Not a term I was familiar with ~ spiritual fatherhood. In fact, when it occurred to me, I thought I had made it up! But it turns out to be a common appellation, especially in Catholic circles, in which priests are referred to as "Father" and heads of women's religious orders as "Mother," so that people are accustomed to thinking of their religious leaders as parental figures.
By the time it occurred to me that I had a spiritual father, the title had long since dropped away from our conversations. But the idea of it, the hope and humor and warmth and challenge of a father, a spiritual father, ~ indeed, that had come to fruition.
This priest ~ yes, Catholic priest a Jesuit, a man my own father's age who had no reason to take any interest in my except as a graduate student in his classroom, at least not until I asked him if he would help me make the Spiritual Exercises ~ this man is the one I want to celebrate this Father's Day week. Not only did he guide me through the Exercises; he remained a friend, advisor, and consoler through the darkest years of my life. He responded to countless emails, listened to me for hours this past spring when I made my more-or-less silent weeklong retreat, and continues to nudge me forward, despite knowing full well the depths of darkness to which my son's death has taken me.
I have found some other remarkable companions on the journey in the past few years. But H. wins pride of place as spiritual father, and not merely because of his age. He was, I think I can safely say, the very first person to take my personal spiritual life seriously. I have known wonderful pastors and religious sisters, but H. was the first person willing to spend long hours listening and suggesting and questioning and pushing me as an individual. I have heard hundreds of thoughtful and challenging sermons, but H. was the first person to follow me down the rabbit hole discovered concealed under a single word or question and to point me toward the tunnel in which growth might be found.
Yesterday morning in church, I prayed for all sorts of fathers, good ones and bad ones, and their children, but I realize now that I did not pray for the most important ones of all, those who accept the call to tend and nurture our spiritual lives, to shelter us in life's spiritual tsunamis, and to push us back out into the sunlight.
I'm afraid that most of us don't have such fathers. I'm so grateful that one night I said, "Hey, can I talk to you for a moment?" and found one.