Rev. Howard Gray, S.J. (1930 – 2018)

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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.

A Fallow Season

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Fallow, according to google’s dictionary: land plowed and harrowed but left unsown for a period in order to restore its fertility; from the Old English fealgian, to break up land for sowing.

Tomorrow, Sunday, it will be a month since I’ve been the pastor of a church.  The task of transitioning the congregation to a new outlook and a new permanent pastor is complete; the gifts have been given and the thank-you notes written; a loose end appears here and there, but is quickly addressed.

I’ve had a few possibilities for the future: one that turned out not to be, one from which I withdrew, a couple of which went to someone else.  Others are in process.  But on the whole, I am in a fallow season: ground plowed and harrowed, but, for the time being, devoid of seedlings.

Friends have encouraged me to relax, to think of this as a sabbatical.  If I had another call lined up, if I could say that as of May 1 I will be thus and so, here or there, I would revel in this time.  I would take a trip, be more adventurous with my time and money.  But with income and health insurance uncertain, I am staying close to home and trying to guard resources.

I wonder, every day: Wait for a church?  Put my energies into more adjunct teaching, into more writing?  Fill my time with volunteer work?  I am doing a little of each (except for new volunteer work; while I have looked into it, I am unwilling to make a commitment I may not be able to keep).  Mostly, I am trying to pay attention ~ to what I am thinking and feeling, to what people ask of me or say to me.  In Ignatian terms, I am seeking to interpret the movement of spirits, of The Spirit.  I don’t have to act in haste, to jam a request into an already overloaded day; I can respond, or not, and consider whether I am being led in one direction or another.  If someone asks a favor of me, is that all it is, or is it a portent of deeper possibility?  Do the small jobs piling up as I struggle to find motivation with no real schedule or deadlines hide more expansive possibilities?

I am a girl who likes jobs and lists and charts and achievement.  A fallow field poses a direct challenge to the core of my being.  Perhaps therein lies the point.

 

 

Prayer in the Night (Second Sunday in Lent ~ Retreat for Survivors of Suicide)

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Today in the Christian church we hear the familiar story of Nicodemus, the Jewish leader who slipped out to meet with Jesus late at night.  It’s the story which contains the famous verse, “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son, so that all who believe in him might not perish, but might have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Suicide loss is unlike other loss.  Most of us, whether people of faith or not, have been at one time or another plagued by questions about the eternal destiny of our loved ones.  Or, perhaps worse, we have heard words of condemnation aimed at those we have lost.

I thought that I would write a prayer out of an encounter imagined to be like the one between Nicodemus and Jesus.  Perhaps you have your own idea of the same event, or of one that you yourself long to experience.


A Prayer

It is so dark.

Is there a God of darkness?  Are you the God of darkness?  Or is there no one?

The dark, wrapping itself around my coat, is somehow comforting.  The endless daily reminders of loss are not visible.  The people who chatter about so much that means so little are nowhere to be found

But in the dark I am so alone.  Inside and out, darkness.  My beloved died in the dark, and so then also died a part of everyone who were touched by that brief, shining life.

Where would I go, to find someone from whom to hear that we are gathered up in love?  Would I slip out of the house sometime after midnight, try to make myself invisible under the street lights, pull on a hat as I trudged down an alley, lean against an abandoned car in a darkened parking lot?

Whom would I hope to meet?  Would there be someone there, someone to say, “Tell me your story, and I will listen?”    Would there be a person, crouched down on the blacktop behind the abandoned car, drawing with a stick in the loose gravel, and saying,  “We are all on the same side, together, the living and the dead, because we all live, and the lost and the found, because we are all found.”  Would there?  Would there be such a person?

And what about that question of belief?  What does that mean, for whom, and when?  Would there be a person to uncurl himself from the position in which he crouches in the parking lot, to twirl a battered basketball on his fingertips, and to toss it into the crooked hoop with an easy arc?  And that person, recovering the ball, would say, “It means there is a love so wide that it cannot exclude anyone, that it draws and welcomes all to itself, that none might perish. A love so deep that it embraces all, melts all resistance, and revives into glory every broken person, this side and that side of death.”

In this vast sleepless night, , is there a light that the darkness does not overcome?

**********

Image: Henry Ossawa Tanner, Study for Nicodemus Visiting Jesus

 

 

 

Overwhelmed by Choices

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I went to a carpet store today and was nearly undone.

We “need” new carpet, in the first world sense that two months ago we completed the repair and painting of a guest bedroom, and in the sense that our stairs’ carpeting has not been replaced in 35, yes, 35, years.

Can you tell that home decorating is not an activity which captivates me?  I have been a miserable customer for the various contractors who have worked on our home over the past three decades, all of them always asking me so hopefully for my input on color and design.  “Just choose something,” I tell them.  And sometimes I add, “Blue.  Or gray.  But you figure it out.”

But this afternoon I dutifully drove half-an-hour to a carpet store, worked for a bit with a quiet salesman who was not at all pushy, and came home with several samples.  Different colors, different textures, different other things I’m sure, about which I know nothing.

I was completely overwhelmed by that store and the vast number of selections it presented.

I teach, actually, discernment; Ignatian discernment, to be specific.  But none of the tools that I have used or suggested to others for major life decisions were of any help.

  • I had no gut feeling about any of the choices.
  • I do not think that I could bear to spend time making a chart of carpet pros and cons.
  • I have no feelings of consolation or desolation drawing me toward or from carpet selections.
  • I am pretty sure that, on my deathbed, I will not be considering carpet.  And I have no counsel to offer anyone else on the subject of carpeting.

I don’t mean to offend.  I know that there are people as fascinated by the variations and possibilities inherent in carpeting as I am by the same things in birds.  But I, alas,  am not one of them.  I inherited these things from my grandmother: both the disinterest in carpeting and the fascination with birds.

It did occur to me, however, on the way back from the carpet emporium, that if we were purchasing our home today, and if any of the carpet swatches I have now brought home were lying on the floors of any of the rooms in the form of actual carpets, we would say, “Good! – Don’t have to think about that!”

Lesson in discernment:  If the matter in question is not of significance to you, then choose and move on!

 

 

 

First Sunday in Lent (Retreat for Suicide Survivors)

The rhythm of the Christian calendar brings us each year to the first Sunday in the season of Lent, the Sunday on which we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert.  Before he can embark upon his ministry of healing and teaching, he is, according to the Gospel of Matthew, led into the desert and into a confrontation with the devil; into a 40-day period of hunger, silence, and temptation.

The “wilderness” in the Bible, the literal wilderness of Sinai, looks to those of us in North America more like a desert.  Rocky, barren, seeimingly devoid of life, stretching across a great landscape of emptiness broken only by peaks and valleys.  And 40 ~ in the Bible, the number 40 means a lot, or many.  Forty days for the flood from which only Noah and his family and the animals were saved.  Forty years that the Hebrew people wandered the Sinai wilderness after their escape from slavery in Egypt.  Forty days for Jesus’ purifying and preparatory time, hungry ~ and alone, but for the tempter.

The pattern of the church year invites us to revisit this desert time at the onset of Lent.  “Revist?,”  you may well ask, and add that your own desert time lasted, or continues to last, much longer than 40 days.  Perhaps you have only recently been tossed into the desert and left lying in a heap on the cold, rocky, ground.  Perhaps some time has passed and you have come to know the terrain well.  Perhaps you have encountered the angels who, finally, arrived to tend Jesus.  Perhaps you have walked out of the desert and into a new version of your life.

In any case, this season, and this Sunday, invite you to take a look around.  There is always something to observe in the desert.  If nothing else, the sun rises and the sun sets, placing  you in the midst of a much broader universe than you may be able to absorb.  But there are also flickers of movement in the desert.  The shadows separate into distinct patterns, merge into a haze, separate again, and fade.  Small mammals and reptiles make momentary forays into the light or into the darkness, seeking sustenance.  Birds occasionally soar overhead, briefly marking the stark landscape with their own pegasauran shadows.

arches

Look around.  Look around your own desert.  Look up, look down, look through.

Jesus, as far as we know, took nothing from the wilderness with him when he walked back out, into a world in which food and water and companionship were plentiful.  But he carried with him the experience of having been hungry and thirsty and utterly alone, an experience which marked him forever as a man for others.

Look around.  What will you carry with you; what do you carry with you, that marks you as a woman or man for others?

 

 

(Image: Arches National Park in Utah.)

 

 

 

 

Friday Five for Lent

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The RevGals Friday Five is, not surprisingly, focused on Lent:

1.) Are you giving up, or taking on? Some combination thereof?

I’m taking on . . . accompanying a college student through an eight-week version of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and trying to do the daily prayer and reflection alongside her.  I also pulled out my journal from my own year-long experience of the Spiritual Exercises in 2005-06, because I wanted to see what I had to say then.  I am somewhat surprised, although it all rings true.

2.) Fasting? What does that look like for you?

Fasting has never been a meaningful practice for me.  I suppose the whys and wherefores of that might be worth considering.

3.) In what way is study helpful to you this season? Are you reading, studying, journaling…?

Since I find myself without a call, I have plenty of time for reading.  This week, I am finishing up Frederick Buechner’s Telling Secrets and David Lose’s Preaching at the Crossroads, and skimming Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans.

4.) Purple. Do you find that your wardrobe is drawn to participate in the season?

Nope.  Now that I think of it, there is very littler purple in my wardrobe, although I have some great purple earrings.  And, as I look down, I see that I am wearing a fuzzy purple sweater, because I am staying inside today and it happened to be lying on a chair instead of in the laundry.  Maybe it’s an unconscious thing.

5.) How are you finding ways to take “time apart” in order to avoid getting worn thin?

I don’t have to worry much about wearing thin these days.  A year ago, I was brand new to my congregation, looking at an extra service and sermon every week, and in the process of getting really, really sick, which I ignored and thereby prolonged.  Today, I am declaring a snow day and working (or not) at whatever pace I choose on whatever projects appeal to me.

Sit in Your Cell

One of my friends is trekking across Jordan, “the other Holy Land,” this week, with a group of Episcopalian priests and writers.  Another, a chemistry professor, and contemplative practitioner and writer, is in Japan, leading a group of college students on a multi-disciplinary and multi-faith adventure.  Two more, law school classmates, are posting sunrise photos from California, location of their daughter’s wedding.  A fifth is walking the coast of Massachusetts, praying her way through a week at a retreat house located practically in the Atlantic. And yet a sixth is hiking across northern Spain, journeying along the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route.

Meanwhile, I myself am recovering from surgery, and padding from living room to kitchen and back again.  My own version of this pilgrimage week is somewhat more circumscribed that that of my friends, but there are nevertheless a few sights upon which to remark.

The skies of Jordan stretch beyond the boundaries imposed by human conflict below, but this morning shortly before 6:00 I stepped out onto the front porch for a quick look at our sky of midnight blue parted by white clouds, framed by suburban trees and power lines.  The same Creator watches over both worlds.

Japan is a country of compact artistry.  A television program a couple of hours ago featured a segment on bonsai trees, a reminder that our creativity is perhaps limited by space, but never by imagination.

The friends whose daughter got married yesterday? It does not seem so long ago that my husband and I were guests at their wedding, but it’s been 37 years!  We have not experienced wedding excitement around here, but we do have two children who live nearby and have dropped in and out for the past five days.  When my daughter was finally admitted to the post-op area after my surgery, the nurse commented, somewhat in awe, “Look at that ~ her blood pressure went right down!” Weddings . . . surgeries . . . we need our family members. 

The photos from Gloucester, Massachusetts look autumn-perfect.  But the sun has been streaming through my windows all week and the leaves outside bear a slight trace of yellow. 

And while the stories from the Camino have poured out in bits and pieces, the best ones have told of community and solidarity in the midst of challenges posed by blistered feet and lost bank cards.  We’ve known a bit of that, too, in field trips to the lake and take-out cartons of soup.

My friend who writes from Japan reminds us that in the earliest centuries of Christianity, desert Abba Moses said to one seeking counsel from him, “Go, sit in your cell, and it will teach you everything.”  She also takes note of her own long retreat in Gloucester several years ago, and wonders about spaciousness in the simplicity of that space, and in her cluttered study at home.  The same questions arise, regardless of hemisphere or locale.

My cell these day is constituted by living room and kitchen.  Clutter does pile itself up (I assure you that I have nothing to do with its proliferation), but it seems that Jordan and Japan and California and the Atlantic Ocean and Spain converge here as well, traveling through family and friendship and writing, photographs and prayer.

Church?

What comes to mind when you hear the word “Christian?”

I’m engaged in a new project with  group of friends, and one of our assignments is to pose the above question to a couple of people connected with the church and a couple not so.  This afternoon I asked it of a man who grew up in the church, with parents who ensured that he was baptized and confirmed, went to Sunday School and sang in the Children’s Choir, and were themselves deeply involved in all aspects of church life. He himself has had next to no involvement in any church for the past 25 years.

His answer? “Christians are people who get dressed up and go to church on Sunday.”

Nothing about community.  Nothing about what these people believe or care about.  Nothing about what they do outside of that building.  Nothing about Jesus.

Houston, we have a problem.

 

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