In a world where we are taught to hide the warts and traumas of our real selves by creating a cleaner, more beautiful version that others can’t possibly not like, a personal manifesto, which is by its definition the act of making real and transparent that which is hidden or elusive, will seem a bit anachronistic.
Yet here I am writing, because this manifesto is my antidote to the poison that is killing me slowly.
Within me thrives a bloated, parasitic impostor that seeks to satiate the oftentimes contrary demands from society, religion, family, and friends. It spends its time worrying about what others want and expect of me and calculatingly avoids anything that could let their expectations down, or make me stick out for fear of offending. But worst of all, like a poison that sinks to the heart and freezes the blood, it scares me from speaking the truth, because of how afraid I am of it.
Then there is the real me: frail, sickly, and imprisoned in a cage of fear, yet alive – yes there is still a weak pulse. And in that timid heartbeat survives those big dreams that I buried there long ago. And when I present a mirror to this timid heart, the big blue eyes of a young child stare back at me – trying to recognize the semblance of the great man he dreamt of one day becoming. Tears bead up as I realize I am only met with a lonely stare.
But all is not lost. There is always the chance to begin again, to start over. And so it is time to euthanize the imposter that has had too long a stay. It is time to find true belonging by braving the “wilderness of uncertainty, vulnerability, and criticism”, and presenting my authentic, broken self to the world.
Being ourselves means sometimes having to find the courage to stand alone, totally alone.
I cannot conceive of another way of stepping into the wilderness of uncertainty and vulnerability without first facing my past. Truth be told I’m a little embarrassed to tell this story as so many people have suffered much worse. But alas, this is my story and how it has shaped me.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always dreamed of leaving this life in some heroic way, of doing something that would really matter and help others. As a high school student, I remember making decisions that would help me to become the future husband and father I envisioned becoming. Then, after my brother joined the Marine Corps and went to war, I decided I wanted to follow behind him – and I was convinced I would join the Marines too and lose my life in battle trying to save his life. I know, the dreams of a little boy.
But then I met an energetic group of priests who seemed to have it all – they were smart, ambitious, and cool – and they convinced me they were going to change the world. They also introduced to me a masculine spirituality that I had never encountered before – and convinced me that being a spiritual man was not only super badass but also was an essential part of becoming a great man, like those epic men of old. Somehow, the bold idea of throwing away my entire life and doing something absolutely crazy and counter-cultural, like becoming a priest, became an option, if only merely for the reason that it was so against everything that I wanted in life: living in a cold seminary with no heat during the dead of winter, eating expired food, and even sacrificing the option to get married and have kids. Instead of dying a heroic death once, I could do it every day. It was the most radical way I could think of to change the world – and I wanted in.
So I ditched the Marine Corps uniform for a monks habit. I was only 18.
What followed, however, was physical, verbal and psychological abuse in what turned out to be the most scandal-ridden institution the Catholic Church has produced in its 2000 year history, one whose story of deception and corruption still goes very much untold.
The levels of corruption went further than just a founder who sexually abused seminarians (priests in training), fathered his own children through a mistress, and stole massive amounts of money to support a dark hidden life. On top of that, he trained an entire structure of superiors to believe and act as if everything they ever wanted or said was the direct will of God for their subordinates, and any subordinate who questioned their motives, rules or commands was questioning God himself and would either be kicked out or marginalized. They ran his religious congregation like a cult so that personal freedom didn’t exist and physical, psychological, verbal and sometimes sexual abuse were standard methods of ensuring that subordinates did as they bid.
The effects this institution had on others who were part of it have ranged from some committing suicide or at least attempting it, to paradoxically producing some of the most incredibly kind and generous men I’ve ever met. To find out what effect it had on me, though, we’ll have to jump ahead to when I finally walked out the doors of the seminary for the last time.
Free at Last?
My day of liberation was October 28th, 2014. Finally, after 11 years of abuse in the seminary, God spoke to me in prayer and told me it was time to go. I was afraid to follow through, though, because I suspected that this inner voice might just be my own, a response of my entire mind, body, and spirit wanting out. But I didn’t want to give up just because I hated it – the hero stays through the pain. But God finally made it clear that this was what he wanted of me. Since I had made a vow of poverty, I owned nothing. To restart my life they gave me $1600 – that was all I left with. I was now almost 30.
However, for the first time in over a decade, I felt free – and I was petrified of it.
The experience was not too different from The Truman Show, when Truman, the star of the show, discovers that he has lived in a giant dome his entire life and not only everything he did was part of a reality TV show, but that all the people in his life including his “parents” were just actors who were using him. After over a decade, I was now stepping out of a bubble that had been built around me and so much of what I had come to believe was thrown into question.
Over the next 3 years, I had to learn everything from how to use a coin-op laundry machine and pay taxes to how to maneuvering through the complicated world of dating. Suddenly I didn’t understand anything that was going on around me. People were getting mad at me for using words or phrases that had apparently become unacceptable 8 years previous. What I thought were gallant and gentlemanly actions were interpreted by women as creepy or unattractive. My seminary resume seemed almost completely useless in getting a real job. And on top of that, as I processed the emotions of having been used by some of those in charge in the seminary for so long, sorrow, anger, fear, and depression took over.
The unfortunate thing about life is that it often doesn’t give you the chance to catch up before it throws more things at you to balance in the already precarious juggling act of life. Just a few weeks after I left the seminary and returned back to the US from Italy, (where I had been studying), my father passed away unexpectedly, but before I had gotten a chance see him. Suddenly the only sure thing I seemed to have, a loving home to return to, was taken out from under me. As a result of his death, we would have to get rid of the house that we moved into when I was only 3 months old.
Since my older siblings had their own family/kids to worry about, being single and unemployed meant I was free to take on the weight of most of this transition for my mom – my departure from the seminary actually seemed like a blessing in disguise. But for me, I suddenly felt crushed under the weight that fell on me. But what could I possibly say? My mother and little sisters were experiencing undoubtedly the scariest and most painful moment of there life. And so I did what I learned to do so well in the seminary – I buried that pain and sorrow and fear so deep it would never see the daylight – and then I smiled.
Now that my family home was gone, my mother would have to move and find a job herself since she had no retirement to live off of. With my home gone, and my mom struggling to take care of her and my sister’s needs, I suddenly had no safety net and would have to make make it on my own. In retrospect this was perhaps the best possible thing that could have happened to me, forcing me to make it on my own and deal with my problems instead of hiding from them. But I didn’t see it that way at the time. After moving to a small East Boston apartment I slept on a slanted bedroom floor and thought about how I was miles away from anyone I knew. In a moment of sober reckoning, and probably depression, I lay there wondering how many days or weeks it would take for someone to find me if I died that night. I became acutely aware of just how alone I was.
Fortunately, I had learned well in the seminary not to share any of these concerns with my family, and so I never let them glance into my heart and see just how broken, and drowning, I felt.
But one long night after visiting my mom and sisters for Thanksgiving, the dam of emotions that I had been holding back for over a decade broke and I wept uncontrollably as I drove up I-95 towards “home.” Emotions of pain, sorrow, fear, and loneliness swept over me. And then there was the anger of feeling used for so long and being left broken – and broke – to start my life over from scratch.
Shortly thereafter, back in Boston and in a period of deep depression, I found myself standing over a bridge in the darkness of one cold night, contemplating finally becoming free of the pain by jumping into the icy waters below. I had given up on the hope of ever picking up the pieces of my life, or of ever finding a sense of purpose again.
Being Pulled Back
But that was not how my story was to end.
At that moment I thought of my little sister who was only six when I left home. Our last memory together was of me clearing the snow off the pond behind our house so that we could skate together one last time. I remember sitting her down in one of those little yellow plastic chairs and tying her skates – and then holding her hands as I helped her and my other sister to skate. I had only seen her for a few days over the next 11 years and hardly recognized her now.
I remembered vividly the image of the one time she and my family had been allowed to come to visit me after two years of my having been away. The religious congregation severely restricted how often you could talk to or see your family: 12 phone calls a year and no visiting home for the first two years, then 3 days a year after that (and all of your letters or emails were read by the superiors first). So we had only been reunited for 2 or 3 hours before I was told my family had to go: I was needed inside so their time with me was up. My sister was only 8 so she didn’t understand. She was sobbing and my parents had to pry her tightly clenched fingers off of me and strap her into the family van. Later on, I found out that for many years afterward, she had held on to those ice skates even though they no longer fit – they were her last memory of the brother she once had.
As I stood on that bridge at midnight and looked down at the ice floating eerily under me, lit up only by a lonely street lamp, I thought of her and I thought of how much I owed her and the rest of my family.
- I owed the brother closest to me (the Marine) who didn’t see me for 8 years because the one time when our paths coincided, he had driven for 17 hours to see me after coming back from Iraq but was told he couldn’t – to come back another time.
- I owed my two siblings whose weddings I missed because I wasn’t permitted to go.
- I owed my father who was sick for seven years before he died but I never went to see him – he would have had to be either dead or on his deathbed for me to be allowed to visit.
- I owed my mother because I wasn’t around to help her and my youngest siblings during their financially trying times.
- I owed the good men I had served with because they deserved to know that no matter how bad their lives got during or after the seminary, life was still worth living – that they had people who loved them. And they deserved to hear for once that they were truly amazing men, that I stand in awe at the sacrifices they made.
- And I owed myself.
A near death experience
I nearly died that night. No, I was nearly killed that night by men who had driven me to despair. They were snake-oil salesmen dressed as priests, men who pretended to hold the key to an incomparably beautiful ideal: the blueprint for every man and woman, just as God had designed them – each one of us an incredibly beautiful masterpiece, designed to be full of life and energy and freedom. A true city of God, where harmony, peace, and love reigns true.
So when I found out that they were some of the biggest frauds ever dressed as priests, I erroneously believed too that ideal of becoming a great man, of being someone of honor and integrity and courage was just an unattainable dream. I felt as though they had ripped my heart out and stomped on it over and over again, and spat at me afterward for daring to believe that something so noble and beautiful could exist.
But I am mistaken for calling them men, for they are only boys. Men when they make mistakes take responsibility for them. They act courageously when difficulties arise and put others before themselves. Men lead and do not shirk their responsibilities, even when it leads them into the heart of a storm. But these were just boys. Narcissistic boys who think that because of their looks, strength, or family background they are superior to everyone else and have every right to bully, humiliate, or abuse those less fortunate than them. They think that because they have been given an immense gift to act on God’s behalf that they have replaced God. They think that they can excuse away their actions as hard love. They think that asking forgiveness for one’s mistakes is a command that does not apply to them, that they can sweep their past transgressions under a carpet and move on.
And now I speak directly to them:
But I say to you, I too was once a boy, but now I am a grown man. And I no longer will be silent to the great sins you have committed to the sheep that God entrusted you to shepherd. For years I watched in silence as you belittled men who in heroic acts of generosity left behind family, possessions, and romance to serve the people of God. I watched as you turned their every action into malicious intent. I too blushed with the angels when I saw how resplendent were the stones that God proudly placed in your hands after meticulously cutting them into diamonds. God gave them to you to buff so that their beauty would be used to serve the people that He, like an adoring father, anxiously waited to be reintroduced to. These diamonds were to be sent out in search of so many lost souls who wandered foreign lands trying to hide from an angry God that you had painted. Into these special diamonds they would peer, and because of their great clarity would find they were gazing straight into their own souls, only not to find not themselves, but God waiting for them with open arms. With tears of joy, he would tell them in a low voice “Welcome home, beloved.”
But that is not to be. God had lovingly placed imperfections in each one of them so that each would know how incredibly special and irreplaceable they were to him. But you were afraid of them, and so in the name of God you hammered them until their faces were unrecognizable, and then threw them away because you thought they would never be worthy of the positions that you had obtained through little or no merit of your own.
You can hide your actions from man; you can sweet-talk your way out of being held responsible in this world; you can claim that you did nothing. But we all pass away and you too will pass away. And when you meet your Creator, the voice of Satan will be heard claiming you for his own, and showing God as the reel of your life spins from start to finish just how many times you beckoned to his call in this life. He will point to how many men and women you destroyed. He will show grown men waking in the dead of night gripped by the fear that they are once again stuck inside the walls of the seminary and can’t find a way out. He will show many men who quit the journey towards God after they met you.
But I do not wish that end for you. We are all sinners and so I do not wish you evil, for you too are victims in some ways. Victims at least of your own pride, but yes, also of a broken and corrupt world deeply in need of a Redeemer. And so I hope that before you go from this life, I can already be standing before God begging him to have mercy on you. But until then, I will stand in this world and admonish you to take stock of your life and make amends with the many men and women you have crushed and thrown away.
As for me, I will not allow your wickedness to enslave me. Thanks to God’s grace, and the help of many loved ones, counselors, and coaches, I have freed myself from being the victim of your guile and evil; I will not give you the honor of being my oppressor. I will not be enslaved to the past, no matter how painful. I will live in freedom, as a son of God, and will enjoy this life fully. And so I forgive you, even though you do not ask for it.
As for that ideal that once drew a dreamy-eyed 18-year-old away from home, it will not die within me. You could not extinguish the flame lit there deep in my heart by God himself. That timid flicker will be fanned back into a roaring flame. If I couldn’t become that great man in the seminary, an ideal instilled in me by my grandfather and so many other great men who have gone before me, then I will find another path, no matter how long it takes, no matter how perilous the path, no matter how many tears shed or friends lost on the journey. I will one day look in the mirror and recognize a man of honor, of integrity, of courage, of wisdom and of tenderness. I will one day speak out on behalf of the oppressed, the poor and the lost. I will one day find the courage and wisdom to stand up and speak the truth, even if my voice shakes.
I tell you with excitement and certainty: I will love once again. I will love wildly. Yes, in an indifferent and selfish world, I will join the ranks of those valiant souls who never stop loving. And perhaps the most difficult thing of all, one day I will once again have the courage to let God play on the strings of my heart a love song to me; I too will peer into a diamond and instead of seeing my reflection, will find a Father with arms outstretched say to me “Welcome home, my beloved son. I have been waiting for you.”
In Loving Memory of Robert Wills. R.I.P., who committed suicide in March of 2016
May your light never stop shining