Shepherds and Halos, No. 01 22 Min. Read
Eyebrow cocked unwittingly, Father George watched the woman storm into his office and preen her plumage until she was comfortable in one of the spartan wooden chairs around the coffee table. Ten seconds later, a wisp of a man, in countenance and motion despite being bold of build, hovered at the door. He scanned nervously for lurking danger, then dashed to the chair furthest from his wife.
“Mr. and Mrs. Green, I take it?”
“That's right, young man,” the middle-aged woman said with haughty air.
“I am sorry, Mrs. Green,” began Father George, “but I will be unable to help you,” concluded Father George.
“Absurd. Of course you can,” she waved away his objection with a swipe of her hand. “We have an appointment, a counseling appointment,” Mrs. Green assured him. “You may call me Joan. This is Jack. You must be George.”
“Father George, yes. You may call me Father George, Joan.” Father George said with serenity. Joan, he observed, was a devotee of the “seize the world lest it seize you” method of life.
Joan shifted, unused to calm, assured authority in others.
Joan cut off Father George. “Jack. Call him Jack, FATHER George.”
Father George looked to a startled Mr. Green. He squeaked and half nodded his assent. “Jack, why are you here?”
Jack quivered, a boy caught playing hopscotch at recess. His eyes darted to his wife. Would he become a man, or remain a boy?
“Jack, I am asking you,” assured Father George. “She can't answer for you. Only you can.”
“B ... because she made me,” Jack said, sighing his defeat in a battle never fought.
“Thank you, Jack, for the brave and honest answer.” Father George turned to Joan.
“You want a marriage that serves you and not him. That is not a marriage. He wants to be with you at any cost, but he doesn't understand the cost. You play games with him in order to feel good about yourself.
“Your appointment with me was to assess whether I could help you. I believe my receptionist explained this?”
“I have assessed your marriage and I am unable to help you. I am sorry.”
“Wha ... why?” wondered Joan, torn between being cowed by Father George's calm certainty and her own raw rage simmering beneath her facade.
Father George smiled. “All things are possible with God. By Jesus our Christ, any marriage can be saved from sin. However, both husband and wife must choose humble obedience to Christ, in His full revelation, including Christ in their spouse. You, Jack, cower before your bride, serving her sinner, not Christ; and you, Joan, are humble to none. Therefore, I am not able to help you.”
“But our marriage counselor said it was both our faults,” Joan protested. “She didn't say anything about humility!”
“How long have you been seeing her?”
“Is your marriage better now than fifteen years ago?”
Silence. “Um ... no. Worse,” Joan admitted.
“That is a lot of time and money spent on decay.” Father George paused, then asked, “Joan, why are you here?”
Joan pleaded into Father George's eyes. He saw the war waging within and wondered if rage of pride or humble hope would prevail. He held her gaze, a shepherd's loving assurance to his terrified sheep.
“I want to save our marriage!” Joan blurted.
“Humble hope,” thought Father George, with a smile. Humility won, at least this small battle. Maybe he could help. Aloud, he said, “Jack?”
“I want to save our marriage too.”
Father George sat in thought. “A week is too long,” he realized, trusting the movement of the Holy Spirit in his heart. “Christ was in the tomb for three days,” making his decision.
Aloud, he said, “I need each of you to show me that is true. For the next three days, aside from no more than eight hours of work a day, you will cancel all activities and be at home, together. Joan, you will take a three-day vow of silence, except for when you pray with Jack or speak needfully at work, starting now, until you are back on Friday.”
“What punishment does he get?” Joan demanded.
“Not punishment, Joan. Rather, the grace of discipline. Jack gets the grace of silence, and the option to talk if he desires.”
“But ... that's misogynist!”
“What you're living now is feminist.”
Joan looked at the priest, appalled, half rising from her chair. “Those aren't the same!”
“Then I can't help you.”
She collapsed into the chair, her arms crossed.
“You're welcome to sulk for the next thirty minutes, but then I have another appointment,” offered Father George.
“This isn't helpful, you know!” Joan pouted.
“Have you tried it?”
“Of course not!”
Father George said nothing, rose, and walked to his desk to work on his homily. The huffs and sighs from Joan's temper tantrum and squeaks and squirms from Jack's terror made the time torturous. Well aware he would be blamed for his unwillingness to offer remedy to their broken marriage, he sighed and shifted to rise to walk them to the door. Joan spoke with a resigned sigh of her own.
“I'll do it. What do I do?”
“Bow your head and pray for God's blessing,” offered Father George. He blessed her, set their Friday appointment with Jack and said, “One more thing, I recommend praying the rosary together, each day. See you Friday. And Jack, she may need reminders of her vow of silence. It's up to you to help her.”
Three days later, Father George's eyes were once more opened wide as Joan and Jack walked through the door, this time holding hands. Jack gallantly gestured for her to enter first. Their faces beamed as they sat on the couch, still holding hands. Father George took the chair facing the rejuvenated couple.
“Welcome back! How has your retreat been?” he asked, looking back and forth between them.
“Oh, Father George! What did you do? The vivacious woman I married is back!” exclaimed Jack.
“Wow! Wonderful!” said Father George. He turned to Joan.
Joan smiled, a knowing gleam in her eyes. She demurely shook her head and tucked her lips between her teeth in silence, her plumage more glorious for her humility.
Father George roared in delighted laughter. “Joan, your vow of silence is ended, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” he said, blessing them both.
Both Jack and Father George stared at her in amazement when she didn't explode with days' worth of words. “How beautiful!” thought Father George, “The monastic discipline of silence deepens humility in married life too!”
“Well?” said Father George. “You may talk again.”
Joan smiled richly. “Yes, but I don't need to.”
“Father, fifteen years of counseling — yet after a day of silence we were giddy newlyweds again. What happened?” wondered Jack.
Father George laughed merrily. “Christ heals souls. Through silence, you said 'Yes!' to Christ. You ask what happened? Faith. Faith happened. Jesus is calling you home, to each other and to the Catholic Church.
“Be warned, however. If you choose to run toward Christ together, sin will rise up and make things as turbulent as possible – but Jesus has already defeated sin. Trust Christ's victory.”
“Oh, yes, Father! I saw it, His victory,” exclaimed Joan. “Let me tell you what we experienced together, praying the rosary ...”
Father George Clement sat in the waiting room of the bishop's office, jumping in his skin, a school boy called to the principal's office. In his five years as a priest this had never happened: no announced reason, just a summons. That did not bode well.
Mercifully, his doom came all the nearer when Susan, oblivious to his nerves, said, “You may go in now.”
He rose and entered. Bishop Simonson stood, came eagerly around his desk and heartily shook Father George's hand. “Sit, sit, Father George!”
Father George sat, unsure if he should be relieved or alarmed by the warm welcome. Austere was the word he associated with his bishop. Wiry, sharp, and austere. Alarmed, decided Father George.
Bishop Simonson pulled up a chair and sat close to his priest. Yes. Definitely alarmed.
“You are looking well,” declared the bishop. “Nervous, but well. By all the numbers, your flock is doing well too. Registry, Mass attendance, offertory: all rising, when most are falling. Impressive.”
“Thank you, Bishop. I'm simply doing as I'm called,” Father George offered with genuine humility.
“Just doing as you're called, eh?” The bishop paused. “Are you sure?”
This was it. The meat, about to be uncovered. Father George felt his bacon in the frying pan and shifted. “I ... I don't follow.”
“I hear you are doing a lot of counseling. However, your files show nothing of psychological training.”
There it was. The psychology thing. Father George had wondered when that would come up. Now, apparently. “Both are true,” he offered simply. “I counsel, though I call it spiritual orienteering.”
“I hear you are against psychology. Is that true?”
Father George considered his words carefully. “I am not sure, Bishop. Psychology remains an open question of mine. However, many of its tenets, as I understand them, are counter to the Gospel. I wonder how much of psychology is compatible with Christ's revelation.”
Bishop Simonson sat back, finger tips pursed together. “For example ...” he prompted.
“Psychology elevates personal experience to personal 'truth.' Personal 'truth' is anathema to truth, for Jesus is 'the way, the truth, and the life.' Personal truth is a denial of God, a denial of truth.”
“Hmmmm,” the bishop considered. “If you aren't doing psychology, what are you doing?”
The sound of bacon frying sizzled in Father George's ears. “By the grace of Christ, shepherding, bishop.”
“Yes, Bishop,” he said. Inwardly, Father George thought, “I may as well go all in.” He sighed deeply and said, “Several years ago, while running mountain trails, I heard three words spoken, clear as day. 'Free my Church.'”
The bishop sat with a face of intrigue, so Father George plunged ahead. “These three words settled in my soul with penetrating urgency as I ran. I contemplated their profound simplicity and their parallel to the three words Saint Francis received to 'Build my Church.' 'Free my Church' implies shackles. I envisioned all the ways Christ's Church is shackled, both within and without, and was overwhelmed by the task to free her. 'I am but one priest,' I responded. 'How? How am I to 'Free your Church'?
“Several days later, a deacon gave me a set of Gospel commentary, the Catena Aurea, and urged me to read it with each day's Gospel. He told me it was compiled by Saint Thomas Aquinas and was like being part of a fireside conversation of Saints and faithful, sitting around the table, sipping beer. I read it each day, amazed by how much it opened the Gospels. Questions I had thought, but not asked, or asked but been unable to answer, were answered, time and again. Over the course of the year, I learned many things, including what I was called to do as a priest that I was not doing. I realized that sin hides in our everyday choices, causing strife, stirring up discord, unseen ... until I did see it, with painful clarity.
“One day, I was stunned to read these words by Saint Gregory on Luke's 'The harvest is great but the laborers are few': 'Behold the world is full of priests, but seldom is there found a laborer in God's harvest, because we undertake indeed the priestly office, but we perform not its works' (Catena Aurea, on Luke 10:1-2). I was the living definition of shepherding supineness.
“I realized that Christ called me to feed and tend His lambs and sheep, but I had yet to answer. He gave us, His Church, authority over sin. Yet I did not fully wield the authority entrusted to me by Christ; instead I buried the talents given by my master for fear I might disappoint him. That is when Christ's clarion call sounded through my deaf ears. Sin, I realized, is the cause of all strife, and personal sin the cause of all strife in relationship; therefore, all strife in relationship was my responsibility to render aid through Christ's authority entrusted to me. I began to work with my flock as they came to me, instead of sending them elsewhere. I now saw sin in their choices as the cause of their strife, and knew Christ, through me, could help them experience Christ's healing balm, first through Confession, and also by giving them the weapons of faith to wage war against sin, that they may choose virtue instead.
“I used to be terrified when a married couple came to me. Who was I to help them? No longer. I've now stopped referring married couples, or anyone, to outside counselors. They have no authority over sin. They do not have the power of the keys.
“Some fled, like some fled from Jesus. Others dove in. Those who dove in deepened in faith and holiness. The fruit of Christ's healing balm flourished and so I continued, learning more as I went.”
Bishop Simonson laughed boisterously. “Christ in you nurtures vivacity, Father George!” He sat back. “You remind me of a comment an atheist psychologist told me at a conference years ago. 'Bishop,' he'd said, 'I don't understand what happens in that little box, but it is powerful. I've had clients I've worked with for years, heavy stuff, with little progress. Yet they spend twenty minutes in that little box and emerge healed.'”
The bishop looked deeply at Father George and continued, “Keep shepherding. I am appointing you as pastor of the Cathedral with these next assignments. Keep shattering shackles!”
Father George woke to the purple pre-dawn glow in the church's stained-glass windows. He loved the warmth of illumination, the promise of greater light to come, particularly from the Annunciation window, where the Archangel Gabriel's brilliance stood before the kneeling Mary. “I am the handmaid of the Lord,” he prayed, and wondered if the builders of the church one hundred and fifty years ago had in mind 'the dawn from on high shall break upon you' when they placed it facing east.
He had been pastor of the Cathedral for a month now. Encouraged by Bishop Simonson's words, he had implemented a number of powerfully simple changes that were awakening his new flock. Reconciliation was now available before every Mass. He'd been surprised by the numbers of people who came, though the first weekend had been light. Persistence bore fruit and now they often needed a second priest.
He also implemented an open-door policy. The church doors were always unlocked now; a priest was always available, night and day. This was why he slept in the pews, while they planned a reconstruction for an attached rectory, so the priest on duty could hear, even in sleep, when he was needed.
He smiled, recalling his conversation with his two young parochial vicars. “When will we have time for ourselves?” Father Hank had wondered.
“We are shepherds, Father Hank. Are we to abandon our flock at night, when wolves so often come? Even as we do the work of Martha, let us put the best part first, and the rest will find its proper place.”
Neither Father Hank nor Father Johnathan had a response to that. He had begun to see an awakening in them as they reluctantly obeyed. Through their labors, they discovered they were needed and capable priests, learning to shepherd in ways they hadn't known they'd neglected before.
The clunk and swish of the church doors alerted him of someone's arrival. Glancing at his watch, he saw it was five a.m. A couple in their thirties walked down the aisle, bowed before the tabernacle and knelt in the front pew. The man, dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans, fidgeted with discomfort. The woman, in tight leggings and tight top, was calm, and placed a timid hand on her husband's shoulders. He slumped beneath it, shook it off, and abruptly rose. Seeing Father George for the first time, he looked embarrassed, then clenched his fists and furrowed his brow. He stomped toward Father George, his wife rising to follow.
“Peace be with you, my children,” Father George said, loud enough to include the wife.
“Father, I need your help with my disobedient wife,” the man boomed, his wife cringing behind him.
“Peace be with you, my son,” Father George repeated soothingly, and looking to the wife, said, “And peace be with you, my daughter.” Relief washed over her and she moved to stand beside her husband, though she left a surprisingly large gap between them.
“And with your spirit,” responded the wife timidly.
Firmly and gently, his gaze upon the wife, Father George said, “What troubles you?”
The man boomed, ignorant of the surrounding silent sanctuary, “Alison wants to work, against my wishes.”
Father George ignored the man and gazed at the woman, kindly awaiting her response.
Emboldened, she replied, “Our marriage is in trouble, Father George.” She burst into tears and threatened to crumple to the floor.
The man stood stock still, so Father George moved forward to guide her to a pew.
“You see what I have to put up with!” the man declared.
“I see more than you might like,” replied Father George with steely calm. He rested his hand on the woman's shoulder and said soothingly, just loud enough for her husband to hear, “You've come to the right place. If you both humbly choose to enter Jesus' embrace, your marriage can be saved by His healing balm. And more ... your marriage can again be the joy of your life and the light of Christ to the world.”
The man snorted and clomped clumsily into a nearby pew.
A woman entered the church, bowed to the tabernacle and began to pray the rosary.
Over the next few minutes, Alison's tears abated.
“Would you like to come into my office so we can talk?” Father George offered.
Alison nodded, her husband shrugged, and Father George led the way. In his office, he invited them to have a seat around the coffee table. Alison took a seat on the end of the beaten leather and wood couch and looked disappointed as her husband sat in a chair at the far end. Father George took the chair opposite Alison.
“I've seen you at Mass, but I don't believe we have officially met?”
Alison nodded, her husband sat with his arms crossed, disgruntled.
“I'm Father George.”
“I'm Jim. Jim Berkheart. This is my wife, Alison.”
“It's a blessing to meet you both.” Turning to the husband, Father George asked, “Jim, do you agree with your wife that your marriage is in trouble?”
“It sure is,” Jim puffed.
“You were married in the Church?”
“Yes,” offered Alison. “Five years ago.”
“And the trouble that brings you here today is you want to get a job?”
Alison nodded as Jim gave her a reproving glare.
“Alison, why is it you want a job? Is money tight?”
“Isn't it always?” she wondered. “But, no. That's not why. I've just got to get out of the house.”
“Why? Why must you get out of the house?”
Alison quivered, tears welling in her eyes. “We weren't ready for children at first. I'm sorry, Father, but I was on birth control.”
“Alison! He doesn't need to know that,” burst Jim.
“It's alright, Jim. Let her speak.”
Jim shrugged, sagged back in his chair and stewed.
“Go ahead, Alison. You'd said you weren't ready for children. I take it that changed?”
“Yes, Father. Two years ago. We both were ready,” she said, glaring at her husband. “But I couldn't get pregnant, and we don't have the money for in vitro fertilization.”
Jim huffed a heavy breath of exasperation, about to speak, but cowered back at Father George's gently raised, yet stern, hand.
“Last year I got pregnant, but ...” her words trailed off as tears poured forth again. Father George waited patiently, and heard Alison murmur, “I lost the baby. I did something wrong and I lost the baby!”
“What did you do wrong?” asked Father George consolingly.
“I don't know. I wanted it so badly but just couldn't keep it. What is wrong with me?”
“These things happen, Alison. You know that,” said Jim coldly.
“God is punishing me. We had sex before marriage, I was on birth control. God is punishing me. And now I walk in on Jim in front of the computer, ...”
“Let her finish, Jim,” said Father George with authority that shocked the man into submissive silence.
“Now we don't even look at each other ... that way, but he is on the tablet a lot on his own.” Her lip quivered. “We used to spend that time together.”
“I am so sorry, Alison, Jim, for your terrible loss of your baby,” said Father George.
Jim burst into sobs. Alison looked at him in shock. Melting, she rose and perched on the arm of his chair. He collapsed into her chest, convulsing.
“I hurt so much!” he declared between breaths.
“I had no idea, Jimmy,” Alison comforted, stroking his hair, cradling his head to her chest.
Eventually he reigned in his tears and collected himself. “I'm sorry, Father. I didn't mean to blubber like a ... baby,” and he crumpled back into tears. Alison cried with him.
Ten minutes later their tears abated.
“You have a beautiful love,” said Father George in awe. “You both want to save your marriage?”
“Yes, Father,” they said in unison, gazing at each other through misty eyes as they wiped tears from each other's cheeks.
“Through Christ, any marriage can be saved and come to thrive and be the light of Christ to the world. The recipe is simple and thus hard. You both have to choose humility and follow Jesus. Are you willing to humbly follow Christ, hand in hand?”
Jim looked nervous. “What do we have to do?”
“Follow Christ with bold humility, hand in hand, no matter what. I will guide you.”
“Of course,” cried Alison.
“Absolutely,” declared Jim, looking less certain.
“First, you each need to make a full confession. We can do that now. Each of you kneel in prayer for the other while they are in the confessional.”
“It's been a long time, Father,” Jim said, attempting to excuse himself.
Father George smiled. “Sin stinks, but never goes stale, Jim. No sin is too old or too horrid for Christ on the cross.”
Jim thought, wriggling a bit. “Yes, Father,” he consented.
They rose and went to the confessional. Jim entered first. After he confessed his sins, Father George asked him, “And you didn't seek solace with another woman?”
“No, Father! Absolutely not! I thought about it, several times. There were several opportunities, but I rejected them.”
After Jim and Alison received absolution for their sins, they returned to Father George's office, this time sitting hand in hand on the couch.
“We'll set a time to meet next week,” explained Father George. As I explained in the confessional, the things I am about to give you both are your penance.”
They each nodded.
I need to hear you respond, please. It helps you grow in humble obedience.”
“Yes, Father, we understand,” said Jim.
“Yes, Father,” said Alison.
Father George handed Jim a pencil and paper. “You may want to write these down. You'll need to hold each other accountable to them, check them off daily.”
“First, consider this week a retreat. Cancel all activities except your job and keeping hearth.”
“Next,” he said, reaching for a set of four large books, “this is the Catena Aurea. Each morning, before breakfast, read aloud the day's Gospel, then the corresponding commentary and discuss them.”
“Before bed, kneel together before the crucifix and pray the rosary.”
“Abstain from television, movies, internet, social media, magazines, and any books except books of faith.”
“That's it for the easy ones. Are you ready for the more challenging ones?”
Jim gulped; Alison nodded, wide-eyed.
“Are you sure? We can stop there. It is quite a bit to start with.”
Jim sat more upright. “Give us all ya got, Father. We can take it!”
I'm sure she can,” Father George said slyly, looking Jim square in the eye and leaving the rest implied. Jim gulped again.
“Jim, defend your wife's chastity.”
Jim looked at the good Father blankly. “Um, isn't that her job?”
“Yes, but not hers alone. You are one flesh now, yes? You must defend her chastity by defending yours. Cultivate eyes of chastity, thoughts of modesty. When you see a woman, do not entertain unchaste thoughts or focus on her form. Uphold her human dignity and yours and defend your wife's by not objectifying Alison through other women.
“In today's society, you'll have all too many opportunities to defend your wife's chastity. You'll likely fail. A lot. Persevere. Learn. Focus. Pray for aid. Tip your hat to the women you meet, as in the old days, the way a man honored a woman he passed.”
Jim shook his head. “I have no idea how to do that.”
“Exactly. Learn by doing and failing and doing and failing and learning and doing. Each evening, debrief with Alison, sharing with her each encounter and how you defended her, including in your thoughts.”
Jim put his head down. “Yes, Father.”
Father George waited as Jim wrote.
“Alison, you also defend Jim's chastity, by defending your chastity and your modesty.”
“What do you mean? I'm chaste. I'm not sure what modesty is ... it seems so old fashioned.”
Father George laughed. “Oh! These days, yes, sadly, modesty is old fashioned. It's a timeless classic, though. Part of the heavenly virtue of chastity.” He looked her square in the eye. “Why are you wearing tights and a snug top?”
“What do you mean? They're just what I wore today. All my clothes are like this. What's wrong with being feminine?”
“Nothing. Feminine is beautiful. However, this goes beyond feminine into seductive. Why is this what all your clothes are?”
Alison cast her eyes down. “I needed to compete for Jim's attention and I was losing,” she admitted.
“Jim, are you hearing this?”
Sheepishly, Jim responded, “Yes, Father. I had no idea.”
“Now you do. Be manful and change your choices.” Turning to Alison, he handed her a book, turning it over a few times. It had two front covers, one side for men, the other for women. “It's Saint Pope John Paul the Second's 'Theology of the Body,' simplified a bit by Jason Evert. Make it part of your reading this week, aloud to each other. Shift your wardrobe so you are defending your chastity and modesty.”
“But, surely Father, I'm not responsible for what men think. I can't help it if they leer at me.”
“Read this, and we'll talk about it next week.” Turning to Jim, he said, “You get all that down?”
Jim finished writing. “Yes, Father.”
“Excellent. That is your daily check list. Hold each other accountable to it. Title it, 'Honor God's gift of marriage.'”
Jim wrote at the top. “Yes, Father.”
“Do you have time for Mass?”
“Wonderful! I'll see you out there. I need to vest.”
Father George left his office, and noticed that Father Hank had seen he was unavailable and was now hearing confessions. “Shepherding is working!” he thought. “Thanks be to God!” A broad smile lit up his face. “We are all learning to grow into the grace of our vows. 'The Word became flesh and lived among us.'”
This story has ended, our calling just begun. Come Holy Spirit! Pour through our souls, washing away all that is less than your breath you first breathed into us at the moment of our conception, that we may breathe that breath into the world by choosing powerful and simple mercies. May you bless us in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Prelude to Virus of the Clay, Virus of the Soul
As in many Catholic homes the weekend the coronavirus restrictions were announced, husband and wife struggled with deciding how to handle the biggest challenge they faced.
“Have you seen this, Joan? Mass is canceled,” said Jack Green.
His wife, Joan, looked at him, puzzled. “That's not a big deal. It's just Mass. School is canceled, Jack. School!”
“Won't it be just like summer vacation,” said Jack, figuring he'd thought it through.
“Yeah, Jack,” said Joan, a strong hint of her old venom resurging. “Think. What do the kids do in the summer?”
“And what isn't happening because of the virus?”
“Right. The kids have to be here — at home!”
“Oh,” said a wide-eyed husband, reality dawning on him. “Oh!”
Meanwhile, in the Branch household, Bernard looked at Catharine, “Did you hear? School's canceled for the next month.”
“Lots of families are going to be struggling to discover that homeschooling isn't as hard as they thought.” She glanced at her phone, which just received an alert. “What! Mass is canceled ... for weeks!” Tears flooded her eyes. “Oh, Bernard! What are we going to do without Mass?”
By Patrick Augustin Jones © 2019, all rights reserved
About the Author ...
Deacon Patrick is a husband and father, a deacon in the Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs, and award winning author. See his books in the books page of this site.
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