He is a humble man who lives very simply in a small apartment. His one love is books, and he collects them at a furious pace. If you admire a book on his shelves, he will pick it up and give it to you, for keeps.
Over the years, he has listened tirelessly to me, even when I repeated my woes time and again. He has encouraged me, praised me and prayed for me.
He is my spiritual father.
For years I had toyed with the idea of finding a spiritual director. Truth be told, I thought that sounded rather sophisticated, although I had no real idea what it meant. I kept procrastinating because I didn’t know what in the world I would actually discuss with such a person.
And then when the doctor told me I had breast cancer, I knew exactly what I would say.
Why in the name of everything holy had this happened to me? Hadn’t I paid my dues when both my parents died before I was 30? What in the world was God thinking about?
With questions like these raging in my mind, I didn’t feel I could wait any longer. Cancer had been a death sentence for my mom, and I feared it would be for me as well.
I wrote a letter to a local priest who came highly recommended, in which I acknowledged that he was probably too busy to see me – but if there was any chance, I hoped that he would.
He wrote back and said he would be honored.
That was nearly 11 years ago. At first, I would sit across from him with my eyes puffy from weeping, trying to accept what had happened to me.
He had no doubt seen people like me countless times before. After all, the world is crammed with folks dying from terrible diseases or struggling to survive after tornadoes have crushed their homes and families.
Still, there are always people like me who seem to think their own brand of suffering is completely new to the universe.
We met once a week and I told him all the bad things I had done in my life. He never flinched. Instead, he expressed confidence that God could take any life and turn it around.
I also explained all the careful ways I had tried to control my health. All the tofu and bean sprouts I had ingested, and all the miles I had walked, figuring these magical charms would keep cancer at bay.
He patiently walked me through scriptures related to suffering, and provided books that explored the issue from every possible angle.
Most of all, he assured me that God was not punishing me with this disease, because, he insisted, God is merciful. As he put it, “He is always gazing at you with love.”
I was unschooled in my faith, having never studied Catholicism formally, and I had many confused snippets that I’d carried along from childhood.
He never belittled me about my beliefs, but carefully explained what actual Church teachings were. We explored suffering, sin, the incarnation and the resurrection, and then went on to moral issues.
This priest was a father in the best sense of the word, gently pointing me toward the light. And as the years went on, I wept less and laughed more in his presence.
I also stopped asking, “Why me?” when it came to suffering.
Over the years, we have invited him to our house for dinner, and he and my husband and I enjoy sitting outside sipping on homemade wine. Little by little, something has happened that never occurred with my own dad who was a somewhat distant figure. My spiritual father and I have become friends.
And when I finally told him how I felt, he didn’t hesitate a second. “I love you too,” he replied.
When people wonder if Jesus Christ is the right path, there are many scriptural passages I could point to, and numerous books I could provide. But when I see this priest at my front door, dressed in his simple black garb and carrying books for me, I have my answer.
A priest is called to act in the place of Christ. He reflects Christ’s compassion and mercy to the world. On Father’s Day especially, I am eternally grateful that God in his infinite mercy sent this priest into my life.
He is much more than a spiritual director, a rather pretentious term. He’s a very dear friend, and a constant reminder of God’s love.
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