As a middle and high school teacher (my second career) fifteen years ago, I was in need of a graduate course in literature or history, which I could not find. Hmmmm . . . Spirituality and Narrative sounded interesting. “Who is this Gray professor?” I asked the department secretary. “He’s new,” she responded. “But people seem to like him.” He was out of town for our first two classes, and a friend and I wondered distractedly about missing the date for a course refund. What if we didn’t like him?
We did. In fact, I was mesmerized by the eloquent, well-read, humorous, and delightful 70-something Father Gray. I took another course in literature from him. And then a third, on Ignatian spirituality. It was early in that semester that I asked him if he would serve as my spiritual director and help me make the Spiritual Exercises – a long adventure in prayer and one-on-one conversation. I knew that my request would mean an hour of his time every week or so for months, so I was sure that he would turn me down. But I so wanted whatever it was that filled this brilliant and elfin-like man with such an infectious joy. “Oops,” I thought, when he said, “Sure,” and pulled out his calendar, “Now I have to do this!”
That “Sure” changed my life.
As it tuned out, that was a year of relative peace and lack of drama for me, a leader in my local PC(USA) congregation, a teacher in a Jewish school, and the mother of three college students. A perfect time to spend hours on a practice of prayer devised by a Catholic saint nearly 500 years earlier. A couple of months in, it occurred to me to google Howard’s name and I discovered, to my astonishment, that this gentle and unassuming man was known across the globe as one of the foremost scholars and teachers of Ignatian spirituality. Oops again. What should I do? How could I continue to take up so much of his time? Eventually I concluded that, since he didn’t seem to mind, I would press on. A few months later, I threw all caution to the wind and announced that I was going to seminary. Howard, who was not supposed to say much of anything beyond a few suggestions as I made my way through the Exercises, exclaimed, “Will you get going?!”
Months later, I finally made it to seminary in Pittsburgh, and also started a program here in Cleveland for would-be spiritual directors. Howard moved on to Georgetown, but we stayed in touch via email — I mostly complained about my courses in Greek, and he offered encouragement and witty commentary.
My darling Josh, my tall and blonde and blue-eyed and funny and brilliant son, died of suicide just before the beginning of my second year of seminary. Howard was one of the first people I emailed, and he became one of what would eventually be a group of three Jesuits who encircled me with listening hearts and occasional words and hours and hours of presence. It’s no exaggeration to say that I would not have survived those early years without Howard and his brother Jesuits, my personal lifesavers.
As I’ve written on FB, some months, maybe a couple of years, after Josh died, I was ready to give up on everything – quit seminary, quit ministry, go live in Greenland or someplace. “Well, of course you can quit,” said Howard. “Or you can keep going for what may turn out to be the most productive years of your life.” I don’t know yet whether or not he was right. But he inspired me to try.
That’s the thing about those Jesuits. They seem to be under the impression that one can do impossible things where God is concerned, and they don’t make a big deal about it. Most especially, they don’t tell you that you can’t move forward just because your life is a mess. They think that you can.
It’s been nearly 15 years since that first class with Howard, nearly ten years since Josh died, seven and one-half years since I was ordained in the PC(USA). I have a stack of emails, most of them offering counsel and encouragement after my son died, but many others filled with humor and recommendations for poetry and other reading. I often preach and teach things I learned from Howard, and I hope that when I am with people who are suffering or dying, I remember what he taught me, mostly through example, about presence.
I know that, with his death two days ago from injuries sustained in a car accident on Friday, the accolades will pour in. He held positions of enormous responsibility and influenced thousands of people. But to me, Howard Gray is that white-haired man with the gleam in his eye, the wicked sense of humor, and the capacity to be present to any experience of faith, from the highest mountaintop of exuberance to the most vast desert of desolation.
I will miss him very much.
Image: Georgetown University, 2014.