IT IS FRIDAY EVENING and Father Pius Riffel is an exhausted man. Under his eyes he has those darkyellow patches that you often see under the eyes of television producers and other men who have long ago given up the idea of ever catching up on their sleep. Riffel is a Jesuit priest and also a doctor of psychology, a combination that immediately labels him as a double-barreled receptacle for the woes of his fellow men. And on this evening he has had enough of his fellow man. In one hour he will leave for Toronto airport to catch a flight to Halifax, where he is going to spend the weekend interviewing two candidates for the Jesuit order. In one sense it will be a working weekend, but in a larger sense he’ll be doing what all of us want to do at the end of the week — get away from it all.
Now, as he sits in his office in the psychologicalservices department of Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, waiting for his deliverance, he talks. And you get the feeling the thoughts are coming from some weary centre in the back of his mind to be articu-
lated into tired little balloons of speech that pile up around his desk and consulting couch.
Then the phone rings and Riffel is suddenly caught in the emotional matrix of a situation, the complex psychological nuances of which most psychologists like to regard from a distance.
It is a young priest who has a problem he can’t handle. The wife of one of his parishioners is threatening to commit suicide — tonight, now. Would Riffel see them and talk to the couple this evening?
Immediately, Riffel is aware of his dilemma. How tired is he, really? There is the urgency of speaking to an obviously distraught woman. If he refuses, what then will be the mechanisms of his own guilt? And because it is a fellow priest, the request assumes the subtle weight of obligation. And a priest does not gauge his giving in the normal sense of giving that goes on between human beings. He must do more; after all, he has chosen a life of spiritual generosity. But Riffel has reached the cutoff point. He realizes
“Help me, Father,
for I have sinned...”
that to see anyone else now would he an irrevocable step toward the destruction of his own emotional health.
He gets the priest to convince the couple that he will see them, but not now, on Tuesday. The married couple accept the appointment time set for them, and ►suddenly everyone relaxes. The woman is satisfied, she has made contact. This man who is more than a priest, who is also a psychotherapist, will listen to her. In her mind she has probably already begun the opening conversation. And with the hunger of the emotionally ill. she is also probably planning how she is going to get what she wants out of the therapy ¿hat will follow.
In his office, Riffel replaces the telephone on its cradle. He rubs the knuckles of his left hand across his forehead. He is not one of those hearty, backslapping six-footers who seem to dominate the Jesuit ranks. Riffel is small, almost frail, and at this moment a tired and vulnerable man. “I am not God,” he says with a wry smile, "1 cannot save
everyone, even though they seem to think 1 can.”
It is true. Of the many who stream through his tiny office, struggling to offer up the tormented and twisted images they have of themselves, most would like to see Riffel as God — to tell them what to believe and how to act. Ah ... if he would only do that. But Riffel insists on being only a mirror. And for those who come to see him he is undoubtedly the last human being to allow them a glimpse of themselves. It is Riffel they cling to. desperately searching for a reflection of their own existence as they struggle to keep from being dragged over the brink of despair that is there, at the periphery of all our lives.
And now, as Riffel searches for examples, putting together composites of human behavior so that he will not betray the traditional confidences of the priest, you can almost see the convoluted and tortured parade of souls that have passed through this office in the past week. You can hear the fragments of sentences from the thousands of words spoken
by the people who sat here in the imitation greenleather seats, uncomfortable in the sweltering summer heat. And in the silences there is the soft tapping of the typist next door, a banal counterpoint to the cloacal secrets offered up in this room.
There is the sexually promiscuous young girl, the daughter of deeply religious parents — devout in the narrow sense. Burdened with guilt, she has just finished giving all the reasons why she has tried to commit suicide, and why she still thinks she should die because anyone who feels about sex the way she does shouldn’t live.
"How do you feel about sex?” Riffel quietly asks. Hesitant, stumbling, she tells him. There is a moment's silence. "Well, join the human race,” says Riffel. “That's the way most people feel, too.”
"But you haven't listened. You don't understand.” cries the girl, as already she retreats from the idea that she is. after all. acceptable. Therapy is hardly ever that quick, that successful. And Riffel resigns himself to the knowledge ! continued on pape 44
continued on pape 44
HELP ME, FATHER continued front page 31
continued front page 31
Suddenly they see themselves naked. It is a moment of fear
that this girl is going to be coming to see him for a long time.
There is the middle-aged priest who wants Riffel to hear him wrestle with his hatred for God. And Riffel only wonders how do you get a man who has spent so many years in the priesthood to stop conceiving of God as some fearful exterior authority? The
man is not a fool; there are only opaque walls of emotion that stop him from seeing the love and hate that is within himself.
After the priest there is the nun, who at M) suddenly realizes where she is and what she is doing. Now she wants to change everything, to get out, start a new' life. But at the same time
she is paralyzed with the fear of making such a decision. And her fear is seeping so deeply into her conscious life that she cannot even decide about such trivia as what side of the corridor to walk on.
And Riffel, what help can you give the senile old man who pleads, "Father, I am fallen from a state of
grace. I did not say my prayers last night”? Not much.
There are the wives and husbands demanding that he have the imagination to share their innermost emotions, and then lashing out at him for being a celibate, for having opted out.
And there are the women, overwhelmed by having found someone who really listens, shyly offering him their love, offering an affair. And Riffel gently bringing them back to the reality of the situation.
But the atmosphere in Riffel’s room is rarely affectionate. Most of the time it is heavy with the hostility and anger that the men and women turn on him, using him, piling on him all the reasons why they’re not making it out there in the world. And behind the barrage of aggression Riffel is quietly trying to work out his own feelings of anger, which are at times provoked.
As they unburden themselves, shedding the layers of self-justification they have protectively wrapped around their emotions, there inevitably comes the point at which the person suddenly sees himself naked, sees his actions for what they really are. It is sometimes just as frightening for Riffel as it is for the one who stands naked. As it was last week when the deserted woman with three children realized and said that she hated her children, and what she really wanted to do was kill them and herself. For a few minutes the room was full of electricity and polarized emotion.
“There is nothing you can do when that happens,” says Riffel. “You only pray that you won’t read about it in the newspaper the next day. And you hope that you have given her enough that she will come back.”
The interview is over. Riffel is packing a briefcase. Outside, it is almost dark. As we leave the building, he says, “We are still only playing. The techniques we use now all take so long and the results arc debatable. And there are all those people out there, the unhappy ones, the ones we never even get to see or . . .” And he leaves the sentence hanging there, to disappear into the night and the too - short respite that awaits him. ★
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