Sunday, February 4, 2018

Germain

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. 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Heavenly helpers

     My Uncle Dave, my Moms brother and a Catholic priest, was an emormous influence on my life. Many a week did I spend reading through books he would have nonchalantly left on a counter for 'anyone interested' while I was growing up. They were mostly spiritual classics and lives of the saints. In grammar school we moved into the same parish he was stationed and each Saturday he led my girlfriends and me in devotion to the rosary through the sodality he ran. In High School he was the chaplain at Sacred Heart Academy, my philosphy teacher, and he also took me to Lourdes and Paris. a few years later, just after my dad had died, he took me on a trip to Medjugorje where I met my Freddy. To say he was formative in my life is putting it mildly.

     Story has it that he was born into the first Little Flower parish in Brooklyn, NY soon after St. Therese was canonized. When my grandmother Ellen Graham Farley gave birth, the nuns told her he would have a vocation to the priesthood. My grandmother had great devotion to St Therese all through her life, as did my own mom. My grandmother prayed for my uncles vocation particularly to the Little Flower.  If ever my mom was particulalry worried about something, she would pray to the Little Flower, St Therese,  and she'd sometimes take out an envelope and give it to you to place under your pillow during the novena prayers. Inside the envelope were the petals of a rose that my grandmother had recieved after praying a novena to St Therese in answer to prayer for my Uncles vocation.

     As a child I was fascinated by that envelope, though I only saw it a few times, as it was precious to my Mom. I can still see the beautiful handwriting belonging to my grandmother in my minds eye, and I can feel the temptation to open it and look at the flowers that were sent as a heavenly sign. I do not know where that envelope went after my Mom passed away, but I hope one of my siblings has it.  St Therese has remained a favorite saint for all of my siblings and for me as well. My sisters all have her name in one form or another either at birth, or in conformation. She's a reliable  family go-to. A regular in all our family litanies. Saints are like that sometimes, they choose you long before you choose them.

     My John-Paul headed off to the minor seminary today. He is many years away from making a decision to the priesthood, but one large step closer than he was yesterday. This isn't a huge surprise for anyone who knows JP. We've had inklings of it since he was about seven. John-Paul was the last child in our family that my Uncle Dave baptized. John-Pauls middle name is David in his honor. My Mom  and my uncle were both thrilled when they found we chose John-Paul as his name, though Fred and I argued about it. My obstinate Fred said the Pope was  already a saint, and I argued he wasn't official yet and that a child should be named after a canonized saint. Fred said our JP would just have to wait. I finally gave in.


      My Uncle Dave died on Divine Mercy Sunday when my John-Paul was just a baby. Pope John-Paul II died on Divine Mercy Sunday 2005 when my John-Paul was almost 8. Its been my opinion my son was named after two saints not one.John-Paul happily celebrated when Pope John-Paul was canonized in 2014 after hearing his own name story for so many years.

     I am meandering through this strange tale because I think its important to remember how often our faith has been first entrusted to us by our families. Those who love and go before us so often shape who we are, and how we come to know a loving God and Father. God sows seeds and if we watch, and watch closely, sometimes we see them sprout up. God finds ways to speak to us if we have the ears to hear (Matthew 11:15).

     Today I couldn't help but listen. John-Paul spent the summer working on his application. I have never seen so much paperwork in my life. No need to worry about the current screening process, its tighter than a jar of peanut butter at a squirrels convention. It was a long process and exhausting at times. Then, finally, one day about 3 weeks ago- acceptance.

     We had spent so much time on the paperwork, that when he finally was accepted I gulped hard and realized he'd be gone in a few weeks.  I asked him when he was entering, he told me August 20th. I gulped harder, my Moms birthday.

     So, this morning I woke up, on what would have been my moms 90th birthday, and I told her in my prayers that today I supposed I had a chance to give her one last birthday gift, my John-Paul. I pushed back the tears for the sake of the younger kids, and helped JP pack his bags into his car. Then we all drove to DC and unpacked him, and met fellow seminarians, and  formators and priests, and ate some cookies and prayed Vespers before hugging our third son goodbye.
  
     If I'm unable to do a good Irish goodbye, I at least opt for a quick one, and today was no different. We were off as quickly as possible. The kids cried and we talked them through it, and reminded them he wasn't going so far like Peter, but would come back soon and visit. I texted my sisters from the car, and they all, so faithfully, cried along with me. As we drove Fred said we should do something cheery to lift thekids  up a bit and so we stopped for dinner at a Chinese place they all love.

     When we stepped from the car and I was confronted with an entire hedgerow of pink and red roses. It almost knocked me over. Sophie ran over to look at all the roses with her sisters.  I felt as though St. Therese had never made herself so clear to me in all my life. And so on our way out of the restaurant, when we were all in better spirits, I asked Fred to pick me three roses. When I got home tonight, I cut the petals from the roses and I placed them in an envelope and wrote in my best handwriting "In answer to prayer from the Little Flower", and I sealed it. Tonight, I will place it under my pillow, tomorrow I will put it away for safeguarding with memories that mark this day as a blessed one.

Friday, June 16, 2017

On grandmothering

     


  This is Philip. He is my first grandson. He was born 2 days ago, and I had the privlege of being there to witness his entrance into the world.  Of course you all know what people say about being at the birth of a child.
Its a miracle
unforgettable
lifechanging
spectacular
         This is all true, but Philips birth was not the most memorable part of the day for me. Somewhere shortly after he was born and the doctors and nurses were able to determine that all was well, they left the room. It was semi-dark and quiet. No more monitors beeping or electronic sounds buzzing. Philip was crying and his very new parents were introducing themselves to him. I sat back intentionally silent, and tried to keep myself still and as invisible as possible, moving only to capture a photo now and again. Their voices were sweet and full of emotion as they said his name to him and whispered words of love and calm into his tiny new flesh. They answered  him in sing-songy voices and gentle touches and breaths as he called to them in that primal language of cries.

        I have done this with my husband ten times now. I have heard Freds voice rise and fall to the new face of a son or daughter. I have whispered I love yous over and over to fresh ears. But I never realized that it was in those moments that a family was born. It comes after the birth, and before the utter exhaustion of newborn life. It comes in a promise we make to these tiny fragile little creatures who depend on us for every single thing.

       I saw this on Wednesday with fresh eyes in my own son and his bride. It was so striking. I felt as if my soul was lifted along with them as I witnessed the love shared between them and Philip. Andrews eyes filled with tears of joy and Rachels closed as she kissed his newborn forehead over and over. They drank him in and nestled him close to their hearts. I was keenly aware of how powerful the love they now held for him actually was. The words of Song of Songs came to my mind:

                                               For love is as strong as death
                             its jealousy unyielding like the grave
                                  It burns like a blazing fire
                                      Like a mighty flame
                             Many waters cannot quench love
                                 rivers cannot sweep it away
                                     ( Song of Songs 8:6-7) 

           I witnessed the birth of a family. The flicker of this powerful force as its tiny embers were being blown on and kindled in the sweet voices that now shelter it. I had hoped to be a help to Rachel as she labored and delievered her first son. Instead, she and Andrew were a help to me. They allowed me to see  the past from a new perspective; conjuring the births of my own children and those precious first moments I have shared with my husband. I found an incredible gratitude in my heart in seeing this new generation begin again that tireless work of being a christian family. They will take the flame and pass the faith. The faith we sheltered in our hearts for them in those first moments of their lives is now shaping itself into a new hope for the age that they are called to.



       I am a very new grandmother. But this new role seems to be  filled with  promise.






Saturday, December 31, 2016

Praying big

I love Advent. I am not very good at Advent ( I'm much better at Christmas), but I do love Advent. The idea of awaiting our redeemer, which most days I simply take for granted, stays fresh in my mind. As a Catholic mom, I try to find ways to instill the faith in my kids, and so liturgical seasons give form to my hopes for them. Of course, most of what I realize in trying to mold my own children is how hard my own heart is, and how much interior work there is still to be done. I am by nature, an optomist, and even while knowing my weaknesses, I am able to look forward to what I might one day become.

This Advent was special. The kids I teach at our cooperative and  the kids in our homeschool group, helped me make blessing bags for the poor. We made alot of bags. I took some to the Silence of Mary Home in Harrisburg, and a couple of weeks ago, as Advent was winding down, Fred and I went to drop some off at the Frederick Rescue Mission. It was closed, and not wanting to forget to return, we looked for someone nearby in need. 

In minutes we found a homeless couple. We passed on some blessing bags and they were grateful. We also started talking to them. They mentioned they could no longer stay at the abandoned building they had been at and were getting a ride out of town that afternoon. We got in the car and the plan was to go shopping but mostly for the rest of the afternoon, we just spoke about Joe and Jen. We wondered how they got there. We shook our heads at how to fix it. We lamented there wasn't more to do. We wanted to do more, to make a difference. 

I thought of them the following day, but they slowly left my thoughts as the afternoon wore on and the responsilities piled up. Wrapping. shopping. cooking. baking. Christmas was near. At 1pm we headed to confession and mass before Christmas. Afterwards we headed to McDonalds. 

And there they were. 

Right in my town, Joe and Jen. We stopped the car, we talked some more. We introduce the kids. They thanked them for the blessing bags as the childrens eyes grew wide.  They had just arrived. They were living in the woods in a tent. We bought them lunch, we asked if they needed anything, we took a small list of supplies. It felt like God was speaking to us, but neither of us could really understand the words. We both know we cannot solve poverty, but we also equally know we are our brothers keeper. Not knowing how to fix this we just tried to do what we could that day. And the next. 

As the week wore on we got to know them better. They do not seem to be involved in drugs or alcohol. They just seemed really simple, and unintelligent, possibly mentally ill, but not cetainly. I waited for them to try to take advantage of me. It was Advent and I was ripe for being put upon, but no such luck happened. The requests were profoundly simple: water, ramen noodles, a blanket, batteries. After a few days I secretly prayed they would ask for something more to both assuage my guilt for having so much more, and also to do some actual good for them. It was not to be. I have so much. I have been so blessed. I have resources and a community of people I am surrounded by. I can get things done. Despite my most sincere tries, I could not make this better. 

By a weeks end, I asked my friends for advice- what else could we do? I had been calling shelters and soup kitchens and getting nowhere. My friends offered new leads,thoughtful prayers, real tangible help, and solid advice. We made a supreme effort to reunite them with family, but despite our best efforts,  it never happened. On Christmas day I got another ordinary text from Jen : 

"Merry Christmas. Could you bring us 3 gallons of water, creamer,  salt and pepper, and some chocolate snacks?"

I closed the oven door where my Christmas dinner was cooking and asked Fred to drive me to Sheetz, the only open store on Christmas day. We picked up the water and creamer along with the salt and pepper, then scoured the aisles for chocolate snacks. Kit Kats, M&M's, Hersheys. It all felt so small and we felt like such failures. As we were leaving Jen and Joe that day she asked "Hey, do you want to hug me?" and I said yes and we did. 

Over the course of two weeks I asked God what I was supposed to do about this couple, what did he want of me, how could I be of help. No answer came. No heartwarming results and Christmas miracles were accomplished. Joe and Jen seem to prefer to live in the woods, away from people and no matter how much good we want for them, we cannot make them do what we wish. 

2 days ago the real answer from God came. I realized God didn't want me to do anything more than I had done. But he did want me to know what his own heart feels like. All those days I had been recieving those lists and texts I had such power and ability to assist Joe and Jen. They could have asked me for so much and I would have moved mountains to try to help them, but they didn't want mountains moved. They couldn't see what was and is in their best interest. They don't want help or to change. They are content to live this way. When I cautioned them about how bad things could get, they laughed it off and said they'd been through worse. I believed them and felt such pity and heartbreak. They were grateful, but they oddly never tried to get to know us any better, even as we tried to get to know them.   

When I was in a "godly" position my heart was intent on helping them and I was waiting for any real opening to help to move these simple souls in a better direction. I kept my phone nearby in case the weather changed or a need came up. I was so attentive. I simply ached to do good for them. 

Then, I thought of what my own prayers must sound like to God. What do I really ask my father for? When he looks at me, He too sees a simple soul wandering this earth, homeless and living in a dangerous world. He desires for me to be safe and warm and sheltered. He would move  mountains for me, even move me into his own house if I wanted to, to assure my eternal safety. He would give me anything I asked for that was good for me. 

Instead I  too ask for water and chocolate snacks. 

I wonder how disappointing my prayers must seem to a father who is so generous. I often think, probably as Joe and Jen did, that I don't want to wear out my welcome with a God who has forgiven me so much, and blessed me so much, but I saw that its just not true. I have only misunderstood Gods hospitality, his generosity, and his genuine devotion to my real needs. He wouldn't tire of bringing me water and salt and pepper, or even the extravagant 'chocolate snack', but I know he must wish that I would ask for more. Especially if  he felt it could move me closer to Him and into his safe  heart. 

 I'm sure he would like me to pray bigger. 

I don't mean bigger as in more water and  chocolate snacks, I mean bigger as in I need to start asking for the most important things from him, like peace, and forgiveness, and eternal life. I need to trust him enough to bring him a list that says things like :

I'd like my kids to always keep their faith,

 I'd like to see more souls converted to you Jesus.

I'd like to be able to let go of my pettiness and fears.

I'd like you to cure my friends cancer.

I'd like to  help end homelessness.

I'd like you to fix a failing marriage.

I'd like peace in war torn areas.

I'd like you to bless a childless couple with a baby.

Mostly,  I'd like to know you better Jesus, I'd like to want to know you better,and if its really not too much,  I'd like to  sit with you for eternity and listen the sound of your heart.

I need to  trust He is happy to give those things to me if and when  I stop standing in my own way. The next time my conscience tells me I am getting myself into trouble I have to remember not to boast  to Him that I've been in worse trouble before, as if that somehow minimizes what is currently wrong in my life.  

2016 is coming to a close and 2017 is moments away, I have learned so many things this year both good and bad. Perhaps the very best thing I have learned is to not be afraid to pray big.

Friends, remind me of that as the year wears on... would you?

Have a blessed New Year.