Two weeks ago, on a Friday night after a long day of classes, I drove an hour from the seminary into the city to meet up with an old friend, a friend from my own hometown, who I had gone to high school with, gone through confirmation with, shared countless meals and ideas and memories and sunsets and painful hours with, sat on hillsides in the middle of the night and looked at the stars with: that kind of friend. She came into my life unexpectedly and stayed in it because we understood each other, and she has a bulldog’s resolve and the tenacity of a dancer, which is not a virtue dancers are always given credit for, even though they should.
We spent the whole night laughing until it was time for me to go home, and we were sitting in my car in a parking lot empty except for a couple of other cars, which were also empty, and dark except for a single light burning on the southeast side, and silent, completely, until she cleared her throat in a hesitating kind of way that made it clear there was something she wanted to say even though she didn’t, quite.
I asked her what it was.
Slowly, because she had to reach deep inside to find the words and force them out into the light, even the dim light of that parking lot, she told me about something she had done, something keeping her from the sacraments, something she felt she couldn’t even confess, until she wrenched it out and confessed it to me—me—who couldn’t even offer her absolution, and I wondered if maybe that was why, because she knew I couldn’t and she didn’t want, didn’t believe anyone could?
So I prayed, first in my heart—“God, use me as your instrument,” said my heart, “you need to speak through my lips, because I don’t have anything to offer her but you, Jesus”—and then aloud, slowly, and quietly at first, and after a while the words didn’t come from me. They were his, and we were his, and that parking lot was Calvary. Through the windshield, we saw him on his cross, we saw the lance-blow pierce his side, and we saw his love in the blood and the water.
Then we talked about wounds. I knew what I needed to say a second before I said it, as if he were whispering right into my heart—as if he were within my heart, no mediate relation, no thought, only “itiel,“ God-with-me. We talked about suffering and perfection and I told her about my own sins and weaknesses and the wounds I bore in my heart and how long it took me to bring them to Jesus to wash them clean. That it was years, even after my conversion, even after I was confirmed, before I could kneel before him and surrender, give him everything, give him my heart and believe he loved me, know he was a man and love him!, love him in return.
We talked about lots of things, and we played a song, Oceans, and another, Blessings, and she cried, and I sang, because sin and yet, beauty, and love.
Ten days ago, on a regular morning like any other, I rolled out of bed, showered, shaved, got dressed, entered into Christ’s dialogue with the Father through the Liturgy of the Hours, clamored for him to save me, heard his promise of salvation in the Liturgy of the Word, offered him my self along with the bread and wine, meager gifts representing all of creation—saw them transformed into so much more, humble created things exalted into the Body and Blood of Christ himself, more real than the universe—received him, his flesh into my flesh!—then had a cup of coffee and went to class because life is weird that way and the sublime and the mundane are blended in it, and after class I went to the writing center, where I would sit and wait for anyone to bring me a paper in need of an editor’s pen, and it was there, in fact, that I was sitting at 11:10 a.m. on that morning of the 1st of October in the year of Our Lord 2015 when I got a group text message. It was a short one from a friend back home, only two words and a link. The first word was “Guys”. The second word was “Prayers”.
The link said, “BREAKING NEWS”.
The news said that at that moment the police in my own hometown of Roseburg were responding to an active shooter at my own Umpqua Community College, UCC, the institution listed on my transcript for my Spanish and English literature credits, where my grandmother teaches ethics, where my friends went after high school to finish their A.A. degrees and where some of them still are—UCC! where I had taken classes and gone to plays and sat with friends by the fountains, where I had come with my dad as a kid to look at the stars through a larger than life telescope, it was impossible, it was inconceivable that it could be my UCC they were talking about on CNN.
I read everything Google could turn up and then I turned to face the crucifix on the wall and fell to my knees there, in the writing center, and counted rosary beads between fingers that were suddenly shaking and uncertain and prayed, and didn’t know what for, exactly, because nothing I could ask for would ever be enough but that His will be done, and I saw His will before me suspended there by thumbtacks on a brown bulletin board, and His will was the cross.
And when I had finished the rosary and my hour in the writing center, thankfully uninterrupted, was up, I went downstairs, because I am blessed enough to live in a building in which Jesus dwells in the fullness of his body, blood, soul and divinity in our very own basement, and I threw myself on the floor in front of his tabernacle and sobbed, and when I ran out of tears I asked “why,” and then when I ran out of asking “why” I just breathed, which was hard, but I’m blessed enough that I haven’t run out of breathing, yet.
I stayed there for hours, resting and restless: sitting, kneeling, lying down, checking my phone for updates, and throwing myself back into the ocean of His mercy, which I knew was pouring into me and filling every dark corner and nook and cranny of me even though right then I couldn’t feel it. My heart was numb and wailing. Friends were texting me constantly. I replied to some. Many of them were praying for my town and I knew they were there in the chapel with me even though they weren’t, precisely, because He was there, and the Body of Christ transcends all time and space, and in prayer we come closer together than joint and marrow, which is why we are never alone, really. But our hearts too often are shaking and uncertain, and we can still feel like we are.
One friend offered to drive me home: a new friend, a friend made for talking about Jesus over pumpkin space lattes or for quiet nights in the chapel singing in harmony of hearts or for walking the stations of the cross in the dark with, not an old friend, but he might as well be because he knows my heart just the same, because his heart and my heart are undergoing the same trials in pursuit of the same prize and because, as a certain priest once said in that tongue-in-cheek way which slips insight in by the backdoor of a joke, ‘we have the same best friend’: that kind of friend, though also the kind of friend who would prefer I call him “‘brother,’ because brotherhood is better than friendship.”
In the end I agree, and we drive south two and a half hours to Roseburg, the little town which is a part of me and I of it, the duck pond, the bike path, the high school, the parish church—the latter of which was our destination. It seemed normal, except for the traffic: the car which passed us on the highway with “Pray for UCC” handwritten on the rear window, and the media in their trucks with satellite dishes, NBC, CNN, two reporters from the Oregonian in a Prius.
Everyone seemed to be in a daze, including myself. I gave and received about a hundred hugs. My mom was there, and my grandma, whose eyes welled with tears. One woman said quietly, “thank God you’re here,” and I did, with all the strength of my heart, which didn’t feel like much.
We celebrated the holy sacrifice of the Mass for the second time that day, which reminds me of this beautiful reality: every Mass is the same because Calvary is always the same: one priest, one victim, one sacrifice, all of them Jesus Christ. But every Mass is different because we are different, we stained and spotted restless mumbling bumbling beautiful human beings, and even when we come to the altar once in the morning and again twelve hours later, we come different than we were, to a Mass that is different, too.
I knelt behind that altar I have knelt behind a thousand times, probably, at my pastor’s right hand, gazing up at that spotless Host raised up above the altar of sacrifice, singing “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world—have mercy on us,” and then I received His body again, taken down off the cross with the utmost gentleness, that blessed body beaten, battered, bruised, broken, pierced, crushed, spat upon, shot through and abandoned at the place of the skull, that body more real than the universe, that body which endured everything the world could throw upon it with the patience of a father enduring his beloved child’s anger, that body which rose up from the dust spotless in spite of its bruises and unbroken in spite of the brokenness we inflicted on it, that body which conquered death by death and rose, victorious, and then—and then!—and now rested upon my tongue. His sacred heart beat within me then, his blood in my veins. I came grieving with a heavy heart and came away electrified. Still grieving, but transposed: grief in a new key, grief boiling to enervating steam.
The next three days were a blessed blur.
On Friday night, I met up with a friend: not just an old friend but one of my very oldest, in fact the first friend worthy of the name, the first to know the shape and the contours and the shadows of my heart, the first to stay up with me at night and listen to me and remain with me in all my insecurities and my weaknesses, and even when he didn’t understand, to love me with a pure and a steadfast love: that kind of friend.
We walked together in the dark down familiar streets and talked about the façade of normalcy, how everything seemed fine on the outside, but scratch the surface and you find hearts shattered, people broken and just holding together. I wondered if this wasn’t how things were all the time, but we were only just now aware of it.
We sat and talked for hours about God: me, the seminarian, and he, the maybe-a-Christian, unbaptized and still uncertain, and I found myself for the second time in two weeks telling someone who I had known for years about my conversion, what it was like from the inside, what it was like to be first drawn into this Church, to feel a flash of God’s presence and to keep coming back again and again searching, desiring, longing, to fall in love with the Mass, with the Holy Eucharist, with the priesthood, then with Jesus himself; to kneel down before Him on the crucifix and surrender my whole life, knowing that my plans were as nothing, as dust and ashes, compared with the plans he had already set in motion in my life and had for my future. We talked about suffering, and surrender, and freedom, and love.
On Saturday morning, I went to my parish chapel, because at home I do not have a tabernacle in my basement, but have to drive ten minutes to sit with Jesus, and when I got there I sat in the dark and listened to his heart beat, or my heart beat, and watched light move across the floor in the same patterns they always have, filtered through stained glass and the branches of an ancient tree outside waving in the wind. Then I prayed my Office in the blessed silence of an empty church, dressed in my cassock, and went to meet my pastor at the cemetery, where we buried a woman who had not been shot, but who had passed away peacefully in the twilight of her life.
I remembered the last time I had stood at my pastor’s side before an open grave, how unworthy I had felt to be there. This time, it felt as though I were exactly where I was supposed to be, like a puzzle piece slotting right into place, as though my feet and his were planted precisely at the center of the turning world. I read the intercessions from the Rite of Committal. “You wept at the grave of Lazarus, your friend; comfort us in our sorrow.” A grandson buried his face in his grandmother’s shirt, crying. “You raised the dead to life; give to our sister eternal life.” Everyone was crying. “You promised paradise to the repentant thief; bring her to the joys of heaven.”
I offered the prayers not just for that woman, but for the others, the nine souls whose lives had been taken the day before, the tenth, who had snuffed out their lives and taken his own, the nine more who were wounded in their hands or legs or sides and the countless, the inestimable thousands who were wounded in their hearts and their souls, waiting to hear if a son, a daughter, a mother, a father, a beloved friend would come home again, or knowing they would not.
After the burial, I went to the hospital and met with the mother and grandmother and sister of a young woman who had been shot and wounded, but survived. They asked if I knew what room she was in. I said I didn’t, but pointed them toward the visitor’s desk and offered my condolences. I wanted to tell them I had lost friends, too, to offer them my prayers, to say something, anything, to ease their pain, but I couldn’t—I gave the grandmother a hug and they went on their way. I went into the hospital chapel and knelt down before the body of Christ and gripped my rosary like my own mother’s hand and slipped bead after bead again through my fingers and lifted prayer after prayer up to heaven as tears slipped out of my eyelashes and onto the floor, and I know I cried more that weekend than I have in a year, probably.
That night, at our parish vigil Mass, we celebrated a convalidation of a marriage, and I stood again at my pastor’s side, this time looking down not into an open grave but on a beaming couple as they slipped rings onto each other’s fingers in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen, and promised to love one another in sickness and in health and—“I want you to listen carefully to this part!” Father said, in that tone of mock sternness which drives home the seriousness of what is about to happen while also drawing a laugh—for better or for worse, until death do they part. And we celebrated the holy sacrifice again, ever ancient, ever new, and side by side we bore the sacred body and blood from the altar, first to the bride and the groom, then to the whole body of Christ present there in St. Joseph’s Church.
I made sure that the names of all the victims were read at the general intercessions, “Lucero Alcaraz…Lucas Eibel…Quinn Cooper…” and after each blessed name in my heart I added, “pray for us.”
After Mass was a flurry of hugs and congratulations, and Father slipped away to go be with Lucero’s family, and eventually I went home to be with my own, where we sat around the table and played a fiendishly complicated game of progressive rummy, all twelve rounds of it, and even though we kept threatening to quit, nobody ever did.
On Sunday I returned to the seminary, feeling like I had been through the longest and the fastest 72 hours of my life, more grateful than ever to be one of those whom the Lord calls out of the world to come away and be with him on the mountaintop for a little while, feeling empty, exhausted, but not burned out—that blessed emptiness, rather, that you feel from having given everything of yourself, every last drop you had.
I stayed up too late talking to my brother, I overslept the next morning, I overate, and indulged in every kind of intemperance trying to fill myself up again before I realized, belatedly, I had not been back to prayer. I was glutting myself on food that could not satisfy. I went back to the chapel in the basement and made, again, an offering of myself—of everything I had done, every word I had said, everything I had felt, thought, prayed, every moment of hope, and of despair, every hug, every handshake, every blessed communion.
I met with my spiritual director, who told me that, yes, this is the vocation. To come away with God and to go out into the world. To go out and come back. To be with people and bear their sorrows and share in their joys, all at once. And it felt all right, all of it right, even in my own grief, not a moment of it wrong.
On Thursday my very, very best friend, who due to circumstance is 2,238 miles away from me but thanks to the blessed Eucharist is closer to me than my joints to my marrow, received his cassock, in a formal ceremony which he later described to me as “all right, not a moment of it wrong,” and so on Wednesday night at midnight I knocked on our mutual friend David’s door, and we went to the gym and spent an hour laughing and shooting hoops, recording a video to congratule him which I hoped would make him smile.
And so, life goes on.
Yesterday, I and nine of my brothers and two old friends from home and a mother and father who I love like my own parents and three kids who are like my own siblings and two dogs who I love even though they make me sneeze gathered on a suburban porch by the side of a pool to give praise to our God.
It was a miracle because we had been planning it for two months when my friend, the singer, the guitarist, the man who has “praise and worship” inscribed on his soul, who I was relying on the most, said two days ago that he couldn’t go, and so I had to scramble to find replacements: another guitarist, another singer, another one to lead us in prayer.
It was a miracle because the family didn’t have quite enough chairs, so my brother and I went walking around campus looking in every nook and cranny and found only two measly folding chairs when we needed six until the very last room we could have checked, and there were four more, along with cymbals.
It was a miracle because a tree blew over at the family’s house but nobody was hurt and no windows were broken, even though the branch was within a finger’s breadth of the window…
It was a miracle because there were so many ways things could have gone wrong and everything went exactly right. It was a miracle because I had been exerting myself in every direction to make sure this night would be great, but on the drive down I finally opened my heart and surrendered it all to Him, and the clouds literally parted and sun shone under them like in the movies, like fingers reaching through, so eager to drive the clouds away and let that searing blessed light bathe this whole tired world.
We sang and drew close together and shared our stories of God’s love, and then we each knelt down and let the others pray over us, and my brother looked right into my soul when he offered his prayer over me: “You see him when he tries to please you,” he said, “when he thinks about you throughout the day, every time he goes into the chapel all alone just to be with you, every time he does something just for you that no one ever knows about, you see it all, Lord, and it pleases you because you love him, you want him even more than he wants you…”
And for the second time, or the third or the fourth or the millionth time in two weeks, we cried, and we sang, because sin and yet, beauty, and love.