There was something about the ministry, however, that made Alfonso want to stay and help, albeit as a scribe on the sidelines rather than a warrior on the field of battle. To be accurate, there were several somethings, manifesting themselves at unpredictable times.
The urge itself to realize that these Somethings were Truths to be Examined came as Alfonso chanced upon the Lipa case once again on the afternoon that Fr. Anthony first introduced him to a study of the Roman Ritual. The case had apparently progressed during his Regency: An archbishop suddenly declared the apparitions as supernatural, and promised that the Vatican would soon issue an official decree. Within weeks, the Vatican handed down the results of its latest investigation. No, the Lipa apparition was not supernatural. Yes, there would be another investigation in perhaps a decade’s time.
“I worry for the exorcists who seemed so happy to speak of the apparition,” Fr. Anthony said, his eyes still on the Ritual, his hair glistening silver-white in the late afternoon sun, “And I worry that they depend too much on the titles and names of Our Lady. You have seen how she can vanquish demons even you simply call her Mother.”
Alfonso was still weakened then, though he understood Fr. Anthony’s words, and could only lie down and watch the old exorcist muse.
“If you must know, Rome worries much about your country, over and above Lipa,” Fr. Anthony was calm, but Alfonso sensed that the elder Jesuit had to unburden himself before he continued with their lessons, “This year – 2016 is over halfway through, and it has brought so much darkness, that Jorge is of half the mind that I must stop traveling between the Vatican and here and simply stay here to minister.”
At that time, Alfonso was too drained to be giddy about being so close to the Pope, let alone reassure Fr. Anthony that he was always welcome at the House of the Jesuits. And yet the man’s unease forced him to reflect on his Regency: he had been so busy with his reports and research, so delighted with his discoveries and his friends, that he neglected to contemplate on the world that frothed and seethed with unrest outside the university walls. Countries on every continent had elected presidents who seemed to be despotic grandfathers more than the servant leaders so preached by his Ignatian brothers. There were presidents who lied, who crafted tales that turned once different Others into enemies, who amassed followers that worshipped their words and cast out all rationality, all logic, if only to defend their votes. To contradict the State and to question its actions was suddenly equated with sin and immorality; anyone who spoke out was humiliated online, even hunted down and killed offline.
Those who paid homage to the government were gifted with immunity from persecution. They could well have stolen and lied and cheated for all to see, and yet the law would suddenly look the other way.
Alfonso felt, as well, the darkness that Fr. Anthony spoke of. It seemed to creep everywhere: into online conversations among strangers who were enemies long before they even had the chance to meet, into debates that peppered the newspapers with insults and lies, into speeches by the Philippines’ own newly elected president. There were more curses than insights, more hopeless meanderings than there was meaning.
Alfonso realized that he needed to find hope in his everyday, to see, far more clearly, far more deeply, how he could help fight the darkness even if he was so very alone, and still so very afraid.
He discerned his role, in part, at the very end of his Regency, on the night he was scheduled to leave for Manila. He was in a cab, on the way to the airport; and stuck, quite strangely, in the middle of traffic. He had nothing else to do but rest – the attack had been only two days prior – so he sat back, stared off into the darkening dusk, and allowed his mind to wander.
His thoughts had not gone very far, when his phone began to ring. Calls were nothing new to the young Jesuit. He had many friends who liked to chat, many family members who asked for advice, many people who often simply needed prayers and blessings. His lines were always open (and he was on the silver plate for all and sundry to feast on, as Fr. Anthony would admonish). This time, however, he also remembered that he had not checked his messages in days, had slept through most of his final hours in the university, had even studied the first few pages of the Roman Ritual and taken notes with enough fervor to fill his entire notebook with frameworks and scribbles.
He had never checked on anyone; and in retrieving his much ignored phone, he found out that everyone had been checking on him.
There were missed calls from his parents, brothers, cousins, and friends, including Lotta, who was calling him at that very moment.
Alfonso picked up the call.
“Where are you? Are you back in Manila yet?” was Lotta’s soft, but melodic voice. She had always had the air of a professor: gentle, patient, ready to reprimand, but easy to argue with. At that very moment, she sounded as though she were trying her best not to panic.
“Oh – hello! Nope, I’m just on my way to the airport,” Alfonso answered, feeling as though he had not spoken to a friend in ages. Perhaps it was the mortal wound he had received but days before, or the attack still lingering in his memories. Whatever it was, he felt as though he were a soul testing out a new body, and getting used to its own voice, “How have you been?”
Lotta talked about her work in the way she always did: enumerating one good thing, and then one bad thing, and then going back to one good thing, as though to reassure anyone that she was not too worried about her growing pile of tasks. From the noise in the background, Alfonso could tell that she was in a restaurant; and from a particular voice, he knew that she was with Gail, yet another one of his close friends.
He sent his regards to Gail first, then said that he had simply been busy, and had done his best to rest before his return to the classroom. A car honked on his side of the conversation, followed by a chorus of honks that were both demanding movement and venting anger.
“Sounds like traffic,” Lotta mused; then, her tone changed, “We thought you were already home. Gail and I wanted to invite you to a Support Agnes session.”
Alfonso’s heart sank, “Let me guess.”
Lotta sounded as though she was planning murder, “They broke up.”
The thought had worried Alfonso, but the words themselves were a stab. What if it was he who had brought this all on Agnes?
“He cheated on her – emotionally, but still – it was someone from his office,” Lotta continued.
Oh, God, what if it had been the demon? “Did this happen – just – a few days ago?” Alfonso swallowed the lump in his throat.
“Oh, no – this was a month in the making,” Lotta replied. Alfonso could hear Gail adding more details in the background, and caught only that it had been weeks, Agnes had endured being ignored, had a hunch, had gone through the breakup but a few hours before, “We thought we’d invite you, because – oh, you know Agnes.”
“She wants to handle it on her own – as usual?”
“Single author, solo flight. Well…Maybe it was for the best?”
Alfonso breathed, and yet felt another lump in his throat as he remembered how sprightly, how seemingly helpful Agnes had been but a few days before, when she had translated Italian for him. She had shown absolutely no signs that she was in distress, no sign that she was suffering; Alfonso thought that even if a demon had indeed come to attack her, she would have staved it off with prayers, a giggle, maybe even a dance.
Then again, he could not imagine Agnes as someone who would shut herself away forever. She had always been a mother to her students, always had a gaggle of them surrounding her and keeping her locked in a bevy of arms and smiles, always walked around campus to the tune of “Ma’am!” or even “Mommy!” greeting her at every turn. She was independent, not solitary; and she needed a partner rather than some man-child who seemed to be content that she had enough strength for the both of them.
Perhaps it was indeed for the best.
Lotta and Alfonso talked for a while about work, meeting up, and being a part of the Support Agnes Brigade. Then his mother called, and he had to cut off his conversation with Lotta to reassure his mother that he was safe, that he was sorry for ignoring calls because he had been so busy with last minute events, that he would call her when he arrived in Manila, and that yes, he would have an afternoon off one Sunday and visit her and his father. Then his spiritual director called to check on him, and to pray with him; Alfonso did not have to ask why. He knew that the good man had already known about what had transpired, and was perhaps ready to hand the reins over to another priest able to see Alfonso’s spirit grow.
As Alfonso closed the prayer, and said goodbye to his spiritual director, so did his cab move forward, as though ordered to do so, and on cue. There was no obvious cause for the traffic, only that there were so many cars, at a single time, wanting to go in a hundred different directions. He arrived at the airport too late for his flight, right as the airplane took off.
He was tempted to blame the demon – jokingly, of course – until the new manager at the counter recognized him as the priest who helped a biology teacher teach his students better. The biology teacher was her husband, and he had been so full of joy since the day the Jesuit had helped him; so full of joy, she said, that she didn’t mind if she booked the young priest on the next flight herself, all fees waived, with a gift of pastries to boot.
Alfonso shared the pastries with the Jesuits as soon as he arrived at the Residences. He found his brothers waiting for him, delighted to have him back, and surprised by a sudden onslaught of sugar in the middle of the night. They promptly read prayers of thanksgiving, then proceeded to open a bottle of wine and sit in the dining hall to a midnight snack of pastries and alcohol. There was absolutely no plan, only an unspoken rule of brotherhood that laid its warm blanket over the once snarling jungles, the once growling halls.
Even the brother who had once been possessed was with them: all happiness, all joy and even giggles as he bit into a pastry and laughed with the brothers.
There was so much outside of his control, and thankfully so, Alfonso reflected later. In a world that was filled with patterns, where mathematics could be used to explain some essentials of a conversation, where formulae could reveal some hidden machinations, where physics could calculate futures and predict trends – he was but a frail human dwarfed by the vastness of his ignorance. He was but a weak soul whose senses had none of the precision and beyond-worldliness of the angels, and yet he was constantly fed with joy, and his spirit thrived on it. There truly was much he could not encapsulate in word maps, mind maps, or any kind of algorithm that tried to mimic an objective reality; but there was certainty in the knowledge that there truly were questions whose answers came at an appointed time, and could only be understood at that moment.
The ministry of exorcism was one such place. There seemed to be no control, no hand of God or will or fate in the chaos. And yet it only appeared so when individual moments were taken, isolated, examined, used as episodes to frighten rather than instruct, to cripple souls rather than edify spirits. When past met the many, little stories of the present, there emerged narratives that spoke of individual choices made so carelessly, mercy given so generously, and an ending – to paraphrase one of his favorite authors – that was neither too early nor too late, that came precisely when it meant to.
Alfonso realized what other part of the ministry he loved when he stumbled upon Agnes a few weeks after he returned to Manila. They had hitherto met online, in a chat room housing what felt like Lotta the Wise and Comforting, Gail the Woman Who Knew Every Possible Insult to Throw at the Ex, and Alfonso the Voice of Reason. Agnes’ voice online was punctuated by occasional laughs, but the Brigade knew better than to leave her to her own devices.
Alfonso was out for a morning walk to clear his head (the theology readings had been especially taxing that day), when he spotted Agnes; or, more accurately, located her after a shrill chorus of “Ma’am!” crossed his ears and rang through the campus. He followed the sound as it traveled, and saw Agnes: thinner than before, but glowing, radiant, even beautiful. She disappeared in a rush of arms, in a loud “We miss you!”; then reappeared as the students ran off to their next class.
“Oy little bro!” she was the first to greet him.
He opened his arms, and she embraced him, with the same happiness, the same grasp of a big sister whose spirit was larger than her tiny body. And tinier she had become, it seemed, for he felt the bones in her shoulders, the angles in her hands, even the corners of her cheeks as she came close enough to lay her head against his chest.
“Please don’t tell me you’re starving because of him,” he held her at arm’s length, but with a glare that he hoped would knock sense into her, “I’m resigning from your support group if you’re not helping yourself.”
For a moment, Agnes’ face fell; but her glow returned, as though she had merely changed the source of light that powered her gaze.
“I did eat less, the first few weeks,” she spoke, almost casually, save for a whisper of sadness that seemed to sit in her pauses, “But I think I’m in a much better place now.”
“You do look happier,” Alfonso walked with her, “And by the way, happier than you’ve ever been for as long as I’ve known you.”
“Thank you!” was her bright answer, “Now, how are you?”
Alfonso threw his hands up, “I didn’t go through a breakup just a few weeks ago. Shouldn’t I be the one asking you that question?”
She shrugged, “I’m still incredibly hurt and injured, so let’s get that out of the way,” her smile, at that very moment, made her look like one of the women in Renaissance paintings, who had been forced to sit for hours in heavy silks, and yet who had to force out a smile to keep up with appearances, “And I feel betrayed, rejected, by somebody who didn’t even deserve me to begin with.”
Alfonso put an arm around the girl, hugged her quickly as they walked, “Let it out, little big sister,” he said, as he let her go, “I hope you’re not lying about being happy, though?”
“Of course not!” Agnes grinned, almost like a mischievous elf ready to scurry away. There was an air of joy about her; one might even call it grace, for she seemed to hold her head aloft, the way a dancer would at the end of a performance that might tear soul from limb. The Jesuits would call it finding God in all things: the ability to see an invisible hand of wisdom in a tragedy, the ability to take on almost crippling grief, the ability to meet a storm head on and dance through it.
They spoke of different things, then: about his Regency and her research, his theology lessons and her coming lectures. Again, Agnes had the ability to pull out stories from people, and Alfonso had to be extremely careful not to let slip that he had worked with an exorcist from Rome, or that the Pope probably knew who he was, or that he was studying the theology behind the Roman Ritual. They conversed so quickly, so casually, even when there were constant interruptions from students who greeted her from almost every corner of campus. One even screamed “Mommy!” like a rather deranged bat as she wrapped her arms around the little professor.
“Should I be asking for your autograph?” Alfonso asked, after the said student left.
“I teach over a hundred students every semester, so one of them’s bound to pop out every few square feet,” Agnes replied; then, after a pause through which she drew a breath, “To tell the truth: I’m happy to be in a place like this, at a time like this. I didn’t know that I needed to feel loved after all that’s happened. Maybe God gave me lots of students so that I could have lots of love when the time came for my heart to be broken.”
He gave her what he hoped was a comical glare, “So it’s just your students, hm?”
“And the SASS!” she exclaimed. She had turned Lotta’s SAB – Support Agnes Brigade – into the Support Agnes Super Squad, “Of course you three are helping me. Everyone is helping me. It’s like a nice blanket of help and love.”
When Agnes and he parted ways, Alfonso realized something about his vocation, and, to some extent, his involvement in the exorcism ministry. There was always a perfect time for everything, and a perfect place in the union of time and space. Had he entered the priesthood too early, he would not have discerned what truly drove his will. Had he pursued the exorcism project before his Regency, he would not have had the experience of demonic attacks to feel the horror that every victim felt, even if it was for but a few hours of his life.
The ministry was for those who surrendered themselves to these moments of perfected places. It was for those who were willing to wait for God’s hand to show Itself when It was truly needed, not simply when it was desperately wanted. The ministry was not for those whose wills were too strong, whose passions were too resolute, who needed recognition.
The ministry was teaching him to slow himself down, to look at the grand tapestry weaving a story into being, rather than examine individual threads and lament that they were frayed. To an extent, the idea of seeing broad brushstrokes appealed to his love for mathematics and how it explained a seemingly complex universe. Perhaps mathematics was indeed God’s hand calling the universe into being.
As for Agnes, he truly was thinking of who to pair her with, but the matchmaking had to wait (and he would have to broach the topic to Lotta and Gail, who knew Agnes better than he did). Alfonso had to concentrate on his work – and soon, on his papers in theology, which had to be written after his first year, all ready for publication. His months of dusk sessions with Fr. Anthony, random conversations with Agnes, Gail, and Lotta, his theology classes, and even his mathematics and mind maps all came to the fore as he realized what he wanted to write about.
Narratives of how an exorcism came to be, using tools in theology and mathematics. A union of the sciences and faith.
Alfonso had long been nursing the topic, but it finally came out of him with what felt like a combination of brute force and rather strong coffee. It all happened one afternoon when, by chance, Fr. Anthony was in the House at the same time as both Cardinal Aloysio (himself trained by the Jesuits) and Alfonso’s theology instructor. Cardinal Aloysio and his theology instructor were close friends, the theology instructor had always wanted to talk to Fr. Anthony about exorcism, and Alfonso was yet again pulled into the meeting. The many threads of his life converged at that moment, threatened to knot themselves into complications, but revealed an answer so easily, Alfonso was not sure where his inspiration came from.
All he saw was three faces of varying shades of skin and wonderment. Fr. Anthony looked as though he had been handed a basket of ideas, and had been told to pick only one among thousands that he loved. His theology instructor looked as though he had already catalogued the basket, could argue with every single idea, could shoot down every argument against his argument, and yet would enjoy the entire process nonetheless.
The Cardinal was the first to speak.
“I admire your courage,” the man’s eyes closed into slits, not from glaring, but from the giant smile on his face, “But – dear boy – that’s – difficult, and it will be very tiring, both in body and spirit. This is not something that should simply be played with, like a thesis statement.”
“I know, Cardinal Aloysio,” Alfonso felt his voice emerge, out of the haze of readings, through the energy of the coffee, into the warm afternoon, “I know what you mean: it feels like you’re being wounded by an enemy that you cannot see, and you have wounds that you can’t heal because they’re deep inside you, where even you cannot reach, no matter how much you know about your faith.
“But I also know that my wounds are small compared to the wounds of people who have gone through exorcism, or who are attacked every single day. These wounds are not given randomly; there is always a story behind them, and they are placed there because God wills these wounds. He wills them not because He is evil; but because He has a grander design, where our wounds are not injuries but meanings.”
Alfonso saw his theology professor smile, ever so slightly.
“And maybe there are patterns in how these demons talk during an exorcism, because they do obey God’s will, and they are not as free as they think they are. What if we could use mathematics as a tool to read their world, so that researchers can look at the patterns and help exorcists?”
“And put the researcher in mortal danger?” Fr. Anthony spoke up, pointed but grandfatherly.
Alfonso felt his heart warm at Fr. Anthony’s tone, “What if it was something to help future exorcists with their work?” he was trying his best not to smile, or at least not too widely, as he recalled the lecture he had heard years before, “The cases are rising but the signs are not consistent – perhaps we need to look closely at their stories and see if there are other gateways that we know nothing about, that we now need to take into account when we minister to our flock and talk to the oppressed.”
“But again – a researcher in mortal danger,” Fr. Anthony insisted.
“Only if he does not prepare himself, and only if he enters with a heart that wishes to explore rather than assist with God’s mercy,” Alfonso replied, and then fought not to jump up in celebration when Fr. Anthony smiled, nodded, and sipped his coffee with blue eyes clear through the fog of steam from his cup.
The consent was neither quickly nor clearly given. Alfonso only remembered that there was talk about scholarly papers, then Rome, then the pope, then the theology classes that his instructor had to teach, and then finally, something about Lipa that led to Alfonso being roped into the exorcism project. It seemed to be Fr. Anthony’s idea, from what Alfonso recalled: his participation would allow him access to recordings of past sessions in Lipa, which would help him write the papers that would unite mathematics and theology. Alfonso would spend three weeks out of each month in Lipa, where he would work with the Sheffield brothers for as long as he needed (this part was Cardinal Aloysio’s idea) and for as long as he was needed (and this part came from Fr. Anthony).
“Maybe you’ll last longer than the other priests who worked with them,” his theology instructor said, in class, a few days after, “You’re a scholar, Alfonso, and this is not a place for scholars and truth seekers. Are you very, very sure?”
That was when Alfonso realized he was ready. He could not answer with a definitive “yes”; he could only say that he was afraid, and that he would rely on God’s hand to show him the way. For the first time, he saw his theology instructor really, truly smile, with eyes shining both pride and fear.
“Perhaps if you succeed, then more priests will join in,” the theology instructor spoke, in a tone wrapped with loving sadness, “It is an important ministry; an increasingly important ministry, and one that I wish we had studied more. Please take care of yourself. Write well, but take care of yourself.”
The next two weeks were a blur as Alfonso plunged into the archives and studied all that he could about Lipa. He read through the investigation documents – which he had still saved from the years-old chat with the then-guardians of the Jesuit library – took notes as he consulted his copy of the Roman Ritual, planned his algorithms and keywords, sent in requests for printers and computers. He was the master of his research fate, the captain of his inquisitive soul; and yet he never spoke of his plans, not to his theology classmates, not to his parents, not to his siblings, not to the SASS that continued to meet and to which he gave his support even as the Lipa plans churned over and over in his head.
He had high hopes for his work: he would encode the transcripts of the Lipa cases, which had just been created from case file notes and old recordings; he would make mind maps that could be calculated in three dimensions; he aimed to uncover patterns in individual transcripts, and across all transcripts; he would check his findings against the records, to see if he had indeed matched with reality. He would write his papers uniting the mind maps with theology, uncovering new themes in the paths that demons took to ensnare humanity. It would take a year, he said; but he anticipated that he would take months – hurrah for quantitative work! – and then teach, as promised, in the next semester while he wrote the papers.
In half a year, however – in the three months of preparatory study and the three months of work that led to his sudden leadership in an actual exorcism case, Alfonso came up with nothing.
The printers he had programmed to print out word and phrase relationships with varying ink intensity seemed to be laughing at him. His algorithms, so carefully planned, had to be modified at nearly every turn – and he had to resist the urge to consult Agnes because of the nature of the research, and because he knew that Fr. Anthony would pull him out of the project if the old exorcist knew that word had any chance of spreading. Alfonso would not have been able to consult the girl, besides, because the volume of data would have been too great to squeeze into a text message; and, of course, he doubted the ability of qualitative analysis, howsoever systematic it was, to create any sense of the bewildering amounts of data he had to sift through.
And bewildering it was – and to tell the truth, bewildering was charitable.
There were piles and piles, boxes and boxes of data stretching all the way from the early 50s, peaking when the seer Sr. Teresita died but the year before. There were words that made no sense when strung together, made even less sense when analyzed against the rest of the transcript, looked like hieroglyphics when stared at for too long. There were mornings spent running the algorithms, hours spent modifying them, afternoons spent re-running them, evenings spent staring at printouts that could well have been reused as scratch paper on both sides.
Alfonso was close enough to despair, but he took refuge in three things.
There was prayer, and the almost nightly discussions with Fr. Anthony.
Then, the Sheffield brothers. They had first struck him as silly, overgrown, and childish; but the notions disappeared in minutes, as the elder brother Landon cooked him dinner that warmed him up and promptly welcomed him to what he felt was a chilly Lipa, and as the younger brother Bradley answered all his questions about the project with joy that was so vibrant, so contaminating, he wondered if Fr. Anthony had been joking when the old exorcist said that Bradley had once been possessed as a child.
“And yes I was!” Bradley exclaimed, in answer to Alfonso’s question on the boy’s first night at the Jesuit HQ. There was no resentment on Bradley’s face, only a smile that seemed to swell with sunshine, to glow with summer rain, “I have never forgotten it, and it makes me keep working every single day. There are parts of it I remember, parts of it that sometimes come back when I don’t think about them, parts that are still vivid. I sometimes hear our uncle’s voice calling me to pray. And I reckon I shall never forget it, so I don’t want anyone’s journey to be forgotten either. Well – my goodness – Landon, this priest is making me say profound things!”
“Pardon my little brother,” Landon rolled his eyes as he chopped vegetables for what would be that evening’s stew, “He hasn’t had a decent conversation with a human these last few months.”
“Can’t help it – the last priests we had seemed to like locking themselves up with their books,” Bradley retorted, “You’re the only one with computers, and you look like you can talk. SJ doesn’t mean ‘shy Jesuit’ does it?”
Alfonso nearly choked on his water then.
“How adorable!” was Bradley’s interjection, coupled with a pat of both his hands on Alfonso’s head, “You’re just the nice young man we need.”
“I’m as old as you are!” Alfonso could not help saying, as he sputtered water.
Landon could not help laughing, “And maybe that’s what my brother means: we need someone our age to keep us working,” then, with a pointed glare at Bradley, “You could also help that Sheffield lose a few pounds. You’re a runner, yes?”
“Oy!” Bradley snorted, “I can’t help it if you cook so well and we work all day on our bottoms!”
Alfonso laughed at the exchange that followed, which saw a good helping of puns meeting a surge of deadpan humor. The priest found that Bradley was the louder and noisier of the two; Landon, though a willing participant in the trade of jabs, was also gentler, almost a grandfather in a young man’s skin. Bradley was bright, a light that seemed to jump like a firefly from tree to tree; Landon was a tower, dark, stalwart, but unflinching whether the crisis involved typing transcripts to meet deadlines or changing recipes at the last minute.
“And this is why we are single!” Bradley finished the conversation, throwing a stray leaf of what looked like swamp cabbage, which Landon promptly caught, “Not that we mind. Can’t ever explain the nature of the job to a girl, can you? Yes, I transcribe exorcism files for the Vatican. Sorry, not my place; Satan’s there. Yours?”
“You cannot be talking like this in front of the Jesuit!” Landon cried.
“Why not? He was a man once!”
“He’s a man now! Try it with Uncle Jorge, why don’t you?”
“Uncle Jorge?” Alfonso had to speak up.
Landon smiled, deadpan, “The Pope is our godfather.”
Alfonso felt his mouth drop open, “Really? The Pope?”
“No jokes on that one,” Bradley’s grin was brilliant, “Does make for awkward dates, though. Yes, I transcribe exorcism files for the Vatican and the Pope is my godfather. Now you be a good lady, you hear, or there’ll be quite a spanking!”
Landon threw up his hands, “Alfonso – oh goodness, Bradley, this one’s a good boy!”
“Oy there’s a good boy!” Bradley raised one finger, “Can we call you PJ?”
Alfonso could only pause in his chewing as his response.
The poor priest nearly choked on his food.