The Crisis of Faith
Seth McMinn had over a dozen bumper stickers on the transom of his 2003 Honda, Element, which he street parked in front of an adobe house in Arroyo Seco, New Mexico. He rented a room there from Naomi, a flannel shirt and blue jean clad artist in her late 50s with a long, graying draped ponytail held together by a rubber band. Unlike most bumper sticker fetishes, Seth’s had no discernable cause. His messages were heady, absurd, pointless and clunky, like, “Read Lots of Tolstoy,” “Smoke Unfiltered Lucky Strikes,” “Keep the Black Sea Blue,” and “Eat Pickled Herring.” There was a 1984 Sony boom box, with two large, round, black speakers flanking a cassette deck, collecting dust on his room’s bookshelf when he moved in. He also found a yellowing cassette tape of Michael Martin Murphy songs in the bottom drawer of the dresser, mixed with other knick-knacks left by previous tenants. The tape worked in the boom box, so he played Murphy’s electric cowboy ditties over and over again at high volume, until Naomi threatened eviction if he didn’t knock it off.
Seth moved to Arroyo Seco after a nervous breakdown in ’04, or so people thought. He took off, without notice, leaving behind a high paying, high stress job at a law firm in Washington, DC and a girlfriend named Linda, from Gatlinburg, whom he met at the University of Tennessee. He disappeared west in his Element and found his way to New Mexico about three months later. He landed a job street vending frozen yogurt in Taos during summers and bussing tables at a ski resort during winters. He also gigged occasional maintenance work at a local hostel, The Abominable SnowMansion. The summer merchants knew Seth because, all day long, he hollered from beneath his yogurt stand’s yellow and red striped umbrella, “YOOOOOOOO-gurrrrrrrrrt.” He annoyed the heck out of a persnickety guy with green hair named Brandon, who ran “The Theosophical Art Gallery and Potage Therapy Cafe,” near which Seth parked his stand. Brandon’s potage sales declined. But Seth did a knockout business and made decent money, so much so that he occasionally had enough disposable income to buy a bottle of Glenlivet. His father was a Scottish Presbyterian from Tennessee, and his mother was a devout Italian-American Catholic from Brooklyn. He was a handsome fellow, with jet-black hair, blue eyes and a Celtic face. Though baptized Catholic – and the youngest of six – Seth hadn’t been to Mass since high school. Not even for Christmas, to his mother’s grief. Since moving to New Mexico, he attended a Navajo Summer Corn Dance every August, honoring Christian Fathers and Corn Mothers, paying tribute to a time when spirits, men, women and animals lived harmoniously with their Earth Mothers beneath the Great Lake of Emergence. Every Easter, he attended a Catholic-Pagan Sunrise Service, presided over by a Father Conrad Hess, an ex-priest from Sheboygan.
The odd thing about Fr. Hess is that he was once considered among the most traditional priests in his diocese. But few people knew that he didn’t believe in Christ’s divinity. His doubts crept in with new liturgy in the early ‘70s. Around that time, he started reading up on Native American rituals. His crisis of faith came to a head after reading the following passage in a New York Times article about Corn Dances while waiting for a connection at O’Hare Airport in the summer of 1976:
“The Summer Corn Dance is the most important of a cycle of dances that make up the ritual year at Santo Domingo. They mark every important aspect of Pueblo Indian life: birth, procreation, death; farming, hunting, the earth and everything that lives on it; the past, present and future of the tribe. Many of the dances have been incorporated into the tribe's Catholic ceremonial calendar—the Pueblo Indians have been Catholics as well as Corn Dancers since the Spanish came into the area in the 17th century. Eagle Dance, Buffalo Dance, Spring Corn Dance, War Dance, Christmas Dance — dance flows like blood through Pueblo life.”
Obsessed with rituals, Fr. Hess rankled his bishop by saying the 1965 version of the Latin Mass every Sunday, starting in the fall of ‘81. Catholics disgruntled with Vatican II would attend his Masses, though they didn’t quite know what to think when he preached on topics like the Corn Dance. He even once gave a homily about Corn Mothers. A few traditionalists stopped attending, but most were willing to overlook his preaching in favor of the Latin Mass. The bishop didn’t care about his preaching either, but he removed him from parish work and refused to reassign Hess due to his liturgical traditionalism. Fr. Hess had a nervous breakdown in the spring of ’82, or so people said, and he went AWOL for Santa Fe.
Fr. Hess stopped by Seth’s yogurt stand in July of ‘07. Seth recognized him from the Catholic-Pagan service and introduced himself. “Didn’t you preach about the Tsohanoai sun god last Easter?” The ex-priest curtly replied “Yes,” introduced himself as Conrad Hess, bought a yogurt and went away. That night, after a shot of Glenlivet, Seth looked him up. He found out that Hess actually lived near Santo Domingo, also known as Kewa Pueblo, about two hours away. Perhaps his baptismal instincts kicked in, but he was drawn to the priest. Seth had a lot to account for. Memories of college escapades, drunkenness, two-timing girlfriends and academic cheating, even in law school, haunted his thoughts. A demon followed him: In his senior year at UT, he taunted a naïve Baptist freshman into downing multiple shots of whiskey, the boy’s first taste of liquor, landing the kid in the ER after he nearly choked to death on his own vomit. And he kept a stash of “Plan B” for the women he’d wake up with. Moreover, Seth never loved Linda, but she was needy and convenient. She was emotionally vulnerable and, inexplicably, felt that Seth deserved her love. She got defensive when anyone raised doubts about him. “Be nice to Seth!” Linda once hotly chided her skeptical brother. When they moved to DC, she wasn’t sure if she loved Seth or just needed him. Two months before he left, she saw it coming. She volunteered at a nursing home to forget her foreboding and loneliness.
The following Sunday afternoon, Seth rode out to the Pueblo and showed up, unannounced, at Fr. Hess’ front door. The 70-year-old ex-priest was annoyed. But the fact that the young man tracked him down – and drove two hours to see him – sparked something in Fr. Hess’ soul akin to the “first fervor” he felt after his ordination in 1965, when he really believed in Christ’s divinity. It was a feeling that only a priest experiences when a wolf-ravaged sheep shows up seeking a drop of pity. In a sense, Hess read the Seth’s soul. For that solitary moment, Seth chose Hess to be his father. “I’m a bad pagan and a bad Catholic,” Seth told Fr. Hess in earnest, in no way trying to be ironical. “I need to tell you something.” Choking up a bit, he told the washed-out priest everything, leaving out nothing he could remember. Hess listened, without saying a word but occasionally nodding, to Seth’s twenty-minute monologue of sins and occasional onslaughts of tears and cries of self-loathing. When Seth’s tale ended, there was silence. An awkward silence. No words were exchanged for about thirty seconds. But it seemed like thirty minutes, as an old clock’s second hand ticked away in the silence. For the first time in decades, Fr. Hess felt something like love, or pity. Spontaneously, he did something he hadn’t done in almost thirty years. The troubled priest held his hand over Seth’s head and said, “Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti” and made the Sign of the Cross, in priestly fashion. Hess didn’t know what came over him. “Did I just do what I think I did?” the Father said to himself under his breath. “What’d you say?” asked Seth, as a gentle unction of peace soaked in. “I absolved you from your sins,” said the Father, “and it’s time for you to go.” Seth left, not totally in his right mind but more so than before, glowing with a deep peace and a joy he’d never experienced – even before his sins. Something dark had been cast out. Something new had taken root. Fr. Hess felt a taste of Seth’s joy as well, though he was a bit shaken by his own spontaneous act of faith in giving absolution. An imprisoned faith was released from a dungeon, locked behind layers of confusion and doubt. Seth brought it out of him. And he brought it out of Seth. Seth’s peace lasted about a month. Even when the afterglow of his confession wore off, a vein of new life nonetheless remained. Something had happened. His faults didn’t go away, but something changed. But what? Seth returned to Father Hess’ place on a Sunday evening later that fall, but he was gone. He tried calling the Father, but his landline was disconnected. Seth searched online for his name, but only old information came up.
“Faith renders us open to the power of God. Accordingly, it is the liberation of our most intimate self, the redemption of our heart. It is as if God pulls aside a bolt in our deepest self and a door opens. Through this opening he can flow into the deep dimensions of our self and pull it along in the loving grip and restorative power of his omnipotence. This resembles the much grander and more spectacular manner in which, on Easter morning, Jesus was raised from the dead by the overwhelming power of the glory of the Father…. Beyond doubt, God is unceasingly at work in the Church and in the world” (Fr. Andre Louf, Tuning into Grace, pp. 36-37).