It was late summer when I boxed up my belongings, said goodbye to family and friends, and impetuously moved from one coast to another to be with the boy who’d stolen my heart. His name was Dan, and I was completely smitten.
That December he dumped me . . . for the monastery.
On the outside I tried to appear serene – the epitome of patience – but on the inside I was completely opposed. I immediately embarked upon a quest to steer Dan away from the monastery and back into my arms where I felt sure he belonged…
Sending Out an S.O.S.
It was 1999. I wasn’t Catholic, had never stepped foot inside a Catholic Church, nor had I ever met a Catholic priest. And yet still, one of the first people I called after Dan left me in pursuit of the Franciscans was a young Roman Catholic priest by the name of Paul Zoghby.
I knew next to nothing about Father Zoghby when I picked up the phone to arrange a meeting with him. All I knew was that he was the only other person (besides myself) in whom Dan had confided regarding his possible call to religious life. Because of this, in my quest to win Dan back, Father seemed my only possible ally – albeit an unlikely one.
I didn’t have the vaguest idea what to expect on that barren winter day as Father pulled open the heavy wooden rectory door and warmly invited me in. I was desperate and confused, but I sensed this mystifying man of the cloth just might be able, in some small way, to illuminate me.
He did not let me down.
Father Zoghby is the kind of priest one would expect to see featured in a classic Hollywood film, back when Tinseltown still appreciated the priesthood. Tall, dark and handsome, he’s authoritative but gentle, firm but merciful, and wise but humble. He’s a born preacher – one of the greatest homilists I’ve ever had the honor of listening to. He has a hearty laugh, a mischievous spirit, and a level of charisma that is rare. He’s the sort of priest that inspires the remark: that man was born to be a priest.
Though I entered the rectory filled with trepidation, he put me at ease in the twinkling of an eye. I lost all my typical self-consciousness, feeling no need for pretense in Father Zoghby’s presence.
He didn’t speak much during our visit but he listened with Christ-like patience and compassion. The few thoughts he did offer were full of wisdom and like a balm to my ragged soul. It was remarkable to me: this cassock-clad man didn’t view me as a non-Catholic, but rather simply as another one of God’s beloved children.
In retrospect, it’s clear my take on the situation was foolish and naïve, but Father didn’t chastise me or view me with indifference. Instead, he acknowledged and validated my emotions and gave me much hungered for information about Dan’s new endeavor. He somehow managed to leave me feeling heartened without once assuring me that Dan would return to me and reject religious life as I’d hoped he would.
Perhaps privately he was amused by what I can only assume must have been, for him, a somewhat unusual visit, but he treated me with the utmost respect. I can only imagine that even though I was not yet Catholic, as a priest, he knew my soul was valuable to God. He understood he was called to shepherd all souls – even heathen ones like mine – and shepherd he did. But for all the ways our first hour spent together helped me, it was our last few moments that ultimately affected me most profoundly.
As I was standing up to leave he paused and, as if suddenly struck by inspiration, turned and said: “You really are such a ray of sunshine, aren’t you? I bet you spread joy wherever you go.” I blushed and turned my face away. Those simple words affected me deeply. They made me feel loved at a time when I felt largely unloved. They made me feel that someone believed in my capacity for goodness when so many others had given up on me.
I’d spent several years in a serious state of sin (though, of course, not being a Christian, I didn’t realize it at the time). I was slowly starving my soul and feeling the effects acutely. I felt defeated, demoralized and despondent. I couldn’t get my life out of the gutter, my boyfriend was choosing the Church over me, and I had no idea where I was supposed to go next – geographically, spiritually or practically. Father offered me what he probably assumed was the smallest, most inconsequential act of kindness but in doing so gave me something I’d not previously known I was missing – he gave me hope.
Had I been in Father’s position, I might have been tempted to view our meeting as my sole opportunity to counsel and correct my wayward 19-year-old self but Father didn’t do that. Despite my grave sinfulness – and the likelihood that he would never see me again – Father focused not on my numerous flaws but instead sought out the good in me.
Perhaps Father will read this one day and think to himself: I simply didn’t think it was my place to give moral instruction to a non-Catholic. But because of the fruit his approach bore, I contend he was prompted by the Holy Spirit.
I’d buried any virtue I might have possessed so deeply under layers of filth that Father would had to have undertaken quite a mission of excavation in order to uncover it. Because of this, I believe it was my potential he saw and chose to highlight that morning rather than an accurate assessment of the girl I was at that time. That was more than enough, though. It was one piece of goodness he could grab hold of, and then present to me as an offering of encouragement.
An External Virtue
I walked away from my meeting with Father Zoghby with none of the consolation I’d been seeking. If anything, I felt less optimistic about the future of my relationship with Dan. Father had helped me to understand that Dan was entering a time of discernment. If this truly was a call from God, and if Dan was open to it (which he certainly seemed to be), then there wasn’t much I could do to stop it. Yet I felt strangely confident. I had a sense that in the end, whatever the outcome of our relationship, I was going to be just fine.
This hope I felt had not come about as an act of will. I’d not strained to see the silver lining or forced myself to whistle a happy tune. Father had not exhorted me to “be not afraid.” No, it was as if the hope I’d been infused with at my baptism (a sacrament my Episcopalian grandmother had insisted I receive) had, at long last, begun to blossom.
Contrary to my previous understanding, Father’s actions helped me to see that hope is not something one can summon by gritting their teeth and being resolute. I may not have been able to articulate it then but I recognized for the first time that hope doesn’t come from within me. Originating external to us, it’s not something I can manufacture. It comes from somewhere else, or rather: from someone else.
Though we all aspire to happiness, an instinct we’re born with, none of us mortals have the power to create hope. Encouraging words we speak – such as the ones Father spoke to me – are inspired by the Holy Spirit. Even the act of slipping on our rose-colored glasses is ultimately a response to a prompting by God. Though it may feel as if we alone are mustering up our optimism, in truth, we are co-operators ever animated by God.
The moment I crossed the threshold of the rectory was the same moment I finally chose the correct fork in the road. I’d turned toward God and this gift – this blossoming of hope – was a sign to me that I was on the right path. It was God’s way of telling me to continue walking towards Him. It was also His way of assuring me that he would lead me and care for me along the way. Father Zoghby had that day literally, and figuratively, opened a door for me and with nowhere else left to go I tentatively walked through.
A New Aspiration
Stirred by Father Zoghby’s faith in me, I suddenly wanted to be that person I’d buried deeply under a blanket of sin; to be a person who did, in fact, “spread joy.” Though, in truth, I was a very morose and cynical young girl, he saw that she was not the real me. She was not the young woman God had fashioned with his hands and brought to life. She was but a cheap, disfigured imitation of the saint God had intended I become.
Long having believed my first priority should be assuring that my own needs and wants were satisfied before all else, I unexpectedly had an epiphany: I was no longer at peace with this self-centeredness I’d nurtured for so long. The mentality that had always been my rule of thumb now struck me as repellant and restrictive. It occurred to me that if I could rise above my self-absorption, I might eventually become the promising young woman Father had envisioned – a possibility that filled me with a surprising amount of eagerness.
I didn’t become that person overnight – and in many, many ways am still not her – but on that day I realized I wanted to be her and, with God’s grace, could become her. I could become more than I was. In fact, I was being called to become more than I was. Intuitively, I knew I would need help, though – becoming “others-oriented” after spending my life being “me-oriented” would require no dearth of hard work. But where this help would come from, I didn’t yet know.
An Unexpected Blessing
The light of Christ shone brightly through Father Zoghby leaving me curious. Who was this man who, despite his clear moral compass and my clearly broken one, believed in me? Where had his power to uncover and illuminate good come from? Who or what did he represent?
Father’s simple message of hope impacted me so intensely that it inspired me to ponder these, and other similar, questions. The journey I took in pursuit of the answers helped guide me home to the Catholic Church where I’ve been happily ensconced for the last decade.
After much prayer and quiet reflection, Dan discerned that God was calling him to the life of a married man rather than to one of a Franciscan monk. He (very wisely) returned to me the very next year. I’d never completely given up on him and so was waiting with open arms. We were married soon thereafter and recently welcomed our fifth child, a little girl.
In the end, his detour of discernment blessed us both in innumerable ways. It was excruciatingly painful at times, yes, but it oriented us both more perfectly towards God which is, after all, the ultimate goal. Dan’s faith was refined and mine was founded.
Father Paul Zoghby continues to minister to lost souls like mine (as well as to those that have been found) in a small town by the sea in southern Alabama. Shortly after Dan saw the light and came back to me, Father Zoghby confirmed me in the Catholic faith, fed me First Holy Communion, and witnessed our marriage. He has since baptized three of our five babies. If it be God’s will, it’s our great hope that he will continue to bless our family for years to come.
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