There are critical conversations in our lives, and one of the most critical conversations in my life was with Fr. Greg Toft during my sophomore year of high school. It was late in lent, and I had not yet had confession, so I stopped by the Catholic High School’s Chapel to get my soul clear for Easter communion. I was uncomfortable going to a priest I knew well enough that as a teacher he felt it reasonable to insult me with the nick name of Dan Barrel, but it was my only option. I was not planning a life changing experience, just to fulfill my religious duty.
Located in the science wing of the school, the chapel was a repurposed lab. The storage area was converted to the chaplain’s office while the class room area could be used for celebrating mass or having other meetings. Fr. Toft welcomed me into his office.
He was, by all accounts, a decent guy and a good priest. He was a small, ginger man with a ginger beard. He drove a mid-70s BMW that his family had given to him. He had been my teacher for Ethics freshman year. His insulting me by calling me Dan Barrel had been fat shaming, sure. But, in a way it make him a person. This was NJ in the 1970s. Insults were our stock and trade, and frankly to be insulted or shamed by being insulted was a sign of weakness. It was a different time.
I don’t remember how the conversation started, but rather than the order of normal conversation, we started to talk about what constitutes a sin. We talked for a while. I explained my concerns followed mostly along the idea that actions are expressions of internal decisions and that exterior views of actions are often devoid of understanding what those decisions are. We talked about context when it comes to actually making loving decisions. We talked about the nature of love and how we express it. He listened to my philosophizing, I listened to his feedback.
Love in this case is not eros, but agape, divine love for others based on their dignity, not on desire.
In the end, he said something that sticks with me, ” It’s not so much what you do, but it’s who you are. Be who you are and you will be fine.” This was advice for me to calm my own teenage soul, but there was something universal in his advice that could be applied in a greater world.
He taught me to separate a person’s actions from their being. To be able to divorce the idiocy we all do, from someone’s intrinsic being. They are intertwined, of course, but not the same. He wasn’t telling me to ignore how I act. He was telling me instead, to act out of the best of what inside of me. He was giving me permission to be me, to allow myself to grown, and to give from that.
He was also telling me that when looking at others, to separate their petty actions from their core being. I was never one for the theology of depravity, thinking instead that we humans are created in God’s image with a divine spark in each of us. Here, in this small room while I had expected two hail marys and an our father, I got life changing insight.
I haven’t talked to him in decades. Last I heard he was married with kids, living in Hunterdon County, NJ.
Not having anything to do with this conversation, he also gave the most hilarious assessment between Protestant and Catholic view of Science. I started this short tale, after all, in a science lab used as a chapel. What he said was this: “Catholics don’t reject evolution. We learned our lesson with Galileo.”
Go in peace, to love and serve The Lord.
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