About halfway through The Father’s Tale, Alex Graham (the main character and father from which the book gets its name) finds himself in the wilds of north-central Russia after delays in his transcontinental railroad journey. He meets two priests, one of whom is Russian Orthodox and the other a Roman Catholic. The Roman Catholic is Father Sergius.
A snippet of a conversation they shared is below. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son we have an opportunity to meditate on the three persons in the story (the Prodigal, the other brother, and the father). We can do the same with this story. In the Prodigal, we all like to see ourselves as the benevolent and patient father, being stepped on by our loved ones yet steadfastly suffering and selflessly awaiting their return to senses and our arms. And indeed our ultimate goals is to be such a person (only with a much more authentic attitude than the one I just wrote). But in truth we are more likely the Prodigal, or even the resentful brother left behind who sees himself as faithful to the father and upset when the ungrateful welp of a prodigal returns and it greeted with open arms, a feast, and rings being put upon fingers.
I found myself thinking along those lines when I read this story. Our goal as Christians is to emulate Christ and to join ourselves to Him. But we fall short, yet strive to grow towards that goal. Falling short of Christ we would love to see ourselves as the repentant thief. But I wonder: given that state of affairs that we witness or read about on the news on a regular basis are we not a nation of unrepentant thiefs? If so, then Father Sergius paradoxically exclaims there is hope! Read the story and see if you agree.
“You see, Aleksandr, in each heart three trees grow. Life cuts them down, trims them, crafts them into crosses. Then they are lifted high on a hill—a hill like a skull. One is the cross of Jesus, the second the cross of the repentant thief, and the third the cross of the unrepentant thief.”
“In each heart?”
“Yes. We like to think that in times of trial, we will suffer like Jesus. If we are a little bit realistic, we will say to ourselves, ‘No, I am not much like him. Therefore I will be like the repentant thief, and go straight to Paradise.’ But so often when the trial arrives, we find to our dismay that in fact we are the unrepentant thief. We grow angry at our suffering; we resent and complain and make others pay for our unhappiness.”
“Yes”, Alex said morosely, nodding. “That is true.”
“This is not a cause for sadness”, the priest said with a smile and outstretched arms. “This is a great victory. To see ourselves as we are is the precondition for repentance. When we understand that we are the unrepentant thief, then and only then are the wellsprings of conversion opened to us. We can turn to Jesus hanging in agony on his cross and beg forgiveness from him. And on that day, we enter Paradise.”
(from The Father’s Tale by Michael O’Brien. Published by Ignatius Press. 2011. p. 526)