One afternoon, none of the distractions worked, and the memories of shadows kept winning. Alfonso sprang up from his chair in his room and resolved to take a walk on campus.
None of his friends had accepted his invitation for a stroll. The rejection had saddened Alfonso at first; but a few steps in the direction of his academic home, away from the House of the Jesuits, finally reminded him why a solitary walk was best to clear his head. He had space to listen to the footfalls of students, or the crush of tires on gravel, or the twittering of birds in the thick canopies of the trees, or the brush of branches and leaves as the afternoon breeze strove to fight against the summer heat.
He had time to remember why he loved the campus, and why he loved being where he was.
He also remembered that he had not been on any walk on his own ever since the incident on the balcony.
So, Alfonso walked, through the dying sunlight, across asphalt roads, to the campus buildings that stood on the hill above the House of the Jesuits.
He had always taken walks like this, when he felt that the world seemed to shrink from him, when he thought that his books were threatening to eat him alive. But he had never taken a walk after weeks of seemingly being held in a coffin underground, with only his memories for company.
The buildings were both familiar and unfamiliar, in the tiger stripes traced by the plants that lined the campus grounds, in the purple shades drawn by the dusk. There were the laboratories that clanged with metal or clinked with glassware, now silent and unoccupied as summer classes wound to a close. There was the parking lot, where groups of students huddled in giggles, swarmed in laughter, mumbled like bees hopping from hive to hive. There was the brick road, littered with golden brown leaves from the acacias that stood overhead.
Alfonso lost himself in memories, this time of classes where he fell in love with texts and subtexts and formulae and homework and seatwork and groupwork and people with their ever-so-many quirks and idiosyncrasies and –
“If I might walk with a fellow brother?” A voice at his side interrupted the flow of the narrative in his head.
“I am quite new to this country,” the voice continued, “I know many of its countrymen, and some women; but I know little of the streets in which they travel.”
Alfonso nearly jumped, not so much at the words, but at the bright blue eyes that greeted him. In the evening, under a tarry sky through which stars could not pierce, the eyes were an icy gray. In the light of the setting sun, they seemed like ocean waters, like bubbling billows and willowy waves that could rise with every word that the speaker uttered.
“Good afternoon, Fr. Anthony,” Alfonso thought that the newcomer would cut, and rudely, into his meditation, the way that most other unexpected visitors would and did. Strangely, the old priest’s presence, though surprising and admittedly frightening at first, was a calm to the many trajectories that Alfonso found his brain taking.
“I knew it was you,” Fr. Anthony smiled, all lips and no teeth, but all glow and no arrogance, “I recognized you. The young man who stood his ground, who was brave, but who prayed in silence without losing his faith in Our Lady, and who prayed with me even when his own brothers were struck silent in fear.”
Alfonso marked that the priest did not overtly call what had happened an exorcism. He wondered if there was some code of conduct that demanded control over the exorcist’s vocabulary, or a non-disclosure agreement that bound even the way that exorcists talked about their experiences.
“So you know my name but I do not know yours,” Fr. Anthony continued, holding out a hand, “Anthony Lector.”
Alfonso took the hand, shook it, and tried not to wince. The priest was old, but his grip was firm. The boy could not help imagining Fr. Anthony in battle with demons, holding up a metal shield in one hand and an English broadsword with the other, striking out with swipes from below and blows from above (high points awarded for valor, Alfonso’s old gamer brain put in).
“Alfonso Sucat,” he answered.
“Ah!” The old priest smiled once again, blue eyes dancing, “Like St. Alphonsus Liguori, the patron of vocations.”
Fr. Anthony’s voice crackled, as though he were drawing out words on ice; but his tone was warm, his gait easy, as he resumed walking through the deepening dusk. There was no hint of the night on the balcony, no darkness trailing the man’s shadows, no invisible weight dragging his steps. Even his allusion to a saint was casual, as though he had dinner with everyone in heaven every evening.
“So – tell me more about this campus, Alfonso,” Fr. Anthony said, as he resumed walking, “I have lived here for close to a month now, and I have spent too much time in the infirmary. Not good for a priest like me.”
“An – exorcist?” Alfonso could not help speaking up, as they came to a part of the campus that had more trees than people.
Even Fr. Anthony’s laugh was bright, “An old priest – an aging priest!” He exclaimed, blue eyes catching the last of the late afternoon sun, “Why else would Jorge take all those walks through Rome? He’s tired of his office, as any old priest suddenly saddled with administrative duties would! We old men – we can only walk; you young ones should run while you still can.”
The priest paused, brought his musings to the heavens. Alfonso took the chance to wonder who Jorge was that Fr. Anthony so easily referred to him as friend and world-weary manager. He also wondered if he could still run; too many hours in theology class also meant too many hours typing papers, reading overlong texts, and sitting with classmates to debate and argue. The only running that happened was in his brain, where ideas had to flex their muscles, go in circles, bounce back and forth.
“And by running, I mean exercise; not running from the priesthood,” Fr. Anthony added hurriedly, as though even his good sense were fleeing, and he had to catch it, “Let us begin your account of this campus. Talk to this old priest about new things, Alfonso.”
Alfonso could not help smiling at Fr. Anthony’s insistence. The young priest was usually the one who asked questions, inquired after people, listened. The exorcist was more a grandfather than an elderly priest giving a lecture.
“We are walking today in the new home of an old university,” Alfonso began, trying to cast away the temptation to giggle at how literally he was taking the priest’s instructions, “This university used to be closer to the Spanish capital, in Manila, before it moved to this spot. It used to be exclusive only to boys, but that changed in the 1970s.”
A scene in a nearby building stopped Alfonso. A group of students was laughing (hollering and howling in delight, more so) as it gathered around a professor. The professor in question was a girl – so familiar, that Alfonso knew they had been introduced before, but he had forgotten her name.
“Speaking of women,” Fr. Anthony mused, a tiny laugh playing at the end of his sentence, “A bright light in schools that have kept themselves in dark corners for far too long.”
As though in answer, the hollering grew louder, and the students became more shameless in their affection. One even danced to a tune that only the student seemed to hear.
“We love you, ma’am!” The group embraced their professor, so that she disappeared behind a wall of arms and heads.
“Brightness! But – unusual,” Fr. Anthony nodded toward a nearby road, in a silent order that he and his companion should resume their walk, “Are the students always this happy?”
Alfonso remembered his own undergraduate days. He could recall hours spent writing out solutions to problems, dawns spent looking at a rising sun above a computer screen showcasing a freshly-typed paper, dusks spent in the arms of a setting sun creeping through the windows of the library. He had always been tired and working, but he never recalled being unhappy.
“Yes, I suppose they always have been,” Alfonso mused, finding a smile tickling one cheek, “There might be exceptions of course, but I think everyone here is happy.”
Some people would scoff at the notion of a happy undergraduate population, especially in a school known for its philosophy and theology, for the many essays that students had to write and the many projects that they had to undertake in the name of grades and graduation. Fr. Anthony simply smiled, until the ends of his lips crinkled the edges of his eyes.
“You can feel it in this campus,” he said, breathing deep as he walked onward, “People are happy, and loving, and good. As you said, there are exceptions. Now – tell me more.”
Alfonso’s brain picked up on the gravity of Fr. Anthony’s words, and how precise they seemed to be. Yes, there was a general sense of happiness, love, and goodness; but even the next sentence seemed to indicate that Fr. Anthony knew something, and was holding it back until an opportune moment.
Alfonso, therefore, was wondering what that opportune moment was, at the same time that he was describing all the buildings behind them, and the road next to them, and the church that loomed larger and larger as they walked onward. He talked about a corn field that used to shield the campus from the main highway, but that had been torn down to make way for a road and a forest. He talked about the buildings that housed laboratories, a television studio, a library, an archive that held weather documents from hundreds of years back in time, a museum that showed off ancient pottery and art that had been in the university’s collection for decades.
He felt the tales and anecdotes slip out easily, as Fr. Anthony and he kept walking.
He talked about the time he fell asleep in the library, woke up an hour before a deadline, and had to cram an entire paper while fighting not to scream. He had dreamed about what to write, thanks be to God; he hadn’t dreamt about the dismal C that he got on the paper, though.
He talked about the time he was in the laboratory and thought he had seen a ghost (it was only a scurrying mouse, he found out later) but his actual scream had been so loud, and so high pitched, people on another floor of his building (and the building opposite) thought that his lab was haunted.
He talked about the time he visited the campus church, when he was but an undergraduate trying to make sense of chemistry class. He spent an hour sitting in a pew, reveling in the silence – until a student tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he was there to hear confessions.
Fr. Anthony laughed loudly at the last one, and then kept on laughing for an inordinately long amount of time, so that Alfonso wondered if he was already being laughed at.
“Oh, young man!” The old priest mused, “But I can’t help it! Thank you! It was a dismal day, but you brightened it! Thank you!”
Alfonso could manage only a chuckle, although he did feel a smile pull up his cheeks at the sight of the near-giggling exorcist (such an idea would have been an oxymoron had he never met Fr. Anthony). The mere act of smiling had been foreign to Alfonso for weeks; the act of smiling now, in that moment, under the shadow of the university church – it made the young priest remember what had drawn him to the Jesuits.
There was an undercurrent of brotherhood, of family, of common conversation that could always be had no matter how old the priest and how young the novice. He could address the older, even infirm priests by their first names, with the same levity that he would his classmates and his teachers. He could spend the entire afternoon in the Jesuit library, in silence and solitude, and yet never feel alone. He could sit at dinner with close to a hundred priests, scholastics, and brothers, and never feel as though there were too many souls at the table.
And this: there was always humor. It was hard to believe that the Jesuits were once the only exorcists in Asia, especially when his own Jesuit superiors teased each other about being “Devil sent” when they made mistakes in cooking, cleaning, or even typing up their research work – and especially when those same superiors jokingly referred to each other as demons when anyone brought in expensive food or wine for sharing (which was often).
Fr. Anthony – Alfonso could still not call him by his first name – was still laughing as they walked away from the campus church.
“I like hearing stories about vocations and discoveries, see,” the old priest spoke, as they rounded a bend in the road, “My own journey was boring. I loved a woman, of course – but I could not imagine marriage, or children. Not with her, and not with anyone. I could see only friends and brothers.”
“That was also me, Father,” Alfonso could not help speaking up, “I loved someone, too.”
“Ah” Fr. Anthony finished for him, “But you loved the whole human family as well.”
Alfonso could not help smiling. The words had always been in his head, at the back of his imagination; to hear someone else speak them so clearly was encouraging, albeit frightening. It was as though he were an open book, and Fr. Anthony had selected the exact spot in his References to draw conclusions on who Alfonso really and truly was.
“Don’t be afraid, young man,” Fr. Anthony continued, smile still bright, blue eyes still swimming with the last of the dusky light, “I have enough years on me to know the stories of my brothers. Some escape to the priesthood because they are running from the world. Some stumble into it, as though they were born distracted by the world, and then chanced upon something that made them stop, and focus. I walked into the priesthood long before I knew what it was. I’m guessing that might be your story as well.”
Alfonso’s chuckle reemerged, “I don’t feel like I did any kind of legwork.”
“Very well, then – seatwork,” was the swift retort from the older priest, “You were resting and listening to God, and he said, ‘Since you did not come to Me when you were walking, or running, or stumbling, I shall send you a student while you are sitting’.”
The mental image of an exasperated God made Alfonso’s chuckle graduate to laughter.
Fr. Anthony was smiling and serene this time, “That shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Our God never gives up – especially not on the last, the least, especially not the suffering,” and, with some pointedness, “But I suppose you already know that.”
The streetlights of the campus flickered on as Fr. Anthony finished his sentence, and, with his pause, so did the gossamer dusk deepen and fight against the meager pinpricks of stars overhead. Alfonso could not help thinking of some form of enlightenment – not a lightbulb moment, but a slow, drawn out battle between the known and the unknown, ignorance and intelligence, murky reason and clarity. The God who never gave up on the least, the last, the suffering; who brought a light to guide souls through the darkness; who called those who walked, or ran, or stumbled, or just sat and waited – but the call was a whisper lasting hours, and the light a gentle lantern that wrestled with forces as deep as midnight, as black as dead stars.
“You might have heard rumors, of what happened after that evening’s session,” Fr. Anthony’s voice seemed to bounce off the asphalt, “I would much rather discuss what occurred, than respond to some artificial interrogation. Truth be told: I wish I had been asked about it.”
Alfonso did not know whether the older priest was simply musing or critiquing the younger, apparently gossip-ridden Jesuits.
“I think everyone wants to know what happened,” Alfonso said, trying to subdue what he felt would be an attempt at defending his brothers, “They have some idea about it, but – perhaps – they’re afraid to ask.”
Fr. Anthony’s laugh rang loud, more mocking than amused, “And they think whispering about it is better?” Then, with a brush of his hand into the air, as though to swat Alfonso’s unease away, “I’ve been here only three weeks and now I’m picking fights! Never you mind, young man!”
Alfonso was not sure, once again, whether Fr. Anthony was dismissing the matter or simply setting it aside for another time. And again, there was the nagging thought that there was something waiting to be brought to light, something that the priest was dying to tell him, if only Alfonso said the slightest word.
Deep within, Alfonso was frightened. He did not dare articulate his fears, and for fear that they would come true.
“Father Anthony,” Alfonso had to speak up, or his knees would turn to jelly, “If I may –”
“Oh, you may whatever,” Fr. Anthony was both gruff and fatherly, “I’m just glad someone is talking to me. Out with the critique or shocking anything, then.”
Alfonso could not help smiling, “Maybe the rest of the brothers don’t ask you anything because they don’t know what to ask. We hardly had lessons on exorcism in theology.”
The older priest continued to walk, with a slight nod to the ground before he spoke again, “That’s no surprise,” emerged as a sigh, more sad than exasperated, “We were taught that the devil wasn’t some real creature under the earth, even in my time. It was our professor’s rational answer to an irrational fantasy, this invisible force that we thought controlled us and made us puppets, bent us to its will, made us sin.”
The syllables flowed from Fr. Anthony with the same cadence as the crickets in the nearby trees, the same pitch as the brush of leaves against branches, the same staccato as his footsteps on the gravel. Despite the melding of voice into evening, Alfonso did not miss a word.
“But that thinking is still dangerous,” Alfonso rejoined, “It’s like I gave over all control in my life to Satan, so I don’t have any responsibility, and no sin is my own.”
“True,” was the older Jesuit’s reply, “But you don’t remand a tale of puppetry by wishing away the supposed puppet master. The Prince of Darkness was once a Prince of Heaven too. He was created by the same God that made you and I. Writing him out of human activity is dismissing creation.”
“But God would then have created something evil.”
“No: he created something that had the power of choice – and that creature chose evil. It chose to hate the rest of creation. To this day, it seeks to destroy all good. But it always, always operates within the bounds of God’s will.”
Alfonso had not aimed to engage Fr. Anthony in debate. He recalled his theology lessons, somewhere in the priest’s words; but there was an air of newness in how the nature of evil was spoken of so quickly, so – humanly.
“You say you hardly had lessons in exorcism,” Fr. Anthony resumed, as he and his companion crossed the road, away from the campus, and closer to the Jesuit residences, “But the way you reacted, the way you behaved when your friend was possessed…you were calm, and you were praying.”
Alfonso’s jelly knees settled, as Fr. Anthony and he stopped under the shade of a tree, and as they stood almost directly in the final purple light of dusk. There were stars on the far horizon, hidden still beneath a shimmering veil of city lights and smoke. There were clouds, shredding the heavens or caressing it, blushing with the final rays of a dying sun, casting their own iridescent sheen over the growing evening.
Everywhere was creeping darkness, but the light remained, a promise of a morning to come. For the first time in weeks, Alfonso remembered how the night on the balcony was the direct opposite of how he felt at that very moment, as he stood next to the elder Jesuit: there had once been a promise of light, and the shadows came to extinguish all hope.
“It was the only thing I knew to do, Father,” Alfonso spoke up, feeling his voice rise from his lungs, warming his mouth, “I know I should have waited for you.”
Fr. Anthony’s shake of his head was more gentle than remonstrating, “The exorcist is only a vessel for Him,” he pointed upward, “You did the right thing.”
Alfonso could only look down at his feet. The priest’s blue eyes were garish bright in the lamplight.
“May I ask what prayer you prayed?” Fr. Anthony spoke, voice level, as though striving to ease the icy sharpness of his gaze.
“Pope Leo’s prayer to St. Michael the Archangel,” Alfonso replied, finally daring to look the older priest in the eyes. He found that Fr. Anthony was smaller than him, with white hairs seemingly adding both light and height to a rather pudgy frame. And yet the old priest did not stoop, did not slouch, seemed far stronger, far larger a spirit than his body allowed.
And when his eyes twinkled, they seemed to add all the more to his glow. “Good choice,” Fr. Anthony smiled, “What made you choose it?”
“Well, it’s the most obvious one, I suppose,” Alfonso slowed down, suddenly wary if he was being tested, “Defend us in battle, be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil.”
“Very good,” the elder Jesuit nodded, smiling, head to the ground, hands clasped behind his back. He reminded Alfonso of the university’s theology professors, who walked around in Birkenstocks and khakis, but who always seemed to look at the world with childlike curiosity blended into business-like critique.
Fr. Anthony was in sandals, ready to go to the beach with only a missing Hawaiian shirt to match his cotton trousers – and yet standing with a gravitas that made everyone around him wait in silence.
“If you read it very closely, you will find that it is a two-pronged prayer,” the old priest spoke again, this time looking up, so that his eyes met the white lamplight, “You are asking for deliverance from the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
“The wickedness is an active Satan running around causing mischief and wreaking havoc. The snares are the traps he sets, where he doesn’t have to do much but laugh at human weakness.
“When you pray that prayer, you ask that Satan be bound in place; but you also ask that in his binding, you do not fall into anything in your nature that will make you his prey.”
The words had come out softly, and yet they emerged from the clasps of the night wind, wrestled with the breezes that threatened to stifle it. Alfonso expected to be berated – for the wrong prayer? his scholarly brain offered – and yet he felt as though the elder Jesuit were soothing him, listening to him even when Alfonso was quiet, telling him that his fears were nothing in the face of a merciful God whose ears were open to his every breath.
“You prayed more than a simple formula, young man,” Fr. Anthony went on, blue eyes gentle as a summer sky, “You prayed to the head of the army that cast Satan into Hell, and you made him fight the Old Enemy once again. That was the defense against wickedness.”
Alfonso could hear the echoes in his head, of the night on the balcony, as his friend (or what was inside him) screamed a long, guttural “and down, and down, and down” that echoed through the trees in the jungle beyond. Even in its howling, even in its anger, Alfonso could remember hearing a voice so tired, so hateful, so ancient in its bearing. The Being had existed for millions of years, crawled the earth, hunted humans. How could any mere prayer bind it, let alone imprison its master?
“You also prayed to be protected from the snares,” Fr. Anthony’s voice rose a pitch at the end, the signal, as any good student of theology knew, that a discussion would soon commence, “What do you think that snare was?”
Alfonso already had an answer, “Vanity,” he could almost see the page of his class reading in his head, “A priest might think that he has the power to heal the person on his own, but he is only God’s vessel.”
The hum from Fr. Anthony sounded as though he agreed, but to the tune of a C+, and with an invitation of further elaboration to save Alfonso’s grade.
“Fear,” Alfonso felt the answer leave him, between memories that scoured through his textbooks and memories that replayed the scene on the balcony weeks ago, “A priest might be crippled, and leave, give up, lose trust in God and God’s mercy.”
Another hum came, partnered with a nod. It was a low B+, Alfonso guessed, the kind where the examiner thought that he was at the end of his student’s capacity, and that nothing more could be added or changed.
The scene on the balcony took over Alfonso’s ponderings then: he could see the jungle darkening, the sky extinguishing its stars, the howls and hoots and chitters and chatters of animals filling the night. Somehow, the thrum of his brothers’ praying disappeared; the warm air that had enveloped him seemed colder, icy, as though it were digging roots deep into his heart.
“Despair,” he spoke, feeling his chest lighten, his breathing clear for the first time in weeks, “It isn’t just loss of trust in God and his mercy, but a loss of hope, a complete surrender of anyone’s power to do anything.”
“And therefore a mockery of God’s creation,” Fr. Anthony added, “You protected yourself when you prayed that prayer. You have very good instincts.”
Alfonso breathed. He did not know that he had been holding his breath; he sensed only that, from the weight that left his body, and from the breeze that now soothed rather than chilled his skin, that the breath had been held for too long, too deeply.
“I still feel the despair,” Alfonso spoke, glad to confess what had so plagued him since the night on the balcony, “I keep remembering what happened.”
Fr. Anthony watched him for a moment, then gave a single, almost grim nod. His blue eyes were washed in slate gray, like a morning sky after a dawn of rain.
“Sometimes – I still hear the voices,” Alfonso felt his breathing lend roundness to the vowels in his words, “They sound sad – but they also sound like they hate me. They want my pity, but they want to hurt me, and everyone around me.”
Alfonso swallowed down the rising pitch in his voice. He sounded like a child lost in a storm of words; but – and the realization came to him only at that moment – in the face of hatred that stormed and gnawed and snarled and sneered, all humans were children, and there was no shame in admitting one’s fear.
“They sounded – they still sound like they want to take me with them,” Alfonso continued, “And if I’m not careful, then they sound like they want to help me. But really, they just want to drag me away.”
“Drag you down,” Fr. Anthony sounded as though he were correcting the notion and comforting Alfonso, all at the same time.
Alfonso swallowed the shivering consonants threatening to tie his tongue, as another whistle of evening wind came through the trees. “Drag me down,” he echoed, “And make me hate everything because there’s nothing worth loving anymore.”
“And what have you done about it?” Fr. Anthony’s tone assumed an air of mentorship, “What have you done about these thoughts?”
Alfonso felt his shrug warm his shoulders, “I read a lot. I talk to my friends, I listen to music, I watch my favorite movies,” the warmth left as he kept on talking, “I distract myself.”
The bright blue twinkle in the priest’s eyes made Alfonso realize how he had contradicted himself in the span of less than a minute.
“I do pray!” the young priest spoke as soon as he could, which seemed to feed Fr. Anthony’s knowing chuckle, “I guess I needed to relax, first, before anything.”
“I know,” the bright blue twinkle never waned, “I never said that distractions were not helpful. However: They are not the only way to help yourself.”
Alfonso’s sigh weighed his breath down, “I guess I played into Satan’s hands.”
“I can’t speak for the old devil because I don’t like talking to him directly, but I suppose the answer to that is yes,” Fr. Anthony smiled, waiting as Alfonso took his turn to laugh, “But you have to remember that you have your own free will, your own power to resist, your own power to say no. It’s a conscious effort to stay afloat when you have the Deceiver himself waiting for you to sink, but paddle you must. Paddle we all must.”
“Pray we must,” Alfonso added.
“And pray we must,” the older priest’s smile was warm once again, “Pray as we sail into the darkest deeps, where we can barely see the stars.”
Alfonso rather thought of the struggle as running into opposing winds, or right into a wall that just happened to be there. His assessment of the situation sounded far more responsive, far less proactive than Fr. Anthony’s allusions to a reckless, stormy sea. The old priest seemed to see no accidental burdens, no sudden forces of nature to interrupt his calm; only a never-ending tempest that all humanity had to endure, that all souls had to sail through, where all the great sailors were worn out by battle and all the poorer spirits sank to the unforgiving depths.
Where there shall be endless cries and gnashing of teeth, Alfonso’s readings echoed in his head. He felt the evening draw the sky down, felt the winds chill and stir the trees on campus.
“I’ll be wanted back at the infirmary soon,” Fr. Anthony spoke up, above the shrill whistle of the breeze, “I do wish you and your brothers several things, chief among them not to speak too widely of what occurred that evening.”
Alfonso understood. What happened amongst the brothers also stayed amongst the brothers. Rarely would family members hear of the little quarrels that sometimes erupted among the novices, or the scoldings that sometimes occurred when the more austere spiritual directors disapproved of what their younger wards did. He guessed, however, that Fr. Anthony was asking them not to speak of it any longer, to leave the matter be, to turn their conversations to other, brighter subjects.
“If you must know, however: the rumors are true,” the old exorcist spoke oh-so-lightly, as though he were merely asking Alfonso to buy him groceries, “Your friend is indeed possessed by another demon, and I must keep on ministering to him. And yes, there were minor deliverances for a teacher and a student, but it’s nothing the Blessed Virgin can’t fix, am I right?”
Alfonso nearly jumped at all the words that seemed to be running past him. He needed to gather his thoughts, make sure he understood what had been said, hope that no other priests had seen him talking to Fr. Anthony that afternoon, or he would be expected to share gossip at dinner.
And all while the old exorcist wished that the chatter would disappear!
All that Alfonso could manage were a nod and a smile in response.
“This was a nice talk, Alfonso,” Fr. Anthony’s voice was solemn, “And you’re a bright young man.”
“Thank you, Father,” the younger priest coughed, as another sharp wind blew through the campus.
“Now – if you want to find out more – about what happened,” the old priest’s words seemed ready to sprint out once again, “If you want to know more about exorcism, then perhaps you should join us tomorrow. You can tell the front desk at the infirmary that you’ll see me, and they’ll tell you where to go. We meet at 9.”
There it was, the dull stab of both excitement and dread, now steadily sharpening as Fr. Anthony spoke the words that Alfonso hoped not to hear. He knew it was no mere invitation. The “should”, and the race the words ran, pointed to an almost direct order.
“Oh,” Alfonso cleared his throat, tried to smile, “Is there a – talk?”
Fr. Anthony’s grin was tight on the corners of his lips, as though he were ready to scoff at a little boy’s naivete, “It shall be a – let us call it a meeting, or a catching up, if you like,” the old Jesuit seemed tired, but a coiled spring in his excitement, “I thought it best to contact the Exorcism ministry office while I’m around. Can’t tell when I have to leave again.”
“Oh,” the young Jesuit had to swallow down a lump of both unease and interest (Alfonso was interested, truth be told, albeit trembling in his knees at the thought), “But I’m about to go on Regency.”
“Ah! Where to?”
“In one of the provinces. I’ll help with research.”
“Wonderful! And you fly out tomorrow?”
“Oh… no, in a few days -”
“So it’s settled then. Tomorrow at 9?”
For some strange reason, Alfonso did not feel prodded, goaded, or pushed into the answer. He was the boy in church again, waiting in the pew with only prayers for company. And there was the student, aged decades forward into the persona of a Jesuit priest, asking him if he was ready to take a bold step in a direction that he both dreaded and asked for, by a force both human and divine.
One foot always off the ground, their Founder said. One foot always forward, ready to leave, to travel, to do bidding, to obey.
“Tomorrow at 9,” Alfonso echoed, finding the weight on his chest (on his spirit) now completely gone.
“Very well then,” Fr. Anthony smiled.
The older priest stood in a halo of smoky lamplight, blue eyes washed with interest, head nearly bare save a few white hairs, brow wrinkled and dried but clear and unfurrowed. He was a grandfather hoping that his grandson would say yes to a dinner invitation, rather than an exorcist begging for a human companion in a world full of demons.
There was one more thing Alfonso saw, in the waiting – and now happy – Fr. Anthony. There was an air of ease, of carefree joy, as though the Jesuit had never been in the same sickroom as Satan.
“If you don’t mind my asking, Father,” Alfonso felt the words tumble out, albeit comfortably, “How do you not let the devil drag you down? Aside from praying, I mean.”
Fr. Anthony’s chuckle was close enough to a giggle, “I pray the exact same prayers as you do, young man,” he seemed to muse, as though remembering someone who had asked him the exact same question before, “And I, too, have distractions of my own. A good book is far better than any of your newfangled Net Things.”
“Net – things?”
“Network, Netbook – the one with the movies?”
“That one! A book, still better, any day.”
Alfonso had to laugh at that. He had indeed spent many a midnight eating his way through movies and TV series until his energy gave out.
“I see we have a guilty party!” Fr. Anthony seemed more amused than mocking, “Well, whether you like your Netflix or books, you must fight. And you must ask for aid, and protection, as you did. You are only a human, but you are also a human, most carefully, most wonderfully made.”
Alfonso had no reply. There was something about how the elder Jesuits spoke. They had an air of ancient authority, with no hint of a throne on which they sat as they poured forth their ideas, no sign of a crown to wear as they spoke with the wisdom of decades past. They seemed to be the advisers to pharaohs, the whispers in the ears of ancient kings. Grand men they were, whether in the black cassocks that marked their order; or now, in the faded long shorts that did not know whether they should have been tailored into pants, and the sandals that looked as though they were used to trudge daily through the cobblestones of Rome.
Alfonso could only smile.
“Keep fighting, young man,” Fr. Anthony clapped a hand to the boy’s shoulder, “Your spirit will only grow stronger with each battle.”
“I hope so,” Alfonso felt a sigh escape him.
“Trust your Creator and His power over everything, even those that you fear,” the words were encouraging, soothing, but rather rapid, as though the old priest were trying to nail the point into Alfonso’s bones, “If He turned an ordinary, weak mortal boy like me into an exorcist, he can do wonderful things with a brilliant boy as yourself.”
“Thank you – but I don’t think I’m brilliant,” Alfonso replied, “And I hope you don’t mind, but you don’t look like an exorcist.”
The answering laugh was a holler so loud, it required Fr. Anthony to throw his head back and make his wrinkled neck nearly meet the lamplight. Alfonso would have jumped in surprise had he not already been used to the old priest’s bursts of near giggles.
“And what should an exorcist look like?” Was Fr. Anthony’s chortle.
“Very old and drained, I guess?” Alfonso answered, finding himself laughing along, “And in the session, I thought it would be – you would be louder.”
Alfonso did not think that the old priest could laugh any harder, but there the holler was, even more raucous than before.
“And that is exactly what you get when you watch too much Netflix!” Fr. Anthony had to put one hand once again on Alfonso’s shoulder, lean his weight on the boy, and laugh the words out, “Oh, you heathen – I might have you repeat that tomorrow at the meeting, if people get bored. And – well – where I come from, you don’t look like a Jesuit.”
Oh there it was again, the Jesuit sense of humor.
“I’m too young?” Alfonso had to jump the punchline, and boldly. The old priest’s laughter (and weight) was too encouraging.
“You’re a barbarian in your choices of entertainment,” Fr. Anthony cackled back.
It was a facepalm moment for Alfonso, and it made the older Jesuit laugh all the more.