You may have noticed I’ve been more quiet than usual of late. There’s a reason for that, and of course, as I look back over the past two weeks, a story worth telling.
An Unexpected Adventure
A couple of weeks ago, my wife and daughters were supposed to catch an early morning plane from the hot, dusty, desert Southwest, where we find ourselves temporary residents, to the lush trees and crisp autumn breezes of bucolic Virginia, which we called home for many years until circumstances compelled a recent move. Something was amiss with the tickets, however, and they couldn’t board. To fix the problem would have been too costly, so I found myself making a u-turn and driving back to the airport to retrieve my family members. My 11-year-old was absolutely distraught over the so-close-but-so-far lost chance to soothe her aching homesickness. I embraced her, hoping that the gesture might help the sadness pass, but the disappointment was marrow-deep.
As we headed back home, an idea sprung to mind. A way to potentially stave off the heartsickness by replacing the lost thing with something of comparable value.
“What if,” I asked tentatively, “we grabbed the boys, packed up the van, and went on a trip? You’ve already got your suitcases in the back, so we’d just need to grab a few things.”
“Let’s go to the Redwoods!” I said, noticing the excitement growing within me. I had been wanting to take my family to Northern California to see that amazing forest for a long time, but it never seemed to work out. In 14 years of marriage, we’ve never taken a real vacation. There was a sightseeing roadtrip during a cross country move in 2004, and a long weekend to New England in 2007, but that’s about it. For my part, I hadn’t been to the Redwoods since the summer before college 20 years ago, and this at last seemed like the opportune moment. I was tempted to wait, because my children had a week-long fall break coming up, but something inside me yearned for the spontaneity of adventure, and I knew I had to seize the moment. We were all stressed out, burned out from work and school and the hectic day-to-day cycle of our daily routines, and I couldn’t wait to walk away from the computer for a few days and think about something — anything — else.
So we did. We spent a short time at home, gathering what we could, piled everyone into the van, called the school and told them the children would be out, and headed West. By the end of the first day’s drive, we had made it just south of San Francisco, and called it night. By the second evening, we at last had a moment to stop at the coast. Mist clung to the rocky hillside as the sun sunk low on the horizon and the tide came roaring in. It was the kind of beautiful that makes you want to stay there and never look back.
Later, as we drove through the foggy darkness, the outlines of hulking trees were just barely visible in the glow of the headlights beneath the pitch-black darkness of the forest canopy. We awoke bright and early the next morning in a little town called Crescent City. The morning air was brisk and smelled of the ocean, which we could see just across the street from our hotel parking lot.
We set off that morning in search of a place called The Grove of Titans — an off the main road treasure trove containing some of the oldest and largest redwoods in existence. A number of websites talk about them, and although their location is no longer kept a secret, they’re close to a mile hike off an unpaved road on a small trail. We weren’t sure we could find them.
I also had doubts about whether we could make it that far off the beaten path with six children, one of them a two year old and another only four. But there’s something about the Redwoods that energizes you. If there were such a thing as a magical forest, they would be it. The way the light falls in radiant beams through the dense foliage, the impossibly gigantic trees everywhere you look, the feeling of stillness and timelessness all around you as you navigate trunks bigger than your vehicle, living things that have stood in the same place for hundreds, if not thousands of years. I found myself absently wondering if Tolkien had ever visited this place before imagining his Ents.
Adding to the mystique of the Redwoods was the fact that phone signal and mobile Internet were impossible to obtain there. It was just us and the reality of God’s magnificent creation — a potent reminder of what is truly important, and a balm for the soul. Having removed the temptation to share every image taken with our phones, or to spend idle moments immersing ourselves in the useless chatter of social media, our senses re-engaged. The sweet smell of pine resin and rich, fertile earth; the cool autumn air, our almost inaudible footfalls on the soft carpet of pine needles below. The children, unused to the absence of modern-day distractions and boisterous by nature, had to be reminded to be silent, and to observe, listen, and take it all in. When at last we came upon the Titans, we stood in awe before their nearly incomprehensible massivity. One of the only experiences I can compare it to is the feeling I had the first time I stepped inside St. Peter’s Basilica. A reminder of one’s utter smallness and insignificance in the Universe before He to Whom all good things give glory.
One fallen tree next to the Titan known as “Sacagawea“was so tall lying on its side it formed a wall that must have been over 8 feet tall. Following it, one entered a tunnel that would have been the envy of any young boy building a summer fort in the woods. When we reached the tree known as “Chesty Puller,” our entire family stood, arms outstretched, side-by-side, and barely spanned the width of the tree. A single person standing next to it might as well have been standing next to the wall of a castle.
If I recharged in the beauty of God’s creation, my mind recovered from its daily overstimulation through the lull of the drive. My phone sat in its cradle, searching for signal, as I drove through hundreds of miles of rural California. My family slept, or listened to audiobooks, or talked, or — if we’re being honest — shouted and fought with each other like children often do until I thundered a warning from my seat. If we wanted to stop to take a look at something, or stroll along a beach, we did. We had no plan. No particular timeline (although the necessary return to both work and school hung over me like the proverbial sword of Damocles.) It was an adventure in the truest sense, not knowing where we would stay, or where we would make it the next day. We wound our way down the coastal highway, finally cutting inland to the 101 through Sonoma county and endless miles of vineyards and wineries. Eventually, we made it as far south as San Diego, where we rented a small house near the ocean for less than the cost of a particularly distasteful Motel 6 we wound up in the night before when everything else for miles was sold out. With the windows open, we could smell the salt air and hear the surf crashing against the rocks in the darkness. The next morning, I got up early and walked to a little camper trailer in the parking lot of a mechanic’s shop where I bought coffee, which I then took to the cliffs overlooking the Pacific. We spent a day on Coronado beach building sandcastles and collecting sand dollars from a shore that glittered like gold. We ate overpriced seafood and watched the tide come in, hitting the cliffs below the homes so hard the spray soared into back yards.
A Return to Reality and the Recognition of Chastisement
Unfortunately, our beautiful adventure couldn’t last forever. On the fifth day of our trip, we headed home. It was harder than I expected to get back into the flow of things. The minute I sat down at my desk and began looking through the news, I knew I needed a lot longer respite than five busy days in which I drove well over 2300 miles.
And while we had read about wildfires before we headed out on the road, we never saw anything in flames. We saw some previously burned hillsides, and one night, an orange glow over the horizon seemed to indicate a possible blaze, but that was it. Days after our return, however, fires broke out anew along parts of the route we had just driven home — fires that likely would have made our trip along the beautiful byways impossible had we waited. The devastation near the Bay Area continues to a point that it is now hard to fully grasp. 31 people are now reported dead, and 460 missing. Entire neighborhoods have been leveled. A picture posted on Twitter this week of the San Francisco skyline looked more like something out of a dystopian sci-fi movie than one of the cities I had just driven through:
It’s hard to believe how quickly things can change. Just a week ago I was driving through the endless vineyards of Sonoma county, drinking in the beauty, enjoying the respite from the day to day. And just like that, much of it is gone.
My friend Joseph Sciambra, who has both written here at 1P5 and appeared on our podcast twice, has lost everything. His house, along with that of his parents, has been reduced to nothing but ash and ruin. What is left of his car now sits like a gutted husk upon hardened rivulets of molten aluminum. Joseph describes the harrowing experience of trying to get out with his father, who is in a wheelchair:
While we were waiting two fireman showed up, told us we had to leave – they picked my dad up (with his broken arm) did the best they could and put him in the cargo area of their SUV.
We drove down the 4 mile road – but it was blocked and we could not get out. There were a line of about 20 cars filled with people trying to get out. One fire engine was able to get through to us.
Down the road, the brave firefighters tried to clear the burning debris from the road.
A few of us decided to turn around as the fire was burning up the mountain towards us. There was a large cleaning about ½ mile back – by then, a helicopter had landed there. I thought they could fly my dad out, by the time I reached them, they were already flying out an older woman and children (3 at a time).
Then another helicopter arrived, but when the firefighters arrived, they said they would first have to secure my dad to a gurney before they could transport him so he would go on the next flight – they had room for three – so my mom, my friend, and another guy went – if I was going to die, I wanted to stay and die with my dad – the same man I never got along with, the same man I always felt alienated from – the same man I blamed for much of what went wrong in my life – including my own homosexuality – at that moment, if I was going to live or die, and would rather die with this man (who prayed me out of my once hellish life) that survive another day knowing I left him.
In the meantime, some of the cars made it out, including my nephew and his wife, but the road was closed again. Well, the helicopter didn’t come back because it couldn’t land in the high winds. A few seconds later, another firefighter said the road was open again. So an incredibly brave fighter named Zack – who had been working on securing my dad for transport, got in the back of our SUV and stayed with him – and we drove away.
As I turned the corner to start heading down the mountain – every house in front of me was burning.
We drove through flames, embers, and smoke.
I would have turned around, but Zack kept assuring me and told me to drive on. If he had not been with us – and if I had tried to turn around – we surely would have been burned alive.
Thank God for him.
“I don’t care about the stuff I lost,” he writes, “but this is very hard on my dad who is very ill. Right now he is in the hospital. Please pray for him if you pray for anyone. Please pray for us.” (Joseph says that he is “okay financially,” but friends have nevertheless set up a fundraising campaign to help him get back on his feet, for those who would like to contribute.)
“Dear God,” Joseph posted on his Facebook page last night, “My name is Joe not Job.” And as I look at the work he does trying to undo the demonic infestation of sodomy and those who promote it from within the Church, I cannot help but wonder if this is more than just dark humor. As I can personally attest, those fighting the darkness in Our Faith and the world are always hindered by the enemy, and God allows us to endure battles and suffer losses we do not think we can bear so that we may grow closer to and more dependent upon Him.
The words of the Letter to the Hebrews — hard sayings indeed — resonate here.
“Whom the Lord loveth, he chastiseth; and he scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. Persevere under discipline. God dealeth with you as with his sons; for what son is there, whom the father doth not correct? But if you be without chastisement, whereof all are made partakers, then are you bastards, and not sons. Moreover we have had fathers of our flesh, for instructors, and we reverenced them: shall we not much more obey the Father of spirits, and live? And they indeed for a few days, according to their own pleasure, instructed us: but he, for our profit, that we might receive his sanctification. Now all chastisement for the present indeed seemeth not to bring with it joy, but sorrow: but afterwards it will yield, to them that are exercised by it, the most peaceable fruit of justice.” (Heb. 12:6-11)
It seems little enough consolation, but who are we to question the Lord? Do any of us get to escape this if we wish to be His sons?
Fatima, the Fight, and the Future
Last Saturday morning, as I drove my family to Mass, I looked up and noticed that the big, bright harvest moon still hanging visibly in the sky. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so clearly in the light of day. The symbolism struck me.
It’s Mary. I thought. The sun — her Son — shines brightly, but this is her time. Her message at Fatima is the message for our moment.
Although I’ve been trying to make my five First Saturdays since last year, this is only my third consecutive month of meeting all the requirements. Something always gets in the way. As often as not, it’s me. The enemy knows just which buttons to push.
And sure enough, by Saturday night, things weren’t going well, and a situation arose leaving me angry enough that I never did the meditation on the mysteries of the rosary with my children as I said I would. By Sunday morning, I began to endure — but not yet to recognize — all the hallmarks of a full-blown spiritual attack. Without further provocation, my anger grew, sitting within me like a toxic parasite, driving out rational thought. As I drove to Sunday Mass, I found myself bombarded with unbidden dark thoughts and temptations, which then turned into anti-religious sentiments. An aggressive feeling of depression bordering on despair set in. At one point, I walked out of the church building, just wanting to get away from what was going on inside, as though Mass itself had suddenly become an irritant. Fortunately, this was where the enemy tipped his hand. I have seen first hand how those afflicted by demons are repulsed by sacred things. I suddenly had the grace to realize that what I was experiencing was not internal, but external. And so I turned to Him.
“Lord,” I said, “I can’t fight this. I’m tired of having to fight everything all the time. I can’t do it. I don’t have what it takes.” I’m not sure how, but gradually, He coaxed me back inside. Gradually, I came to the realization that the grace of Holy Communion, which I had thought not to receive because of my unusual disposition, was precisely what I needed to repel the attacks of the enemy. Confident of my course and with the first sense of peace all morning, I approached the communion rail. As I made my way back, I felt the fog lift. The anger fade. The temptations recede. The rest of the day was peaceful and happy. But it also made me wonder.
St. John Vianney used to get beaten up by the Devil in his room at night. At first, it terrified him, but over time, he came to recognize that it usually preceded the return of some sinner to the confessional, and he took it as a consolation.
Now, I am no St. John Vianney. I am arguably the furthest thing from a saint of any kind. But one correlation I have noticed over the past year is that when I have a day like I had this past Sunday, something big usually follows. The last time it happened, the filial correction came out. Now, as the week draws near a close, I find myself wondering what to expect.
I have it from a very reputable source that the fraternal correction, which so many had hoped would come out today, is not yet to be expected. Today is the 100th anniversary of the last Fatima Message, and though it’s not yet noon (my time) as of this writing, the world seems quiet and calm. In Asia, they are already asleep. In Europe, they are getting ready for bed. And while I doubt very much that God would telegraph His plans, I wonder if this occasion will really come and go without anything of note transpiring?
I don’t know. Earlier this week, I would have said no. But God isn’t one to telegraph His plans.
I’m grateful, in a way, that after today we can move beyond the somewhat exaggerated expectations people had for the Fatima anniversary. As Our Lady warned on this day in 1973 in Akita, Japan, the chastisement that God would send if men do not repent would make it so “the living will envy the dead.” Not exactly a great way to start a weekend.
But in the absence of something spectacular or supernatural, we are forced to return to the mundane. To the quotidian. To the long, drawn out, exhausting trench warfare for the Faith against an enemy that has superior numbers and firepower while we are powerless to do anything but confront them at every turn with the truths they deny and distort. There is no end in sight, and there is no possible retreat.
That’s a hard reality, no matter how much grit you have.
Something I learned on my road trip is what a relief it can be to step away from all of this. And it’s all happening so fast, that just a brief respite means coming back to a flood. But what else is there to do? If the few who are willing to stand against the tide relinquish the task, who will take their place? And how will we account for the abandonment of our task when we stand before Our Lord?
I would like nothing more than to get back in the car, turn around, and head back to the coast. To sit with my coffee and watch the waves as they pound against the rocks and cliffs and let the sound of the surf wash it all away. To lose myself in the forest of giants and its uncanny silence and breathe it all in.
Alas, duty calls. Once more unto the breach.