Dying full of life

Spiritual Paternity in the religious life

My spiritual father, the Jesuit Nacho Boné, died on the 23rd of December. Nacho passed away at the age of 51, the apex of a Jesuit’s apostolic life. For many years, he had been entrusted with the accompaniment of Jesuits in formation, myself included.

His unexpected death led me to reflect upon spiritual paternity in the religious life. My reflection spanned from the beginnings of the relationship on my arrival in Madrid in 2016 for my theological studies, until today, on the threshold of receiving the diaconate. What follows is intended to be a description of the paternal-filial dynamics present in the religious life from its very origins. These, however, cannot be separated from the unique experience that I lived being accompanied by Father Nacho.

The Spiritual Father. A life lived in the spirit needs fathers, men who have allowed themselves to be burned by the fire of God and who can transmit it, tamed, to others. The experience of God that in daily life can be measured along according to high or low emotional temperatures: a spiritual father is he who helps his child find a balance, the ‘medium’ temperature, the right equipment needed to live each spiritual season. Nacho, as a good companion, knew how to stand by me and my spiritual movements without judging or despising them. A spiritual father helps his child see his relationship with the Lord with new eyes, something like realizing you’re seeing better wearing a new pair of glasses.

Sonship. There are no fathers without children. Within the relationship formed during spiritual direction, the one accompanied learns to be a child anew. The relationship is asymmetric. The one who accompanies is recognized as possessing an authority derived from experience, and the son whom he accompanies must learn obedience, that fruitful listening of the other that shapes him in the freedom of the spirit. Being a child also means loving one’s father, allowing oneself to be carried on the shoulders life has broadened and strengthened. In Nacho, I found a father who knew how to silently shoulder that with which I entrusted him, a father with the understanding of those whom we know are on our side. One cannot be a child of God without first having experienced the many other forms of paternity that life presents us with.

Empathy. The icon of mercy of the Gospel of Luke (Lk 15: 11-31) is a father who is moved by the sight of his son who returns home after having squandered his family’s wealth. They key to spiritual fatherhood lies in this paradox, a paradox which helps us enter the very heart of the gospel. The relationship between spiritual father and son is one of empathy, where one’s deepest feelings and wounds are made known to the other, waiting to be touched by God. Nacho was a father who knew how to be move. He found no shame in allowing himself to be moved, and in his tears I found welcome. I believe that allowing oneself to be moved is the true strength of a father, a visceral love similar, as the Bible says, to that of a mother, even to that of God.

Trust. A spiritual father is to be trusted as man of faith who helps me transform the barriers before me into a doorway I can decide when and how to open. A good spiritual father knows how to wait in silence. Accompanying someone in their experience of God is a slow journey. It’s the experience of a time separated from the normal course of krónos to become kairós, God’s time. That a father is able to wait, that he doesn’t force things, is a sign that he is a man of God.

Learning the art of spiritual fatherhood. How does one go about becoming a spiritual father? Of course, one could take a course on the subject. Yet the best way to become a spiritual father is to learn to be accompanied by someone else, having companions, friends in the Lord who know how to bring you back onto the right path, who can admonish when needed, and show mercy when your vision is obscured by fear of punishment. You learn to be a father only by passing through the experience of childhood. Only once you have learned to see yourself as a beloved child can you generate life for others. It goes without saying that I would have liked to have spent more time with Nacho, to learn from him to be a father. Yet I can attest that in the years we spent together, he did everything he could to help me recognize myself a child.

Orphan. It is often in finding ourselves orphans that we notice we had a father. This is the state of mind I find myself in, feeling an absence that becomes a gratitude-filled memory, a nostalgia, but not yet a new life. But it’s only right to mourn, to cry out to God asking “why?”, to live through Holy Saturday before living the Resurrection. Time is needed before this barrier can become a door.

Father Nacho died full of life. I’m grateful for having met a companion who was able to show me the fullness life in his way of accompanying me and through eyes which never hid their tears.

* The experience I have described is in the masculine, that is, it is written from the perspective in which live. This does not prevent us from reading it in the feminine: fathers in the Spirit are mirrored by the many mothers who generate sons and daughters in the spiritual life.

Photo by Steve Shreve

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