By Monsignor Robert K. Golombek
On Valentine’s Day, we use symbols of love like greeting cards, chocolates and flowers, but for many people, the living of love is not understood. True love is the giving of self, as I discovered from my father as a young boy.
In July 1944, Dad bought tickets for us to the Ringling Brothers circus on Broadway and Bailey, but he asked if we’d do something loving for Mom instead, who was hospitalized the night before.
My brother’s friends had laughingly encouraged him to see the bearded lady’s performance because her whiskers were fuller this summer. I felt sorry for her – showcased so insensitively in city after city, traveling by circus truck only to be mocked.
But just blocks from our quiet house I loved viewing thousands of strung circus lights, blazing day and night, leading me to the fortune teller, clowns, cotton candy and booths for throwing hoops to win stuffed dogs.
That day Dad asked my brother and me if we would give up the circus and walk several miles with him as a sacrifice to seek healing prayers for Mom from the cloistered nuns at the Dominican Monastery on Doat Street. We agreed, but we didn’t quite understand.
At breakfast, he explained: “If you love someone, you sacrifice for that person’s benefit. We’ll walk to ask the holy nuns for their round-the-clock prayers to benefit Mom during this illness. Back home tonight, we’ll say our own prayers for her and know that while we’re fast asleep, the nuns will still be praying for her.”
Buttering my raisin toast, Grandma echoed Dad’s spirit: “In this house we don’t worry; we pray.” She noticed I was worried about Mom.
That afternoon, walking past the carousel music, I recalled whirling around while sitting on the carousel horse last summer, escaping into my self-focused, make-believe world. What Dad said at breakfast enlightened me: The destination of today’s walk was to advance me from circus fantasies into the real world of caring for another person through my practice of self-sacrifice instead of a focus on myself. I began seeing how Dad defined true love.
Walking miles of windy streets and over a lengthy bridge, my feet hurt. Dad encouraged us: “We love Mom. That’s why we’re walking. If you get too tired, I’ll carry you.” Resting at a traffic signal, his words surprised us: “When you see the red light, think of love. Green means we’re onward to finish our pilgrimage for Mom.”
When we approached the monastery after our two-hour walk, peace embraced me when Dad opened the door. Unlike the fervor of several kinds of circus music mixing together amidst the dazzling lights, the serene chanting of the nuns mesmerized me in the soft glow of flickering candles.
I instantly dismissed memories of the tempting smells from circus waffles, sausages, hot dogs and cones overflowing with french fries because the pure scent of incense rose in the monastery’s sanctuary like the voices of the nuns’ praying.
We walked here to seek these prayers. As if summoned, a veiled nun appeared behind a screen, quietly asking Dad his prayer needs. Listening, she compassionately assured him the sisters would immediately and devotedly offer prayers for our sick mother.
Thanks to these prayers, we were blessed that Mom arrived home and stayed well a long while. During the rest of her life, she encountered other serious illnesses and sometimes was hospitalized for weeks, but our subsequent monastery “Love Walks,” as Dad called them, always brought home – even once on Valentine’s Day – our healthy, happy and deeply loved Mom.