Monday, November 23, 2009

What I Did Over Summer Vacation: Adventures on Spook Hill

“You’re gonna have to serve somebody / Yes indeed / You’re gonna have to serve somebody / It may be the devil, it may be the Lord . . .” Bob Dylan

Do you work here? She asked, gripping my forearm, desperate for another message from her beloved. I shook my head. At that time I had brought my Aunt for a Spiritual Reading with one of the mediums. Out of curiosity, and because it fit into our schedule, we signed up to attend the séance. Afterward, I stood outside stunned, unable to explain how, without effort on my part, I’d become a channel for a deceased motorcycle-riding man, a stranger in both life and death.

This unexpected turn of events and the unearthing of these latent abilities prompted a job offer: would I be interested in giving readings on Spook Hill the following summer? It certainly seemed that I could communicate with the dead, and it was true, secretly, I’d been communing with the spirit world all of my life. Though, I’d never exercised these psychic muscles in a public arena.

At first, it was fun. Each reading felt unique. Like when a man came to ask about his work without telling me what he did. I was shown a Native American man standing on a stage holding an American flag. The velvet curtains were parted to reveal red rock formations. As I described this scene we both laughed. Neither of us knew what it meant. I offered his money back. He declined. Later, he called to tell me that he’d been offered a job directing a theatre company in Flagstaff Arizona at the edge of an Indian Reservation.

With each successive reading my sixth-sensory confidence grew, but I soon learned that not everyone came for Readings out of sense of fun and curiosity. One young woman asked about her husband. Though it was hard, I shared with her what I saw; a man whose head was infested with hornets, a man beside himself with anger and fear, striking out at anything and everything around him. A small isolated farmhouse, a wall to hide herself and her children behind. The strong smell of liquor. My heart broke as she laid her head down on the table and wept.

Another time I saw the spirit of a man in military uniform sitting beside an elderly man. The soldier told me that the man was having trouble breathing but he was too scared to say anything so I should tell him to “focus on his exhale.” When I gave the man this message his eyes filled with tears. He told me that this was his buddy from Vietnam who’d been with him when he lost a lung to a sniper’s bullet. He thought he would die, but his friend had stayed with him reminding him to exhale until the medics arrived. He’d called out to him the day before when he was having a breathing attack and here he was sending messages through me proving that their friendship had transcended death.

People told me that they found hope and help with the messages I was able to provide, yet the more time I spent on the Hill the more I realized how dangerous this job was. Not in the way most people might think. We have all heard stories of haunted houses and unruly spirit’s, but the dangers I saw involved the more human pathos of ego and power.

Most human beings do not handle power well and all of us struggle with our own shadow side, our own unconsciousness, fears and addictions. But those of us who have tapped into what appears to be unique skills and/or abilities of a spiritual nature must be evermore vigilant in the management of our own ego. For these perceived “powers” have the potential to make us feel or others perceive that we are all-knowing or even God-like. This indeed, is a slippery slope.

As with the grieving woman who had clutched my arm after the séance, it was easy to see how anyone with a heart would want to console her. It was also easy to see how tempting it might be for a Reader to dabble in hyperbole or to consciously or even unconsciously throw enough words around so that they hear some of what they came for. This way the Reading could be considered a success and the question of whose interests were served could be avoided.

The more time that I spent up on the Hill, the more I saw a tendency for Readers to become so susceptible to feeding their own sense of personal power or their pocketbook that to protect their “stash” of Readings they behaved as if they were engaged in a contact sport. Everyone was fair game. Parlor tricks were not exempt, and a variety of subversive terror tactics were employed to gain and maintain control.

These might be as banal as proving their prowess by bending spoons and tipping tables, or as malevolent as accusing a male Reader of being a sex offender and dabbling in black magic to trip others up. By the end of the summer the allure of this insatiable ego-fueled power created such a lack of genuine love and respect for others that it spurred a mass exodus of Readers.

Those that stayed appeared to be sleepwalking as they joylessly stacked up Readings and collected cash. Those of us that left were threatened not to talk about experiences and some of us experienced headaches and physical illness.

Many of us learned the valuable lessons of letting go of the novelty of what we do. Most of us came to understand that not all people with spiritual gifts handle them with loving intentions. I learned that psychic power not grounded in a commitment to serve the greater good can disconnect people from themselves, from others, and from their God.

Summer has come and gone. The lessons of Spook Hill live on. Every time I am called to use my six-sensory gifts in the world, I am grateful for the reminder that the only real power I have—is to decide who I will serve.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

True Confessions

“Forgive me Father for I have sinned it has been over 30 years since my last confession.”

It had, in fact, been 33.
“And what,” Father B asked, “brought you here today?”
Not an easy question to answer. Except, it had a lot to do with a brown-eyed boy who waited for me back in the pew. Though I had little trust of religious institutions or the men who ran them, I was determined to support my son’s spiritual quest.
“Mom, I want to be a Catholic.” He’d informed me months before.
I, too, had been a Catholic once. Like my son, I received first communion in a ceremony of pomp and circumstance. Instead of a tie, I wore a white lace dress with a doily-shaped veil bobby-pinned to my pageboy haircut.
Father B looked at me as I sat down in the chair opposite him ignoring both his question and the optional pre-Vatican II screen, which I could have hid behind. What would be the use? He knew who I was; the entire congregation knew who I was; the woman whose partner was a woman.
The term gay or lesbian was never spoken aloud.
This small parish with its thriving parochial school embraced an ideology that skirted its Roman roots, preaching that “the people” are God’s church, therefore, “all people” were welcome, a friendlier version of don’t ask, don’t tell.
“I’m here to support my son,” I said, pointing at the ornate door I’d shut behind me upon entering the closet-sized room.
He nodded.
Parents were encouraged to receive the sacrament of reconciliation along with their children, and though there were other lapsed Catholics in the crowd, one by one, they all lined up to follow their child’s lead.
“Aren’t you going to go up, Mom?” My son had asked.
It seemed easier to nod my head and get in line than try to explain to a seven-year-old the theological implications of being gay. Moreover, I did not want to burden him with the still-fresh pain of my partner’s confession recent confession.
A surprise, even to her, she’d said, returning home late from Bible study.
Not only because he was a man, but a married man, with kids, and well, he was also the minister of the open and affirming church she’d been attending.
Who knew how open and affirming he’d turn out to be?
So, there I sat in a claustrophobic closet with a priest who smelled of peppermint and the garbled sounds of women’s voices floating up through the floor vent from the yeasty lunchroom directly below.
He cleared his throat, no doubt sensing I was not thrilled to be there.
“Have you been practicing your sacraments?” He asked.
“Father, I am a lesbian,” I said incredulously.
“In this church,” he said softly, “that makes no difference.”
Perhaps, it was the gentleness in his voice, it resonated with a kind of vulnerability, or maybe it was because my partner’s confession was colliding in my mind with recent news reports of pedophile priests, sex-scandals, and mounting legal fees, or maybe it just that my heart felt so scarred, so tender, or perhaps we were both in the wrong place at the wrong time, whatever it was a floodgate opened up inside of me and out spewed my own unplanned sermon on the hypocrisy of religious institutions and the men who ran them. How f—’d up it all was, how they perverted the true message of Jesus, how I did not buy any of it, how I did not trust him, and if all that wasn’t enough, to cap it off, I added that for all I knew he too could be sexually abusing the boys behind the altar!
When I finished, I sank breathlessly back into the chair and put my head in my hands and sobbed. After a long silence, I heard him say, “I feel your pain. I’m sorry.”
I stood up mumbling my own apology, preparing to leave, when my eyes met his. There was such compassion in his eyes that when he waved me back down, I obeyed.
“Please,” he said, “Do you believe in prayer?”
I nodded.
“Will you pray for me? I am scheduled for a surgery on Monday and I’m asking for prayers because . . . well, frankly . . . I’m terrified.”
In that instant, I realized he had honed in on the one thing I did have faith in, it wasn’t a religious institution or a person, but I did believe in the power of prayer and he’d asked me to give the one thing I could give.
“Of course, Father, I will pray for you.” I took the tissue he offered.
Outside of the box the congregation began to sing the Halleluiah chorus, and suddenly, we were both conscious of the time. I imagined my son horrified at the thought that his mother must have an extraordinary number of sins to confess.
“Are you ready for your penance?” He asked.
Wondering how many Our Fathers or Hail Mary’s my impertinent behavior had merited, I nodded.
He cleared his throat and, for the first time, said my name, “Bridget, I want you to trust God.”
I stared at him. Was he joking? A million Hail Mary’s would be easier.
“Father, I don’t think you know what a tall order that is.” I said, and got up to leave.
“Oh, I think I do.” He smiled. There was a strange twinkle in his eyes as he handed me tissue for the road.
I took the tissue and couldn’t help but smile back.
“Thank you,” I managed, as I stepped through the thick door into a crescendo of voices. The sound broke over me like a wave of warm water and I returned to the pew where I found my son kneeling, his hands clasped, his eyes closed and his head bowed. Grateful for his lead, I kneeled beside him, closed my eyes and thanked God for men like Father B: men who understood the true meaning of the message of the one they professed to be their God.