Alfonso was used to being the last-minute host for any kind of meeting. This morning, however, would be his very first time presiding over priests at least twice his age, who had seen ten times as many demons, and whose personalities seemed to run through a spectrum that bordered on almost unreal varieties of absurdity.
A strict Dominican, a deaf priest who avoided science, a Franciscan who was close to drinking his weight in sugar.
Alfonso wondered what kinds of lives the rest of the priests were living. Daily exorcisms? Nightly invasions into their deepest nightmares? Yearly heart attacks?
The story about the girl with a migrating soul had ended by the time Fr. Anthony left the room. She liked to show herself, Alfonso gathered, only at 3 am, in the priest’s bedroom, with a face that was as vicious as it was forgettable.
There was a collective shaking of heads, and then silence, as all eyes in the room turned almost immediately to Alfonso.
“Fr. Anthony had to step out for something,” he felt a warm calm settle on him, as though his jitters were being churned into words, “He said it was an emergency, but I don’t think it’s anything scary – at least not as scary as your stories.”
The table laughed gently.
“There are many more stories scarier than the ones you heard,” one of the Dominicans remarked, “Whatever you see in the movies is nothing. We don’t have spinning heads-”
“I did!” The other Franciscan raised his hand, and then shifted to the vernacular, “I was sitting in church once, and there was this old woman in front of me, praying the rosary. So, I also started praying to the Blessed Virgin. And then the old woman’s head twisted to face me, almost 180 degrees, and she said, ‘Hello, stupid priest.'”
“I also had a spinning head!” the deaf priest spoke up – or, more accurately, shouted, “Young girl, long time ago. Her parents said she tried to kill a classmate – well, several. She was just sitting there, first session, just counseling. Then her head just twists all the way to the back, and she says, ‘I wanted to do this to my classmates because they like teasing me!'”
Even the Dominican was silenced at what appeared to be both an outburst, and a rare contribution from the old priest, who had hitherto balanced his time between grumbling and munching on sandwiches.
“Very well then, we have spinning heads,” the Dominican acceded, “But no flying green vomit.”
“Well,” another priest who had as yet been quiet – but whom Alfonso recognized as the one who took the most photographs of the Infirmary gardens – raised his hand, “One of my last Lipa cases threw up acid. Her vomit hit me across the room; it was maybe five, six feet. Her vomit melted my wooden cross. We had to take her to the hospital right after because the vomit ate up the lining of her esophagus and nearly burned it all away.”
Alfonso had to drink a whole glass of water down. His throat felt dry, sandy, as though a fire had razed it into a desert.
“Same,” one of the other quiet priests – a Capuchin, it appeared – put in, “Not burning or acid, but my Lipa case vomited nails.”
“Oh, so do my cases!’ The Franciscan added.
“One of mine vomited screws,” another priest raised a cup of coffee, “They were long and polished. Someone said they looked like rivets on an oil rig.”
“But my case vomited nails across the room and nearly killed my assistants,” the Capuchin finished.
The rest of the priests either gasped or let out low drones of what seemed to be a mixture of both awe and fear. Alfonso had no time to be either, as all nine faces turned to his once again; and, in a variety of expressions and voices, spoke an almost intact idea.
“Please don’t tell Fr. Anthony,” the Dominican had to repeat it, as the rest of the priests drank their own fill of water, “But we need Lipa. The Philippines needs Lipa.”
“Or even if you do tell Fr. Anthony,” the orange-juice-drinking Franciscan was gentler, calmer than before, “Put in a good word for us. And pray that the Vatican doesn’t kill the case again.”
“Kill the case?” Alfonso’s head was too full of contradicting reactions, that he could only afford to repeat what anyone else said.
“We’ve been petitioning the Vatican to approve the Lipa apparitions for years, decades even,” the Franciscan answered, now more fatherly, “We’ve had investigation after investigation after investigation. Fr. Matteo is the latest, I believe. I just hope he is thorough but kind.”
Alfonso swore he heard one of the Dominicans hum, or snicker, in a tone that was both uncaring and skeptical.
“We’re used to investigations,” and here, the Franciscan sighed, “It’s just that – for some reason, in this latest one, we also suddenly have more exorcism cases.”
Alfonso swallowed down the desert in his throat, but felt the summer breeze chill the back of his neck at the same time. There was the voice again, on the balcony, on a night that seemed to swim with mud and tar, in a jungle of sounds that banged with roars and screams. And there was the sky, black and forbidding, holding back stars, blotting out the crescent moon.
He wondered, briefly, if the cases in Lipa were just as frightening, just as deep in darkness; if the prayers fought against a rebellious sky; if the invisible beasts howled and bawled against the walls of the imagination.
“We’ve said it before: places of great mysticism are also places of demonic activity,” the Dominican sounded exhausted as he finally spoke up, “But there’s no telling how the Vatican will read this – this rise in cases.”
“And there’s no telling how Lipa will be judged if the lead investigator also helped out with exorcisms,” the Franciscan rejoined.
“I wish we had known that there was a new investigation,” the Capuchin mused.
Alfonso found it strange that the rest of the table nodded its collective head. What would the priests have done? Hidden the possession cases? Dressed up Lipa? Wined and dined the Vatican’s representatives?
“That is not to say that Fr. Matteo should be blamed,” the Dominican said, rather hastily, Alfonso marked, as though anticipating that the young Jesuit would defend his brother, “I’m sure he worked hard, and under orders from the higher ups.”
“And I’m sure that as an exorcist himself, he would not judge Lipa too cruelly,” the priest seated next to Alfonso put in, “By the way, in case Fr. Anthony did not tell you: there are Jesuit headquarters in Lipa, and your brothers have been the case investigators since the 50s.”
The Dominican sniffed, though Alfonso swore it sounded more like a suppressed snort of irritation.
“Your brothers have also been documenting exorcisms for decades,” the priest continued, although with voice a touch more pointed, as though to silence the Dominican, “They need to be close to the Virgin Mary to be able to do their work. Places of great mysticism are also places of great holiness.”
“And places of great isolation,” the Capuchin spoke, “They need to change priests every few months because so few can do the job. Those that do – well…”
Alfonso could not imagine another hour of witnessing a possession. He had already felt the bruises on his soul following the night on the balcony. His friend had apparently been a mild case compared to the spinning heads, acid vomit, and wandering doppelgangers that the priests around him were used to. To be immersed in such cases, and to transcribe them, was, therefore, unimaginable, if not altogether repulsive.
The very thought of disgust churned against Alfonso’s insides. He felt it an affront to his very nature, a rebellion unwarranted against forces around him over which he could claim no real control.
“Well,” the old, deaf priest’s shout jolted Alfonso out of his wondering, “St. Jean-Marie Vianney wrestled with Satan every night. St. Benedict was constantly tempted by the devil in many disguises. Even your St. Ignatius had to go to battle. Maybe Lipa is very holy, the way our great saints were. Let’s hope the Vatican remembers that.”
The rest of the priests smiled, with what seemed to be a spark of hope lost in a mire of pity. For all his brashness, it appeared that the old, deaf priest was yet a child.
“Let’s hope, indeed,” the Benedictine said tentatively, “Evil grows where evil is allowed to dwell, but it also invades where good strives to flourish. If our greatest saints were Satan’s favorite prey -”
“Then maybe invading holy ground will be the greatest reward to his vanity,” Alfonso could not help finishing what he thought would be the Benedictine’s sentence.
The young priest was not sure where the words – and his audacity – came from. Perhaps there were readings from his very first year with the Jesuits, when he wrestled with the nature of evil and wrongdoing, while settling into a life that seemed to nestle him, to protect him from the wiles of the outside world. Or perhaps his guardian angel had thought it fit to secure him a philosopher-sized helping of articulation. The ideas of sin, and spiritual warfare, and a real, physical underworld seemed so far removed from where he was, from the place he called home, from a bastion whose gates had supposedly been fortified to hold back the forces of Hell. He would never have dreamed of speaking of a physical Satan that had an actual desire to overthrow the real world above.
“You can always count on the Jesuits to say things the right way,” the Benedictine smiled, then quickly shifted to English as the doors behind Alfonso squeaked open, “Are you thinking of joining the ministry, young man?”
Oh – any question but that! Alfonso would have chosen more stories of demons and possession over being prodded about his future in the priesthood! And he would rather have endured an oral exam in the theology of evil than see the nine expectant faces turned to his!
“Now, now, don’t bother the little one,” Fr. Anthony’s voice came from behind him, along with the heady scent of garlic and vinegar, “He’ll need to see the world first before he can do any proper work.”
“To recognize all sources of evil,” the priest next to Alfonso explained, “Don’t you worry. We do this with all the young ones we meet. There are so few of us, and even fewer in training.”
“I understand,” was all that Alfonso could grin out, through the still dry bristles that coated his throat. He truly did understand why age was so prized in their ministry; he understood how his own frames of appraising the world had changed even in the last few months (and days, when he had come face to face with an evil that he could only pray away in response). And, of course, he understood why so few priests would ever want to be exorcists.
What kind of priest could live with demons and yet never lose their will to live?
As though in reminder, Fr. Anthony finally took his seat, smiled, and clapped yet another bone-crushing hand on Alfonso’s shoulder.
“Thank you for watching over the flock,” the old priest’s smile shone, even brought a sparkle to his blue eyes, “I hope none of we old folks scared you too much.”
Alfonso could not help smiling back, “You’ve all been gracious, Fr. Anthony,” and, as the desert in his throat receded, “It looks like everyone is enjoying themselves. I didn’t think they would.”
“Oh, because exorcists enjoy nothing, you think?” Fr. Anthony raised his voice just a wee bit higher, which made the rest of the priests laugh (and the old, deaf priest let out a near roar), “I promise you, I’ll wear my black cassock next time and pull out my Roman Ritual.”
“I still have my Latin one,” the Benedictine laughed, “But all my black cassocks haven’t been washed.”
“Mine have vomit stains,” the Capuchin said, “We know where those are from.”
“From the baby that the demons say we all have,” one of the Dominicans joked.
For a moment, the entire table fell quiet, and mostly in surprise (it was the more taciturn of the two Dominicans who had spoken, after all). In another moment, the hollering recommenced.
“Oh, you’ll have to forgive this,” the priest next to Alfonso lapsed into the vernacular, in between chuckles, “We hardly ever find things to laugh about, so this is pure exorcist humor.”
“It’s all right!” Alfonso answered, “Nobody here feels like an exorcist.”
“And no good exorcist should show it,” the other Dominican spoke, from across the table, “No good exorcist seeks distinction or pity.”
“First on the scene, last to leave,” some of the priests chorused, “First to doubt, last to confirm.”
And, as with the chorus of words, so was there a chorus of raised glasses of water, coffee, and, in the case of one of the Franciscans, almost fluorescent powdered orange juice. Alfonso could only follow with his own sip of water, though not without noticing that some of the priests were casting him glances that reminded him to speak well of Lipa if ever he got the chance.
“Thank you for your patience,” Fr. Anthony announced, “I had to help the young priests in the kitchen with their chicken adobo. We’re understaffed, but I have magic mincing hands and plenty of garlic, so we shall all have some lunch in a while. Adobo is perhaps usual for you, but it’s a treat for me, so I hope you still have your fill.”
The rest of the priests then began to ask about the food that Fr. Anthony liked, where he had tried chicken adobo, what he should eat, where he had to go. Talk had shifted, and rather abruptly, away from Lipa and the prospect of Vatican disapproval. The topics seemed to be pinned so readily, so forcefully, on food, tourist spots, history, and art.
Alfonso felt the flow of the conversation, but sensed its strain. He knew how the priests were all doing their best to avoid any talk that would lead them back to possession cases – and it was well that they did so.
He now felt a tripled press upon his soul: the memories of his possessed friend, the request to speak nicely of Lipa, and the still lingering question. What was he going to do as a priest?
In times like these, he once had the liberty of taking a walk on campus. With social graces still intact, he decided that the best compromise was to sneak his phone out again, and pretend to listen to the conversation on Manila’s old walled city of Intramuros while straining his eyes and reading files under the table.
The plates of hot rice and chicken adobo came as soon as he scrolled to the very top of his chat box.
“Introduction – First Investigation”
Alfonso could not help smiling. Even when pushed for help at the last minute, his brothers at the archives still sent information in logical order.
He ate a spoonful of adobo and rice, and pretended to nod in attention as the Capuchin talked about kare-kare.
“This document covers an investigation by Fr XXXXXXX, SJ and a team of Jesuit brothers and scholastics, into the supernatural phenomena in Lipa City, Batangas (1948). This document has been prepared under the orders of the Philippine Mission of the Society of Jesus, for submission to the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, of the Vatican.
“This document is the contribution of the Philippine team to the complete investigation document deposited in the Vatican archives.
“Deposited in the Jesuit Archives, 1955.
“Submitted in part to the Vatican Archives, 1955.
“Parts approved and deposited in the Vatican Archives 1961.”
Alfonso had to look up, and join the conversation, to keep himself from being awed. The document pre-dated his own seminary, his own Jesuit province – and bore the signatures of priests whose names appeared in his books, in the signs over classrooms, in dusty paintings that decorated the Residence hallways.
The words they had written had made them real, at that moment, to the young Jesuit; the words felt as though they were reaching out through time, pulling his attention down to his phone, urging him to weigh their report against what he had been told.
Alfonso was tempted to skip the table of contents, until he spotted the title of the very first chapter.
“CHILDHOOD; PRE-APPARITION: SUSPICIOUS.”
Something lurked at the back of his memories, something he had read, once again, in some book or article in class. There had been a debate, long forgotten by devotees, oft referenced by the church, whenever the Lipa affair came to the fore.
He took a spoonful of adobo and rice, and realized that he had finished his entire plate, while the rest of the priests were still slowly chewing through theirs. The conversation had strolled into shopping mall territory, as the priests gave advice on what shoes to buy in which shop that would most suit Fr. Anthony’s aging knees.
Alfonso tried his best to listen, and he would have recommended his own running shoes, had the chapter on his phone not beckoned.
“The following chapter recounts the events prior to the main apparition of what the postulant and alleged seer, Teresita, claims is Mary Mediatrix of all Graces.”
Alfonso read about Teresita’s childhood, all while juggling his attention between shoes and shopping. Teresita had come from a wealthy clan, had survived the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, had absolutely no reason to want fame or fortune.
She had stolen away at dawn, on her 21st birthday, to join the Carmelites. Her family would not let her go too easily, however: her brothers went to the convent, even threatened her at gunpoint, shouting that they would rather their sister died by their own hands than become a nun.
Fr. Anthony’s voice was perhaps the gentlest in the table, but it broke through Alfonso’s distraction.
“I used to walk everywhere when I was young, so it would make perfect sense to always itch to get out of cars,” the old priest spoke with relish, aided perhaps by the giant helping of adobo that he spooned into his mouth, “I do like walking around this campus. Trees, little chapels, little hills – quite good for prayer and meditation.”
“Come to our campus!” One of the Dominicans put in, “We have old Spanish buildings and large courtyards.”
“And they all become swimming pools when it rains!” The Franciscan put in, so that the table rocked with laughter.
And, once again, Alfonso directed his eyes to his lap, and continued to read. Teresita refused to leave the convent. She became a postulant in an austere order, a woman who left behind a life of wealth and privilege, of piano and singing lessons, of banquets and balls and parties. She was neither peculiarly simple nor astoundingly precocious, seemed to have no ill will, appeared to hold no great love for things of the world.
Alfonso read faster, through a mixture of accounts of people around Teresita, of her teachers and friends, of the mother prioress who had later been transferred to another convent, of the bishop who had later been discredited by the church.
The table before him suddenly erupted into a mix of giggles and snorts. Alfonso smiled, joined in with his own chortle, and had absolutely no idea what the priests were so happy about.
He continued to read as soon as the plates were taken away, and just as one priest began talking about the country’s beaches.
“What follows is the postulant’s account of what occurred on the night of the very first manifestation.”
Alfonso wondered at the language. He had hardly ever heard “manifestation” unless it was spoken in the context of a haunted house. The word cheapened an apparition, he felt; reduced it to the level of dragged chains and specters adding a gossamer finish to abandoned halls.
“The postulant had been in the convent for nine days, when she heard three knocks in her chamber. Then, she heard a deep, rough, ‘guttural’ man’s voice. The voice told her that her father missed her, that the old man was distraught, awaited her return, and refused to eat.
“The postulant was both saddened and frightened. The voice told her that it would leave a sign of its presence in her cell.
“When she lit her lamp, the postulant saw two cloven hoof marks, black, on her floor, as though they had been branded and burned there.”
Alfonso nearly choked on his own spit. He took a glass of water as coolly as he could, to keep the rest of the priests from noticing how he had been astonished enough to lose control of his basic bodily functions.
“This first manifestation was followed on another night by that of the Blessed Virgin Mary (details in Apparition chapter) who told the postulant that she would ‘suffer to the end of her life’. While she did not see the owner of the voice, the postulant described it as ‘very sweet’, ‘accompanied by the smell of lilies’, and unlike the first voice she had heard.
“The postulant said that she encountered the devil several times after. She described him as surrounded by fire, with bloodshot eyes, of an ugly countenance, of odor foul. She said she endured blows, lashes, even emotional torture, as the devil ordered her to return to her parents, and to not love the bishop and the prioress.
“Despite these words, the postulant did not leave the convent. She believed that if she did so, the devil would win and she would lose.”
Alfonso nearly jumped as a pair of hands appeared before his eyes. He realized that the wait staff was removing the empty adobo plates, and that the rest of the table had promptly gone quiet, as though afraid to accidentally speak of such a delicate (and controversial!) subject amongst strangers.
As soon as the staff left, the conversation resumed, and this time turned to Fr. Anthony’s work in Rome. The old Jesuit seemed so candid, even excited to talk about his work in the archives, and how he dealt with hundreds of files and records, as though there were no exorcism project that had to be carried out – as though the work in the archives were simply a matter of locating encyclopedia entries on this or that obscure topic in some other universe where good and evil did not exist.
Alfonso reveled in the man’s brightness for a while before he turned to his phone again.
“Footnotes to Chapter:
“1. Initial evaluation by investigation committee suggests that the first manifestation might render supposed Marian apparition suspicious. No guarantee that next manifestation is heavenly in origin, even if said manifestation spoke of a life of suffering.
“2. Insight by XXXXX, SJ (psychiatrist): the initial fear of postulant at seeing first manifestation may have triggered a supposed apparition, as a means to cope with trauma of perceived demonic oppression. Actual oppression cannot be ruled out.
“3. Insight by XXXXX, SJ (exorcist, theologian): The devil, if it were truly him, cannot gain anything through frightening the postulant into leaving convent. Would it not have made more sense for the devil to disguise itself and tempt the postulant away from religious vocation? Which apparition is the devil, and which manifestation is the true form rather than a projection?
“4. Insight by XXXXX, SJ (spiritual director, YYYYYY Seminary): The articulation of the young postulant seems to suggest that the battle is hers alone (where devil wins and she loses, in her own words). Would this attitude not also have pushed the postulant to imagine or project a battle? The articulation is likewise of note: there should have been an effort to speak of God’s grace as her armor in battle, but she, seemingly alone, is battling the devil. I cannot discount that perhaps her youth is to blame, but she has already read books and lessons from her order that caution against facing spiritual warfare alone.”
Despite the laughter all around him, the constant flow of conversation, the clatter of ceramic cups against ceramic saucers – despite the world of humanity that surrounded Alfonso, he suddenly felt alone. He became the postulant, in the darkness, far from home, listening to a voice that reached out of her nightmares, hearing the dull clop-clop-clop of cloven hooves. He became Teresita, lashed and scarred by an invisible evil, comforted by a Mother, but rejected because she had not seen goodness first.
The footnotes, the chapter title, the way the Jesuits wrote – all of it, despite the attack on the seer, despite the skepticism… all of it… made sense.
And yet – what postulant would continue to even sleep in a room haunted by a specter of ugliness and fire, that bore whips of flame and pain? What postulant would want to push through with a vocation of suffering? Wouldn’t the devil have, indeed, done its job of chasing yet another soul away from a life of holiness?
Conversely: would Satan in the guise of beauty have driven the postulant out, if that was what Satan was supposed to do?
What would Satan gain by changing form, by showing his ugly self, and then cloaking himself in celestial garments? Perhaps he could cause a mere child to fall into despair, then hope, then sink back into depression, then be happy once again –
“Oh, it’s quite tiring, but I assure you, travel makes you younger!” Fr. Anthony’s voice was so bright, it pushed Alfonso out of his reverie, “We drove for years across the US, and it was a joy – apart from all the exorcism sessions, it was a joy.”
“I’m sure your assistants helped ease the burden,” one of the Franciscans said.
Fr. Anthony glowed, became tender, and looked with glassy eyes at some spot forward, beyond the meal room, “I wouldn’t call them assistants, but yes they did make the going easy,” and with a hand gesturing toward Alfonso, “They’re around this young man’s age. Two British boys, devoted to recording and transcribing exorcism sessions. If you think I’m happy, Alfonso, then you should meet them.”
“That sounds good,” was all that Alfonso could say (and he hoped it was polite, because he was not quite sure what was even being talked about).
“You might meet them, you know,” Fr. Anthony turned once more to the rest of the table, “They might be here as early as next year. I have to pry them away from what might be a thousand more cases.”
“A – thousand?” The Benedictine gasped.
“An underestimation at that, I’m afraid,” Fr. Anthony seemed angry, or disappointed, Alfonso could not tell, so preoccupied was he with sorting out the threads of reason that ran through Teresita’s first manifestation, “Some cases take months to resolve, others mere hours; but there are simply so many cases, that we can select only the most urgent ones.”
There was silence for a while, as the priests sipped coffee, and as some of them exchanged glances with each other, but with eyes to their cups. Alfonso could see the unease, feel the need to ask questions bubbling in the group.
“So – Fr. Anthony,” the young priest had to speak up, and half in a bid to look as though he had truly been paying attention, “How do you know that a case is urgent?”
Fr. Anthony’s blue eyes twinkled, and yet his smile was mild, as though he pitied the poor soul who dared ask a question worth volumes of answers.
“In all honesty – we do not know until we investigate,” was the reply. The old priest seemed happy to not have any form of certainty; a trait, perhaps, he had grown into after years of ministering to a wide swath of possessed humanity, “There isn’t always an outward sign present. There is no single trait that comes up and brands someone as an urgent case.”
There were some agreeing nods around the table. Even the very old and very deaf priest was listening closely.
“We already have a routine for our exorcism project, however,” Fr. Anthony continued, albeit slower, almost as though he were relishing each word (or fighting to campaign for an exorcism project in the country), “We wait for a bishop to call us in, and then we schedule an assessment. Mind you, this is simply a meeting with the victim and their family. Very rarely does such an assessment escalate into a full session.
“In any case, we talk to the family, we interview the victim, and we bring in a team. The team assesses the case and pronounces it urgent. Mind you, we always have a team.”
The last word sounded pointed, as though the priest were indeed driving home the point that no exorcist should attempt to engage a demon, or do research on the process, alone.
“In the US,” Fr. Anthony sipped his water, then turned to the rest of the table, “We had a doctor, a psychiatrist, and several young seminarians to listen, to see if there are patterns in what the victims say.
“Some of these seminarians have, shall we say, special spiritual gifts. Some can discern spirits, others can feel negative energies, others can even sense demons.”
Alfonso felt something cold on his nape; it was both chilling and damp, as though a wet, icy paw had landed there. He tried not to imagine what stood behind him; he resisted the urge to look down at his phone and continue reading.
“Now, as I said, we assess the case first,” Fr. Anthony still faced the priests, but his voice, and even his glassy eyes, seemed to hold Alfonso in place, “Usual routine – at least to my brother exorcists. A sprinkle of Holy Water and a dab of Holy Oil, prayers, the Roman Ritual – a violent reaction to any of these is a sign of some disturbance, but it cannot be taken on its own absent other signs.
“For example, one sign is a victim speaking in languages for which they have no education or experience. We have priests who know more than one language around to translate, just in case something important is said; say, when a demon will leave, when it sounds weaker, when it tells the story of how it was summoned.”
Alfonso had been praying to St. Michael the Archangel the entire time that the damp paw rested on his nape, and as Fr. Anthony spoke of the US research team. He remembered hearing how conversations about demons also drew demons closer; he wondered if such conversations also brought in angelic guards and hordes, and if there were wars around the words being exchanged.
“My brother exorcists will also tell you that some victims have uncommon strength,” Fr. Anthony smiled across the table at the orange-juice drinking Franciscan, who had, at that moment, bared his upper arm with a giant, knowing smile. Alfonso saw black bruises on the priest’s skin, in the rough shape of fingers. He guessed that the man had been grasped tight, for a far longer time than humans could endure, and not too far in the past to be forgotten, “My brother exorcists might also tell you that some victims will know of hidden things. They will talk to you about lost trinkets or valuables, even lure you with promises of treasure. These are preternatural beings, after all; they exist in neither time nor space, and they can see beyond our own understanding.”
“Except with great hatred,” the less surly Dominican put in, “They hate humanity, hate everything it represents, hate creation and the gifts of the Creator for man.”
Fr. Anthony gestured toward the last speaker, “That is what we watch for: the hatred,” the smile that had played on the corners of his lips disappeared, “Sometimes you can feel it in bits and pieces, when the victim speaks in anger, in a language that sometimes sounds like gravel and stones. Sometimes you feel it in bursts, as perhaps when our colleague here did, when the victim grabbed him.”
“And threw me at the ceiling,” the Franciscan shrugged, as though he wrestled with demons every day.
“Lord God Almighty,” Fr. Anthony crossed himself, and the rest of the table followed suit, “I hope you had yourself checked!”
“By the grace of God, nothing broken, only bruised,” was the smiling reply from the Franciscan, “Still walking!”
“And still fulfilling your mission!” The old Jesuit exclaimed; then, with a more somber tone, “You are one of the luckier ones. Bless you, sir.”
“I credit these layers of God-given fat.”
“Well, in that case: God bless us both!”
The Franciscan gave what looked like a quick salute as the priests laughed. The joy was short-lived, however, as the table remembered the weight and darkness of the story from which the jest came.
“Now: hatred,” Fr. Anthony resumed, his cheeks losing some of their blush. Alfonso imagined that the priest was looking back on all his cases, and recalling how once bright rooms plunged into darkness, how jeers and sneers sounded more menacing when a whole chorus seemed to hiss them, how sounds seemed to creep out of walls and rise up from the floor.
“The easiest way to describe this is to remember what it is like to be loved, to be in the presence of someone filled with love.
“Young people might say that they are filled with fuzziness or warmth or butterflies in their stomach. But that feeling, howsoever interesting and captivating to someone feeling it for the first time – that feeling is fleeting.
“Real love is not some feeling passively received. It is not some sensation that flows or pours down.
“Real love inspires someone to do good things, in the name of love. Real love inspires sacrifices borne out of joy, but not blindness or infatuation. Real love allows us to see God’s hand in even the most difficult situations.
“When you encounter this, when you come face to face with real love, you will find yourself working toward a greater good. You will be aware of the sacrifices you must make, and you will accept and feel the pain, and live it for all that it is, because you have come face to face with true love.”
“Now, think of the opposite.”
Alfonso, to his surprise, found the opposite of Fr. Anthony’s version of true love rather difficult to imagine. But as he thought deeper, and left the Realm of Love as a Feeling, he recognized the same darkness that had enveloped him that night on the balcony.
“You do not want to move forward,” he said aloud, slowly, to the silence that settled onto the table, “You want to stay in one place forever. You can see no value in changing yourself. You want to – despair.”
“And that is the nature of the urgent case,” Fr. Anthony pointed at the boy, with gentle insistence that made the rest of the priests lean forward, “All the signs, plus the air of dread, of weight, of burdens, of hopelessness. Love demands growth. Hatred takes it away.
“I look to every team member, and I watch for despair, but of the most vehement, the most vicious sort. When even the strongest among us feels that they are being told to live in one moment forever, to wallow, if you will – and in some cases, to end their lives by their own hand – then we know that we are in the presence of true Evil.”
The doors behind Alfonso suddenly burst open. He knew only that he had visibly jumped when the rest of the priests gasped, and then began to laugh.
“Breathe, little one!” Fr. Anthony said, with a clap of one hand to the young priest’s shoulders, “You need to listen to wisdom and not imagine too much!”
“Can we safely say that nothing frightens us anymore?” The surlier of the Dominicans smiled, as bowls of noodle soup were brought in and laid in front of each guest.
“Oh – I have my fears! One: An empty bottle of Scotch at midnight with all liquor stores closed,” Fr. Anthony interjected, so that the rest of the priests laughed once again, “In the case of my brother Franciscan: complete disappearance of powdered sweetened orange juice.”
“Well don’t scare me!” The Franciscan retorted.
The laughter grew into hollers, and Alfonso could not help joining in. He felt as though he were in a nursing home, hearing war stories, and finding himself in the midst of hardened veterans who had fought both real wars and their own demons. Except the wars were with actual demons that seemed to follow them from the battlefield and into their lives. Except that the veterans were still fighting battles nearly every day. There seemed to be no real retirement from the exorcism ministry.
But did a priest ever really retire? A voice at the back of Alfonso’s head asked.
The voice was not sure, and it dreaded the answer.