A modern day sage. I met him. Years ago. He became my spiritual director. Tony was in his mid 70’s. Roman Catholic, Egyptian (raised in parochial schools in Egypt), no formal education, but decades of volunteering in prisons and jails and half-way houses, helping teenagers recover from lives of violence and addiction.

I once asked him why he had given his life to helping addicts. He told me this story.

Decades earlier he had had a troubled marriage. His wife was about to leave him. They agreed to visit a Roman Catholic retreat center in the Arizona desert. Most of the center was conducted in silence, except for the time for prayers, and 12 step meetings. After a few months, Tony says, he “found” himself; he came in direct contact with his narcissism.

He didn’t do drugs. He didn’t gamble. No alcohol.

He says his addiction was himself.

Tony and his wife decided that keeping their marriage together was primary. But they knew they had to take some bold steps. They returned to Southern California, in order to sell all their possessions. Their plan was to move back to the desert, and work in the treatment center. Their friends and family raged, telling them that saving their marriage didn’t require such radical steps.

Tony says he knew the depth of his selfishness (his workaholism and materialism) could only be broken with this kind of commitment. His wife agreed 100%. For years, together they worked, Tony as janitor, his wife as cook and maid. Silent for most of the days, for three years, they would listen to the stories coming from the other addicts. As he said, “we would work, we would sleep, and we would pray and listen.”

He describes the experience as one that stripped him of his love and need of everything, except God, health, and his wife.

They fell in love.

Eventually, they rented a small apartment back home. People felt their transformation. People stated calling for advice. He’d meet them, but would provide no counseling, just listening to broken people. Eventually, that led to invitations to help in jails and prisons.

When I met with Tony, I would often ask him about love. Love was the topic he spoke about most. He was a man of love. In his French-Egyptian accent, with a kind of gently intense passion that I can’t describe, he would say, “Love…it’s the greatest mystery… Anyone who tells to tell you what love is is crazy… How can you describe love?… Except let me say this. Passion is suffering… Where there is passion, there is always suffering… The greater the passion, the greater the suffering.”

Passion is suffering. That proposition goes against almost everything we see and hear today in music and movies.

Is passion suffering?