Soldier, Priest, Mentor, Teacher

“Father, I think I’m starting to doubt my faith.”

The words hung starkly in the air in the darkening office. It was early evening, and I was back on my high school campus after my freshman year of college, meeting with my former teacher and spiritual director, Father Larry Luettgen. A one-time West Point cadet and now a grizzled Jesuit, he still had a military burr haircut; however, over the years his fabled fondness for cookies had overwhelmed his soldier’s frame, resulting in an impressive girth.

He looked directly at me, took a long slow drag on his filterless Camel (yes, it was a different era), and pensively exhaled a curl of smoke that wafted toward the ceiling. I waited nervously for his response.

“Well, you damn well better question your faith. If you don’t, you’ll never grow.”

Collage 2018-11-21 13_42_02.jpg

Relief flooded my body. This man, who had started off as a grouchy caricature my first year at the school, had evolved into a figure that I deeply respected. Gruff but jovial, rumpled in appearance, super smart, always reading, always opining, he loved to talk and I loved to listen. And although he had committed his life to a particular understanding of this world and the next, he left room for me to find my own.

And, to be clear, this crisis of faith had rocked me to the core. Everything that I had been *so sure* about just a couple of years earlier was suddenly up for grabs. To his credit, Father Luettgen didn’t offer me an easy fix or try to beat me back into line with a catechism. Instead, he urged me to test those foundations and follow my path—in the same manner that he had followed his through the army and the Korean War and on a trip around the world before taking his vows as a Jesuit.

I would see him only a couple of times in the years after that—we both heartily enjoyed those visits—but his influence loomed large. And though I never found my way back to the security of my early faith (and we two would no doubt find much to disagree about these days), I think of him only with profound affection.

Last week, I was in Lafayette, deep in Louisiana Cajun country. As I approached the I-10 ramp to head home to Baton Rouge, on a sudden whim I changed direction and steered my car toward Grand Couteau, the sleepy little town a few miles north. I parked outside the rambling old Jesuit retreat house and made my way to the peaceful rows of simple white headstones that spread across the tree-framed back lawn. Time for one more visit.

On this Veteran’s Day, I lay a rose of gratitude at the resting place of this soldier, priest, teacher, and mentor who helped to save my life.