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A Mass in Wayne County

utah_02_0Edmond Grace SJ recounts his experience in Utah last summer.

The red sandstone cliffs on my left stretched toward the horizon and they would accompany me for the remaining twenty miles of my journey. John and Pam would not be home till near midnight, but the door would be open and I knew what room I was staying in. I had first met Pam in a Benedictine monastery in New Mexico – Christ in the Desert. She had arrived just before me and was planning to stay for a month. So was I and, when she heard this, she was pleased: “We’ll get to know one another!”

To be honest I felt underwhelmed at the prospect of spending all that time in the company of what I figured was a petite pushy female new-age navel gazer, but we got talking. Since then I have learnt about the role played by herself and John in developing the biggest industry in Wayne County. There isn’t very much in Wayne County, Utah, except for the landscape. The place is both beautiful and remote, which is why Pam and John and others figured that this was where they would start doing wilderness therapy.

Wilderness therapy is about taking adolescents, who have been in trouble with drugs, and bringing them out to into the desert to live for a while as nomads, accompanied by trained leaders and therapists. An integral part of this therapy is the ‘vision quest’ – a spiritual practice of Native Americans, which involves spending three days on your own in a confined space with no nourishment except water. Before and after the quest you talk with a guide who helps you to reflect on what you will be seeking and, afterwards, on what insights you have received. Pam spent a lot of her time wandering around the south Utah desert with troubled adolescents, in the sweltering heat of summer and in the snow of winter, showing them how to make fire, meditate and grow up. I had to delete the word ‘navel gazer’ from my description. Nor did she like being called ‘new age.’

As the days passed into weeks Pam and I entered into the life of the monastery and were getting along fine. I knew John would be coming to collect her and I was looking forward to meeting him, but I was a bit put out when he turned up a day earlier than expected. He drove a large pick-up and clearly enjoyed trading friendly insults. He also had a strong interest in theology and history – including some views about Winston Churchill and Ireland, which I have never quite been able to fathom.

They invited me home and that is when I first made my way to Teasdale. The name is appropriate enough for the little hamlet where they live – provided you just look at the pretty Victorian style houses and their palisade fences and ignore the spectacular and most un-dainty scenery which surrounds it. Teasdale could be described as a suburb of a slightly larger village two miles down the road called Torrey.

Torrey is an alternative kind of place and includes wilderness therapists and similar types among its inhabitants; there are two zen masters. The village also has a book shop, which looks like something built by hobbits, and there are three art galleries, some restaurants and a few shops where you can buy Navajo jewellery and rugs. About a mile from the village, in the middle of a wide open space, is a self-contained secluded garden, where you can sit under the trees and look through plate glass windows into a small – and very simply designed – Catholic church. The place is frequented by humming birds.

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People were always coming and going in John and Pam’s kitchen. On the evening after my arrival the door opened to reveal a venerable dude with poncho, bald head, John Lennon sunglasses and a white goatee. This was Michael. He and Dianne, his wife, were the zen masters. Michael is also a former justice of the Utah Supreme Court. [It’s true. I checked.] Shortly after him came Judy and Ted, a well groomed pair, who seemed to be sizing me up in a friendly kind of way. This made sense when they introduced themselves as Gregory’s mum and dad. Gregory had been my guide the previous summer when I had done the vision quest and his regular American Catholic parents might possibly have been intrigued at the idea of their long hair head-banded son giving a retreat to an Irish Jesuit.

Pam stood up from the kitchen table and asked me if I wanted to go to Kirton – a weekly prayer session held in Bernie and Joy’s place nearby. It took place in a small room filled with cushions, small percussion instruments, candles and a guitar. I had been there before and knew what to expect, as a group of about eight people began chanting and drumming. I appreciated their welcome, along with the beauty of the chants and the basic goodness of people at prayer, but the chants were drawn from every conceivable tradition except Christianity. Then Joy surprised me by introducing a chant in English, based on John 14: In my Father’s house there are many mansions.

Gregory’s birthday party on Friday had food and drink, as you would expect, and dancing. You weren’t allowed to dance with a partner, though sometimes you did and it finished up early enough, which was just as well – considering what would happen the next day.

It began a lengthy – and lively – talk on the enneagram from Leslie Hershberger, a warm hearted extrovert from Ohio. She was an alumnus Xavier University, Cincinnati and we knew people in common. (She would also lead the group in a truly memorable ignatian meditation on Sunday morning.) She left us all with a lot of food for thought but, before we could digest it, we all gathered around a computer in the kitchen and listened to a live interview on an internet radio station with Dianne, the zen master (Michael’s wife). She was speaking with the interviewer by phone from the next room and, when it was over, she emerged to conduct a post mortem on what we had heard. Then we adjourned upstairs once more to listen to Rob who told us about his recent visit to an indigenous tribe in Equador. By this stage it was early afternoon and I needed a break. I don’t think anyone intended the day to be this full, but it wasn’t over yet. It just seemed to happen that way and, to everyone’s credit, they did turn up for the evening session.

About twenty people were piled into an upstairs room in Pam and John’s place, most of them seated on cushions. Four of us, perched on chairs, were squeezed into a corner with a video camera pointing at us and we were about to begin a videoed conversation. The theme was Christianity in the light of the theories of a man called Ken Wilber. The four ‘seated ones’ included John who was developing an addiction treatment based on Wilber’s theories. Then there was Rollie Stanich, a quiet spoken neatly bearded character from Alberta, Canada who had worked as Wilber’s assistant for five years. He was also a long time student of Fr. Michael Keating, a Colorado-based Cistercian, who had also worked with Wilber. Leslie was also among the four and also had had dealings with Keating and Wilber. Finally there was myself, who was feeling slightly fraudulent. All I had knew about Wilber was from conversations with John and from one book, which John had thrown at me a few days earlier.

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John spoke to the camera and introduced the four of us as we began telling our quite different stories and talking about how we saw Christianity at this point in its history. Others in the room joined in and the conversation was memorable and inspiring, but my own memory of it is deeply coloured by something which had happened an earlier that evening.

It was not my first time saying mass for the tiny Catholic community in Torrey and I knew they were a friendly bunch, but there was a definite air of real celebration that evening. They told me that, while they would be getting a new pastor shortly, I was the first priest they had seen in months. The chapel was built to hold about thirty and new faces never went unacknowledged, so I was not too surprised when one of the regulars turned to me. It looks as if you brought a retinue!

Pam and John had turned up. So had Leslie and Rollie as well as Bernie and Joy and Gregory and a few more. Bernie had brought his guitar and after communion he would lead us in some chants. As the liturgy began I felt quite crushed and fragile as I realised that none of those around me, for widely differing reasons, could ever take a moment like this for granted, whereas I celebrated mass every week, every day. It was such an ordinary part of my life, but this moment was far from ordinary and I was being called on to do it justice. When the time came to talk about the readings (I Kings 19, John 6) I spoke about how a body can only live by journeying through time and by feeding off the changing landscape as it went. A few days later, just before returning to Ireland, I accepted Diane’s invitation to drop in on a zen retreat which she was guiding. The silence was familiar, sweet and nourishing.