In March 2021, my husband, our friend Joseph and I went on a weekend rustic camping trip in a lakeside park about forty-five minutes north of our Austin home. A rigorous Lent for me as we had launched our Saints for Slackers podcast and I was producing 6 episodes, I was thrilled for a chance to disconnect, get away, and be out in nature. Nature always provides an atmosphere where I can reconnect with God and let Him nurture my soul.
At the camp, we set up our tents across our site and secured our supplies. Later, Joseph and I made a trip to the restroom on the grounds for bathroom break. While I waited in the truck for my friend, I sat there with the windows down. I heard a young child amidst the throes of a tantrum on the side of the restroom amidst some foliage. Looking to see if things were OK, I saw the boy’s dad. He was crouched down next to him during the screaming, flailing, and wailing episode, responding with such love and gentleness. I was struck by the father’s patient care as he got down on his level to support him. He didn’t just stand by, or tell him to get over it, but was allowing the boy’s feelings to come out during the meltdown.
As I sat there, it conjured up an image of the fatherhood of God in my mind. I thought about the enduring patience of our Heavenly Father when we throw our own fits over things. Even though we are adults with developed brains that can help us manage and express our emotions with language, many still struggle with verbalizing our feelings. Our free will allows us to “kick and scream,” fuss and vent, cry and moan or whatever we choose in our struggle. Yet no matter what we do or don’t do, the mercy of God is always available to receive us, forgive us, and bring us back to the Lord. While we may not feel Him, God bends down near to us from His desire to care for us amidst our turmoil.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”—Psalm 46:1
God is a “very present” help, not just a bystander or fleeting force. He always is there and wants to love and assist us. In a human way, the men who are the greatest spiritual fathers reflect these qualities of God. They are the ones that when trouble rolls in, they show up and with their manly strength do whatever is required.
One of my dear, early spiritual fathers came at a crucial point on my path to restoration. Although I was a daddy’s girl and grew up with three big brothers that I remain close with, many of my childhood wounds came from boys and men, so trusting them hasn’t been easy throughout my life. It had been two years since my abuse trauma surfaced during college, and I wasn’t in a good place. Studying mental health at the time, I remember reading the symptoms of depression, and was somewhat surprised to discover I was displaying most of the list. Add in an 18-credit course load, with my first experience of flailing academically, and I was tanking.
One night after dinner, I ran into my friend Tyson before leaving the cafeteria. While we had been friends since we were freshmen, we had not really gotten to know each other too well. In different circles in our studies and socially, Tyson was also in the household for men discerning the priesthood. He greeted me the standard, “How are you doing?” To which I replied, “Not good.” He became perplexed and concerned, but I could barely admit that truth, so I found my way out of that conversation and back to my dorm fast.
Not long afterwards, after evening Mass on campus, I stood outside afterwards chatting with my roommate. Tyson and his roommate joined our conversation. He said he was running to the grocery store and did anyone want to join him. Our roommates said that they were off to study, and I responded, “I’ll go with you.”
As we walked to his car, he referenced our brief conversation the other day, still wondering how I was doing. Heart filled with pain, I responded, “Can you handle this? Because there’s a lot!” I did not want to “dump” on someone who didn’t want to hear it or react even worse, like abandon me.
Like that dad crouching down, he responded with gentle reassurance. So my guard started coming down, crying as the interior pain began to spill out. He listened intently, giving me space to feel without trying to fix me. He allowed me the gift of unburdening myself without judgment, telling me that he was honored to spend time with me when I needed it.
While there were only a few weeks left in our semester and finals approaching, he continued to make himself present and available to me. He would share his story with me, allowing me to see some of his childhood trauma and pain too, and how the Lord and Mary had been healing him. There was acceptance and respect, and since he was going to be a priest, there was a prayerfulness that covered us, with zero romantic elements to distract or confuse our spiritual friendship.
As the presence of a father is life-changing in a child’s life, the same holds true in spiritual fatherhood. The safe place I found in the presence of a future priest at the time was a turning point—God was rebuilding my trust in men through a chosen vessel. Like a father who protects, the ways Tyson guarded my heart allowed it find refuge. And as fathers provide, he provided prayers, spiritual tools, and words of hope and encouragement. To this day, there are some prayers and a couple of letters that Tyson felt the Lord direct him to write to me that remain tucked in my Bible cover. Full of spiritual comforts, Scripture, insights, and care, there are stains from where my teardrops have smudged the ink over the years.
Spiritual fathers reveal the heart of a Father who wants to love and be loved by us. They carry us in their hearts as they pray and sacrifice for their spiritual children. They want only the greatest good for us, desiring that we become who we were created to be. To do that, we must develop interiorly so that we know our true identity. Tyson called me “Princess,” just like my dad, as he wanted me to see who God made me—a beautiful Princess that God was calling deeper into His heart—not the distorted version of myself. While all I felt was sorrow and suffering, he saw the spiritual reality, that God was fixing and purifying, healing and perfecting, and preparing me to be a vessel of His love for others. He drew my eyes off myself and back to God, reminding me of His love and care for me.
Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”Proverbs 22:6
Without the love, guidance, discipline, and training of spiritual fathers on the path, we will lose our way. Let us not take for granted the men in our lives who have fed our souls by their presence, protection, and provision. And let us pray for men, that they will see the importance of spiritual fatherhood and be willing to pour out from themselves to others in need of that fatherly care.