Monday, August 18, 2008

Conversations with a Priest

Growing up in a very small town of about 800 people, your religion was part of your profile. Mine happened to be Catholic – and still is. However, a few years ago, I began to ask a lot of questions. Being a catechist since the age of sixteen, a liturgy committee member for five years, and so on; you would have thought that I knew what my ‘role’ was. Call it an early onset of a midlife crisis, or trying to find oneself – whatever; my life had taken some interesting turns by year thirty-five. My son was now eleven and I was pregnant with my second child. My sister-in-law, and very dear friend, fought and lost a battle with breast cancer. My uncle attempted suicide. Everyday it seemed, I was seeing tragedy all around me. Finally, it got to be too much and I did what every ‘good’ Catholic girl does – I went to talk with my parish priest.

The actual conversation I had that evening opened a whole new world to me. I learned so many lessons about my life, the church, and faith. I left his office that night feeling like I had just stepped off of a circus ride. My head swam at the new discoveries I had been given, and my heart raced with excitement for all of the new questions that were created.

As I sat across listening to a man I had known and worked with for almost ten years, and suddenly had the realization that I had never known him at all. I poured out my fears, anger, and frustration while he sat listening. There was no judgment, no comments – just the feeling of love in that small office. I had never experienced that total joy of just ‘being there’ before, or of having someone totally hearing my words and feelings without even the usual “I understand how you feel” statements.

When I finally finished ‘venting’, the man across from me quietly said, “Umm, now I think you have questions.”

Boy did I! Before I uttered a word, he told me I could ask one question.

“Sum all of them up into one if you can.”

I looked at him like he was crazy for a moment and simply said, “I’m afraid. I have been all my life – as far back as I can remember.”

“What are you afraid of?”

I felt like someone had punched me in the lowest part of my belly. I did not want to answer him. I had butterflies of nervousness as I thought of what I would say. The look on his face was pure and gentle, and it calmed me instantly.

“I’m afraid to ask you because of what you may think of me. I’m afraid that God will be angry with me and will send me more tough love lessons. I’m scared that if I ask you or tell you what is in my head that there will be nothing you can do to help me, and I will be in a worse place that even I was before tonight.”

“Just ask me Leigh.”

The sincerity in his voice brought tears. I took a deep breath and went on.

“My fear is that my faith is not strong enough. I worry that if Jesus came up to me on the street and asked for money or help, that I would not recognize Him, and turn Him away. Even worse would be if I did recognize Him, and He told me that I was not strong enough in my belief and that because I had so many questions, that God would not accept me because I was not a good person.”

He simple stared at me and asked, “What questions do you have that could be so great that they would offend God?”

I looked at him dumbfounded. What kind of question was that? This was his response to my fears – fears that were running my life? He must have sensed my shock because he smiled and began the conversation again.

“Maybe we should have a cup of coffee and talk a bit more.” Father John walked over to the credenza and poured us both a cup. He spoke as he prepared our drinks.

“I wasn’t always a priest you know.” He laughed and he noted the expression on my face. “Shocked? You may be surprised at how many priests and ministers do not receive their calling until later in life. Some were married before they became priests.”

“I thought that was not allowed” I said in confusion.

“Some of us have lost spouses and then became priests, some of us just don’t fully understand the ‘Calling’ that is in us until we go through life’s experiences or those tough love lessons from God – as you call them. I wasn’t married before, but I came very close. I was in university and studying psychology – going to go into social work – and I fell head over heals for a lady in one of my classes. We dated and were engaged a year later. We even got so far as having the wedding invitations printed. A few months before the wedding were to take place, we attended our marriage course through our church, and I had my first ‘aha’ moment. I realized, as the discussion the night was about the Sacraments, that the most powerful one to me was that of Holy Orders. I wrestled with my feelings of love for the woman who was to become my wife and the love I had for God. God won. Sometimes He throws in a big monkey wrench to get his work done. Before you ask, she is now happily married and still a very dear friend. She was hurt at first, but she understood. In fact, I think it hurt me more than it did her for a long time. Since we were both very spiritual people, we both knew it was what we, or I, had to do. So, I chomped down and added theology to my studies. Between the psychology and theology, I became a sex therapist and a priest.”

Up until now, I did not think that this man could surprise me any more. A sex therapist priest?! I could not have imagined such a combination. I was still in for more though, as he continued.

“Sex is one of the most important issues that arise in marriages, so I specialized in it so that I could help more couples and families. Most priests are trained in psychology you know. We need to know how to talk to people. We need to understand how their minds work physically and spiritually so that we can truly help them. Being a priest is not only about faith, it is about applying that faith to every aspect of everyone’s life. You can’t have one without the other. You asked before about knowing if your faith is strong enough, I can tell you now that it stronger than most.”

“How can you say that? I mean, how do you know? If I have questions, maybe even reservations about the Church and my beliefs, isn’t that wrong?”

“You work with children, at your son’s school, in day care, and here at the church all the time right?”

“Uh huh.”

“Well, how do they learn from you? You don’t just tell them or regurgitate everything you know in the short time that you have with them – that would be impossible. They learn from you, me, - everyone – by asking questions. Are you with me so far?”

“I think so.”

“Well, why would it be offensive to God for you to ask questions? That’s innocence and is certainly not anything God would object to. Think about it for a moment Leigh. If you didn’t ask questions here at our meetings, we wouldn’t find better ways to educate our children. If you don’t ask questions, you are not learning. Those who ask want to learn more and it causes their faith to grow with God. That is also the difference between those who call themselves spiritual and those who call themselves religious. If you are spiritual, you are open to understanding and receiving God, and sometimes that means going against the status quo. If you consider yourself to be religious, you are often role-playing. Don’t misunderstand me here – I am not saying that calling oneself religious is not having faith – it’s just at a different level in my opinion. A lot of our rituals and beliefs are just that – rituals. They are based on faith and belief – but their essence is at a much higher level of awareness and understanding. Everything we practice and do is based on a higher understanding and on faith. To be spiritual and have true faith, these rituals and beliefs must be questioned. It is a sign of growth. In fact, when one studies theology, so many questions arise that often those who initially began their studies to become involved in a Holy life, drop out because they feel their faith has dwindled. They do not realize that these questions are necessary to strengthen them. I think that’s sometimes God’s way of picking and choosing. Not everyone is meant for a pulpit or to sit on an altar, but many of us serve in other ways. Everyone has a job and there is a reason for everything. God has the answer and those who ask will find it. It may not be Holy Orders, but you, and everyone else; will find their purpose. As for your faith, Leigh, keep asking questions about everything. The answers you get will point in the direction you should go.”

“OK, but we have all been taught not to question the Church or the Bible. How do I get past that and all the fear and guilt that comes along with it? When I pick a book about psychics or Buddhism for example, I feel like I’m sneaking a cigarette in the bathroom and I‘m terrified that someone is watching and I’ll get in serious trouble. I know I can’t be the only person who feels like that. How do I get past that paranoia?”

“Believe it or not, it’s easy; but it may take awhile to become a habit. Whenever you feel that fear of God or guilt; first remember that God is love – do not equate Him with the God who sends plagues and lightning bolts. Also you are a part of God. He created you in His image – that means He is in you, and you are in Him. He is sending you the path to take – whether it’s a road, a book to read, or a new friend. Whatever the situation, it is meant to happen and on His terms – not yours. He usually gives us a choice, but no matter how you choose, there is a reason for the outcome. Just knowing He wants you learn more and is giving you the answers will melt those guilt and negative feelings. Do you see even this conversation we are having right now is happening for a reason? I can already see a change in you since you arrived.”

“I do feel different than when I walked in here, that’s for sure. But I still have so many questions.”

“Well, you can at least now feel reassured that having questions is a good thing. It’s God’s way of working through you. He uses each of us through our voices, jobs, and actions to do His work – His creating happens through us. You have a brain to think, but it is only a part of you. It is an organ that works with all of your body to help your mind grow. Your mind is all of you – body and spirit together. Your mind is your togetherness with God. That is where the questions come from to keep you going to the next step in your life. Read more and study about how your brain and body work together, and your spirit and faith will grow. If you learn more about how your spirit grows, your physical body grows. The two are one in the same. Now you know why your questions are not an offence, but a necessity. Now you know why I said your faith is already stronger than a lot of people who come to me. Never stop asking questions and learning Leigh. That is the true lesson of life. The growth of the spirit comes from love, and love comes from understanding. Even a plant cannot grow without love in the forms of the warmth of the sun and the rain. These are God’s gifts of nature – they are gifts of love. Our time together this evening is a gift of love from Him to both of us, and each other. Look at everything in your life that way – even those tough love lessons – and you will see it for yourself.”

I left Father John’s office with a feeling of peace. My attitude about my personal life had dramatically changed. I now had a sense of confidence that was new, and strong desire to learn everything I could about who ‘I Was’. I really wasn’t sure of that anymore, but now it didn’t matter in the same way.

Still not knowing ‘who I am’, I have kept my confidence and I look forward each day to a new discovery. Everyday brings new questions, and along with them new answers. I share what I have learned and am still learning everyday with others along the way. Although some of the steps are still surprising, I feel a sense of purpose in all of them now. I also know that if I met Jesus on the street today, I still may not recognize Him immediately, but I know that, too, would be for a reason. I’m OK with that.

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