Two or three weeks ago, I learned via email that Father Walt Farrell, S.J. had moved to hospice care, and tonight I've learned, via the blog of Joe Koczera, S.J., that he died last night. Father Farrell was my director during the retreat that wasn't, the retreat that I was making when Josh died.
I had met Walt once or twice before; he had come to Cleveland to make presentations to those of us working on our certificates in spiritual direction. When I learned that he was to be my director for my week in Michigan, I was elated: seventy-plus years of Jesuit experience and wisdom at my disposal! You can read more about what that entailed in the biography at Joe's place. My story is about my two personal experiences with Walt.
My first retreat day that year was an intense one. I had spent the summer doing my CPE (clinical pastoral education, i.e. chaplaincy education) at The Cleveland Clinic, and when I went to meet with Walt for the second time, he wondered aloud why every movement in my prayer brought me back to that experience.
"Because I have been completely traumatized by my summer," I said in surprise, beginning to see my days in the MICU differently than had been possible when I was in the midst of them. All that illness; all those deaths. Walt told me to take it easy for the next twenty-four hours. Get some rest. Don't feel that you have to focus on prayer. Enjoy the grounds.
I got the message about Josh late that afternoon. I went back to the main building and told someone that it was urgent that they find Father Farrell immediately. After I told him what had happened, I said in a vague sort of way that I needed a computer, and he graciously turned his office over to me so that I could begin the terrible, terrible process of notifying people while I waited for friends to make the long drive to get me. I spent a long hour or two on the computer and phone, engaged in one complicated interaction after another, and then Walt and I stood in the hallway for another hour and talked about an astonishing array of topics and people. Shock produces some of the world's most bizarre conversations.
My friends came, I went home, and I think that I wrote him a thank-you email at some point, and that he responded. I didn't expect to encounter him again; I knew that I would never be able to return to the Manresa retreat house.
Two Christmases later I ran into Walt at a mass at the Carmelite monastery in Cleveland. I was back in seminary; I was, in fact, doing my field education in a big downtown church, which meant that I had acquired some responsibilities in public leadership. But I was still hiding out at the Carmelites' on a regular basis.
It took him a minute to place me ~ "You were with me when my son died," I said ~ and then he said, "Of course." And then, without missing a beat, "How's seminary?"
When I wrote to him a couple of weeks ago, I recalled that conversation and how wonderfully affirming it was for me. Serving in the church, I must have looked pretty functional on the outside, but it was still a struggle to get up ~ every single morning. And there wasn't an hour that passed that I didn't wonder whether I had lost my mind, in the most literal sense of the phrase, to imagine that I would ever be either a pastor or a spiritual director. Every day I expected someone else to see reason, and to tell me that no one was going to be interested in a minister whose child had died of suicide.
But the 93-year-old Father Walt Farrell didn't ask me whether I had gone back, or speak in a pitying tone of voice, or otherwise imply anything other than an expectation that I would have found my way back. He simply asked how school was going.
Such a little thing, but it meant a great deal to me.
I see from his biography that, as I knew, he was a man of wide-ranging experience and great accomplishment. But I do believe that it's in the smallest of encounters that you can really take the measure of a person. I have no major Walt Farrell speeches on which to report, no honors or recognitions to recall. Only a couple of days of encounter that helped to shape my own story ~ which is what, in the end, makes a great director of the Spiritual Exercises.
(I've stolen Joe's photograph. I think it's a beautiful one, so I hope he doesn't mind.)