How can pastors help people of today live with a sudden or doubtful faith
Late afternoon December 9th a WhatsApp-message appeared on my phone.
I would not normally check my phone for messages on a Sunday, but that dark day I did while wrapping Christmas gifts and writing back and forth with my sister in Copenhagen about the upcoming holiday.
The message was brief: Don Fernando Nieto had died.
The 93-year old chaplain in the Chapel of Our Savior, La Capilla de El Salvador, in Úbeda, Spain had for almost ten years been one of my closest advisers and guides and it is not too much to say that I owe him my mental and spiritual sanity.
When I on Wednesday afternoon February 25th 2009, sat down on one of the benches in his sacristy behind the chapel, I had a 20-minute long vision of Christ. He was standing on a gravel road in a warm valley with olive trees wearing a blue tunic and talking to me in a language I didn’t understand.
But his gaze on me needed no words to be understood. He showed me he loved for no other reason than my existence. He did not show me I was special nor that I had to do something in particular to be loved by him. Existing was enough.
Therefore the gaze was not meant for me but for the whole of mankind.
As this happened in Don Fernando’s sacristy I felt the urge to talk to him.
I was not used to talking to priests. I was at that time what we in Denmark call a cultural Christian. I was a member of the Danish Common Church, the protestant Lutheran/Evangelical Folkekirken because I agreed with the values of the religion, not because I beheld a faith. I saw religion and faith as the same thing, as a construction made by humans in order to force ourselves to strive to be better persons and not only focus on ourselves and our materialistic needs.
I went to see Don Fernando three months after my first encounter with Jesus.
He was very reluctant to see me and had only wanted to grant me five minutes, he had said to my close friend, Andrea Pezzini, who made the appointment on my behalf.
When I met him before late mass an evening in May 2009, he was at first unfriendly, almost aggressive. But when I told him about the 20 minutes in his sacristy, his eyes changed, he smiled, took my hands, blessed me and took care of me from that day on.
Every six months I have since travelled to Úbeda and have had deep conversations with him. Actually, they were never long, and some of them were hardly about faith. Words were not always needed, but if I needed to ask, I knew he would listen to whatever was troubling me.
He was there.
For ten years he existed as a firm ground beneath my faith being the carrier of a two thousand-year -long wisdom and tradition.
When he died in December he had helped me so profoundly I did not feel lost.
I feel at home where ever I am. He helped me carry my faith in my soul, my heart and my body and made it possible to live with it where ever I – and he – will ever be.
Besides the first and later a second encounter with Jesus I had had a series of strong and strongly surprising spiritual experiences. My faith was deep and steady, but I knew nothing about how to live with such an absoluteness nor with the firm knowledge of the existence of God and his Son.
I would not have learned that without the generosity, knowledge, hard work, caring and many conversations with Don Fernando and other spiritual companions of very different kind, all of them necessary and all of them in the need for support from the Church.
If I had not been met with generosity from so many I might have suffered from the despair, mental illness and solitude, that many suffer from after having had experiences like mine or having gotten lost on the path of faith in other ways.
After having worked thoroughly with faith and spirituality as a professional for ten years, I hope I can pass on some knowledge that can be of use.