I said goodbye to a dear friend today.
We met at daily mass a few years back. I had seen him there for many years before I had ever stumbled on any of his works or writings. Most of what he spent his time doing with his whole life would have gone way over my head anyway, so it didn’t really matter that I didn’t understand. But friendship is a funny thing. It often looks past the things everyone else gets stuck on. My friendship with Germain was like that.
I’m not sure how the most deliberate, clear-thinking, man on the planet ever wound up calling this home-schooling mother of ten children a close friend, but in fact, it’s true. The times I spent with Germain were special and treasured. Our lives were as opposite to one another as possible but we found common ground on many levels and I believe we had an understanding of the heart.
It came about in a strange way when I look back. Having decided to make better use of my summer reading a few years ago, I began researching the internet for good Catholic substance. I remember having typed in a question about Catholic marriage and finding an article that spoke to me so clearly and authoritatively that I stopped midway to find the author. It was Germain Grisez. That afternoon I poured over his website, The Way of the Lord Jesus (http://www.twotlj.org/) and felt like I had just stumbled upon a spiritual gold mine. I kept stopping to ponder that I had seen him in church every day for so long, yet had never known what was there, below the surface. By the end of the day I knew I was going to have to speak with him in person.
The next day after mass, I approached him outside of the chapel. I told him I had found his website and that I loved his work. The following day he asked me to come to his office over in Bradley Hall hidden away in a back corner. We sat and chatted that afternoon about my life, his life, and his writings. He gave me a copy of Personal Vocation and signed it for me. I knew that afternoon I had met someone important in my life. I finished the book in a few hours and wanted more.
And so our friendship began; me, asking a million questions and Germain smiling and wondering why in the world a housewife from down the road with almost no education at all was interested in what he had to say. He was patient with me and often laughed at how my questions took their own path into other areas of life. I trusted him immediately and told him if he ever needed anything I was nearby with my small army of a family to help him out. I doubted he ever would.
One afternoon, he did need me. The phone rang and he was asking for just that. He needed a ride somewhere and, as it turned out, I was not available (I almost wept knowing I was missing this opportunity to pick his brain about faith and life). My good husband offered to do the driving instead, knowing I was completely taken with Germain. So off Fred and my son John-Paul went to spend an afternoon chauffeuring. Fred and John-Paul came home having hit it off with Germain as well. Fred did better than I had by inviting him to dinner. I couldn’t quite imagine how Germain was going to manage dinner at my house with all my kids around but I left that piece to God. It’s a good thing I did, because my older boys still talk about those conversations with him around the dinner table, which felt like small sermons on how to find Gods will in your life and follow it.
When he told me he would be moving from Emmitsburg to Pennsylvania, I felt my heart sink a little. He wrote to me to ask if Fred and I would come to help him figure out his building design for his new living space in his son Paul’s house. I was crafty enough to make a deal with him. I told him Fred and I would come over and talk about building, if he would find time to talk to us about heaven. So it went that way for a few months. Fred and I sitting with him to go over his designs, and then another evening drinking limeade (he loved limeade and I’ll never drink it again without thinking of him) while sitting at his house talking about citizenship in heaven.
My own house is a chaotic, frenetic mess of energy all the time. It’s noisy, messy, piles of books and laundry baskets splattered everywhere you look. Germain’s house was ordered, and peaceful and neat. I could feel my blood pressure drop just walking through the door. By the time I would leave at night, it would be as if I’d been on a weeklong retreat. He didn’t just live an orderly life, he brought order to the life of a fallen world. His thinking was clear and his explanations clearer. If I got stuck on some troublesome question arising within the church, as seems so often to today, he’d say “Don’t worry Ellie, that’s not necessary for you to worry about, God hasn’t given you that problem to work on so you just focus on what he’s asked of you.” I would sometimes remark to Fred, “Do you realize Germain has done more with his life then several thousand men have done with their own?” What was more remarkable to me was how he did so with such a slow and deliberate approach. He knew he wasn’t great at relationships and friendships, and he knew people sometimes misunderstand him as a consequence. He also was quick to give credit to others for their contributions to his work over the years. Early on he wrote to me “You should take into account that most of what I’ve published has benefited greatly from the help of many able and good people. So the person you encounter in my writing is not the usual me—it’s someone quite a bit better than the usual me, not that I want to pretend to be better than I am, but that I want to be a better announcer of the truth of the gospel than I ever could be by myself.” This is true humility.
He was the quintessential tortoise in the tortoise and the hare story. His slow and steady progress on any work he took on, wound up becoming an avalanche of truth that benefitted the mystical body of Christ. His thinking will shape the church for years to come. Who can say that of themselves?
Perhaps my favorite memory of Germain comes though when he asked me one day to help him pack up his files in his office. He said he needed some good strong hands to do the work, and wondered if I might bring along one of my boys. My son Matthew got the honor for those days. When we arrived he showed me a wall of file cabinets. All alphabetized. He then showed me a stack of boxes and packing tape. We had to put the boxes together first then makes notes of what files were getting put in, then pack and tape them, number them, and add the address label.
After one box I knew I had to take over. The work simply wouldn’t get done without a huge effort on my part. He told me when I was taping a box that I had put the tape on wrinkled, I looked at him and said “Yes, Germain, it will all be wrinkled from now on, but you’ll have this mostly done when I leave here today and then you’ll be happy.” He sort of took a deep breath and then nodded in agreement. So Matt and I took over the work and he catalogued from his computer. That day he started calling me “his speedy friend”.
Each file I opened contained hand written letters from Bishops, Popes, Cardinals, cardinals-not-quite-yet-popes, theologians, philosophers and the most important thinking minds of this century. Germain would have both the letter, and his response included in the file along with any documentation. If you emailed him he’d print out the email before answering your question and then include his response and file it away. I wondered that day if there was anyone in the church that hadn’t written to Germain and asked his advice at some point in time. What was more striking was that he replied to each and every question with care and attention. If you asked him a question, he felt you deserved the attention of his answer and it was always thoughtful and cordial both.
At one point when he and Matt took a short break, I found myself unable to leave the room and instead stood quietly praying in front of a wall of file cabinets with the distinct feeling I had my ear pressed closely upon the heart of the living breathing church. It was all there, the history of the mystical body hidden back in some obscure corner office no one had any idea existed. It was so clearly Gods way to do this. To hide this prized jewel in obscurity. We packed 13 boxes together out of a total of 30 that eventually were sent to Notre Dame for archiving. He laughingly wrote to me later that night to let me know he realized he had really needed me that day, as after I had left it took him 3 hours to pack the next 2 boxes alone. The tortoise and the hare.
I thought of Germain’s advice not to worry about the church and how he told me it wasn’t Gods work for me to have to figure these questions out. Of course I realized that day he knew that because it was his work. It was the work God gave him to do over the course of a lifetime. He wife, Jeanette knew this too and was so humble and good that she worked tirelessly beside him until her death in 2005. He missed her desperately. He thought for the church, he worked for the church, he collaborated with other great thinkers for the church, and he fought for the church. He was so filled and focused on truth that he didn’t worry about who he might offend by it, so long as he pleased God with it.
He was afraid of no one, and spoke his mind, but he also was quick to point out even when someone has done or said something wrong, we mustn’t judge them, only their words and actions. He was full of mercy in that way. He knew that Truth was a strong enough weapon to fight anything that came at it and didn’t need any bravado.
When moving day finally came, Fred and I sat with him the night before as he drank a glass of wine and let a few tears spill out as he closed the door on a chapter of so many years of his life. He promised to keep in touch and he did. Fred and I visited him several times, the most recent this past fall in November where we went out for Japanese food locally. He was so happy and comfortable and well cared for with Paul and Linda that it never occurred to me it would be the last time I saw him alive.
May all who follow in his footsteps be as brave and bold and deliberate Germain. The world has lost a giant. Heaven has gained one.