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The Desert Fathers (Three Episodes from the Diary of a Retired Priest)

by Daniel Hornsby

SPOON

Twenty years ago, a priest friend and I took leave of our parishes for a week and attended a retreat in the desert of New Mexico. After flying into Albuquerque and riding a bus to some depressed desert town, Paul and I waited three hours for a shuttle to take us to the remote compound. A place where, we’d been promised by the promotional literature, we would be able to open ourselves up through a program of placid contemplation and spiritual discovery (“no matter what your tradition may be”), far from the distractions of modern life.

We killed the three hours at the station watching two stray dogs fight over a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos left on the sidewalk. Just as the victor yellowed his muzzle with the flavored dust of his spoils, a man from the center showed up and threw our bags into the back of his van. He wore a blue tank top flecked with drops of white paint. His teeth were like tiny pieces of corn. A stripe of sunburn on his bare chest gave him the illusion of a long red beard.

“You ever been out here before?”

We told him we hadn’t.

“Well, get ready to get addicted. You’ll come back. They always do. People get hooked on these things. Gives you a buzz. People see things and then they come back to see them again. Vortices, is what a lot of people say are out here. I used to call them ‘vortexes’ but people are really specific about ‘vortices.’”

Out the window: scrub and strange-looking plants, like the hands of aliens.

He used to work at another retreat center, he told us. Mostly hippies smoking weed.

“It was TM. They had these meditation rooms with pads on the ceiling. Pillows. It was in case they levitated! If any of you guys wind up levitating, let me know.”

He got laid off from there, he said, because he kept cracking jokes about the place, and they had no sense of humor. But he knew someone who worked here, and she set him up with the shuttle job. They could take a joke here, he assured us.

We arrived at the center, a small adobe building with pegs sticking out of the roof. He parked the van next to a motorcycle and a statue of a deer. The animal was misshapen—one of its legs was curled up to its chest like a snail shell, and it was clearly shorter than the other three. It made the stone animal look as if it had been mauled and was now limping its way towards death.

“I’ll be the one driving you guys back,” the driver said. “I might even see you out there. I do water duty, too. I’ll try not to mess with you too much, but sometimes I can’t resist.”

My friend and I thanked him and walked inside.



A woman in a leather jacket sat at one of the compound’s many card tables. She looked to be about my age then, which was nearly fifty. It was her motorcycle outside. She’d ridden all the way from South Dakota, she told us. It was a pilgrimage.

While she detailed her journey (a flock of white pelicans near Cheyenne, a stop to see the Rodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs), a young boy came into the room and sat at another one of the card tables. He ignored us completely and began playing a handheld video game. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, just a pair of swim trunks with pterodactyls on them, and he put his bare feet up on the table.

The woman detailed the achievements of one of the Rodeo Hall of Fame inductees, a man who had won sixteen world championships in the various rodeo arts. She couldn’t remember his name, so she kept calling him his nickname, which was “the Babe Ruth of rodeo.”

“His name was Jim and then a body part. Jim Elbows? Jim Ankles? James Feet? He won the World All-Around Champion Cowboy Championship four years in a row,” she told us with an expression of pure admiration.

Soon another woman appeared. She wore turquoise earrings and a Mickey Mouse t-shirt.

“Hey,” she said to the boy. “You need to wear a shirt in here, or I’m going to send you over to the neighbors, where you’ll fit in.”

The boy sighed, got up, and left the room.

The woman poured us some water in glasses as large as cans of paint. The glasses were blue with thousands of little bubbles in them, like microbes trapped in a glacier.

She introduced herself as Arena (“like a stadium”) and then more or less explained to us what we already knew. Soon someone would drive us out onto the grounds, where for four days we’d sit in our meditation circles and “experience our experiences.” There’d be no food (of course), but someone would be by to refill our water jugs some time during the second day and make sure we hadn’t passed out. There’d also be little lean-tos in the circles to protect us from the worst of the sun, along with first aid kits in case we hurt ourselves. But other than that, it was just us out there.

The boy came back with an enormous black shirt that fit him like a dress. He put his heels back up on the table.

“Feet down,” Arena said. The boy sighed loudly and complied.

She asked if we had any questions.

“What do we do if we see any wild animals?” the motorcycle pilgrim asked.

“There’s a whistle in the first aid kit. Make a lot of noise and you should be able to scare most things off.”

“Aren’t there bears? And coyotes?”

“Bears around here are pretty meek. Coyotes don’t get much bigger than forty pounds so no worries there. They stay away from people. They’re smart like that.”

She handed out clipboards and pens. We signed waivers that said we couldn’t sue them if we died of dehydration or were maimed by any of the animals she’d told us not to worry about, and then she led us to our huts.

As we walked out of the building, I noticed the barefoot boy watching us closely. His head was still angled toward his game, but his eyes, like those of a spy, followed us as we made our way toward the door. He had, by this point, somehow snatched one of our giant water glasses and brought it to his table. I was the last to leave, and just as I pulled the door shut behind me, the boy turned up the volume on his console, leaned back in his chair, and set his bare feet up on the table.



This retreat with Paul was one of my many attempts at a mystical experience. I’ve completed the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius three times. I once spent four days in my shed with the windows blacked out in the hopes I might have a visual hallucination (a little blue hexagon showed up on the third day). Even now, as I write this, I’ve begun my last experiment, living out of my Toyota Camry, in my own weak imitation of the great wandering monks. I’ve spent a lot of time tweaking my methods, tinkering with the variables, trying to glimpse some weird and slippery thing. You might think that setting out to see these kinds of things is too artificial or contrived, and because of this, whatever it is I might find can’t be genuine.

But that’s wrong-minded. Most mystics and prophets—even Christ Himself—took special measures to open themselves up, some with rather strict methodology. Usually in two ways. The first being fasting, the second being a journey to the wilderness or desert. (Illness is another way, but this is not really a voluntary strategy, except in the case of a few souls like Syncletica of Alexandria, who devoted herself to sickness and putrefaction to the point that her followers had to burn huge piles of incense to stand the smell of her rotting jaw). Really, it is hard to think of anyone who has seen visions without one of these conditions, fasting and loneliness. Francis got his stigmata during a forty-day fast on Mount Verna. Elijah heard the Lord whisper to him in the mouth of a cave. In some other cave (saints and prophets, like bears and rural teens, can’t resist a cave), Ignatius of Loyola saw his psychedelic visions of a snake covered in eyes and jewels. Jesus himself went to the desert to fast and pray. And let’s not forget the Desert Fathers, who made a science of self-starvation in the wilderness of Lower Egypt.

And so, for the rest of us, who aren’t saints, why wouldn’t we follow in their footsteps? Why not try?



Over the course of my time in my wilderness, I saw two very strange sights. These came a few days in, once I began feeling hungry.

The first day was boring, painfully so. Twice I considered getting up and walking back to the compound, but the embarrassment (before Paul, Arena, the motorcyclist, and even the barefoot boy) kept me in my circle. I inspected every inch of the lean-to (little more than three planks and a piece of tin), scanning for signs of previous inhabitants. I looked out at the rocks, counted my breaths, prayed for a deer or a vulture to pop into my field of vision for a minute’s entertainment.

At night I had trouble sleeping. The stars were beautiful—you could see even the most agoraphobic specks of light—but after a while I decided they were annoyingly bright. I turned my face toward one of the lean-to’s posts and had a very short, literal dream that I was a rodeo clown being chased by an enormous pelican.

The second day was much like the first. I sweated through my shirt. I picked at the little pimples on my arms and shoulders until I was covered in red spots. I waited for the delivery of water so I could chat with the shuttle driver, who I didn’t like much in the first place. And who, unfortunately, came that night while I was asleep, prolonging my isolation. On that day, I did see two antelope, which leapt up and down the rocks with a kind of teenage mischief that, to be honest, began to feel like mockery.

Then the first vision happened. It was on the third day, when my hunger was worst. My whole body was an empty stomach. I peeled off long splinters from the wooden posts of the lean-to, soaked them in the water, and chewed them like gum until they began to make my tongue bleed. Then I sucked on the blood.

I looked out and, in my daze, a few people appeared. Two or three men, more women. All completely naked, with the exception of some canteens around their necks and, in the case of one woman, a big turquoise necklace. Some had walking sticks. There was a lot of pubic hair—one man had so much it looked like he had a marmot clinging to his hips. They strolled up to the shade of the rocks, set down their things, and linked hands. They began to turn, a rolling wheel.

They were middle aged, old. Their bodies sagged and jiggled as they danced. The one with the mammal’s worth of pubic hair also had a lot of hair on his back, too, and looked like he was dancing in a mink cape. I sat there, taking in the vision. I began to cry.

And then they walked back the way they came.

The next day, the last day, I saw the second of the visions. This time, I looked up and there, perfectly suspended in the sky, was a giant spoon. Not some ancient spoon, but the kind we had at our dinner table growing up, a plain old spoon with a slight crook in its neck and rough scrollwork at the end of the handle. I didn’t know what to make of this. I just took it in to think about later. It hung there for almost an hour, fixed in place, reflecting the starlight in its polished silver. There was a good feeling to it, the way you feel when you’ve been driving behind the same car on the highway for hundreds of miles and, despite not knowing anything about the people in the car in front of you, you feel a connection to them. The spoon was like that, and veered off some time in the night, so to speak.



On the drive back from our circles, Paul, the motorcycle pilgrim, and I compared our experiences, talking volubly after days of loneliness and silence.

The woman said she’d seen a deer with three heads and antlers the size of a tree. It told her to “go to the one her heart loved most.”

“And something about zero-percent APR financing,” she added. “Don’t know what to make of that part. Oh and I remembered the name of that rodeo guy. Jim Shoulders. Shoulders. Bugged me for the first two days and then came right to me on the third.”

Paul said he’d seen a steep blue mountain grow out of the ground, shooting up forever and ever until it poked the moon. It was covered in birds, he said. A mountain of birds. A giant snake slithered by and turned into a green river.

Then I told them what I saw. When I shared my story about the circle of dancers, the driver began to laugh. I asked him what was so funny.

“There’s a nudist colony next to the center,” he said. “‘Magnetic Pines’ is what they’re called. We’ve told them to stay away, but they always seem to wander onto our grounds. They’re not into rules. If I have to see another old guy’s dingus I think I’ll kill myself.”

I remembered what the woman had said to the shirtless boy, about sending him to the neighbors, and I laughed along with the driver. But I still think it was a vision. I’m not saying those dancers weren’t from a nudist colony, only that I was meant to see them. I wanted to see something strange, and I did. What difference does it make if what I saw was tangible or not?

But there was still the spoon. I still had the spoon.



WAKE

My parish in Muncie was named after the greatest of the Desert Fathers, St. Antony. Antony of the Desert. Antony the Anchorite. Antony of Egypt. Patron of gravediggers and skin disease. The first to wander off into the desert to do battle with hideous demons and wild beasts, to live in caves, eating almost nothing and praying all day long. (Antony, more than any other, is my role model, the one who, after the bishop instructed me to leave my rectory, inspired me to sell the last of my things and move into my car.)

When I think back to my years at St. Antony’s (which I now have plenty of time to do—it’s really all I do), two very strange ceremonies stand out to me, as theological puzzles of sorts.

The first is perhaps the most straightforward, my role having been very minor. Some time during my first five years as pastor, I walked into my rectory office and found two strange men sitting there, waiting to talk with me. One wore a leather jacket and several gold rings. The other had a tattoo on his neck, a crescent moon a few inches below his ear. His hair was short. His head looked like a fist covered in sandpaper. We sat there in my office and the one with the tattoo explained that his father had been King of the Romani in Indiana, and that he’d just passed away. I gave him my condolences, and he went on to explain that it was custom for his people to hold a wake, one that lasted at least three days, and that for his father it was no different. Except it was different, because his father had been king, and so the sheer number of people expected to pay homage would be significant. He’d approached two other priests in the diocese (my conservative peers and sometime foes) but had been turned away. So, they asked, could they use my church? Without consulting anyone, I agreed to do it on the spot. Wasn’t Christ a king who’d been denied shelter? Wasn’t it our responsibility to take care of those with nowhere else to go? I arranged to cancel Saturday Mass to they could stay from Thursday through Saturday. I called the head of maintenance and briefed him on the wake. I felt good about it. But it turns out I’d taken on more than I’d known. For one thing, I learned, it was part of the tradition for the Roma in those parts to eat and drink a great deal in the presence of the body, the belief being that anything consumed near the casket would sustain the king in the afterlife. I couldn’t let people get drunk and party in the sanctuary space, and so I booked the feast in the parish hall, which was technically under the same roof as the sanctuary, where the king’s body would lie. More significantly, it was the number of people staying in the hall that presented the greatest problem. At one point we had almost two hundred people on the grounds, drinking cans of beer from a kiddie pool, dancing on the linoleum, and smoking outside the building by a long line of black motorcycles and a silver horse trailer. Later, the heir apparent was involved in a fight in the parking lot—some issue of succession now resolved, he assured me afterward. But despite a few phone calls from concerned parishioners (the Saturday crowd, I suspect; those who regularly attend Saturday evening Mass are the most dull and mechanical Catholics and should technically be considered Presbyterian), I saw no issue at the time, and certainly did not expect it to become the ordeal it turned into.

I dipped down there a few times over the course of the wake, to show my support. I drank wine and beer, watched the families dance and the kids chase each other around. The community felt real, more than an empty ritual. I reassured myself that I’d done the right thing.

On the first night, the prince pulled me aside and poured me some wine into a plastic cup. He had a cut on his cheek the same color as the wine. There was a fleck of dried blood dangling off the moon under his ear.

“I hated that old man. I’m going to miss the shit out of him.”

He opened a bag of frozen peas and spooned some into his mouth. One rolled across the cafeteria table. It was still frosted and looked like a cold green planet on the edge of a tiny solar system.

“My dad hated peas so I thought I’d stick it to him a little. Have some.”

I spooned two or three cold peas into my mouth. They were crunchy and sweet and their skins stuck to my teeth.

“What was your old man like?” he asked as I swallowed my peas.

“He wasn’t too fun to be around.”

“I get that.”

My father had been the county coroner. He was also a drunk. He would get drunk and rant about being a coroner. He told us stories about his work like he was telling jokes, all with the same sour punch line. One about a man who cut off his own foot with a chainsaw. One about a woman who lunged into the blades of a combine. One about two guys who played Russian roulette with a semi-automatic pistol. This one he acted out using a banana. He cocked the banana and held it up to the side of his head. He pulled its invisible trigger and flopped onto the floor. When I tried to leave the room, he aimed the banana at my head and told me to sit down or he’d shoot me. I was seven.

A very large man fell into a kiddie pool filled with cans of beer, sending a tiny tsunami of icy water and Coors Lights onto the tile.

“Father, you good? You drunk yet? Your cheeks look a little red.”

I was fine, I said, and told him to tell me more about the king.

“He was tough, too. He didn’t take any shit. When I was younger I thought he was unfair, that he was a complete dick. But now I think he was fair. He didn’t want to show me any special treatment, but I also think it made him a little cold or something. I left the family and lived in Vegas for a couple years, and when that didn’t work out, he took me back like I’d never been gone. A real prodigy son. Which was why I had to take care of that guy in the parking lot. Sorry again for that. He wasn’t exactly touchy-feely, but looking back I know that piece of shit loved me.”

He ate another spoonful of peas, sealed off the bag, and then held the cold package against the cuts on his face.



On the third day, the last day of the wake, he pulled me aside again.

“We have to do the blessing,” he said, and we walked up the stairs to the sanctuary.

“You guys ready?” the prince shouted into the dark of the nave.

Two teenage boys with electric guitars appeared. Both had blond hair that reached their waists and covered their faces in frizzy veils. They suited the courtly air. They looked like medieval maidens, two sisters who wove tapestries and played the harp in some dim castle.

“Alright. Father’s gonna say a prayer, and then you guys bust out a song. Sound good?”

The prince flipped open the lid of the casket. Inside the king was small and shriveled, with his tattooed hands clutching a bundle of gold rosaries and his long gray hair pulled behind his ears. These locks, along with the solemn expression on his face, truly did give him a look of nobility. It was easy to imagine him as some dead Merovingian known for his wisdom and valor.

I said a blessing, invoking St. Sarah, the patron of the Romani. The kids tuned their guitars and started into a version of “All Along the Watchtower.” The prince sat there in the pew and stared at the body of his father, the king.

Later that week I’d receive a phone call from the bishop. Some of my parishioners were concerned, he said, and if in the future I wanted to offer the space for any unusual purposes, I was to contact him first. Thus began our long period of tension, a tug-of-war that would last nearly three decades and cause me no small amount of worry. It’s part of why I’m here, now, twice retired and living out of my Camry. At the time I wondered if I’d done the wrong thing, but I have since thought my impulse to be correct. However, in the next instance, I’m afraid the effect of the bishop’s reprimands (which began with the king’s wake) caused me to make the wrong decision, one I regret.



CELEBRANT

I met Paul when we were both young priests in neighboring diocese. Our tendencies being less conservative than the other priests in the state, we were natural allies and fast friends. We went on retreats together, like the one in New Mexico, and we twice completed the Spiritual Exercises at the same time. He performed the Mass when my mother died, and the year after that I took leave to drive him to Wisconsin to help him bury his brother. In those tough years, we were there for each other, and I still believe that, were it not for his friendship, I might have quit the priesthood altogether.

In time we both became pastors, and as we took on more duties found ourselves making fewer and fewer trips to see each other. Still, his friendship was very real to me, and even when we weren’t in touch, it had a solid presence, a little amulet I could hold when the life of a parish priest felt empty and endless (which was more often than I’d like to admit). We didn’t have to be in contact for it to mean something.

And then one day he showed up in my office. He wore a denim jacket, jeans, and a denim shirt. No collar. He said he had a lot to tell me, so I poured him a cup of coffee and we sat down.

In the prime of our friendship it wasn’t unusual for one of us to appear uninvited or unannounced. That was part of our relationship—adding some surprise to the otherwise routine life of a parish priest. But now that I hadn’t seen him in a long time, I knew something was going on.

He told me that three years ago, while organizing an interfaith retreat, he’d met a Unitarian minister and felt a special connection. He thought it had been deep friendship, something like ours, but it was something else. To put it plainly, he was in love. Deeply in love with this minister, a man, and he wanted me to meet him. He wanted me to meet him because he wanted me to officiate their wedding.

“It won’t be a Mass, don’t worry. And it’ll be in Massachusetts, to get some distance. I just want you to do it.”

This brings me to one of the many frustrations of this life. You get asked to do the baptism, but not to be a godfather. You officiate the wedding, but you’re never asked to be a groomsman. You execute the funeral, but you can’t mourn among the mourning. You may stand in the middle of things, but you’re really on the outside, an extra in the movie, not much more than a prop.

But as for my friend, I’d long suspected he was gay and was fine with that. We were celibate, and while that doesn’t erase your sexuality, it does relegate it to a small part of your life, at least for me. A room in your house you never step inside, really. A parlor with the furniture wrapped in plastic. But what hurt me was not that he’d found love, but that he was giving up the priesthood. And that breaking this solemn vow seemed little more than an afterthought to him. I suppose I felt betrayed, too, given how close we’d been in our early years as priests.

“Dan, are you ok?”

I told him I was shocked, but happy for him. I asked him about his plans to leave his parish, and he said he was going to be a Unitarian minister, might even go back to get a master’s in divinity in Chicago. And then he returned to the question of my officiation.

“Will you do it? Will you think about it?”

I told him I had to think it over, and that I was flattered, and then we talked for a while about his partner and just how he would explain things to his parish. And then he gave me a hug and left.



Even though this was years after I allowed the wake of the Romani King to take place at the church, I was nevertheless still on rough ground with the bishop. The wake was just the beginning of a series of misunderstandings and, if I can be frank, some overreaching on his part. He was a pre-Vatican II guy. He disliked the austerity of our worship space, and greatly disapproved of my efforts to include the practices of other faiths into the spiritual life of the congregation. As I considered my friend’s invitation, I told myself that, were I to be directly involved in this in any way, the bishop would certainly find out, and there’d be a high likelihood I’d be removed from my parish and position. I also think that, in all honesty, I did feel abandoned. My friend had found a new life and left me alone.

Two days later I called Paul and told him that, owing to the unfolding drama between me and the bishop, I couldn’t officiate, but that I would certainly go to the service. He told me he understood, but I knew him well enough to hear the disappointment in his voice.



So I went to Boston, that Catholic capital of America, to attend the ceremony in a Unitarian church in Somerville. The interior looked so much like mine back home that it made me feel uneasy almost immediately. Hexagonal, nearly in the round, without much ornament. Chairs, not pews, with a few abstract pieces here and there. Were it any closer in resemblance to my church, I’d have suspected Paul was taunting me, and maybe I was inclined to believe he was.

I took my seat and soon the music began. My friend had found someone else to officiate, but Paul’s participation dominated the ceremony. He summoned the pianist to her bench. He cued the lectors. The officiant kept looking over to the groom, who stood like a coach on the sidelines, calling the plays. Twice I thought I saw him mouthing the words of the liturgy (or pseudo-liturgy, really). He was still a priest, I thought. He would never not be one.

Don’t get me wrong. I found the ceremony very moving, and I was proud of my friend for knowing what he was meant to do and doing it. I’m still proud of him. He died about four years ago.

I still have a postcard he sent me about a year before that, stuck in between the CDs in the Camry’s cup holders. A big green river snaking through plump mountains.