What Only Love Can Understand
Talk by Tom Baker

November 1, 2009, The Fellowship of the Inner Light

Today is a big day for me; anniversary-wise. 35 years ago today, November the first, on the Church feast of All Saints, which is today, I decided to become or try to become a Roman Catholic priest. However, 35 years ago yesterday, on the secular holiday of Halloween, I thought seriously of suicide and in fact threatened to commit suicide. In the tale of these two anniversaries is evidence of how silly and how holy human beings can be almost at the same time. If you had any notion of me as especially spiritually advanced, special or called by God you won't have them by the time I finish, but you might marvel at how a lack of understanding can lead to oddly good things.

In the fall of 1974 I began teaching seventh grade language arts and social studies. It was my first job as a teacher and I expected it to be the beginning of a rich and rewarding career as a junior high and high school teacher. I would begin as the earnest and hard working Mr. Baker and gradually mellow into the beloved Mr. Chips. That was my dream I had for myself when I began but in the first two months of teaching that dream gradually began to fall apart and it blew up completely several days before Halloween. In one of my classes there was a girl named Holly who was extremely smart. She would ask wonderful questions like, "Why do we need to know the natural resources of Pakistan? I asked my mother if she knew them and she said she didn't care. How will it help me in my life as a district attorney?" Holly already had decided on a career in law and her questions revolved around how what we were learning would hinder or help her be a success as an attorney. When we got to learning the parts of speech she raised her hand and wondered aloud if the judge or the jury would care if she or anyone could diagram a sentence or whether "not guilty" was a sentence fragment. I usually loved her questions: they were clever and innocent and often pertinent, just the kind of questions I had thought about but never dared to ask out loud when I was her age or a little older. Often Holly would come to my desk and ask my opinion about something. One day she asked me a question that I didn't feel I had time for and I brushed her off, told her to go back to her seat, that I didn't have time for such a trivial question, that I was too busy. I remember her looking a little startled and then her going back to her desk and putting her head down. I felt manipulated so I ignored her and then took the class to lunch. When we came back I started a discussion, asking questions and no one would answer. Holly was not only the smartest kid in the class, she was the leader of the class and I figured out that during lunch she had gotten all the kids to give me the silent treatment. At first I gave them a reading assignment and hoped it would pass. The next day it continued. I tried everything I knew, I threatened, I promised rewards, I finally pleaded for them to talk but not a word, for three days they were silent. With each passing silent day I became more anxious and enraged. I went home from school on Halloween having decided to quit teaching, move home with my parents, and work at my father's office. When I went to my parents' house that night I told them of my plans and they said no way. They liked having the house to themselves and besides my father's company wasn't hiring. I was on my own. I then threatened to kill myself if they didn't let me move in and they said that they thought that was a bad choice and they hoped I wouldn't commit suicide but it was my life and my decision, and alive or dead I still wasn't moving back home. This tense discussion took place between the doorbell ringing with little ghosts and goblins singing out trick or treat and us taking turns, smiling and dropping candy into their sacks. Finally I left, roaring out of the driveway and trying to think of a painless way to kill myself. I had become afraid of heights after learning to sky dive, so jumping off a building or a bridge was too scary, I loved my car too much to wreck it, I was on no medication so nothing in my medicine cabinet would do much more than make me throw up, and I nor anybody I knew owned a gun or knew how to use one. For the moment I was stuck with life. I went home and went to bed and slept very soundly, waking up refreshed but still in despair. When I left my apartment to go to school I heard a bird singing. I couldn't resist the feeling of joy that the bird's song brought up in me. And I felt some hope return. As I drove to school I tried to think what I could do with my life that felt good and I thought of a priest I admired named Fr. Elmer Moore. As I drove into the school parking lot I thought, "I'll be a priest just like Fr. Moore." I felt my despair leave me. With the impulsiveness of a twenty-four year old I came into my still silent class and announced that I was becoming a priest. Hands shot up and I answered questions all morning like I was at a press conference. The silence was over and Holly was all smiles, she even congratulated me at the end of the class. She respected someone, like herself, with a high calling. The day ended with my feeling like a celebrity. Then I remembered something. I was not yet a Catholic. But I had gone public about my vocation to the priesthood so I decided to actually investigate becoming a Catholic and entering the seminary. It all went smoothly, everything fell into place. I quit teaching after two quarters in March of 1975, joined the church that Easter and entered the seminary the next fall. Now comes the spooky part. No pun intended. The first odd fact is that Holly was born on Christmas day. That's why she was named Holly. The other thing really took me aback. About two years into my first assignment as a priest someone was visiting my parish and told me after Mass one Sunday that they had a friend named Holly whose teacher I had been. She said I was her favorite teacher ever and that she had had a crush on me. I was too shocked to follow up and more than a little embarrassed that I had made such an enormous life decision as a result of such an extreme misunderstanding.

I started thinking about this several weeks ago when I received a letter from the Archdiocese of Louisville appealing to me to return to my ministry as a priest. The church needs priests bad, so they are recruiting from the Episcopalians and have even changed the rules on priests who have left and gotten married. We are no longer excommunicated and may not be going to hell. There was no mention of my bringing Kathy with me, the woman who the state of Virginia sees as my wife, but the Catholic Church considers my mistress of 17 years.

From my vantage point of 59 years I see my priesthood as an enormous accident begun with a misunderstanding but an accident that turned out just right, a graced ministry followed by a perfect marriage. The church on the other hand sees my priesthood as divine destiny derailed by lust and the cultish influence of new age deviants. We're both trying to make sense of what only love can understand. When I reach for the truth I begin to think that God makes no plans, is a stranger to destiny and, in fact, does not know what is going to happen next. However, the Holy Spirit makes the best use of every possibility we give it, whether we call it grace or disgrace, good luck or disaster, accident or providence. The spirit of love comes in and says yes even this might turn into to something holy. The only question God has for us is, "Are you ready for your holiness, your wonder, your extraordinary beauty to come through, Now, Now, Now?" That is the lovely meaning of eternity, now after now forever. Bless you.

I hope to post a commentary on Part III of Chapter 3, Perception versus Knowledge next week. I am no longer doing handouts for the group and will be posting everything on my website. This change will allow me more time for my own reflection and will hopefully deepen our weekly examination of the material from other's perspective and not just my own.


© Copyright Tom Baker 2009