A rather strange experience has happened to me three or four times in my life as a priest. While I am traveling in a part of the country far away from home, I find that I need to purchase something from a store. After I get the item I am looking for and pay for it, the cashier looks at me, smiles warmly, and says “Thank you, Father.” The odd thing is, I don’t know the person, she doesn’t know me and I am not dressed as a priest.
How is this possible? Maybe the person might, by chance, recognize me, but this is unlikely being so far away from home. Perhaps, in my mind, I am so used to hearing, “Thank you, Father,” that I simply “hear it” without it actually being said. But in each of these cases, I distinctly heard the acknowledgement that I was a priest even though there was no external evidence indicating this fact. I am usually so surprised at the moment this happens that I don’t think to ask the follow-up question and simply walk out of the store in a daze.
Perhaps another answer might suffice here. The spiritual world is not that far away and certain people who are more attuned to this world can readily perceive its presence. For example, I know of many parents, particularly mothers, who know when their child is hurt, even if the child is half a world away. They perceive the pain, they pray, and then go to their child’s aid discovering that, indeed, he or she was hurting.
Similarly, I am told that people who are married often know without even asking whether another person is married. They simply know. I know of a priest who can tell, just by interacting with another person, whether he or she has had the sadness of an abortion in their past. And we also know that some of the great saints had the ability to read people’s hearts in the sacrament of confession. That if a person came to the sacrament and withheld a particularly serious sin out of embarrassment or malice, the priest would proceed to name that sin and several others. Again, there is no natural answer for all of this, other than that the spiritual world of good and evil is not far away. It is right through the thin veil called “life.”
In our interaction with others, we sometimes forget this fact. We deal with the person in front of us on merely human terms, either as friend or foe. Sadly, we rarely pause to think about what God is doing in the other person’s life — now. Most of us desire God’s blessing and take for granted that he abides within us in a particularly wonderful way called “sanctifying grace,” which we received at baptism.
But do we also acknowledge that God abides in the other person and that we are approaching a great mystery? Put another way, the gift of perception, as a spiritual charism, is often present in the other person. This should not surprise us — as Christians, we do believe in the spiritual and transcendent world! And yet, you and I are often so very surprised.
What do other people perceive in us? I am not speaking now of the mere externals of our physical appearance, but of what dwells within our souls. The very thing you and I might try to hide from ourselves and from God is possibly perceived by others. There is more at work in this world and in our lives than we realize. And, every so often, we turn the corner of life and bump into this reality. “Thank you, Father,” was what the cashier said. But how? Reflecting on all of this in my life, all I can say is, “Thank you, God.”