When I was elected abbot in December 2012, one of the natures or types or titles of the office that I struggled with was the idea of being a spiritual father. Not that I don’t believe the abbot holds that role in the community, and not that I haven’t taken seriously the responsibility of guiding the community spiritually in my role as abbot. It is the second half of that descriptor I’ve had to come to terms with. The weight, the heaviness of being a “father.” I can only imagine fear in a first-time father’s heart when mother and child come home from the hospital; it is real, and he can’t make his fear about himself as he is called to make a self-gift.
Even as I type this column anxiousness wells up in me thinking about this designation I hold for my brothers as “spiritual father.” I have to laugh, also, as half the community entered the monastery before me, so the thought of trying to have this father/son relationship with them is intimidating. I work to get past the lie that I don’t have anything of significance to share with those who taught me, those who ministered to me, those who helped me find my vocation, those who formed me in my monastic life, those whom I still call “Father” or “Brother.”
So what was supposed to change in me all the sudden that day back in December 2012 that qualified me as the “spiritual father” of my community? It can only be grace, and, over this time, recognition of the need for a big dose of humility. I actually write this column from a monastery in Minnesota, attending meetings of Benedictine educators and superiors. I write from here analyzing not only an anxious heart about this concept of being a spiritual father, but also examining a longing I had yesterday to be with my brothers – or to carry out the theme – my sons.
It really was a rather stupid thing, this desire to be back in Kansas, to be back there so I could be with my brothers on a community outing. I wish this desire were for a more noble reason, but I wanted to be back with my brothers who were watching and playing in the Pitching for Priests softball game. It’s an annual game between the priests and religious of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas and those of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, to raise funds for vocations promotion.
I know. A softball game.
But I sat last night in my monastery guest room in Minnesota and desired to be at CommunityAmerica Ballpark in Kansas City with my brothers to the point of it hurting. I went to Twitter to see how the pre-game tailgate sponsored by our Atchison Serra Club went; thanks to the College’s Twitter feed there were a handful of photos. I scoured the internet looking for a score – the game didn’t seem to receive top billing in the world of Kansas City sports. I left a text message with a confrere asking for an update; they were all enjoying the fellowship after the game between the priests and religious from both dioceses, and, rightly so, didn’t have time to respond. Finally, as I was about ready to give up and call it a night, the phone rang. It was my brothers calling to tell me the outcome of the game. We won – the Archdiocese of KCK – and my brothers, my sons, called to share their joy. A walk-off, inside-the-park, two-run homer won it… and I asked myself, “What was this desire to be among them?” I finally chalked it up to the noble recognition that it really was about more than a softball game.
Being a parent – biologically or spiritually – is difficult, it’s tough, and it can be agonizing. You see hurt in a brother’s heart, disappointment, struggle, fear. You hurt for them as they hurt, you are disappointed you can’t assuage their disappointment, you struggle to help them progress through their struggles, you fear for them in their own fear. And yet you also find satisfaction and joy in journeying with them, hoping you’re helping them find this same joy. Like when you are able to share a spiritual concept in a conference, and you see the light come on. Or you are able to work through a problem a brother has and the outcome was better than either of you could have envisioned. Or you see growth in a difficult task given to them in their work. Or you witness a brother’s acceptance of a particular cross that you’ve helped him carry. Or you get a phone call on a Friday night from a group of monks jubilant over winning a softball game. You pray and yearn with all your heart that they know this joy, happiness and perseverance in their vocation, even with something so simple as playing in or rooting on your brother in a softball game.
That title “spiritual father” still catches in my throat, but it makes more and more sense each day in my heart. The gift of being a father is something one grows into, and like any spiritual journey, we are never completely there. I am afforded many opportunities to continue my growth as spiritual father, and that is the beauty of our vowed, consecrated lives. We are given ample opportunity each day to seek the conversion we desire; conversion that St. Benedict and God our Father desire for us also. And each step, well taken, into that journey allows the joy of being God’s sons to well up inside us.