Today, we buried one of my dearest mentors, Dr Jose Montero. His friends called him Pepe. I called him Papi. You can read his official obituary at the link above, and more about his work with Trekking for Kids, but I wanted to write today about what his life meant to me, and how blessed I am to have known him.
Pepe Montero was one of my first Spanish teachers when I returned to college. In fact he was exactly my second Spanish professor, in Advanced Conversation and Composition. You could tell from the moment you met him that he was different. See that smile in the picture? He always wore it. Always. When I was driving into work this morning I tried to remember a time when he scowled or looked unhappy in any way, and even after taking multiple classes from him and working with him for ten years, I couldn’t think of a single time. [The closest time, I'll get to in a minute.] You knew he was different, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on why. You just knew that when you were with him, even when you were struggling to discuss a difficult concept with limited vocabulary, that it would be okay, that he was still proud of you. You wanted to be with him, because he made you feel accepted. When I returned to school after several years of hard times, I had many doubts and fears, but when I was in his class, I was sure that I was supposed to be there.
Later, as we grew closer, I started to understand where that smile came from. It came from losing his mother when he was too young to remember her. It came from seeing his father executed in the street during the Spanish Civil War. It came from wandering as a child through war-ravaged Spain. It came from surviving all those things, but most importantly, it came from his faith in Jesus Christ and his conviction that he had survived for a purpose, that his mission on earth was to care for others and glorify God at all times.
As a young man he had been a Franciscan priest. As an old man he was married, the father of children, and a professor, but in everything he did he still approached it with the devotion of a Franciscan priest. I came to understand that one may leave the priesthood, but remain in vocation. He served as a lay priest until his death, and in his love for Christ he served not only his home parish, but many who had never even set foot in a Catholic church, and some who had not even heard the name of Christ. During rough times in my life, he was not only my teacher, but also my confessor and catechist, even though I am not a Catholic communicant. There was a time when I considered Catholocism as a path and his example of love and worship were an inspiration to me, but when I wrestled with the choice between my attraction to the Catholic church and the potential reaction of my family, his answer to me was simple: I would like for you to be Catholic, but don’t make this more complicated than it has to be. You only have two commands: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and then Love your neighbor like yourself. That’s everything. Of course, he never failed to tell me when a new RCIA class was starting, but then he always accepted my faith and my Christianity and never pressured me. He just loved me and accepted me as a member of the family of Christ.
In 1996 I participated in his study abroad trip to Spain. I will never forget standing in front of the wall-sized painting of The Burial of the Count of Orgaz and listening to him expound on the composition of sorrowful man below, and the Holy Family above, reaching down towards earth to welcome the Count to Heaven. At his funeral today, that’s all I could see again, the mourning congregation below, but the joyful welcome of his soul to its rest. He made the painting come alive for me in Toledo, but he brought the subject to life for me this afternoon in Atlanta.
I remember also, standing on the walls of the Alcazar of Segovia, perhaps one of the most famous castles in Europe. I love medieval history, but somehow standing in this storybook castle was not moving me. As I stood on the wall and looked out through the crenellations across the fields that surrounded the walled city, a very small, round, almost nondescript Romaneque building caught my attention. Down the hill, to the left, was a larger compound within a wall. Papi walked up beside me, the wind dislodging his wavy silver hair. I asked him what those two buildings were, and he smiled. Hija, he called me, and told me the round one was a Templar church, and the compound was the Convent of the Barefoot Carmelites, founded by San Juan de la Cruz, and his resting place. By the twinkle in his eye, I could tell that he knew he had me. My two great medieval passions, literature of chivalry and the writings of the Golden Age mystics, San Juan de la Cruz and Santa Teresa de Avila, would hold me in thrall for years to come. I still fall back on the philosophy and faith of the mystics. I slipped away from the group in Madrid two weeks later to make my own solo pilgrimage back to those sites, spending the night with the Carmelites, and spending the next ten years in a deeper study of their literature. The Interior Castle would always hold more fascination for me than any fortress of stone.
But I also remember Papi playing his guitar on the tour bus and teaching us Spanish folk songs. He sang louder after sangria. For that matter, we all did.
I remember the one time I caught him without a smile on his face: I had managed to get food poisoning in Madrid, and could not stop being sick. I stumbled down to his room in the dorms and knocked on the door, waking him from what appeared to be a very sound sleep. His hair was sticking almost straight up, and his face had those tell-tale pillow creases. He was wearing striped pajamas. I was so sick, that I couldn’t bring myself to speak Spanish in order to explain what was happening. He was so sleepy and disoriented that he couldn’t speak English and tell me what to do. So he walked over to his bedside table, and handed me a big bottle of PeptoBismol. To this day, the pink stuff makes me think of that night. To this day, I never eat paella. But I lived to tell the tale, and within a couple of days I was off and running amok in Madrid again.
I called him Papi; he called me Mi Hija Mayor, and sometimes he called me his Gordita. Please don’t call me that. For him, it was a term of endearment, and I don’t think I’d take it so well from anyone else.
What I know about ministering to the souls of college students, of mentoring their lives and not just their studies, I learned from him.
So, I wanted this post to be about what his life has meant to me, but the difficulty is that I don’t know yet what his life will have meant to me until I can look back.
And now, as I teach Spanish to the missions team at my church, preparing them to share the love and acceptance of Christ to our brothers and sisters in Mexico and Central America, I know that the time Papi spent teaching me to master the art of Spanish conversation will continue to bear fruit in generations to come in some small part through my efforts. He is still having a profound affect on my life. He will continue to have an affect on the lifes of others.
Today at his funeral, his second son spoke about how the work of his father’s hands had been passed onto the next generation, and Dr Montero’s youngest son sang to his father: I am your blood, let me run for you now that you are old and have slowed.
Papi, I was blessed to know you as a father to my heart. I was your student, guide me now as I continue your work in the live of a new generation of students now that you have been called home.
For a brief time in my life, the face and heart of Jesus were reflected in Jose Montero. I hope that through my life I can reflect the work of my Papi, and in doing so, honor all my fathers: the father who raised me, Papi who tutored me, and my Father in Heaven, who blessed me with strong Christian men to be my teachers, my guardians, and my mentors.
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