I considered labeling this post Voice ## (whatever # I am up to now). However, there is so much more to what I am about to relate, "tasked" is definitely a better label for the overall experience. ("Evil" would not have been a bad label, either.) Here is the story:
Much time had passed after hearing the Voice in Bahrain. God must be on silent running, I presumed. I was now almost painfully aware of the fact that the people with whom I normally associated, no matter how strong their faith, did not talk to God and expect an out-loud answer.
Recently, though, I have had reason to hear the Voice again. This time I asked for it! That was not something I had ever imagined myself doing because every time I hear the Voice, I am startled by the sound and unnerved by the content. My plea did not come easily, then, but as a result of this tugodum (Russian for dunderhead or dimwit, literally being a reference to a "dead-ended thinker") not being able to make sense of more subtle forms of input, input that seemed to be very important.
Let me go back to the beginning and collect all the details. I wish I could omit some, but I cannot. They all work together. So, I apologize for the short-story (vs normal-post) length that this post will require.
About a year ago, the Council of the local Secular Franciscan Order with which I have been associated for more than three years appointed a new Formation Director. (Later -- and this turns out to be important in understanding the overall situation -- I learned that he had actually appointed himself.) I shall call him G, as in Goliath, for it seems that little Beth was going to end up pitted against big Goliath although I did not know it at the time.
As a candidate in the SFO, I welcomed G. I hoped to learn much from him. I even opened my home to formation meetings since the majority of the candidates live much closer to me than to G. In the style into which the Russians and Arabs have trained me, I provided snacks for meetings.
At the first meeting, it became clear that truly spiritual discussions, particularly anything that smacked of mysticism, was out. G was soft-spoken and considered himself a good listener although in reality he listens but does not hear. His cognitive deafness was less troublesome than his eyes. He would look at me with vacant eyes; I would almost have to call them dead. While that disturbed me on some subconscious level, a level that usually is sensitive to evil and recoils from it, in the beginning, I paid scant attention, even waved away any negative reaction. After all, this was Goliath, someone the SFO considered capable of being our formation director. (Remember, I was unaware that he had appointed himself.) Moreover, he was in training to be a deacon. Are not all deacons the chosen of God? How could there be evil inside the church?
After a number of formation meetings, those of us who had been coming to the SFO gatherings for three years started comparing notes. It seems that all of us had been perturbed by the same aspects of our formation meetings: formulaic prayer in limited amounts as if God's presence was not really wanted; a sense of God's absence; a feeling of uneasiness; a shared sense of G as condescending and arrogant. Moreover, G had moved our meetings to Salts, where he lived, the travel to which put a strain on the finances of the poorer among us.
At about this time, the third-year candidates began coming to me individually. Perhaps they sensed that as a manager in my professional life, I could provide some leadership skills they needed in dealing with what we started to call the G situation. Perhaps it was all divinely motivated. I don't know, and I imagine that I will never know. Knowing, as I have learned with time, is not important.
The first to come was E. He scrambles to make a living and taking time off for our formation meetings meant time without pay. The trip to and from Salts meant a full additional hour without pay. He accepted that he needed to make that sacrifice, but I felt it was unfair. His concern was the arbitrary and arrogant behavior of G, G's obvious condescension toward E (one can only guess at the reason - because E is poor? because E is Hispanic? because E is simple and naive, much like one might imagine some of the early Franciscans to have been?), and G's shying away from spiritual discussions. E wanted me to go with him to talk to Fr. Barry, de facto spiritual advisor/director for both of us, about some of these issues, but Fr. Barry (1) although Franciscan and at the time the director of the St. Francis Retreat Center, was not directly connected with the SFO, and, more important, (2) was out of town for a considerable period of time. So, life went on without what would surely have been a helpful consultation.
The next meeting E was unable to attend. Ditto for N. So, O and I were the only ones in the car to Salts. (I always drove the other three because none of them could afford the gas.) The absence of E and N prompted some comments from O. O, also openly disdained by G, likely because O is a recovering alcoholic and still suffers from some aspects of schizophrenia, insisted that I bring up the financial and time issues with G and ask him to move the meetings back to San Ignatio. He also felt that the other issues should be broached, as well, at least from the point of view of lack of related spiritual growth in nearly a year of meetings.
Unsure of how best to approach the situation, I pulled over and called a senior member of the SFO whom I know quite well. He, too, felt that I should raise the concerns to G, that G should be given the benefit of a doubt and a chance to rectify the problems. So, near the end of the meeting, I brought up our concerns. The result shocked me. G insisted that it was his right as formation director to have the meetings at a time and place that was convenient to him regardless of how difficult it was for others. He was the most important person in the group he stated over and over, and then he implied that if we did not like it, we could leave. When I voiced his implication explicitly, he recommended overtly that we leave until we were ready to do things his way. Well, there we had something to mull over. At least, E, O, and I did. N had not been involved.
A couple of days later, N called me to find out what had happened at the meeting. Before I could tell her about the awkward discussion about the quality of our sessions, she volunteered that she had not come not because of being tied up, the excuse she had given me earlier, but because she was so uneasy being around G. "Would you let your daughter go into his house?" she asked.
It was that question that coalesced the emotions that I had been feeling whenever I approached G's house into a definition: spiritual rape. (Having been sexually abused on many occasions as a child, I recognize a form of rape when I see it.) Practicing the presence of God (a la Brother Lawrence) is something I do all the time. However, I now realized the source of the uneasiness felt by all of us third-year candidates: God was not with us in G's house. In fact, I lost the sense of God's presence when I opened the door to go into G's house and regained it when I walked out of G's house. What I was feeling while there, what I was labeling a sense of spiritual rape, what N did not want to expose her daughter to was evil, pure and simple. There was evil in G's house. I don't want to say that G is evil, but it certainly seemed that G was controlled by evil -- his spooky way of speaking in a soft, flat monotone, his empty eyes, his avoidance of spiritual discussion (substituting for it discussions of "rules," "religious requirements," and worldly experiences). N and I discussed whether or not to continue exposing ourselves to this unhealthy environment.
Following this discussion with N, I prayed for direction. Continue or not continue? I was surprised and puzzled by the response. A sharp image appeared before me: Jesus overturning the tables in the temple. What was that supposed to mean? I prayed again. The image repeated. I left the question unresolved for several days, when once again I turned to God for help. Once again, that same image appeared. I did not know how to interpret it, and the one person to whom I could have turned, Fr. Barry, was still out of town. I shared it with the same senior person I had called earlier, but he did not know how to interpret the image, either.
That image brought not only puzzlement but also feelings of anger. They did not seem to be my initial feelings but rather something that bubbled out of seeing that image. Meanwhile, none of us were planning to go to the next meeting.
Another prayer brought another experience of the same image and a sense of needing to do something. After all, the picture was of Jesus doing something. So, I sent an e-note to G, asking, perhaps too stridently as a result of those feelings coming from the image, to move the meetings to San Ignatio for compassionate reasons, to have a helper come in since he was inexperienced at faith formation, and to alter the content of the sessions. He responded by calling all the others in a divide-and-conquer power play that only drove them to me for help in combating what they had perceived as condescension and manipulation. I wrote again and repeated, more stridently, my earlier requests and forthrightly told him of our concerns with his leadership (or lack thereof) but hesitated to mention the sense of evil that surrounded him (perhaps I should have). He refused to put anything into writing and asked for a phone call so that he could help me understand how formation works. I countered by agreeing to discuss matters with him but only with all concerned present. He demurred.
So, as a group we decided to write a letter about our concerns to the Council. Again, I prayed about the situation. Again, I got the same image. Understanding by now that this was some kind of tasking being given to me but not understanding what the task was supposed to be was driving me nuts, and still Fr. Barry was out of town. So, N and I wrote the letter, trying to keep it objective, non-accusatory, and focused on resolution of the issues that were troubling us -- all except the issue of evil, which probably was the core of the problem. We were hesitant to commit that to paper, but we knew we had to bring it up at some point. So, we asked for a meeting with the Council to discuss details "more fully."
G, knowing about the letter to the Council, preempted their action by going directly to the regional leadership and presenting a rather biased case of what was going on. Regional told the Council to support G and suggested barring us from professing. So, there was no meeting, and I was still getting the same image. N and I talked about giving up and walking away, but that action did not seem to be the kind of response that the image I was receiving would prompt.
Then, N ran into a member of the Council in a bookstore in another city. (None of us can convince ourselves that this meeting was coincidental.) Out tumbled N's concerns, minus a discussion of perceived evil, and the Council member (L) told N the history: G was not their choice but there were no others who had volunteered, G had forced himself on them through the intervention of the regional organization, and the regional leadership had insisted that the Council support him against any criticism. However, L continued, the Council was as uncomfortable in G's presence as we were! Here was news!
L asked N to convince me to call her. I did -- from Washington, where I happened to be at the time. Since we could not meet, we talked by phone for more than an hour. Encouraged, I told L everything up to that point, including my sense of being spiritually raped in G's house and even the image of Jesus overturning tables in the temple, wailing that I just could not make any sense of the image other than the feeling that I was supposed to do something related to it. L had an interesting interpretation: "I think it means that God does not like evil infiltrating His organization." That was the first that the word "evil" had been spoken.
After I hung up with her, I complained to God: "Lord, You know that I am a verbal learner; I need words, not pictures, to understand. I am sorry that I am a tugodum, but I think that's no surprise to you. I will try to grow in the ways you seem to want me to, but in this case, I really need verbal input. I suppose You know that. I just want to mention it in case you might think that I am smarter than I really am."
Then I drew bath water, nothing else having distracted me from the rituals of the day. As the water filled the tub, I debated whether to take into the tub with me a book that I was partway through reading or the Bible.
"My Word." Out of nowhere came the Voice, startling me as usual.
So, the Bible it was. I haphazardly opened it and found myself staring at a passage I had never read before: Ezekial 30, to be precise. As I read through the chapter, a lament for Egypt and God's promise/threat of destruction, I saw many parallels to the situation I was in, including experiencing as I read the same feelings of anger that the image of Jesus overturning tables in the temple brought. Once again, a prayer had been answered. I had words, not an image.
...except, uh-oh, as I read, I became less certain of my interpretation. Here was told of arrogance punished. Certainly, G's arrogance deserved to be punished, but the adjective used in the verse was "her," referring to a nation. Now, G was definitely a "he," and I am definitely a "she." So, confusion appeared anew.
Once again, I cried out for help in exasperation at myself for not being able to understand what was apparently supposed to be obvious. "So, Lord, whom do You see as arrogant? Me or G?"
And then, once again, I heard that Voice, which I have come to love, trust, and rely on, yet which causes me to jump out of my skin nearly literally whenever I hear it and which always sets me to scurrying off to a spiritual director to confirm authenticity. Only this time, I was far away from home and from anyone who could help. But I did get an answer to my question: "Let G know that he cannot treat My people this way." As with other locutions, those words are forever seared into my memory.
Yes, now that I had what seemed to be clarity, I would definitely let G know. Whatever were to happen to me or my reputation (people tend to think you are nuts if you tell them that you experience locutions), I would carry out any tasking that so much effort had gone into making clear. Although I sincerely wished I did not have to do this, it would be, as the Russians say, skazano, sdelano (lit., said-done, i.e. no sooner said than done.) "Skazano, sdelano, Lord," I promised. "Just, please, stay by my side and ensure that no one else gets hurt in the process of taming Goliath."
When I returned, E, laboring under the assumption that I might continue along the path that N and I had talked about earlier, i.e. leaving, asked to speak to me urgently. (I had come home only for a day before leaving on another business trip.) E told me that he had been praying about the situation and was certain that I was not supposed to leave but to stay. For some reason, E thought it meant I should stay and be professed, but I understood it to mean that I was supposed to see the tasking through to its finish: discuss the question of evil with the Council.
Interestingly, the morning of the meeting with the Council about which I was understandably nervous knowing that I would have to talk about things mystical and not knowing whether the other Council members would be as accepting of them as L had been, N and I attended the same Mass. There, the person leading the choir made a mistake (or was it a mistake?) and gave the wrong page number for the last hymn we were to sing. The song we ended up singing was "Be Not Afraid." N asked me after Mass if I had picked up on the mistake and its possible significance. Of course!
I found that once we were at the meeting with the Council, with G present as well, I was not afraid. I felt not alone. It was the first time in G's presence that I also felt God's presence. I methodically explained everything that had occurred: the discussions among ourselves, the purpose of the letters, and the image I had been seeing in response to prayers. Then, I paused to take a breath and told the Council I had something difficult to say (difficult for me to say because they might well consider me nuts and difficult for G to hear). Looking G in his still-dead eyes, I said, "G, you cannot treat God's people this way. I have been tasked to tell you this." Wow, there was absolute silence for a few seconds.
In that silence, a strange thing happened. G's face went through multiple distortions. I am not talking about him changing his expressions. Rather, his physical face distorted in ways that one sometimes sees in movies about possession, like Evil cornered. I wondered if perhaps I really was nuts after all. However, after G had left, L stayed behind along with another member of the Council, and all four of us immediately began talking about the ways in which G's face had morphed so fluidly and distinctly. We took comfort in the fact that we had all observed this seemingly impossible phenomenon. (No, I do not think that G is possessed. I do think, though, that he is so strongly caught in the grip of evil that he can neither see it nor, should he manage to glimpse it, extricate himself.)
The outcome was definitely worth the fight. I realized that our Council does accept mystical experiences as a way that God chooses for communication with some people. The Council exempted N and me from formation meetings. G is now conducting the meetings in San Ignatio, and several professed SFO members, including a member of the Council, are present at all formation sessions. I suppose N and I could return, given those favorable conditions.
There are moments, though, when I question whether I was I right or wrong in my interpretations, understanding of being tasked, and manner of accomplishing the task. To this day, I wish I had had the opportunity to take this to Fr. Barry, to get his insights and to let him "test" the authenticity of what I saw, read, and heard. In the end, everything seemed compellingly clear, but I suppose that could itself be a deception. Others agreed with my ultimate interpretation, but again that could be a deception. If evil can parade around the church in the clothing of a deacon (admittedly, this is still a personal discernment not an evidenced fact), can it not take nearly any guise, including self-delusion and a seeming tasking from God?
It is all sometimes more than a tugodum like I can manage! I thank God that I have those who can help me, but I also bemoan the reality that I cannot always appeal to them for help because of urgency and/or availability.
Now this experience has led to something more: a major decision that I will relate in the next post. I am afraid that I may already have lost the attentional patience of anyone reading this post. So, I will save the follow-up decision for a follow-up post.
Note: Illustration from A Portrait of Jesus website.