I don’t always do eye exams on Catholic priests, but when I do, I prefer to be blessed.
And that’s exactly what happened yesterday when I examined an honest-to-God padre, Father C. I’ve examined my share of Baptist preachers and various charismatic sorts, even a couple of Episcopalian rectors, but as far as I can remember Father C. was my first Vatican-verified vicar. He was Irish too, which was simply gravy on the potatoes.
He was the second patient in as many days to created a stir in the waiting room. The first one was the man with the Crimson Tide elephant hat, complete with long, gray trunk, who came in Monday still high on the fumes of Mt. Cody’s “Rocky Block.” But when the tall, white-haired Father C. walked in still wearing his black priestly garb and clerical collar even in retirement, there were no rounds of laughter and shouts of “Roll Tide!” It was as if a 2-star general had just walked into an NCO-club. All the usual cussin’ and hollerin’ ceased, and it became so still and quiet that you could have heard a church mouse scamper across the rafters.
My technician was the first to alert me that the next eye exam was likely to take on a spiritual dimension. “Heads up, Catholic priest in the chair!” he exclaimed as he poked his head in my office. I’m not sure what he was thinking–I always try to enter a room with an air of confidence, congeniality, and cool, cultivated professionalism–but I guess he wanted to make extra sure I would be on my best behavior. As for me, my first thought was, Good, I’ve got a few things I need to get off my chest.
As I entered the exam room, I knew immediately from his benevolent gaze and friendly smile that the next 30 minutes would be no game of “God’s Gotcha!” I learned that he had fought in World War II and entered seminary immediately afterward. I’ve noticed that quite a bit of that over the years, men exposed to the horrors of war, seeking a life of serving God in order to deal with the things they’d seen and done. He was 88-years-old and in the sunset of his life, but his mind was sharp and he spoke with a calm and dignified tone, seemingly at ease with the path that he had walked and with the road that lay ahead. I remember thinking that if I have that much peace and integrity at 88–if I make it that far–then I will be able to count myself a blessed man.
Fortunately, his eyes were nearly as keen as his mind and soul. He had only mild age-related cataracts which did not require surgery and was free of macular degeneration, glaucoma and the other ocular diseases which steal into a person’s later life and rob them of their sight. I prescribed the best glasses that I could and told him to come back in a year for follow-up. He smiled when I said that, sprung from the exam chair, and as he shook my hand asked, “Do you think I’ll even be here then?”
Although it was a question that really didn’t require an answer, I smiled and replied, “Probably so.” And then he did something I didn’t necessarily expect but, deep-down in my soul where spiritual scars pull and tug, longed for nonetheless. He placed his hand on my shoulder (no Sign of the Cross, although I would have welcomed it) and said, “Be blessed. I want you to know that I’ll be praying for you forever.”
“Thank you,” I blushed, “I appreciate that.” I think I would have followed the man about anywhere at that point. But I went only so far as the door, waved goodbye, and sent him on his way.
I’ve thought about his blessing since then, and I guess at age 88, “forever” might not be all that long. But if what they say is true, that there is continuity and communion between this corporal plane and a life to come, then maybe he was right after all.