Several years ago I was doing graduate work at John Carroll University in order to maintain my teaching license. In the Fall of 2003, there were no courses being offered in my fields of literature and history that were of any interest to me, so I thought maybe I'd sign up for one in the Department of Religion, a class entitled Spirituality and Narrative. I figured that I could pass that one off as a literature course (which it was, actually) and thereby justify it to the committee that had to approve my continuing education. I asked the department secretary about the professor, but she didn't know much. "He's new; he's supposed to be good," she said.
He was out of town and sent a colleague ~ a delightful Jesuit whom I now consider a friend ~ for the first two weeks. Another teacher and I muttered to one another. "What if we don't like this H. Gray (his designation in the course catalog) person when he finally shows up? After two weeks we can't get a full refund!"
We liked him just fine. I took a second course from him, Spirituality and Autobiography. And then I started a third, on Ignatian Spirituality.
A couple of weeks into that one, I made up my mind to give the Spiritual Exercises a try. I still had no real sense of what that meant, but Howard Gray had something that I wanted, and it seemed that it had something to do with the Exercises. Today, I would say that he exudes a sense of light and joy in the utter grace of God ~ but I had no language at that time to describe what I sensed. I simply knew that I felt drawn to something unknown as conveyed by a man I barely knew.
So after class one night I went down to Howard's office to make what felt like a Big Request, one that I was sure that he would shrug off. All that travel ~ I really had no idea what he did, but I knew that he was out of town a lot. I walked in and out of the building a few times, waiting for other students to leave and trying to screw up my courage for what I was sure would be a Big Rejection.
Eventually, everyone else disappeared and I presented myself. "Father Gray," I said. He glanced up, and I took a deep breath. "Father Gray, would you help me make the Exercises?"
"Sure," he responded.
"Sure?" I said. "Sure?"
He reached for his calendar. "When do you want to get started?"
Apparently I had just committed myself to I knew not what.
Every week or so for the next several months, for almost a year, I would show up and we would talk for an hour about my experience of the course of imaginative prayer that makes up the Exercises. Or rather, I would talk, and Howard would listen, and then he would say, "Have you thought about this?" or, "Maybe you want to pay attention to that." Sometimes he would suggest a movie, or hand me a novel to read. When my life became too distracting for the daily prayer to which I had committed myself, he would say, "That's fine; you'll get it back together." When something big would happen, he would smile and offer the most understated sentence or two of encouragement.
When a person makes the Exercises, she prays through the early Biblical stories of creation and fall, and then through the redemptive life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It's an experience of intimacy with God unlike any other. It's an experience of prayer that launches people into a lifetime of deep engagement with God -- even with the completely silent God who shares in the devastation that life sometimes forces upon us.
And it's an experience that sends some people off to seminary and toward ordained ministry, which is why I'm thinking about that evening this week.
Howard has been my teacher, spiritual companion, adviser, confidante, and trusted friend for several years now. But most of all, he is the person who shared the great gift of the Exercises with me. As it turned out, all that travel he does is because much of his life involves sharing the vision and practice of Ignatian spirituality all over the world. I suppose that he would be the first to confirm that at the root of both vision and practice is the willingness to sit in quiet conversation with one other person, week after week, gently encouraging her growing relationship with Jesus Christ.
It wasn't a wedding, or a graduation, or an ordination. It was such a little moment, late on a September evening six years ago. It changed the entire course of my life.