My stepfather, the man I call “Mr. Mike,” entered my life when I was six. He belonged to a deeply Catholic family and, as I came to appreciate only later, was an outstanding man of God.
Though Mr. Mike always told me he loved me, I held him at arm’s length and viewed him as demanding and abrasive. Yet it was his generosity that enabled me to attend a Catholic high school, where I made friends with other students who were enthusiastic about their faith. Drawn in by their zeal for God, I took my faith more seriously and even joined the diocesan youth ministry. I was on a spiritual high that I thought would never end.
But over and over at various retreats I attended, I heard older students recount how they had fallen away from the Lord when they went away to university. I never imagined this would happen to me.
Me, Myself, and I. As it turned out, being on my own at college was the greatest challenge I would ever face. Very quickly, my love of comfort and tendency toward self-centeredness came to the fore. Growing up as an only child, my life had always been about me and what I wanted. Now, away from the good influence of my high school friends, it became clear that getting my own way mattered more to me than seeking God’s way.
I excelled at my studies, and I never fell into the college partying scene. Still, I sought fulfillment in things that were not leading me toward God. For example, video games became an obsession. I played them alone for hours on end, striving to accomplish frivolous gaming tasks and goals that had no basis in reality. And I played into the wee hours of the morning with a group of online friends. Though school was still my priority, I had virtually no time left for prayer or for a healthy social life.
Naturally, my spiritual life was in shambles. Though I missed Mass just a few times, I was far from God and prayed only when I wanted something. I lived liked this for three years, feeling incredibly lonely throughout.
Awakening to Truth. Unhappy with where my life was going, I finally made some decisions. I stopped wasting my time playing video games. Then, without quite knowing why, I signed up for an “Awakening” retreat sponsored by the university campus chapel. First, one retreat—then another, and another: three retreats in three months!
On those weekends, I spent time in the Adoration chapel—something I had always been afraid of. What if I heard God tell me to do something I didn’t want to do? I always imagined his voice was stern and harsh, like a severe father’s or a stepdad’s. How wrong I was! In the chapel, I began to hear a calm, loving voice inviting me to open up my heart. As I did, I felt God’s love washing over me in a way I had never experienced before.
After that, I couldn’t get enough of God. I went to weekday Mass, even during summer vacation, prayed a daily Rosary and several novenas, and spent an hour in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament five or six times a week. I thought I was doing great.
Then one day, Mr. Mike asked me to do a simple task. I promised him I would but then went away on a trip and ignored his request. Rightly frustrated when he found out, my stepdad told me, “Cole, you can go to countless retreats and say a hundred Rosaries a day. None of it matters if you’re going to be centered on yourself.”
His statement confronted me with a reality I had never faced head-on: I cared mainly about myself. Yes, God had begun to work in me. Yet even in my spiritual life, I was concerned mainly with my own advancement and happiness, not the good of others. I had a long way to go.
Golf Clubs and the Cross. A few months later, while sawing grooves into a piece of wood, I made a faulty cut and ruined it. Like a child, I threw a fit. “Why am I getting so angry?” I asked Jesus as I stormed off to buy another piece. Just then, two things happened almost at the same time. First, I felt my attention turn to Jesus’ death on the cross for me. Then, right afterward, my mind flashed back to a golf outing with my stepfather when I was in high school. I had never had the temperament for the sport, and it showed every time I set foot on the course. On that particular outing, I had really lost my temper. “I’d rather see you accidentally break every club in your bag and have to replace them than see you get so angry,” Mr. Mike had said.
As these thoughts converged, I understood that my stepfather really did love me. He had always been ready to make sacrifices for my sake—those clubs, for example, were not cheap. And wanting the very best for me, he had always called me on to higher things. Then, I saw how my stepdad’s love for me reflected the sacrificial love of Jesus, who gave up his life so that we could reach the highest goal imaginable: union with God. When I made that connection, I wept.
I still have much to learn. But for now, I journey with confidence—learning from Mr. Mike how to be a man of God, learning from Jesus and the Father how to be a son.
Cole Andrew Rhodes is a recent graduate of Louisiana State University.