I found myself sitting one day with an old priest at The Golden Corrall. I was hung over and we were eating lunch. It was my buddy Dennis's bright idea for me to go at the last minute. Irritated that I was spending the afternoon with a priest while hungover, I deliberately let Dennis have it by apologizing to the priest for drinking heavily the night before.
"Why. You think I like being sober? " said Father A. He shrugged his shoulders, sizing up drinking perhaps as dwarfed by some of the more notorious human abominations.
Turns out his teacher was the priest I had known in the cigar shop, in Indianapolis. Father Joe. My buddy Tony's friend.
"So, Father A., Father Joe died two years ago and far as I could tell his community was not confident of their future without him. Not that I knew the difference between the Byzantines and Beelzebub at the time, but you know, people talked, and said Joe was special. I basically left him alone but for the occasional weather report or what have you. He was your teacher. Was he your friend?"
"We weren't friends. No. He was special, it's true. Some guys have the touch, and people see them as the person they want before them. I have never felt I was that guy. Joe seemed to realize he was. Didn't always like it. But everyone knew, and he was one of them."
"Was his Church your first Church?" said Dennis.
"In a way I suppose it was," said Father A. "I had been with a different Church, had been of a different denomination as a young student. Why I switched and the path and manner by which I have come to serve all these years in the Eastern Orthodox tradition have challenged me to accept the advice I have all too often given others... but not taken myself."
"That it's in God's hands," said Dennis with that subtle smile that made me despise him sometimes, but probably was the reason he put up with me.
"Yes, Dennis," said Joe, but without a trace of pleasure. "That it is. And it always was."
"But the fundamental difference between the Judeo-Christian religions is the boundary between man and God. A Muslim or Jew could just as easily imagine their life in God's hands, but correct me if I'm mistaken, their path isn't quite the one you have seen for yourself, or taken in any case," I said with my usual total lack of insight as to why I even had need to ask.
"I don't know what the fundamental differences between the Abrahamic traditions are Andy. Perhaps fundamentally... well, it's something for younger men to argue about. That's why I appreciate you and Dennis letting me buy you lunch. When I was your age I too was brimming with questions and feeling. You know, in so many ways life is ones spirit. That was something Father Joe and I could never really reconcile."
"That life is a person's spirit," said Dennis, looking at me, "I think I'm on Joe's side with this one." Funny thing was, when he was smiling at Jesus, I despised him, but when he was grimacing at me, I despised myself.
"Well pardon me if mere aknowledgement of the flesh as reflected in a cold mirror is somewhere, somehow, construed by some child praying on her knees as Satanic, my friend. My cells merely seem to me to divide where for the saint they metastasize," I said, losing the thread of the conversation completely in my strange sense of being outnumbered by weirdo fundamentalists. But something was wrong. Father A. was laughing.
"That's a good one Andy, you make that up," he said.
"He's full of stuff like that, "said Dennis, "completely screwed up."
"I think I actually had a point," I tried to explain.
"Oh, you did," said Father A. "And let me tell you, it kind of reminds me of why I never felt like a friend to Father Joe. Well, for one thing Dennis, I would never have told him he was screwed up, like Andy is lucky enough to have heard just now from you. Not that I think you are Andy..."
"Yeah, I get it," I sheepishly let him off the hook, "all have sinned in the eyes of God."
"Well, no... I mean, yes that is a true, rich statement that I think is worth investigating. A type of wisdom if you will... but what I meant is that you and Dennis can both bear witness to the struggle that loving others amounts to. So while neither of you reminds me of the other, a common language of respect and love seems to allow your friendship the space and freedom for you both to sense that your friend really wants to know you. I had a wonderful teacher, but I never had that with Joe, or anyone in the administrative side of Church, for that matter."
"Well, did you say goodbye to Joe before he died," asked Dennis.
Father A. looked up, out into the empty directionless light of a February afternoon and shook his head. The he looked at us, each, and then settled his gaze on his hands, saying, "No."
At some point near the end of Father A.'s schooling, he had knocked on Joe's door one afternoon. Joe had been gone dealing with some family affair. Father A. was scheduled in Syracuse to work after Seminary at a bustling, ailing Orthodox church. He was scared to death. He felt excitement at his future, and knew he would more or less do his job. But as a man, he wondered, would he ever live up to the dreams of inquiry that all the years of schooling had never managed to settle into some kind of working knowledge. Father A. sensed that Joe was in some ways the last of his true father figures. Was there anyone else I could ever ask such difficult questions? he genuinely wondered. No. He knew. Father Joe was the only man he would ever ask this question.
"Father, I still wonder a little about why you think I am right for the Orthodox Church. Sometimes I guess...." said Father A.
"You guess what, " said Father Joe, "that you don't know what to do?"
"Yes, exactly. I don't know what to do, Father. I only know what I am supposed to do,"
"Your lucky, if you can say that," said Father Joe.
"Have you ever second guessed everything," said Father A. "Have you ever just wondered what the truth really was?" The words came out like every disgusting thought he'd ever had in his life. Every perversion. Every nightmare. The love child of sleepless nights of miserable fun and the cold broken look of his sacrificing mother as he was leaving home.
"A man must be called, " said Father Joe, "before he can answer." And that was the last time Father A. ever called upon Father Joe for matters not pertaining to the Church.
I haven't seen Father A. in seven years. He stayed in Bloomington until enough people were attracted by him and the rest of us in the little house on Smith road that service was conducted in for the big guys out east to get the money together to build a larger church. Last I heard he was in another small town, laughing at the false modesty of the energetically spiritual. Trying, probably, not to flinch at shadows that seem less playful the older you get. Father Joe has of course been in heaven all along. That's why I tell this story, and if you haven't been able to tell, this isn't the first time. Everybody takes something different from it. Are you a believer? Are you an Atheist? Perhaps you are a man or woman of God? Or you are following your calling, but haven't heard it in awhile. Who, here amongst us, in as it were, His midst, could really be certain of anything?