I have a close friend whose wife passed away years ago after battling the big C. They were happily married for close to four decades, and have a beautiful family. My friend was a few months away from ordination when he asked to take a short leave, just to be sure he was ready for ordination. It was during this short leave that he met his wife.
Two weeks before his wife passed away, she talked to him one early morning. She knew the time was near, and she told him that when she goes, she wanted him to return to his first love. He told her that she was her first and only love. Then she said that what she meant was he could go back to being a priest to serve God and his flock.
True love never dies.
This Sunday’s Gospel reminds us of this central reality in our life. “Teacher, which in the law is the greatest commandment?” And the Lord responds, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest commandment… The second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself… ”
Almost nine years ago, I had my annual retreat at the end of the spring term when I was studying for my doctorate at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington State. If I am not mistaken, it was also Holy Week of 2003.
It was the second day of my eight-day retreat. I was seated at the back of the chapel of the Jesuit House on the chair where I always sat to pray every morning—the corner at the back of the chapel by the side of the pipe organ.
It was about 5 a.m., and for an unexplainable reason, my prayer brought me back to a childhood memory, an event in my life which happened when I was about 5 or 6.
My brother, the one who came right before me, and I were playing one early morning on the driveway of my grandfather’s house. We were standing on each side of the open gate, pretending to be security guards. The drivers and the house boy, whom my grandfather promised to have trained and to promote to driver, were cleaning the cars as we were playing.
Then one of the household staffer came out and told us that our grandfather was calling us to join him for breakfast. Without hesitation, we ran into the house. We had hardly sat down at the dining table when we heard a loud crash from the driveway.
The houseboy decided to practice driving ahead of his driving lessons. It was a freak accident. The car he was cleaning and tried to practice on sped through the driveway, ripped off one of the gates where we stood less than three minutes earlier, and stopped only when it crashed into the fence of the neighbor across the street.
Thank God it was early morning and most probably a weekend, so no one was walking on the street yet. Thank God our grandfather called us, otherwise one or maybe both of would have died or at the very least suffered very serious injuries.
From that prayer period and through the next seven days of my retreat, I went through the significant moments of my life until that point when I was studying at Gonzaga University—almost a 40-year span of my life. I remembered my story. At the end of my retreat, for the very first time in my life—having gone through the broken marriage of my parents and a painful, dysfunctional family situation—I was able to tell myself that I had had a happy childhood and a happy, meaningful life.
The singular grace of that retreat was realizing that in the journey I was on to that point, God was always present. God’s presence was always providential. God’s providence was always loving. He was and is always lovingly, providentially present.
Realizing his love and the quality of this love led me to a new stage in my journey. For the next two years, almost, I journeyed back to my true love. For the next two years it became clearer and clearer that I had to go back to my true love.
By December 2004, my assignment, my “mission” at the Ateneo, had run its course. We did not quite complete what I felt was needed for the “mission,” but at the end of it all I was able to honestly tell God that I did my best.
In the quiet and solitude of prayer in between Christmas of and New Year, I felt the freedom to consider that maybe it was time to go.
I had asked permission to leave to work again as a teacher, my true love. By then I felt and saw that the best way for me to live out this mission and love is to form and mentor teachers to be good teachers, to be loving teachers who will love their students into excellence.
As Parker Palmer put it, it is not about technique, but good teaching is about the identity and integrity of the teacher; his/her discovering the love of God in his/her life and, paraphrasing St. Paul, being rooted and grounded in this love, loving others and loving his/her students into excellence.
True love never dies.
Almost two years ago, we formed a creative team to work on two projects for production, either a movie or TV series. One was about sports, the story of athletes and a team and the values and spirit that go with all these, and the other was about the priesthood as an expression of the human longing for and journey towards meaning and mission.
There were three young directors working in the team, and over lunch two of them interviewed me. One asked me, “Do you have any regrets in life, Fads?” I paused very briefly and responded, “You know, Paul, if I were younger I would have immediately said, ‘No, I have no regrets.’ But now that I am older, and, hopefully, wiser, I’d say, yes, I have one regret.”
As I said these words, the memory of the night of my despedida party came back to me. It was two nights before I entered the seminary close to 30 years ago. It was past midnight, and I was walking one of my guests to her car.
I had met her just four months earlier, but I had known of her much earlier. As I said goodbye to her, she asked me to postpone entering the seminary for a year. She said that we should give our relationship a chance, and if nothing happens she will let me go; just give it a chance for one year.
I was somewhat tipsy at this point, and very casually, jokingly even, I said, “Are you serious?! These people (the guests in the despedida) will kill me if I don’t enter! You’ll be fine.”
This was a time in my life when I was happiest. It was my third year of teaching, and even then I knew it was the life I wanted to live. This was a time in my life that I did not just love what I was doing, but, in my imperfect way, loved the people who were then part of my life.
I regret saying “no” to her then because it was also saying “no” to a life filled with love—the life that showed me my mission and true love, to teach, to guide and mentor, to love people into excellence. I am not sure what would have happened during that one year with our relationship, but one thing I am very sure of now is I would have lived out my mission, my true love, being a teacher, with great love.
Almost 22 years after that night I said “no,” I found myself going back and saying “yes” to my true love—teaching, mentoring, loving others into excellence.
True love never dies.
This Sunday’s Gospel reminds us that discovering our true love—God’s love for us and our loving him in return—is the only thing that matters. It is the only thing. From this one true love, everything else that matters springs: our ability to love our self, to love others and to live our life mission with great love.
Sit down. Pray. Remember the story of your life. In remembering, we will reconnect with the God who loves us and the love we are to share and live our life with. Trust your story. Trust your true love. Return to your true love.
True love never dies. He is always lovingly, providentially present.