matter what my three secular siblings might accomplish during their time in this world, it would always pale in comparison to the loftiness of the priesthood that one had been called to by God.
My folks didn’t think of it as losing a son, although they would see me only infrequently over the next twelve years. Rather, it was viewed as gaining a kind of inside track, albeit by proxy, to one of the oldest, most revered, and certainly one of the most exclusive clubs in the world. Nor were they that surprised. I had been the first altar boy in my class, instantly memorizing the Latin phrases necessary to assist at Holy Mass, although the rest of my studies always seemed to take a distant back-seat to my fund-raising campaign for the Pagan Babies.
It was from the unique vantage point of the altar platform, suffused in ethereal candlelight and incense, that I gazed out beyond the barrier of the Communion rail that divided the faithful laity from the priest and his attendant and came to my resolve. It occurred during the most dramatic moment in the Mass, when the priest held high the round white Host and proclaimed in Latin that this thin pressed wafer had just been “transubstantiated” into the Body of Christ! This was the altar boy’s cue to ring the heavy clustered hand bells, riveting everybody’s attention to the miracle before their eyes.
As I glanced out into the pews I realized that, no matter what their rank or status in ordinary life, everyone “out there” was instantly equalized as they knelt in silent reverence before the altar. The object of their awe was in the hands of the priest, who alone stood before them all, resplendent in clerical vestments of purple and gold, head and arms upraised in rapt determination, performing the ancient Mystery for which only one such as he had been ordained. It was theatrically impressive and quite convincing to a boy who could feel vivid Spirit Presence somehow drawn down and crystallized in this ancient ritual.
My parents, loving and responsible though they were, never seemed to get beyond the perpetual cycle of bills and petty worries that dominated their lives, leaving little time for immersion in the Sacred. The lives of all of their friends seemed similarly burdened, as far as I could tell. Yes, we would sometimes gather during special seasons to pray the rosary as a family, and of course participate in all the Parish activities, but it all seemed rather perfunctory, and lacking some element of the genuine zeal that burned quietly in my heart.
The predictable conventional ambitions of my own peers carried little appeal for me. In fact, they seemed rather small and futile in the Face of the Infinite. They all appeared caught up in the distractions and allures of ordinary life, and thus sadly cut off from the communion with the Divine that I sought above all.
Nor did the idea of celibacy rule deter me. I was, after all, pre-pubescent at the time, a little mystified by girls anyway, and firmly convinced that it would not be the daunting challenge some had made it out to be. What was all the fuss about, anyway? As a celibate, I would be available to all in selfless (and non-entangled) service, by-passing the thorny trap of marriage, children, and the pressing demands of a slave career in the rat race. The priest/ recruiter from the seminary had made this point very clear when he spoke before the boys in the auditorium of St. Thomas earlier that year, and it certainly made sense to me at the time.
I had always loved reading the lives of the saints, like St. Francis and St. Theresa, who had abandoned the worldly life to commune with the Divine, and who were now recognized as spiritual heroes and heroines. In some ways, they felt more like family to me than my own. They were the models to which I aspired, and the seminary was clearly the most logical place to begin the ascent.
“Many are called, but few are chosen.” The recruiter had said, quoting the words of Christ, and I was determined to be among the chosen. And so, in 1962, at the ripe and ready age of 13, I found myself standing on the massive stone steps of St. Joseph’s Seminary, suitcase in one hand, the other waving farewell to my parents as they drove slowly away down the long, tree-lined road and disappeared around a turn. Sudden tears of homesickness welled up in my eyes as I turned and entered the building that would be my home for the next twelve years – that is, if I was to “go all the way.” My parish priest had told me that these would be the happiest years of my life, and now they had begun.
St. Joseph’s was located in a fairly remote and hilly region approximately 60 miles south from San Francisco. In another few decades the area would become famous for technological commerce and development, and nicknamed “Silicon Valley”, but in 1964 the valley was known primarily for its sprawling fruit orchards of apricots and plums. A huge, fortress-like building of Italianate sandstone design, the seminary’s four adjoining wings formed a square, dominated by an imposing bell tower that rose 200 feet above the main entrance. It loomed over a courtyard meticulously landscaped into 4 square plots of lawn and small trees, which were in turn surrounded and intersected by concrete walkways. At 6 PM every evening, the Bell that regulated the Seminary schedule would summon the 400 residents of St. Joseph’s into the courtyard. There, clad in the black, ankle-length cassocks that served as the primary garment, they would fall into a slow, counter-clockwise procession around the perimeter walkway, eyes downcast and hands fingering smooth, black-beaded rosaries.
As I entered into that solemn throng on my first evening at St. Joseph’s, I felt that I had crossed over into a finer, more sublime realm beyond the fickle reach of ordinary life. Later that night, as all assembled in the chapel and the choir soared a cappella into their haunting chorus of Gregorian chants, I was certain that I was finally entering into the company of true apprentice saints. My only doubt was of my own worthiness, but that was what the seminary training was all about, and that was why I was there.
As many seminarians as there were, the seminary itself had a large enough capacity so that each student had his own room on the same floor as his fellow classmates. In addition, on each floor there were several resident priest faculty members, to whom were assigned a number of boys as penitents. That is, they were to act as the personal spiritual confessors to their appointed spiritual charges, hearing their weekly confessions and advising them on matters pertaining to their souls.
When the morning wake-up bell sounded at 5 AM on my first full day at St. Joseph’s, I opened my eyes in complete disorientation. Then a knock sounded at the door, followed by a voice chirping the “Benedicamus Domino!” to which I had been coached to answer “Deo Gratias”. These were call and response phrases praising and thanking the Lord, but were used here to insure that each boy was indeed awake and getting ready for the early Mass.
I immediately rose from my bed and stumbled in the dark to a wall by the door where I remembered the light switch was located. In a daze I surveyed my room: the bed, a chest of drawers, a small metal desk, a closet, and a wash basin. I recalled that the communal lavatory was down the hall, and my bladder had suddenly become insistent. I rummaged through my closet for my bathrobe and then headed out the door and down the dimly lit corridor to the waiting line outside the facilities. Once inside I counted, with some dismay, the 8 urinals and 4 toilet stalls (one perpetually out-of-order) that were supposed to accommodate the 100 boys on my floor. Then I noticed that, leaning against a back wall, there was a youthful-looking priest who appeared to be monitoring the proceedings. When our eyes met, the priest gave me a merry wink and then, glancing at his wristwatch, announced that it was 10 minutes before we all had to be in our seats in the chapel. No tardiness would be tolerated.
Later that day I was formally introduced to the young priest, Father Klaus Klonic, who was to be both my first year Latin teacher and my personal confessor. Father Klaus had been freshly ordained the year before in Minnesota, and rather than going on to a parish assignment, had chosen to petition the bishop of his diocese to become a Sulpician, an order of priests who taught in the country’s seminaries. Having specialized in Latin during his post-graduate studies, he seemed a likely candidate, and so was sent out to an opening in California on a trial period to assess his skills with the young men of St. Joseph’s.
He was a rather plump six-footer, with close-cropped blond hair and intensely blue eyes, but what really distinguished him from the other priests was his complexion. Father Klaus’ skin texture was as soft and smooth as a baby’s, and it seemed somehow doubtful that he ever needed to shave. Beyond that, however, there was his extraordinary color, or lack thereof — the whitest shade of pale of anyone in the seminary. It was as if the sun just bounced right off him, and that the Minnesota winter was embalmed there in his face. Nevertheless, he had an oddly wry sense of humor, and was quick to win over most of the boys in Latin 101, who secretly nick-named him “The Holy Ghost”.
My first few weeks at St. Joseph’s required adjusting to the rigorous and often arcane disciplines that dominated seminary life in the early 1960’s. The morning rush to chapel was followed by a breakfast taken in the communal refectory. At each table sat eleven students in pre-assigned places, with the most senior at the head, and the freshmen at the lower end. The faculty sat at their own table at the front of the large rectangular dining hall, and appeared to enjoy a higher quality of cuisine than the dubious fare prepared for the seminarians by the quasi-order of midget nuns that only attracted and accepted French Canadian women into their community who measured 4 feet tall or less, from what I could determine.
All meals were eaten in silence, and managed through an elaborate series of hand signals. Meanwhile, a senior seminarian read religious texts aloud from a lectern, usually from the Martyrology, or Lives of the Early Christian Martyrs, which invariably concluded with the grisly details of their horrific demise at the hands of the bloody heathens. This often made the entrees – dubbed “mystery meat” by the students – even more challenging to ingest, and I lost over 10 pounds during my first month there.
The next bell (there were several dozen during the course of the day) signaled the first of four morning classes, separated by 5 minute breaks. At noon, the Angelus bell sounded. Everyone, no matter where they happened to be or what they were doing, stopped and faced East for a short prayer to the Blessed Virgin before heading to the refectory for lunch and another appetizing chapter on the torture of the early fathers and hapless spiritual heroes and heroines.
After lunch there was a brief half hour break in the schedule, during which many of the older students strolled the surrounding grounds chain-smoking Camels, although a few of the budding rebels smoked Lucky Strikes. The younger students congregated in rapidly-forming cliques, predictably establishing the inevitable teen pecking order of jocks, pseudo-intellectuals, zealots, geeks, rebels, and even show tune-loving “fems” — all of the typical categories found in boys’ boarding schools everywhere. The only difference was the common, or rather, uncommon career for which we were all presumably training.
Two afternoon classes followed the break, which were in turn followed by an hour in the study hall. Finally, at 3:30, the recreation bell sounded. Everyone raced downstairs to the basement locker rooms, where they dressed for the various seasonal team sports activities that dominated afternoons at St. Joe’s. Rivalries were fierce and ranged from baseball to soccer, football to track.
There were several large playing fields on the grounds, as well as an Olympic-size swimming pool, a large gymnasium, tennis and handball courts, and all of the related accessories necessary to keep young men competitively occupied. Here the kinds of life lessons that only sports could provide were integrated into the budding belief systems that were to hopefully flower into sermons delivered with the authority of coaches at a pre-game pep rally.
The few faint-hearted who resisted the call usually lingered in the recreation hall, amusing themselves with games of bridge or pinochle, and listening to the only radio available, which was permanently fused on the classical station. Those who ventured into the reading room found a limited assortment of tame periodicals, always heavily censored by vigilant scissors wielders, lest weak minds be led astray. Of course, there was always the obligatory dusty collection of the wisdom of antiquity, often in the original Greek or Latin, with abstruse commentaries by learned academics long since gone to their just rewards.
The 5 PM bell sent everyone back to the locker rooms. This was the time for group showers, physical intimidation, and much towel-snapping at the tender posteriors of the recently enlisted (who were considered fair game for the inevitable hazing rituals of upper classmen). The showers themselves, which adjoined the actual locker rooms, were situated in each of the buildings’ wings. One group accommodated the high-schoolers, the second the collegiates, and the third the older theology graduate students. The faculty alone had showers in their own rooms. The showers themselves consisted of a dozen large stalls, approximately 14 feet long, 12 feet wide, and open at the entrance. They were all tiled in the favored little black & white squares institutional pattern, and each had 16 shower heads to accommodate 16 sweaty testosterone factories in various stages of development for the allotted 5 minutes of soaping and rinsing.
The next bell brought everyone into the courtyard for the rosary procession, followed by dinner, which frequently consisted of a loaf of white bread and butter, a bowl of warmed potato chips, and a side dish of catsup. After a short break, presumably for digestion, all the inhabitants streamed into the chapel, where evening prayers and meditations rounded out the day.
At 8:30 PM the final bell tolled, and all of the students walked in silence to their rooms, where a “lights out” buzzer sounded at 9 PM.
The room doors had no locking mechanisms, in order to facilitate random inspections. Many still talked about Jimmy Callahan, who was suspended for a month for sneaking a transistor radio with an earphone so he could listen to the World Series, and of course Bill Purcell, who was actually expelled when he was caught reading Michner’s Hawaii by flashlight under his blankets.
So went the days and nights at the Seminary, and for me, they eventually blended into each other to form a seamless piece, until it felt that I had always been there. Thoughts of home and the “outside” drifted into the back of my memory, tweaked only by the occasional letter from my parents, detailing all the ordinary events of family life, which carried less and less import for me now. I did enjoy the monthly “care package” of Mom’s oatmeal raisin cookies, but I and my friends gobbled them up all too soon, usually on the day they arrived.
The only ritual that I couldn’t quite adjust to was the weekly confessional with Father Klaus. Every Friday during the extended study hour the boys were called to their respective confessors’ rooms to detail and repent their transgressions against the Laws of God and His Holy Church. As each boy finished, his confessor would send him back to the study hall to tap the next penitent on the shoulder, signaling his turn in the alphabetical order.
Longer than the normal 10 minutes’ absence would gradually provoke an exchange of knowing smirks from the others, for length of time away from his desk signified the true extent of that boy’s sinning, and was shamefully plain for all to see. This also insured that nobody dawdled on their way to and from their confessor’s room, and because the study was extended until the last penitent was finished, God help the poor soul whose laundry list took him into overtime!
The sacrament itself was performed as a one-on-one affair, devoid of the traditional curtained barrier and sliding mesh grate that discreetly separates the sinner and the priest confessor in parish settings. Rather, I was required to kneel on a wooden foot stool facing the image of the crucified Jesus on the wall before me, while Father Klaus sat flush beside, facing in the opposite direction but uncomfortably close for the intimate revelations that were to follow.
I began with the formal introduction: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been one week since my last confession.” Then I breathlessly enumerated my recent failings, all of them of the “Venial” variety, which technically meant that I had indeed sinned, but not seriously enough to jeopardize my current good standing in the State of Sanctifying Grace, and thereby imperil my immortal soul. That dreaded state was only precipitated by an actual “Mortal Sin”, which, if left un-confessed at the time of death, would damn such an offending wretch to the yawning pit of fiery Hell forever and ever!
The typical content of my confessions consisted of admissions of laziness and sloth, the taking of the Lord’s Name in vain during sports events, bad thoughts about certain upperclassmen who took particularly cruel delight in the customary “hazing” rituals sophomores inflicted on freshmen, a “white” lie or two, gluttony (at cookie time), and anything else I could dredge up that would not be too revealing but rather serve to get me out of there as soon as possible.
I was then briefly counseled by Father Klaus on remedies for my trespasses, given the standard 3 Our Fathers and 3 Hail Marys to recite as penance, and then commanded to make a good Act of Contrition. In response I rushed through the memorized formula:
“O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee. I detest all my sins because of Thy Just Punishments, but most of all, because I have offended Thee, my Lord, Who art All Good, and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the Help of Thy Grace, to sin no more, and to avoid the near occasions of sin. Amen.”
With that said, Father Klaus would grant Absolution, then characteristically reach over and muss my hair with his left hand, which meant I could now stand, and then sent me on my way with a grin and a pat on the rear to fetch the next offender.
As I left the room and hurried back down to the study hall, I exhaled a mighty sigh of relief, knowing that I had another whole week before I had to go through THAT again. More importantly, however, through my Act of Confession I was once more securely aligned with that ineffable State of Sanctifying Grace, the very condition that guaranteed me Heaven (according to the rules of the game).
Except for the annual procession of religious events highlighted on the Liturgical Calendar, it was easy to overlook the change of seasons in this part of California. Although more than a dozen of my 100 fellow classmates had already dropped out for various reasons over the course of the first few months, I seemed to thrive at St. Joseph’s. I was where I wanted to be, sincerely pursuing my Vocation, and with all of the years that lay ahead, a sense of timelessness had begun to settle in. The regularity of the Schedule seemed to reinforce this feeling, creating an atmosphere of security and orderliness that transcended the distant anxious tumult of the world outside.
I excelled at my studies, and by now had established a number of friendships with fellow first-year aspirants. I had become an avid participant in various team sports, and had begun to develop a particular enthusiasm for the game of handball — a fast, one-on-one sport like racquetball, but with thin leather gloves substituting for the racquet. A few of the younger priests enjoyed this game too, Father Klaus among them. In fact, several times a week I found myself paired with the priest on a rotating court schedule.
After overcoming my initial trepidation at having to confront my confessor and Latin instructor as a sports opponent, I grew to enjoy matching wits and physical skills with the older man. On the handball court I became familiar with a different, more human, dimension in the life of a priest, and gradually grew comfortable with the easy comradeship that emerged from the friendly contests.
In my case, the thorny and mysterious subject of sex was late in rearing its proverbial ugly head and shattering the genteel illusions of calm and well-being that I had heretofore enjoyed. On that morning the sun had just crested the nearby hills, and its rays were now seeping through my window, bathing the room in a soft dawn glow. Because it was Sunday, the boys were allowed an extra hour of sleep before assembling in the chapel for morning services.
During the night, the temperature on the main boiler responsible for heating my wing had malfunctioned, over-heating the rooms. It had gotten so warm that at first I tried opening the window and, failing to find any relief, stripped off my blankets and pajamas. Now, as I lay in bed in that twilight realm between waking and sleeping, my thoughts had meandered dreamily back to the Facts of Life book my parents had awkwardly given me to read the previous year, explaining in clinical terms how the man “planted his seed” in the woman to conceive a baby. In my semi-consciousness, a pleasurably mounting sense of physical urgency insistently coalesced in my nether region until, suddenly, I was startled fully awake by what turned out to be my first orgasm.
When the spasms subsided, I lay there paralyzed, my heart threatening to pound through the walls of my chest — absolutely appalled at what had just happened. My guilt and confusion were overwhelming. I had just committed a Mortal Sin, to my reckoning! If I died now, and I felt that I just might, then I would go straight to Hell! Forever!
I raced through a series of quick Hail Marys, made a double Act of Contrition, and finally realized that my only option now was Confession — and as soon as possible! I gingerly extricated myself from the tangled bedding, careful not to stain the linen with the sticky residue of my sin. Otherwise, the nuns who did the laundry would surely discover my wickedness, and my shame would be unending. I limped over to the wash basin where I dampened a towel and wiped myself thoroughly. Then I threw on my black cassock and, glancing forlornly back at the rumpled bed – the scene of the crime – hurried out the door and down the hallway to Father Klaus’ quarters.
Trembling with fear and unbearable humiliation, I knocked hesitantly at the door, and then drew back, feeling suddenly dizzy and faint. When the door finally opened, I could barely blurt out the words: “I’m so very sorry to disturb you, Father, but I need … to make a … confession!”
I could not look the priest in the eye. I squirmed and groaned, staring fiercely down at my feet, realizing suddenly, to my added horror, that I had left my room barefooted!
“Why, lad, what in Heaven’s Name could be so urgent as to bring you here at this time of the morning?” asked Father Klaus with bewildered concern. He himself was standing in the doorway in an oddly old-fashioned nightgown, his own bare knees showing beneath the hemline.
“Something … BAD happened to me, Father, that I need to confess. Could we do it now, please?” I pleaded.
“Well, come in then and take your place while I fetch my stole.” the priest replied.
He ushered me into the room and, taking his seat, wound the purple ribbon of official cloth around his neck and over his nightgown, and prepared to hear my confession.
“Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been two days since my last confession.”
“Yes, yes – now what is it?” Father Klaus interrupted.
“I . . . I . . .” I stammered, and then barely whispered, “I committed an impure act.”
“And what was the nature of this act?” probed the priest, in such a serious and deliberate tone as to once again send shivers down my frame.
“I had . . . I did . . . I think I . . . masturbated.”
There, I had admitted it. I stared momentarily at the crucifix on the wall, and Christ stared back at me with the most pained and wounded expression I could ever have imagined. He knew that I had betrayed Him! I squeezed my eyes shut and gritted my teeth, awaiting the priest’s judgment.
“And how did you initiate this act?” the priest queried.
“I don’t know. I was waking up and it just … happened.”
”And did you take carnal pleasure from this deed?”
“It all happened so fast. I guess . . . I mean . There was this feeling, but then I knew something was wrong.”
“Yes, but now you must tell me EXACTLY what happened, so that I can grant you a full absolution.” the confessor persisted, leaning closer.
All of the lurid details were recounted, as the older man continued pursuing nuances and minute details, until at last there was nothing more I could say. It had been the most excruciating ordeal of my young life, and it would be several weeks before I was back, even more ashamed than before, to relate a similar incident.
The next time Father Klaus was lengthier in his counseling, discussing the physical changes that teen boys must endure, and advising ways to avoid temptation, such as deeper devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary (who was watching me with disgust should I dare to “touch myself”). I also now understood why so many students lined up outside the confessional in the chapel every day after lunch. The subject was carefully avoided on the handball court during the week, but every Friday Father Klaus now took the opportunity to inquire about “my problem”, discussing the issue to my profound embarrassment.
I was sure that my classmates suspected too, from the glances they cast when I returned late to the study hall after confession. A cloud now hovered darkly over my soul, and I walked the razor’s edge between heaven and Hell. So tormented was I by the agony of my urges that I began to identify with the recorded ordeals suffered by the Early Desert Fathers with their demons, tormented mercilessly by the lustful denizens of the dark underworld. I also felt bad for the Virgin Mary, who had to endure watching my feverish sinfulness in action. I felt how appalling it must be for Her, given the cumulative sinning going on all over the world among teenage boys. What a way for Her to spend eternity!
I threw myself with renewed determination into my studies and sports, praying fervently all the while for God to remove this thorn from my flesh. I begged that I might be returned once again to the blissful purity that prevailed within my being before this troubling plague of the body had first betrayed me.
Whenever I occasionally gained some confidence in hard-fought success, I would once more be dragged down and made to submit to a force that seemed more powerful than my own will. Sometimes, as if from some forgotten place in early childhood memory, I momentarily intuited that life itself would always have its own way. That it was futile to challenge it. Moreover, I dimly recognized that I was actually not separate from this flow of life, which had no concern for my puny efforts to manipulate it or force it into artificial channels of belief.
Father Klaus was quick to disabuse me of such notions, however. “The Devil is cunning,” cautioned the confessor, “and will use every tool against us unless we are ever vigilant. Remember Christ our Savior was Himself tempted in the desert, and struggled mightily against Lucifer’s wiles. We cannot just accept this insult of the flesh. Through the Original Sin of Adam and Eve we have become fallen loathsome creatures, and yet through God’s Grace we can defeat Satan.”
Then he continued: “Even we priests are not immune to the torments and temptations of the flesh. Even after ordination the struggle continues, although not with the intensity of the adolescent years, and only gradually subsides with the eventual weakening of the body and ascendance of the Spirit that comes with age and religious maturity.”
I inwardly groaned at the prospect of this life sentence, but also took some small measure of encouragement from the thought that I was not alone in his struggle. I was part of a brotherhood of the brave and courageous. Even priests like Father Klaus had to endure the curse of the body, and I vowed to myself to learn to be strong like them, my older brothers in Christ. And thus I took faith in God’s Mercy, and redoubled my commitment to the battle with the flesh.
The next two years consisted of a walk on the razor’s edge between Grace and looming damnation. Things were especially perilous during times away from the seminary during vacations at home. When I capitulated to sin there, the only confession-on-demand was about 5 miles away, which necessitated taking a bus and risking possible death all along the way to the remote location, which surely would have resulted in the loss of my immortal soul to perdition. Wonder if the bus crashed, or some natural disaster (such as an earthquake) were to befall me between the sin and the waiting forgiveness of the confessional? And yet, somehow the impulse was so strong that I was willing to tempt fate for a few moments release.
As I pondered that situation, I became more and more frustrated with myself and the position I was relentlessly placing myself in. I then began to realize that the possibility of damnation was part of the thrill, which puzzled me. The more I contemplated that fact, the more I began to suspect the whole game. This dawning recognition was to become the first crack in the solid stone edifice of my belief and trust in the Church. The frequent bus rides started to seem silly, and I began to actually doubt that I could slip so easily between a state of Grace and a state of damnation, particularly after doing some research in developmental psychology and learning that the experiences I had been going through were merely the harmless hormonal expression of the body as it matured towards adulthood.
Interestingly enough, as I came to that realization, the act itself became less frequent, confirming my suspicion of how the pleasure was partly associated with the illicit thrill of gambling my soul in the process. When I relayed my discoveries to Father Klaus, however, he was shocked and horrified that I would arrive at such a perverted conclusion, and moreover raise any sort of doubt regarding the Church Law in this matter.
Nevertheless, the more I contemplated the matter, the more I began to see certain elements of Church Teaching as essentially wrong-headed and more dangerous to mental health than the actual sins they condemned. Were we creating generation after generation of guilt-ridden souls based on a purely arbitrary understanding of God’s intent for us humans? Is this what Christ’s redemptive power was reduced to – sending young men back and forth to confess surrendering to natural urges. Lest they be cast into eternal hellfire?
It was during my third year that the seminary administration announced that Father Klaus had suddenly and without warning been “re-assigned”. There were rumors among some of the students that there had been some “hanky panky” between Father Klaus and a few of his penitents, but this was never confirmed. I was a bit taken aback by this turn of events, but was turned over quickly to a new confessor, Father Jim. Father Jim was a more modern-thinking cleric, and he assured me that the Church was reconsidering its position on masturbation, for example, and perhaps even down-grading it to a Venial sin. This did not concern me as much anymore, however, since my attention had been turned to the new counter-cultural revolution taking place in my home city of San Francisco.
Although the seminary was slowly relaxing some of its more medieval restrictions on our exposure to the world, partly in response to the Second Vatican Council, we got our fill during vacation breaks of what was happening among our generation “on the outside”. It was an exciting time, and the call to social action in particular inspired me, and led me to a re-invention of my mission as a priest-in-training. The Civil Rights Movement, the growing anti-war movement, and various other topical crusades captured my imagination, and I was anxious for the Church to catch up and become a positive force for social change.
The next few years witnessed my increased involvement in social causes, and when my parents bought me a used Ford Falcon, I took advantage of the seminary programs that allowed for me to go up to San Francisco for special course work, volunteering at a half-way house, for example, in the Haight Ashbury. There I theoretically was counseling runaways, but in reality I was learning about a whole new world that excited and fascinated me. I would sit and talk for hours with the “Hippies” who dropped in for coffee and conversation, and from them I received my first introduction to “alternative spirituality”, among the many other intriguing topics we discussed.
Ah, the Summer of Love – San Francisco in the late 60’s!
It seemed as if the whole world would soon be re-born on the waves of this new consciousness that was washing through the land! In fact, by 1969, the vibration of change had even begun to permeate that bastion of conservatism – the Roman Catholic Church. Some of our courses were addressing the new Liberation Theology that brought the Church to direct involvement in the people’s struggle to throw off the yoke of imperialism, and often we found ourselves standing in picket lines and participating in marches protesting racial discrimination and the horrible Viet Nam War. By my seventh year studying for the priesthood, the sounds of psychedelic music and the sweet aromas of marijuana could occasionally be detected seeping under the doors of some of my more daring classmates.
By this time, after years of keeping its students cloistered for most of the year behind walls that brooked no “pollution” from the outside world, we were also allowed to go home on weekends (in addition to the off-campus course work). It was an hour’s drive back to San Francisco from the south, and I took full advantage.
On a lovely Friday in the Spring of ’69, I was on my way home with a fellow classmate, Joe Spaduski, and the plan was to drop him off at his place, which was on the route I followed to San Francisco. We sang along to the acid rock from an “underground” radio station, and when we arrived at his place, he invited me in to hang out for a while and listen to the latest Grateful Dead album he had just bought.
He had the stereo cranked at full blast, and I was enjoying my dawning recognition of the hidden significance of The Grateful Dead, when I noticed that my head was pounding louder than the music. I asked Joe if he had any aspirin. He grinned and told me that he had something even better! “Whatever!” I replied, and soon found myself washing down two little blue pills, and thinking nothing of it.
“Guess what you just took?” Joe leered.
“Dunno – what?” I responded.
“You just took your first psychedelics!” he almost exploded with glee.
“Wha…??” I asked.
”Yeah, man – mescaline! A nice solid dose – should make the rest of your drive home verrrry innner-resting!”
“Whatever. . .” I managed to exclaim, and bid him a quick and slurred adios.
I really had no idea what to expect. Of course, by now I had heard plenty of anecdotal reports about visions and illuminations, as well as tales of nightmarish bad trips and mental freak-outs, but I have always had a particular trust in life, and felt that I was ready for whatever it wanted to do with me. Yeah – “Whatever. . .”
As I cruised down the Bayshore Freeway, I began to notice that none of the cars were actually moving – it was the landscape that was moving, and we were all on an incredible moving freeway, just watching the scenery pass by. This was quite unusual, and it was beginning to dawn on me that something was … different. Not only that, but objects had grown amazingly vivid and even cartoonishly liquid, and that my body extended out to blend with all of them, to the point where I could no longer distinguish where “I” left off and they began. Now I had to wonder, “Who is driving this car?” And then even further, “What …is…car?”
Fortunately by that time, I was travelling through Golden Gate Park, and was somehow able to pull over on the last few minutes of habit energy carried over from my previous life. When I came to a stop, I had no clue as to what kind of enclosure I was sitting in. As “luck” would have it, a window was open, and I managed to eventually climb out that window and wander over to the base of a near-by tree, where I collapsed in a cloud of purple haze.
Some indeterminate amount of time later, I noticed a little voice calling me by name. I looked around, and observed only a very relaxed squirrel perched in front of me.
“How ya doin’, Bob?”
“Wait a minute…!”
“Wait for what, Bob? Wait for you to finally realize that you have been wasting your time on a religion you really don’t give the slightest damn about anymore?
Wait until you’re ordained and then wake up to the fact that you’ve been unconscious for as long as you can remember?
Wait until you finally realize that any meaning you are granting to any of this is purely a result of ignorance?
Wait for a gold-embossed letter from the Almighty saying: ‘Hey man: QUIT FARTING AROUND!’
Wait until you recognize that you’ve been sleep-walking through most of your entire life, filled with beliefs that someone told you were yours, but which have nothing whatsoever to do with WHO YOU ARE?
Wait for that, Bob?”
I was reeling! It wasn’t so much that the squirrel was talking to me – I could accept that – it was what he was saying that really rocked me! He was right! I had been such a fool! All these years… all these years!
I started to thank him, but he told me to “think nothing of it!”
“Just part of the service we’re here to provide, Dear Boy!”
I staggered to my feet, dragged myself over to the car, and was somehow able to navigate the rest of the way home. When I stumbled through the door to my house, my two Labrador Retrievers came rushing up to me, filled with joy.
“He can hear us” they exclaimed,“you can hear us!” They were jubilant, and I joined them in the celebration of our cross-species communion. We rolled around laughing in mutual glee on the floor for quite some time, and then I told them that I was leaving the seminary. They both laughed in unison: “About time!”
Later that night, my parents were not quite as understanding, but my decision was firm. The following Monday, I returned to school and announced my departure. Then I went home, sold all my stereo equipment, and headed to the high Sierras. There, by the banks of a crystal cool stream, I spent the next 6 months renewing my love affair with the Mystery, and all I can say about that is:
What a Mystery the Mystery Is!
(Author’s Note: Most of the names in this story have been changed for privacy purposes, and Father Klaus was a composite of several seminary clergy.
On a further note, of the 120 aspirants in my original freshman class, only 2 went on to ordination. Both of them subsequently left the priesthood to marry, as did a number of my former seminary instructors.)
For the next chronological chapter, see https://travelsindreamland.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/plans/