Chapter 1 – The Lion’s Den

Chapter One

The vibrant academic tenor of San Ignacio Academy and its curriculum mirrored the fertile verdancy of its surroundings but was a constant source of mental sepsis for the traditionalist archbishop of Denver. The campus was snugly nestled in the semiarid red rock terrain of the Colorado Rocky Mountain foothills, but its lush greenery belied the native environment over which it spread.

Seven brick buildings with terracotta tile roofs sat on the high points of the hilly terrain. Four of the buildings housed classrooms and labs, one a library and gymnasium, another the administrative offices, and the last a residence for the teaching staff. Each building’s main entrance faced east and was illuminated by the morning sun’s rays as students wended their ways to early classes. Each also had a west facing veranda that provided venues for students and faculty to intermingle, study, and discourse in the magnificence of God’s creation. A glass roofed atrium provided indoor space in the center of the library and gymnasium complex for times of inclement weather.

The school was run by Jesuits, which afforded the teachers, those of the order and lay alike, the independence and space to work their craft liberally and expansively. Only a few decades old, the artfully designed campus had been created to emphasize the classical roots of learning that reached back long before the school’s teaching order was founded by Ignatius of Loyola.

Students were to be taught not indoctrinated. Its mission, the school proclaimed, was to open the mind to allow the grace of God to enter not with a torrent or flood but by trickles, seepage, and gradation so that upon graduation, students would be prepared to live bounteous lives armed with a sound, rounded education. It was a precept of the school that faith based and promulgated on insubstantial belief was shallow and mundane, unable to withstand withering assault from reason. And the students thrived despite grousing by some about toiling under the demanding, rigorous expectations.

The expansiveness of the curriculum, which reflected the terrain on which the school nestled, rankled the archbishop. In his judgment, it was far too secular and deviated from Church doctrine and precept, and it flew in the face of his efforts to restore the Church to her earlier days.

It was within this swirling vortex of learning that Father Daniel Patrick Murphy had steered his crews of young minds for three decades. His disciplines included literature, writing, and philosophy, but he ventured into and engaged himself in related areas including art and psychology, blending them into his lessons. More than once he stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy, but he toiled on, buttressed by strong administrators and unwavering support from his students and their parents. When under undue pressure or in moments of crisis, he found strength in the Rubens painting Daniel in the Lions’ Den, a copy of which hung on the wall behind his office desk, dominating the space. He would occasionally smile at the irony of finding personal power in the painting. Paul Rubens was a devout Catholic, and Father Daniel Patrick Murphy knew that this typification was not how some in the Church hierarchy saw him and his like-minded peers. In fact, he suspected those antagonists would prefer to see Catholics like him excommunicated.

Father Daniel glanced over at the papers he had brought with him to his private room, vestiges of the school year that had recently ended, and sighed. A chill ran down his spine. The usual seasonal dry heat had taken a sabbatical from the campus. The cold dampness of a lingering monsoon had refused to let up, and he struggled to breathe through his congested nasal passages. Pulling the wool afghan tighter, he coughed, first slightly and then more forcefully. The congestion refused to shake its grip. He reached for a tissue and looked over at Jonathan, who had been absorbed in his book.

Perhaps sensing Daniel staring at him, Jonathan leaned forward in his chair. “Can I make you more tea?”

Daniel smiled weakly. “Thank you. That would be lovely.”

As Jonathan busied himself with the task, Daniel stared out the window at the wet gloom. The pelting rain reminded him of the cold, desolate feeling that had descended upon everyone still on campus. Not one to believe nature reflected human events, that pathetic delusion he insisted his students not include in their creative writing, he shook his head to clear his mind of the nonsense. Still, something was amiss. His gut, not the ceaseless rain that fell mercilessly over the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, told him that.

He turned his attention back to Jonathan and watched him add honey and squeeze juice from a lemon slice into the mug as the water boiled noisily. Jonathan poured the water over the mixture and set the brew on the table between their chairs.

“Thank you,” Daniel croaked in a whisper. He blew on the steam before he sipped. “How’s the book?”

“Excellent. Again. To a God Unknown is one of my favorites to reread from time to time.”

“How long ago did you last read it?” he asked hoarsely.

“A few years. When I was getting ready for my Joseph Campbell discussion group a couple of weeks ago, I read that in his young adult life, he and John Steinbeck were close friends. I hadn’t known that. Apparently, they shared a common interest in mythology and were intrigued with Carl Jung’s work and teachings on the collective unconscious. Interestingly, it was during that time, in the early 1930s, that Steinbeck began working on To a God Unknown. It took him five years to finish, even though it’s a relatively short work when compared to Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. I decided to do a fast read in prep for our discussion, but I couldn’t do a fast read. Not with Steinbeck. I’m always captivated by his use of language.”

“I always put Campbell within the context of his perspective on the quest for the Holy Grail, but right now, this doesn’t feel much like a quest for the grail,” Daniel replied.

“No, probably not. But it’s part of the ordeal. Challenges to the hero aren’t only clashing swords. They sometimes come as personal physical limitations or disabilities. Sometimes you have to smite while feeling crappy and being smote.”

Daniel rocked a bit, forced another weak smile, and sipped his tea as he tried to focus on what Jonathan was saying.

“When I began reading Steinbeck and discovered Campbell, I didn’t know of their friendship and common interests,” Jonathan added. “But in hindsight, why they both have appealed to me makes sense. They both employ symbolism to explain self-realization and the conjunction of opposites.”

Jonathan paused and stared out the window as if in thought and continued. “The myth of Cain and Abel has resonated with me since I first heard it, probably in the first grade. As a kid, it didn’t make sense in lots of ways. I always thought Cain got the short end of the stick. It was obvious in my mind that Abel was Adam and Eve’s favorite son. And having an older brother who was my mother’s golden boy, I related to Cain. I felt sorry for him.

“When I began studying mythology and psychology, that twin motif took on a deeper meaning: Castor and Pollux. Romulus and Remus. Brother against brother. Jealousy. Betrayal. Delusion. Death to one. Since time immemorial, it’s been a theme infused in stories of cultures worldwide. Steinbeck nails it in East of Eden with Cal and Aron. I consider it to be Steinbeck’s opus, not Grapes of Wrath.

A rap on the door interrupted the conversation. The door opened slightly and a male voice asked from behind it, “May I come in?”

Daniel’s face lit up and the pallid flesh gained some color, even if momentarily. “Vincente. What a wonderful surprise. Yes, come in, but I have to warn you, I’m fighting a cold that just won’t go away.”

Vincente nodded, giving the impression that he already knew.

Jonathan beamed, stood, and reached for Vincente’s hand. “Brother Diaz-Romero, it has been ages.”

“It has been, Jonathan. And remember, I’m no longer a Jesuit, so it’s simply Vincente. You look well. How’s it going?”

“I’m well, feeling well, and it’s going well for me.” He looked down at Daniel. “But not so well for our friend here, I’m afraid.”

Vincente chuckled as he looked down at Daniel. “I guess I could comment about going to the well once too often, but I won’t.”

Daniel shook his head and groaned. “And I guess you couldn’t leave well enough alone.”

All three laughed.

“Your timing, Vincente, is fortuitous and timely,” Jonathan said. “I need to head back up into the mountains. I have a few tasks to tend to, and I’m sure the highway has gotten dicey with this moisture. If it’s rainy and chilly down here, you can be sure it’s late spring snow in the high country.” He turned toward Daniel. “I’ll call you this evening, but don’t hesitate to call if you need anything.” Then he bowed slightly and said, “Namaste.”

“Vincente,” Jonathan said as he pulled on his jacket, “we do need to get together and catch up. I want to hear all about your new practice in New Mexico and what and who else is in your life.”

Vincente gave Jonathan a hug. “A deal,” he said. “I’d love to rendezvous. Better in New Mexico than up here. You know, it’s much warmer and dryer down there.”

“I sure hope so,” Jonathan replied from the open doorway. “You have my number, so pick a place and text me. I’ll pack my sandals and shorts and cruise south as soon as you give the word.”

Once Jonathan pulled the door shut behind him, Vincente stepped over to Daniel and set a hand on Daniel’s shoulder. “Tough going of late, eh?”

Daniel nodded and mouthed, “Yes.”

“Let me brew a cup of tea before we start.” He shivered a bit. “I can understand why you can’t shake your cold. It rained nearly the whole way since I crossed into Colorado. I’m chilled to the bone.”

As Vincente brewed his tea, Daniel pulled out the envelope with a draft of a letter he’d composed. He fiddled with the envelope as Vincente slid the chair Jonathan had been sitting on directly in front of Daniel and settled back into it.

“Start from the beginning,” Vincente said, “and pull no punches. No secrets between us.”

Daniel spoke about how everything was falling apart and how, for some reason, he felt worse was to come. “I feel like I am dying. I feel my life force ebbing away.”

He talked about how he’d lost his sense of purpose and of how his relationship with Jonathan was mysteriously vaporizing and edging toward a breaking point. What compounded his feelings of guilt, he said, was that it seemed Jonathan was in denial, not picking up on the signs. Or maybe he was resisting. Daniel wasn’t sure.

“Have you and Jonathan talked about it?” Vincente asked.

“Not in an in-depth way,” Daniel replied. “We keep skirting around it.”

Daniel fell silent and sipped his tea, rocking slowly. After a few moments, he spoke again. “I’m considering renouncing my vows and leaving the Jesuits as you did.” He held up the envelope. “I’ve drafted a letter to be sent to my superiors, the archbishop, and the Pope asking them to dispense with my vows and laicize me.”

Vincente nodded. “Have you lost your faith?”

“Faith? What is faith?” Daniel replied forcefully. “I’m not sure if I have faith to lose and wonder if I ever did. I certainly had beliefs. And I still believe. I believe in a God of some sort, but I’m finding it harder and harder to believe in the God of the Nicene Creed who’s a father almighty, a man to the umpteenth power. Maybe I’m starting to believe in that God Unknown Jonathan has an affinity for, an ineffable, unknowable, ultimate energy. But faith?”

He paused and sipped his tea as Vincente remained attentive. “I once believed in the holy Roman Catholic Church, but I’m afraid I may no longer believe in it. At another time, we can compare notes on that, but in good faith, I feel I can no longer continue living a lie.”

At the word faith, Vincente winced. “In good faith?” he asked. “Maybe there is an element of faith within you, but perhaps it is also a matter of semantics.”

Daniel realized he’d used the word faith after just denying having any.

“May I see the letter?” Vincente asked.

Daniel passed it to him, and Vincente read without comment until he’d finished. “Short, concise, and to the point. It might take a while as it moves through the bureaucratic red tape, so be prepared to be in a holding pattern. I was only a brother, not a priest like you, which means more hoop jumping for you than my vow dispensation was for me.”

Daniel nodded.

“You said you were considering leaving the order and priesthood, which indicates to me that you’re not yet ready to toll the bell.”

“I’m pretty much there, but as you know, this would be a weightier decision than entering in the first place. If I leave, there will be no turning back for me.”

“No, there won’t be.”

“Once I make that decision, I will consider it final. And compounding my angst is a tempting offer of sorts from my aunt, who is my godmother. She and I have always been close. I’ll tell you more about her at another time, but for now, let’s just say that she was my support and mentor through my rough young adulthood.”

“And her offer?”

“Again, details later, but it’s lucrative and tempting.”

“Have you mentioned this or talked it over at all with Jonathan?”

Daniel shook his head. “I’m afraid to because I think he’ll not only encourage me, he will also expect us to follow up with a permanent, legal union. I don’t want him to have unrealistic hopes. We’ve lingered in this nether world of commitments for years. He’s been more than wonderful. Supportive in every way.” He paused and looked earnestly at Vincente. “He deserves better. He deserves to know the truth. And he deserves someone better than me.” Daniel paused again and offered an anemic smile. “I guess I just answered my own question.”

A rap on the door interrupted their conversation.

“Father, I’m sorry to bother you,” the housekeeper said through the door, “but there’s a young man downstairs wanting to see you. He says his name is Stephen and that he is a friend of Miguel Rojas.”

Daniel cast a quick glance to Vincente and raised his eyebrows. Vincente got up and cracked the door ajar. “Certainly, Maggie,” Daniel said. “But forewarn him that I’m dealing with a nasty cold.”

“Yes, of course, Father.”

Daniel stood, folded the afghan, and brushed his fingers through his hair. He looked at Vincente and gave a shrug. Vincente pulled the door open and stood silently, expressionless. A minute later, a fit young man who appeared to be in his twenties entered the room.

“Sorry to bother you on this not so pleasant evening, Father,” he said. “My name is Stephen, and I wouldn’t have intruded if it hadn’t been important. Do you have a few minutes to talk to me?”

“Of course. Nice to meet you, Stephen. I understand this has something to do with Miguel Rojas. I hope nothing bad has happened. It’s been quite some time—twelve years or more—since the Rojas twins were in my classes, but I remember them well.”

The man glanced over at Vincente, who had stepped back and leaned against the bookcase with his arms folded. “Well, in all honesty, Father, it’s not good. And this needs to be confidential.”

“It’s okay, Stephen,” Daniel replied. “This is Vincente Diaz-Romero. He has my complete confidence.”

The young man nodded. “Did you know Miguel well, Father?”

“I got to know both boys fairly well.” He paused, not wanting to say more without knowing what Stephen’s connection with Miguel was. “Pardon me for asking, Stephen, but what is your connection to Miguel?”

“Sorry, Father. I should have told you that up front.” He looked down for a few seconds before raising his head and looking directly into Daniel’s eyes. “I’m Miguel’s boyfriend. And I know quite a lot about his background: I know that his family were migrants and that they made their way from El Salvador through Mexico and entered Arizona across the Sonoran Desert.”

Daniel nodded. “Yes, I believe two younger brothers died in the desert and an older sister was raped by the those who smuggled them and nearly died.”

“Did you know that they came from an abusive situation, Father?” Stephen asked.

“Yes, I did. As I recall, their father had been a highly skilled carpenter in El Salvador. But when they were smuggled into the US, the whole family picked crops, first in New Mexico and then in Western Colorado, until they found their way to Summit County, where Miguel’s father found work building apartments. I think the abuse started after the boys’ mother died.”

Stephen sighed deeply. “Yes, she’d found jobs cleaning and doing laundry for the big money people in their trophy homes.” His voice carried a mixture of disdain and sadness. “But she got sick. And since they were illegal—or undocumented in today’s jargon—the family turned to the Church and the immigrant community. And because she didn’t get the treatment needed, she died. And that’s when the abuse started. Miguel’s father turned to the bottle. And the strap. And whatever else he could use to vent his rage on the boys.”

“Yes,” Daniel replied. “I know he used to beat the boys, especially Miguel, who stood up to him.” Daniel had been so intent on what the young man was saying, he’d ignored the fact that the two were still standing close to the door. “Forgive me, Stephen. I’m not being at all hospitable. Please take a seat and tell me what this is all about. Would you like some tea?”

Daniel offered Stephen a seat and sank into his easy chair next to it.

“Thank you for the offer of tea, Father, but no. It’s important that you understand the situation Miguel came from because it’s relevant to what has happened.”

Daniel leaned forward and connected with the young man’s eyes. “And what exactly has happened, Stephen?”

“Well, I know that you counseled Miguel and Rafael at times. Is that the right word? Counseled?”

“Yes, that’s an appropriate way of putting it,” Daniel replied. “At the time, I taught religion, so we got into some pretty heavy stuff. It wasn’t unusual for the discussions in class to veer into some pressing personal issues. They ended up in my classes because the parish priest arranged scholarships for them after they moved down to the Denver area. Their father had gotten a job but had lost it because of his drinking by that time. And their sister had met a guy and moved away after their mother died. So it was just the boys and their father.”

Daniel coughed, picked up his tea, and took a few sips. When he put it down, he slipped a cough lozenge in his mouth.

“I’m sorry for coming at such a bad time. I can see you’re not feeling well,” Stephen said.

“Thank you. My cold seems entrenched. But let’s not let that stop our conversation. You said this was important, and I take that seriously.” He paused before continuing. “Anyway, fortunately, the parish priest had seen potential in the boys.”

He looked up at Stephen and smiled. “Miguel was the intellect. Brilliant. Surly, but brilliant. Rafael was an artist and poet. His work was filled with sadness and melancholy, but interestingly, not despair. Miguel, on the other hand, walked around as if there were a dark cloud hovering over him. His mind was a whirlwind. He sank into Nietzsche and Sartre. His was a dystopian world, dark and foreboding.”

“For good reason,” Stephen said strongly. “Their father became aware that they were gay, and that compounded the abuse.” The look on his face told Daniel that even though Stephen appeared to be as much as ten years younger than Miguel, he’d already had his own experience with the mistreatment that often accompanied being gay.

“Father,” he continued, “I know you counseled them and tried to help them.”

“Well, I was primarily a compassionate listener,” Daniel replied. “I knew that social services was involved but nothing changed. The boys’ only hope seemed to be to survive until they could leave home. I met with each of them one-on-one at times, as I did with other students.”

Daniel took another sip of tea. “But tell me, Stephen, what is this all about?”

“Sorry for taking so long to get to the point, Father. I just wanted to make sure I was doing the right thing in coming here.” He took a deep breath and looked intently at Daniel. “Miguel and I had . . . an argument that got violent. It happened in public. The police were called and Miguel was arrested.”

“Good heavens,” Daniel said quietly as he leaned forward in his seat. “Please continue.”

“I was hurt badly enough to need medical attention, and when the police asked if I was willing to file a complaint, I felt I had no choice because this wasn’t the first time Miguel had become . . . physical . . . with me, although he’d never really done harm in the past.”

He paused and looked at Daniel beseechingly. “Father, I didn’t want him to go to jail, but he needs help. When the DA talked with me, I begged her to not file charges against Miguel and explained Miguel’s past. I didn’t know what would happen, but after Miguel talked to the DA himself, he told me she’d offered to do something he called defer prosecution if he would agree to psychological help.”

Daniel nodded. “And did he agree to it?”

“Yes, and he’s been seeing a therapist, but the thing is, he’s admitted to me that he doesn’t really tell the therapist anything. And when he says anything to me about it, he mostly just says he can’t talk to the therapist like he could talk to you.”

Daniel sighed. “I admit that we had some pretty deep conversations about things like philosophy and religion, and he did reveal to me that he saw himself as being gay, which seemed to be one of the reasons his father was so hard on him. But when our sessions became increasingly personal and Miguel delved into the depth of darkness he felt within, I sensed I was over my head. I’m not a psychologist, though I did have some training—enough, as we say, to get me into trouble. So I shared Miguel’s story with Vincente, who was then the school’s counselor.”

Vincente stepped closer to Daniel. “Yes, Father Murphy and I were once colleagues. I’ve left the school, though, and I’m now laicized.”

When Daniel saw that Stephen looked confused, he added, “That means he’s left the Jesuits and is no longer a cleric of the Catholic Church.”

“Yes,” Vincente said, “I’m a psychologist in private practice now. In New Mexico, actually.”

Stephen nodded at Vincente and then turned his attention back to Daniel. “Father, I’m sure you’re wondering how all this involves you.”

“Yes,” Daniel admitted.

“I’m relieved that Miguel is seeing a psychologist. That means he’s at least cooperating with the DA and probably won’t be prosecuted, at least if he cooperates enough and sees it through. But what I’ve wanted all along since that . . . incident is for him to really be able to work through his issues.”

He paused for a moment before continuing. “I know what that’s like. I’ve had issues of my own, including some about being gay. And I know I look young, but let’s just say I’ve done a lot of living so far, and I’ve had to at least begin to come to terms with my own stuff. I’d like that for Miguel too.”

He again looked at Daniel beseechingly. “I’m wondering if you would be willing to help. To intervene with Miguel. Maybe counsel him. I’m concerned that he might be suicidal. He’d still see his psychologist, but he’d also have sessions with you. I think he’d open up to you. More than once he’s said he always felt comfortable talking to you.”

Daniel furrowed his eyebrows. “Counsel him? Stephen, I’m no psychologist.”

“I know, Father,” Stephen replied. “But if you would be willing to meet with Miguel as you did when he was in school and encourage him, maybe you can pry him open a little. I think you may be the only one who could do that. I know I can’t.”

Daniel turned to Vincente and held his arms and hands out in supplication to indicate he needed help. Vincente took the cue.

“Stephen, forgive me, but can I help out here?”

Stephen nodded.

“Father Murphy has been under the weather for some time. As you can see, he’s having a difficult time handling what you’re saying because he’s physically and mentally exhausted. He really isn’t in a good position to agree to something of this nature. Do you need an answer right now? Could Father Murphy let you know after he’s feeling better?”

“Of course. I realize that this would be a major commitment.” He turned toward Daniel. “Father, I admit that I’m a bit desperate, but I think you could help. Miguel trusts you, and so do I. I know that you will make the right decision.” He stood, reached into his jeans pocket, and pulled out a piece of paper. “Here’s my cell phone number, Father. Please let me know when you’ve made your decision.” He offered a weak smile. “Whatever it is.”

Daniel nodded as he took the slip of paper and studied it. “I have just one question, Stephen. Is Miguel aware that you’re here?”

“No, Father. But of course, if you agree to counsel him, I’ll have to tell him about our conversation. Then it will be up to him to decide if he’s willing to see you.”

Daniel rose and accompanied Stephen to the door. “I’ll pray on it. And I’ll let you know. In fact, I’ll pray for all of us.”

Stephen raised his eyebrows, as if surprised. “Thank you, Father. I don’t think anyone has ever prayed for me before . . . except for my parents and people in my church who tried to pray my gay away.”

Daniel put an arm on his shoulder. “Stephen, I’ll pray that you continue to be the beautiful and courageous soul you are.”

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