I had a friend who was a priest when he was young. He almost never talked about having been a priest. When I met him, he had a wife and three sons. He didn’t seem the least bit holy, not like some people who leave religious life but continue to wear the spiritual raiment. He looked and acted like the son of a mechanic, which he wasn’t, but that was his demeanor. Rough and self-effacing with the occasional oil stain on his knees.
The one story he told me was about being a young priest or brother in a religious community in Missouri. It was a community partially sustained by the faithful sending money along with requests that candles be lit for certain people or causes. The hundreds of candles were lined up on several shelves in a separate area – an alcove or maybe even a separate small building – and it was my friend’s job to keep the candles lit at all times. If the flame on a candle died out, he was to relight it. If a candle had burned down to its finish, he was to replace it. All without any gaps. His job was to make sure all the candles were always burning.
He likened it to keeping all the plates spinning and I guessed it was his metaphor for his work juggling many different projects and difficulties at once. But when he told the story, the exhaustion of having to keep all the candles lit crossed his face, as if it had been the biggest burden of his life. And I could see that if he was deeply committed to the religious life and to the depth of trust placed in him by the faithful and his superiors to keep the candles lit, failure would have been a sickening prospect.
My friend died a few months ago. I don’t think about him every day. But I think of this story more times than can be explained by its simple curiosity. He had that devotion. It seems a remarkable thing to me.