I caught sight of them while slowing down for a red light ahead. The thirty-something man, dressed in a fine suit, was holding hands with an adoring little girl, presumably his daughter. Oblivious to the bustle of the morning all around them, they seemed in rapt attention with one another, talking and laughing as they walked. Then, in what I consider an inspiring expression of fatherly freedom, they suddenly began skipping in unison along the crowded sidewalk. Passers-by couldn’t help smiling, even if self-consciously averting their eyes. I was captivated and regretted it when the light changed.
I tend to notice fathers with their children.
At a recent leadership retreat sponsored by my employer, I was charged with delivering to my fellow participants a short presentation expressing “my story.” Considerable liberty was given regarding content, so I chose to tell about an inexplicable encounter with God (and my father) that brought both healing and direction to my life.
[I’ve written previously about that experience in my essay titled The Red Sweater.]
I scribbled a few notes for the talk, but I honestly found the best preparation to be prayer and introspection. While reflecting, something my father said to me many times during my childhood and adolescence came painfully to mind.
“You’re not worth the powder to blow you to hell.”
Those words remain disturbingly accessible to my psyche even in this seventh decade of life. Sometimes, while with my grandchildren, I think about their innocent susceptibility to emotional injury and about the terrible implications if they were to hear such words directed their way, especially if spoken by someone they love, someone charged with their protection and formation.
When I read my resume, it is often with an odd sense of detachment. The career path and achievements detailed therein can actually intimidate me and feel as though they are someone else’s work, feats well beyond my capabilities. I believe the term currently used to describe this phenomenon is “imposter syndrome.”
I also wrestle this beast every time I sit down to write, which is likely why I so seldom post a new essay to my blog. Yes, I am in a long-term relationship with self-doubt (and shame). I also believe, however, that God is healing me incrementally, choosing opportune moments to speak a beautiful new reality into this wounded heart.
What follows describes just such an occasion.
I first encountered Peter Meinke’s powerful poem “Untitled” (reproduced entirely below) more than 30 years ago. I was overseeing a weekend retreat at the time, and one of the retreatants, a kind gentleman named Gene, who – coincidentally? – was just about my Dad’s age, read it aloud to the group.
The words, written by a father to his son in reparation for the harm he had caused him, seized me unexpectedly, even violently. Fighting back tears, I considered leaving the room but then concluded doing so would only draw attention to my embarrassing reaction. Instead, I bowed my head, took deep breaths, and battled to keep my composure.
Over the course of (then) recent months, Gene had become a dear friend. I first met him when he enrolled in an evangelization workshop I was teaching in his parish. From the start, I was drawn to his genial, affirming manner.
Gene was an educator by profession; and, though I was technically the instructor in our shared workshop, I really learned a great deal from him. At one of our sessions, for example, I was chatting with Gene during a coffee break and asked him about his experience while pursuing his PhD. Specifically, I wanted to know what he valued most about the experience. His response made a lasting impression.
“Oh Steve, that’s easy,” he said. “The best part of my studies was the research. It was such a privilege to take a topic I cared deeply about and to explore it from every direction, to peel it like an onion finding every hidden layer. Doing research is what taught me to learn to love to learn.”
At the time, I had no hint that I would one day become a research librarian. When I did, however, Gene’s words became my mission statement. With every student who sought my assistance, my goal was always to help her/him “learn to love to learn.”
The Meinke poem haunted me. My initial reaction had been so overwhelming, I was certain I needed to go further with it, certain that God intended my cooperation.
Several days after the retreat, I recognized a possible opportunity. I had a light workload at the parish and knew that I would not be missed if I spent some time praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Before deciding definitively that the timing was right, however, I peeked inside the building to see if I would have the privacy I knew I would need. Thankfully, the church was completely empty.
I brought a printed copy of “Untitled” with me and knelt before the Tabernacle. Since Catholics believe in the abiding presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, I trust there is no better place to open one’s heart to God.
As soon as I glanced at the page, as soon as I saw the words “I thought you knew” I began to sob ferociously.
Some tears seem to originate directly behind or within the eyes. These felt as though they were springing from within my soul.
Here is the poem that affected me so profoundly.
This is a poem to my son Peter
whom I have hurt a thousand times
whose large and vulnerable eyes
have glazed in pain at my ragings
thin wrists and fingers hung
boneless in despair, pale freckled back
bent in defeat, pillow soaked
by my failure to understand.
I have scarred through weakness
and impatience your frail confidence forever
because when I needed to strike
you were there to hurt and because
I thought you knew
you were beautiful and fair
your bright eyes and hair
but now I see that no one knows that
about himself, but must be told
and retold until it takes hold
because I think anything can be killed
after awhile, especially beauty
so I write this for life, for love, for
you, my oldest son Peter, age 10,
going on 11.
Though alone in the church, my powerful emotional response made me self-conscious. Several times, I looked around through bleary eyes to make sure I’d not been mistaken regarding my solitude. Then, just as my concerns were sufficiently assuaged, I heard the unmistakable sound of the church’s large front door opening.
I regret admitting this, but my first reaction was anger. Seriously, God had put me in this very vulnerable place and then wouldn’t/couldn’t protect my privacy?
I dried my eyes as best I could and began praying that the invader would kneel, say a quick prayer in the rear of the church, and exit with no further trouble. Then, I heard the footsteps coming down the aisle in my direction. I bowed my head and quietly simmered.
As the interloper passed by on my left, I discreetly glanced in that direction. My heart immediately softened. Of all people, it was Gene.
He must have sensed the intensity of the moment for he was very respectful of my space. It occurred to me later that he may have even seen the Meinke poem in my hand and read the situation clearly. He was, after all, a very perceptive man.
Though I didn’t notice it at first, Gene, a Eucharistic minister, had a pix in his hand. He had come to the church specifically to retrieve the consecrated Hosts to bring Communion to the shut-ins he visited regularly.
He genuflected, opened the Tabernacle door, then turned to me. “Would you like to receive the Eucharist, Steve?”
“That would be so beautiful!“ I replied, my voice shaking in the winds of grace.
I received Eucharist twice in that moment – first in the sacred Host and second in Gene’s fatherly hug. I wept in that good man’s arms, no longer concerned with privacy or appearances.
“I thought you knew…”
I never did.
But, I’m learning.
Perhaps you are too.
I have honestly forgiven my father, who passed away in the fall of 2013, but forgiveness does not necessarily heal one’s wounds. I write as a cathartic exercise and not to pass on blame. My sincere hope is to hold my father’s hand in God’s Kingdom and to skip unashamedly with this man I have always loved but have not always understood. Again, I’m learning… with God’s grace.