It’s October, and the long sunlight in the afternoons and the coming chill in the air sing the approach of autumn. Fall has always been my favorite season, with hayrides and visits to the apple orchards south of Chicago with my family. It brings me deep joy.
One evening a few years ago, before we had kids, my wife, Kira, and I went to visit a haunted corn maze. I have a vivid memory of rounding a corner and suddenly standing face-to-face with a teenage kid in a werewolf mask, looming out at us from a hiding place in the cornstalks. I jumped a bit and then laughed out loud. Good spooky tingles.
What I said then to Kira, I will repeat to you now: I enjoy haunted houses in all their varieties. In fact, despite the scares, I find that a haunted house is one of the few places where I actually feel safe.
The reason is simple. For all their moans and frights, and even with all the fake blood, a haunted house is entertainment. It is designed to give the appearance of danger; but if it ever crossed the line into actually hurting people, it would quickly be shut down.
A haunted house has rules, and I trust the rules will be followed. So I walk into the corn maze with the assurance that the kid in the werewolf mask cannot hurt me and, as weird as it may sound, I relax.
I wish I could have felt the same assurance about the house I grew up in. It was a place that looked safe from the outside, but a whole lot of scary moments happened there. Nobody wore a werewolf mask, and that meant you never really knew when you were going to come face-to-face with a monster. And, unlike the corn maze, there were no rules that kept us safe. Walking in, there was always the chance somebody would get hurt.
Houses like the one I grew up in are ruled by demons, and they are haunted by secrets. Violence, substance abuse, and sometimes worse loom out at you from the shadows, The worst part of it is that—because they look safe and normal from the outside— everyone expects you to keep up the appearance that everything is fine.
After a dozen years of marriage, my patient wife understands why I feel so at home in a corn maze with the werewolves while a quiet Sunday afternoon at home can leave me spooked and paranoid. She understands that my weary soul appreciates the straightforward honesty of someone who is simply there to scare me. It is preferable to constantly looking over my shoulder, chased by fears and memories that those who are supposed to love me will hurt me.
Monsters in Our Church
When I look at our Church today, I see too many times when the leadership and the laity have gone on a holy crusade against werewolf masks and corn mazes. We have gone after the harmless things among us that have the appearance of danger but have no real fangs. The wrong sort of God-talk or the wrong sort of love is chased from our midst, and we feel momentarily safer—though we are not safe.
Meanwhile, for decades, as we have preened and polished the reputations of our parishes, we have harbored and protected monsters—real monsters.
As my kids get older, I wish I could tell you that I feel safer taking them to my parish than I do a haunted house, but I don’t. Until we get honest and truly face our monsters in the Church, I will stick with the haunted house. At least there, I have confidence we’ll come out the other side unharmed.