Angel at the Altar

Angels are on my mind this time of year. That’s because Sept. 29 is the feast of the archangels — Sts. Michael, Gabriel and Raphael — and the Guardian Angels have their day less than a week later, on Oct. 2.

Oddly enough, when I think about angels, I picture a middle-aged man in black bearing a stack of books meant for me.

He is a high school teacher who lives very simply in somewhat cramped quarters. His one love is books, and he collects them at a furious pace. If you admire a book on his shelves, he will give it to you for keeps. Over the years, he has listened tirelessly to me, encouraged me and prayed for me. He is my spiritual father.

For years, I had contemplated having a spiritual director but kept procrastinating. I wasn’t sure what I would discuss with such a person. And then, after the doctor called to say the test had revealed cancer, I stopped procrastinating. After all, cancer had been a death sentence for my mom. I feared it would be for me, as well. And if I was going to die, shouldn’t I make sure I was on the road to heaven?

I wrote a letter to a local priest who had been highly recommended to me. I said that he was probably too busy to see me, but I hoped he would. He wrote back promptly and said he would be honored. At first, I met with him in his classroom for an hour a week. There I would sit, eyes swollen from weeping, trying to figure out how my life had fallen apart.

I was sure he had seen people like me countless times before. The world is crammed with people suffering from terrible diseases, or struggling to exist after tornadoes or wars have shattered their lives. Still, there are always souls like me who seem to think their own brand of suffering is completely new to the universe.

I told him all the bad things I had done in my life. He never flinched. He was confident God could take any life and turn it around. He patiently walked me through Scriptures related to suffering and gave me books that explored the issue from every possible angle. He assured me God was not punishing me.

“He is always gazing at you with love,” he told me, more than once.

Never having studied the Catholic faith formally, I held to many confused snippets about my religion that I’d inherited from childhood. He gave me books to show me what actual Church teachings were. Together we explored timeless topics like suffering, sin and grace, as well as contemporary issues like abortion and euthanasia.

Through those discussions, Father became an angel to me in the truest sense of the word: a messenger from God.

As the years wore on, I laughed more and wept less in his presence. I stopped asking, “Why me?”

My husband and I invite him over for dinner now and again, and the three of us sit outside, talking and drinking homemade wine. Little by little, we have become friends.

Recently, after Mass, I told him how I felt. He gave me a quick smile and didn’t hesitate. “I love you too,” he said.

When people ask me if I believe in angels, I know there are many astute responses I could give. But when I see this priest at our front door, dressed in his simple black garb and carrying books for me, I have my answer.

Lorraine Murray is the author of Grace Notes:

Embracing the Joy of Christ in a Broken World.

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