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As I write this, I am awaiting word that Msgr. James Tellthorst has died. He is in hospice care, where his long years of suffering will soon come to an end. It will be a bit of an inglorious final chapter for this man whose sweet soul, piercing questions, and gentle guidance led so many through their spiritual wilderness.
Fr. T, as we affectionately called him, was my first spiritual director. I was 15 years old and in need of some direction and spiritual grounding. He was the first person I remember facing across a table from that was solely invested in deep listening. He not only heard every word, he genuinely wanted to hear every word. I discovered without knowing I needed or wanted to how much it meant to me to be free to tell the whole story about who I was, how I came to be, and what I was hoping to become.
He could see through bullshit, pardon my French – and had no hesitation calling it out. He wanted your truth, not the fiction you wanted others to believe about you. In that way, he came to represent the incarnation of a deeply desired sacred truth: God would see me – and accept me for who I am. Fr. T came to learn it all, and always without the judgment or shame that too often accompanied the truth I hid from others when it finally became known to them.
There was also something deeply mystical about him. I learned to accept and grow comfortable with his silence. At times, he needed to ponder deeply something that was said. At first, I wanted the silence filled. But it just sat there, and so did we. I would come to love that silence – and appreciate his use of it as a pathway to a wisdom and perspicacity not easily attained without it.
As a teacher, he was brilliant and engaging. As a homilist, he was clever and funny and winsome. When as a Catholic seminarian you were obliged to attend mass every day, it would often grow monotonous hearing the same handful of priests cycle through their homilies week after week after week. The one exception was Fr. T. He was the one we all squirmed in our seats with anticipation waiting for and wanting to hear one more time.
But to a classmate, I think everyone of us would say that the time we enjoyed the most with Fr. T was when he would bring in his ragtime band and hold a concert for the whole school in the gym. He was the drummer. He would sit there with his white shirt, a red garter on the upper arm, his beret hung slightly over his brow, and bang away on the drums like a true rock star. We were all in awe of him.
My dearest friend from the seminary days spent the last few years visiting Fr. T every week. He would send us reports of his slow walk through Alzheimer’s. Some days were better than others. During COVID, when visits to the retirement home from outsiders were forbidden, Chris would go and stand outside his window and just smile at him for a few minutes while Fr. T smiled back.
We got word three days ago that Fr. T went into hospice and would not live much longer. By this time, we who knew and loved him were praying for his time in his wilderness to end. His death will come as a blessing. We who knew and loved him will certainly grieve his death, but every one of us knows his best days are yet to come.
And so, for the one who early in my maturation into adulthood gave direction to my spirit, who accepted every question I faced with aplomb, who met every doubt I carried not with a need to resolve it but with a comfort and grace upon hearing it, who helped me accept myself only after facing the full truth about who I am – I pray for your sweet soul and a gentle passage into the heavenly realm where there will be no more sorrow and suffering. Thank you for every life you touched, every tear you wiped away, every story you heard and accepted, and every spirit you directed on this, our journey Into the Mystic.
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