It’s Pentecost. The day when we celebrate the birth of the church — fully blown and ecstatic to the point of drunkenness on the gift of the Holy Spirit firing us up into action. A day where we are “nudged out of the nest” to go into the world in action carrying the message of truth — and promise of redemption. A joyous day…. but I feel a little verklempt. Today is a farewell celebration. Today Fr. Ron will celebrate his going-away Mass at St. Andre Bessette.
I recognized Fr Ron from hearing his radio program on KBVM when I swapped Catholic radio for NPR during their February fundraising drive in 2009.
He was a different voice. I was intrigued by what he had to say. I called him and told him I was a drunk in recovery searching for something and wanting to know Jesus. – no I didn’t . I said something like: “uuuuhhh… I have a year of sobriety and my son died …. I don’t know why I’m calling you… ”
He was all “cool! A heathen alkie who wants to come to my retreat! Yahoo! “ No he wasn’t. He was like. “Sure. You should come.” All mild.
I’m a little dramatic; sometimes I lie. Here’s how it really was.
I heard Fr. Ron’s voice before I met him face to face. I was spinning the radio dial looking for something that wasn’t a guilt-inducing plea for membership. I stopped when I heard “Hail Mary, full of grace the Lord is with thee.” I stayed there listening to what I now know as faithful people praying the rosary. Soothing…. the words spoke to my heart. I set the clock radio to wake me up with that prayer every morning. So I woke every morning hailing Mary, asking for prayers for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, listening to that until the final amen when the hellfire evangelist or the judgey disappointed nun would start talking, and then I would jump out of bed and cross the room to turn off the radio.
One morning I heard a voice that I had not heard before; I kept listening because it sounded like he was speaking directly to me. He was saying things that nobody else was — about longing for a new life and searching for something greater than ourselves and how people who are suffering can be healed. He said these things with gentle conviction. He was matter-of-fact, unlike the strident, overly plaintive and judgy voices I tuned out before I could feel bad after the glow of being held in Our Blessed Mother’s arms wore off.
I knew what he was saying was unscripted. This man spoke in not so much a dreamy way, but with a cadence that I recognized as off- the-cuff creative concentration – like he was designing a beautiful flower arrangement out of the hope and promise of God’s love. He rambled a little bit as he chose his next story about God working in the most unlikely place or through the most marginalized person. He witnessed Christ in life of a poor, gay, sick, addict — easing a wilted petal off the imperfect bloom, grazing his thumb across a thorn – acknowledging the sharpness of it. He paused like he was searching back into his mind’s-eye, scanning through the brambles of his ministry in the mire of poverty on the streets of Portland – looking for the next flower he would add to the bouquet. Finding it with a recognition that surprised him a little bit – he revealed the glimpse of color and hope buried deep in the underbrush of mental illness and addiction; he reverenced that flower before placing it carefully in the vase alongside the others. I could tell that he really believed what he was talking about because he was witnessing miracles as he spoke. Over and over again, he reached his hand into those tangled patches to pick out the bud, risking the occasional stingy scratch – until he had created an arrangement of imperfectly beautiful and fragile flowers that might be placed in the midst of a funeral mass or a wedding feast.
When Fr. Ron answered his phone, I recognized his voice. He did not sound a bit different than he did on the radio. I was tentative when I asked him about coming to his poverty retreat. “I’m not Catholic or anything, really………” “Come.” He encourged me. “It will be fine.”
When I met him in person the first time, he was smaller than I expected. Soft shoulders – slightly hunched, holding his elbows close to his body like he did not want to take up space. His jaw was a little tight — his teeth have been clenched because his mouth curved slightly downwards. Some furrows were settled between his eyes like he was perpetually concentrating.
Wearing a plaid button down shirt under a dark blue zip up sweater, he reminded me of Mister Rogers zipping up his red sweater singing “you are my friend, you are special to me” — only Fr. Ron’s sweater wasn’t Pentecost red, it was soft dark heather blue. He was reserved when he greeted me, keeping his open hands close to his sides. “Hi.” he said. I was quite taken by his eyes. In the low light of the sanctuary, dark brown – liquid behind the frameless lenses of his spectacles. I saw compassion and warmth. Then his jaw loosened, he grinned crookedly and I caught a glimpse of the boy he once was. His eyes sparkled a little; I thought I could like him.
Fr. Ron encouraged me to share my story. He listened. He didn’t try to give me any answers. Just sat quiet. And then he said “that tension is the cross.”
I had no idea what he was talking about….
but, I did understand -
”Act like God” he said –” stand with open arms wanting and ready to love”.
When I first met Ron, four years ago, I wasn’t like a lovely blooming flower — or even a bud full of potential. I was more like a dried up sea sponge. Hard like a rock. I floated on the top of the baptismal waters he kept telling me about. That day I met him in person, Ron put me face to face with my own spiritual hardness. After four years of hanging out with this guy, I am slightly softer. Kneaded a little bit, I’ve started to absorb. Ron has shown me I can expand — soak up all the holiness there is for me. And when I get full and can’t take any more in and I have to wring myself out again – it washes and soothes other dried out people who need some moisture to get started….
So, I’m dried out today because today, Pentecost, on what I think is Fr. Ron’s last Mass here — I have shed a lot of tears. Pentecost, he says, is when we are nudged out of the nest to go out into the world to live and proclaim our hope and faith. He is flying the coop, too. On his way to the next place — leaving us with the Breath of the Spirit — to continue the work we need to do on our little corner of the world.
To the priest with the kind brown eyes who said that thing about the Cross that I didn’t understand
Who encouraged me to act like God, standing with open arms, wanting and ready to love
Who lead me (by the elbow) to a place where I would slow down and stop and surrender to the almost unbearable pain
Who prayed with me through the suffering — embracing it — and helping me through to the other side where I felt Holy
Who taught me that “which Golden Girl are you?” is an important existential question
Who showed me how to pick up my mat and walk in confidence to the Cross of Salvation
Who helped me believe that there is no place else to go but God
…..and most of all
Who has assured me, undoubtedly, no matter what; that “it’ll be fine”
To the gentle, brown-eyed priest who nudged me…
It’s time for the new nest.
(I’m totally stoked for those lucky ducks in Colorado Springs!)