BATON ROUGE (LA)
The American Conservative [Washington DC]
November 26, 2022
By Rod Dreher
What suffering can teach us about the journey of our life, and those who walk with us
I posted something the other day about the occult and criminal violence around the Santa Muerte cult, a favorite of narcotraficantes. I asked readers to share their experiences with this phenomenon, if they have any. Only one of you responded — good news, because it shows that the cult hasn’t afflicted your lives — but the reader who responded sent it a story of the demonic haunting of a man who had been close to him. Doesn’t involve Santa Muerte, but it’s still chilling and important. Read on:
This past summer, my ex-husband, Kurt, had a Catholic priest from his home parish in Kentucky clear his house in upstate New York of demons. And now that it’s been blessed, he can finally stay in the place again. It’s a small cabin that had been built by his grandfather back in the 1940’s, and Kurt has owned it since his father left it to him twenty years ago. Originally, it didn’t even have running water, but Kurt is handy, and he turned it into a beautiful little two-bedroom house. It’s about ten miles from Lake George and situated in the most gorgeous country imaginable, at the base of a small mountain, and near a beautiful. clear, flowing lake.
And during the twelve years Kurt and I were together, I would sometimes stay up there with him, of course. But, even though I am half-Sicilian, and I believe that makes me almost genetically prone to superstitious beliefs (you should’ve met my grandmother), I never saw anything out of the ordinary up there. But a few years ago, while Kurt was staying up there all by himself, he saw things that made him almost lose his mind. Quite literally.
This was right at the beginning of COVID, when a lot of people, admittedly, were losing their shit. And since I was an Emergency Room nurse at that time, and since Kurt has a history of multiple open-heart surgeries, when COVID began, we thought it would be safer if Kurt stayed up there while the pandemic was raging, lest I bring it home to him from work. And a friend of his stayed up there with him for the first few weeks, but in the last month or so before he came back home, Kurt was up there all by himself.
But one night, Kurt called me up and told me he was seeing a lot of shadows moving around the house. People from his past, he said, and all of them dead. And even though Kurt scared the crap out of me that night, it didn’t really surprise me. I had, unfortunately, heard things like this from him before.
A little context: Kurt had, and still has, terrible PTSD, from really crippling childhood physical and sexual abuse. To give you an idea of the severity of this: one time Kurt was having terrible pain in his wrist, so bad he even quit a carpentry job over it. So we got it X-rayed, but then, when we got the results, the doctor looked at Kurt with a weird expression on his face. This looks like an old pediatric injury, the doctor said to him, do you remember injuring yourself as a kid? And that was when Kurt remembered his father throwing him down on the ground when he was only ten years old, something he had completely blocked from his memory until that very moment.
And Kurt’s PTSD is, ultimately, what destroyed our marriage. There were other factors, of course: for the last two years we were together, he had been relapsing on alcohol and drugs. And since we were both in recovery (I am now sober 19 years), and had even met each other in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, that was, obviously, a deal-breaker.
But the PTSD was the main thing. The poor man would sometimes flashback and relive the trauma right in front of me, and those shadows he spoke of that night on the phone were always threatening to destroy both of us. Kurt was, and still is, a wonderful man, with an incredibly large heart, something that I am still in awe of. The man, literally, taught me to love my mother more, because he loved her so much; he taught me to love so many things in life, even a little bird hopping around in the grass in our backyard, since that’s how open his heart was to virtually everything around him. But at the same time, unfortunately, Kurt’s really terrible, crippling PTSD made living with him also like living with someone who was possessed by demons (and from what I understand, whether you believe in demons literally or figuratively, it is thought that they can sometimes enter people during childhood trauma).
And I would not want to mischaracterize the wonderful twelve-year relationship we had. We would sometimes go for almost a year without Kurt melting down into one of his, for want of a better term, ‘states’. But when he did meltdown, all bets were off. It could be terrifying. And I can’t even get into all of the details here, but let’s just say that what finally ended our marriage involved a 911 call I had to make one night, since threats were being again. Only this time, there was a rifle involved. You once did a post on friends of yours, Rod, a married couple where the wife may have been possessed by demons, and one of your commentors said that her husband should be canonized as a saint. And I remember reading that while I was in the thick of it with Kurt, and thinking, well, if this guy is a saint, I should be sitting on the right hand of the throne by now.
This almost killed me. And I’m not even talking about being threatened with a rifle. You see, Rod, I have my own heart condition. But during the period our marriage was falling apart, a defibrillator that I had to have implanted a few years before began pacing my heart around the clock, meaning that the small amount of heart damage I initially had from cardiac sarcoidosis had somehow gotten worse during that time. And my own toxic codependency with Kurt was so bad that I just kept going to my cardiologist and getting scans and MRI’s as we kept trying to figure out if the inflammation in my heart had come back. When any idiot would’ve have known that it was the stress from my marriage that was literally eating my heart right out of my chest. I mean, I used to even joke to the nurses I worked with: You know, I am a psychiatric RN in an Emergency Room, but I come into work to frigging relax!
Let me speed this up a bit: so after I called 911 on Kurt that night, I had to take out an Order of Protection against him, sell our house, and start divorce proceedings. All alone, since this was only three months into COVID, when everyone was still quarantining. Needless to say, it was the hardest thing I ever had to do, and much harder than something I had been doing for the past three months: namely, going in to work in an Emergency Room with a heart condition that made me high-risk from a still-unknown pandemic, and not knowing if each day was going to be my last. But I was terrified that Kurt was going to wind up dead of a drug overdose, and for the first time, and after all of the futile rescuing behavior I had engaged in while we were together, I had absolutely no control over that outcome
So with no other options, all I could do was pray for Kurt. And now when I share about this in AA meetings, I always say, So, if you think that this codependent-mess of a recovering-Catholic wasn’t down on his knees under that cross every morning with his rosary beads out, then you’ve got another think coming! I must have said thousands of prayers for Kurt during that year I had no contact with him. I almost wore my knees out.
But during all that time, I couldn’t get an image out of my mind. That first night Kurt came back from upstate, only a couple of nights before I had to call 911 on him, I accidently woke him up while he was sleeping on the couch in our den. Now, I had experienced some of Kurt’s night terrors before, something that is, unfortunately, very common with PTSD. A year before, Kurt had woken me up in tears in the middle of the night, when he felt his niece’s spirit moving through him as she died; she was on life support out in Nevada after a drug overdose, but she had, in fact, died that very night.
But as I startled him out of his sleep that night, Kurt looked up at me as I stood over him, with his cheeks flushed crimson, sucking in his breath with a horrible noise that almost sounded as if he were suffocating, and with an expression of such absolute mortal terror on his face, that it is an image I will never forget until the day I die. He told me later that he thought he was still upstate in the cabin and he was seeing those shadows again, some of them the shadows of his long-dead abusers
So I kept seeing that image before my eyes during that year I had no contact with him. And I knew those demons Kurt was seeing before his eyes that night were finally going to kill him. And there was absolutely nothing I could do.
So I prayed and I prayed and I prayed, and I think I cried every tear that I had in me, for 365 days straight. And after a year, when that Order of Protection was up and we were both divorced, I finally called Kurt up. And I found out that he had, just as I had feared, almost died of alcoholic poisoning, and even wound up in an ICU for a week.
But I also found out that my prayers had been answered: Kurt was actually sober for six months in AA again. And not only that, but he had found a good trauma specialist and was working on his PTSD, when this was a man who would storm out of the office of every psychologist, social worker or marriage counselor I ever forced him to go with me to. And not only that, but Kurt had found a Catholic church that he loved, out in Kentucky where he was living, and that he was actually going to be confirmed in the faith the following June.
So, as we say in AA: No coincidences. And let me wrap this up, Rod, its already much too long. But let me just say that this experience has been the catalyst for my own return to Catholicism. You see, I left the church over forty years ago, to live my life as a gay man. And I always thought it was some sort of sick joke that, after twenty years as an out-and-proud atheist, I was also an out-of-control alcoholic, and I was being told, in the rooms of AA, that I had to get a God in my life again, or I was going to die.
But through AA, I discovered the truth about a merciful, all-loving God, something I had never I internalized as a guilt-ridden, closeted Catholic schoolboy all the way back in the seventies. And to be honest, that was more MY problem, and not Catholicism’s. But through AA, I think I had been returning to my faith for years. But the last thing keeping me from going back fully, back to going to confession and receiving the Host again, was the fact that I was married to a man; a man whom I don’t mind saying I still love with all my heart and soul, and who I will never stop loving until the day I die.
That’s why I see the Hand-of-God at work in all of this, Rod. No more so than on that terrible night I finally picked up that phone to call 911. Kurt and I had both been dying together in that house for years, and I believe God intervened to save us. And I think He even worked through my wonderful, tough lesbian AA sponsor, Joyce, who was the one who made me call 911 that night (and Joyce, like almost every lesbian I know, has also had a lot more experience, and certainly much more experience than a gay man like myself, in one of the fundamental tasks of anyone who has ever tried to get sober, or anyone who has ever even tried to live life, for that matter: Letting go of someone you love).
So I believe God saved us. And today, not only is Kurt alive, and sober eighteen months now, and getting help for his PTSD, but he is even going to church; albeit a liberal church, and one that (horrors, Rod!) even flies the rainbow flag. And while that would not be good enough for me, I have to believe that it’s good enough for Kurt.
But then I’ve always known that my own damned, cold, black heart needs a hell of a lot more help than his ever did. Ciao, Rod, sorry I went on.
What a story! I responded with gratitude to the reader. One of the things I told him is that he well knows my beliefs on homosexuality, but one of the things I have learned in my own journey through this vale of tears is the importance of seeking out and nurturing a merciful human connection wherever possible. None of us are the sum total of our sins; all of us are works in progress. Last night I had dinner with a new friend, and we ended up having a long, long conversation about the struggles we’ve both lived through, including our sins and failings, and how we were brought through them. He’s not religious, but he desires God; I told him what God had done for me, and how Christ had repaired, and was still repairing, my own brokenness. I invited him to go to church with me this weekend. He enthusiastically accepted. Who knows what will happen next? I believe it is not only possible to pray and to hope for people like Kurt, and for the reader who shared his story, but that we must do that — and that it doesn’t compromise our own beliefs in the ultimate moral order (Justice) to leaven it with mercy — the same mercy upon which each of us depends, even if we are living more in line with Justice now than we once were.
Reading the story about Kurt’s own life of severe childhood abuse nearly brought me to tears. If you live long enough, you will see how the cruelty inflicted on children by adults in their lives plays out over the length of their lives. This is one reason why the Catholic sex abuse scandal affected me so deeply: from a profound rage at how adults responsible for the care and raising of little children failed them most basically, breaking those kids fundamentally as adults. I’ve mentioned in this space before how, when I was in New York and writing about this stuff from 2001-03, I got to know slightly an older gay man, now dead, who was a recovering alcoholic. He had been wildly promiscuous before finding sobriety and chastity late in life. He slept almost exclusively with priests. It all began when he was a Catholic schoolboy in Queens, in the 1960s, and had been raped by the monsignor who was headmaster of his school. He told his mother, who slapped him and told him never, ever to speak ill of a priest. She effectively turned him over to his abuser, because she could not or would not believe it was happening. It destroyed his life.
Strictly speaking, none of that justified this poor soul’s sins of the flesh. But hearing him talk about what happened to him as a child called forth mercy. If me, sinner that I was and am, found compassion in my heart for this fellow sinner, how much more love was there, and is there, for him from his Creator? The call to mercy does not negate the importance of justice, but it does temper it, and, I think, teaches we who have been shown so much mercy to try to extend it to others who struggle, and who are at different places on the path to God. I’m not speaking in abstractions here. You know that my wife filed for divorce earlier this year, without warning (we had never once discussed divorce). I have mostly been able to avoid giving myself over to anger, simply because it is so painfully clear how much both of us were malformed by events in our separate childhoods that cracked us in particular ways, ways that eventually led to this horrible and unwanted ending. I’m very sure that each of us have our particular narratives of blame here, but what I also recognize is that our own failures didn’t come from nowhere.
Life is hard, so hard. As Auden taught, “You shall love your crooked neighbor/With your crooked heart.” That doesn’t make sin — defined as any deviation from the divine order set by God’s will — not sin, nor does it relieve us of the responsibility to resist sin in ourselves, and in the world for which we are all stewards. But suffering humbles us, or it should. It drives us to our knees, right there with all the other sinners. The reason that Dante’s Purgatorio is my favorite of the three books of the Commedia is its depiction of all the sinners making their slow, agonizing way up the holy mountain — an allegory of the Christian life of progressive dying to self — helping each other on the journey. Some are farther along the road to the summit than others, but all are headed in that direction, driven forward by repentance, and called on by desire for God and His love.
This is why I find that this unhappily divorcing man has more in common with the divorced gay male correspondent who has been beaten to hell and back within his relationship with a poor soul he once loved, and who has been nearly destroyed by the effects of the abuse he suffered as a boy, than I do with others who have found it much easier to live morally upright lives. Suffering does that to you. I have learned through practical experience the wisdom of Christ’s injunction to leave judgment to God. It’s not an instruction to refuse morality — that would make no sense — but rather to have the humility to recognize that nobody but God knows the hearts of men, and can pass ultimate judgment on them. Very few people over this past decade knew how much pain I was in over the disintegration of my marriage. I couldn’t show it publicly, for obvious reasons, and I hoped against hope that if I stayed steadfast, God would work a miracle. I hasten to add that though it is not my place to talk about the suffering my soon to be ex-wife endured within the marriage, it was a real thing, and again, it’s why I just don’t have it in me to rest in resentment. It’s not because I’m virtuous; it’s because I have lived long enough to observe how all of us — me, you, everybody — live out the legacies of our childhoods. I’ve been very open this past decade about the good things my family gave me, but also the very difficult challenges they bequeathed to me — especially the wrestling I had to do with the legacy of my father, a good and loving man whose flaws hurt him and those he loved. I have tried very hard to give my children the things that were denied to me, but I cannot escape the sure knowledge that without meaning to, I will have inflicted damage on them that will make their own path through life harder. If I want their mercy, I have to show mercy to the memory of my dad. This is the way. This is the only way any of us get through this life without falling into the chasms opened up by the cracks from the blows absorbed in our youth.
Gosh, I didn’t mean to go on like this. Anyway, my point is simply: stand for righteousness, but more importantly, lean in to mercy. As my priest back in the day told me when I once again was at confession admitting that I was guilty of deep anger at my parents for failing to love me as I thought they should (I paraphrase): Christ loves you sacrificially, even though you fail to love him as you should. Try to show your parents that kind of love, the merciful love you depend on from Jesus. It doesn’t make your parents right, and I’m not telling you to put up with any mistreatment. But I am telling you that we all need mercy, depend on mercy — and the measure of mercy we can hope to receive depends on the mercy we measure out for those who have wronged us.
I didn’t really get that back then. I mean, yes, I understood it intellectually, but I was in too much pain to absorb it into my bones. Nevertheless, I fought against my own anger and resentment over the injustice in my family. Because I persisted in that, not out of natural goodness, but out of sheer obedience, I was able to be around when my father, shortly before he died, apologized to me. The words I had waited all my adult life to hear! And I was able to accompany him at his bedside for the last eight or nine days of his life, and held his hand as he took his final breaths. It was golden. I would not have been able to have received those gifts if I had not fought against my own grievances against him over injustices in our past together.
Maybe one day I will be on my deathbed, and one or more of my children will need to hear from me, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it. Please forgive me.” Probably so. You too. Me, the greatest struggle in my own heart is trying to get the balance between justice and mercy right. When I was younger, I was more about Justice; now, older and more battered by life, I’m more about Mercy. Too much Justice or too much Mercy makes us monsters, though different kinds of monsters. None of us ever get it exactly right, it seems to me. Thus, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Right?
One vivid example: Dylann Roof, the unrepentant racist who massacred black church members, is going to be put to death by the state for his crimes. Nothing could ever justify his crimes. Nothing! He is getting what he deserves for what he did. But after reading this incredible story about the world that produced Dylann Roof, and that turned a little boy into a racist murderer, I found myself uncharacteristically trying to find some tiny bit of mercy for him in my heart. That in no way lessens the evil that he did. But it does awaken some compassion for him, defeated as he was by hatred. We can pray that he repents, and will be reunited with those he murdered, in heaven, washed clean of sin by the Blood of the Lamb.
If we can’t live with that hope, how can we live at all?
UPDATE: At the risk of embarrassing him, I think of my friend Ryan Booth. He is a faithful, conservative Southern Baptist. He has suffered greatly in his life, for no fault of his own. When a terrible flood in Louisiana in 2016 displaced thousands of people, he opened his home to a homeless couple, one of whom was transgender. Does Ryan approve of transgenderism? Not at all. But he saw suffering people, and he responded with compassion, with mercy to fellow sinners. That is the way. The Way. I hope one day to be even half the Christian man that Ryan Booth is.
Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Leming—as well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.