Wednesday, May 24, 2006
He came to school beginning of The Christ Child's sophomore year. He was a giant. A king of a man. It was the most gentle of ironies that his name was Joe Small, Father Joe Small, S. J. He was maybe 5'4".
Father Small, from St. Anthony's parish in Missoula, Montana, had a simple and disarming manner, which resulted in a dead-center connect with everyone he met. He would look in your eyes and shake your hand, his grasp and smile emanating warmth, understanding and keen humor; his sheer presence was one of unconditional love, acceptance and great humility. He was a huge Joe Cocker fan and wore his Joe Cocker t-shirts as easily as he wore his Roman collar. He ran 5 miles early each morning while saying the rosary. He was the most fit, spiritual 73-year old man I ever knew.
He was a homilist second to none; I remember clearly the time he stepped to the lectern at the chapel on a Friday mass during Lent to comment on the ubiquitous scripture regarding the unclean lepper, Zacheus. He mentioned the traditional things associated with that passage: isolation, lonliness, courage, understanding and the room was lulled, comforted by the familiar story and by his familiar insights. Then the homily took a sharp left turn, veering wildly into no man's land; the room became instantly alert with panic and anxiety on a winter afternoon itself gray and white with some kind of fear.
Says this king of a man: contrary to traditional wisdom, leprosy continues to plague, in fact, threaten contemporary society. Not only that, it is a fact that leprosy is alive and well here at school today. Right now. Lepers are all around us. You've seen them; you know who they are. They are the ones hovering in the corners of the halls and hanging back from the hubbub of activity in the cafeteria. They are in this room even as I speak. They are the ones that don't fit in so well. They are the ones with the funny jeans, the hair that's not cool, the ones without a cell phone or the ones whose bodies are too big or too small. They are the ones from the wrong neighborhood, the ones that have a hard time participating, they are the ones that nobody wants anything to do with. You've avoided them. You ignore them. Some of them you cannot stand to be around. We have our own little lepers' colony right here at school with members of our school community being treated as though they were unclean and infected.
The room was frozen in transgression and regret. I personally rued, cursed my busy life and all the missed opporuntunities to linger and be fully present with people who were integral to my childrens' lives, MY life. It was a long, suspended moment of brilliant clarity. There was not one breath of air in the room. Father was deeply in touch with his inadequacy as a human being and could paint his picture so everyone could see the pain and suffering we all experience at each other's hand. Yet-- yet, a gentle and loving man, he was patient and loved everyone, but most importantly, he loved himself. Love was what Joe Small was all about. There would be no redemption nor reconciliation with anyone in heaven or earth without love. And to save ourselves from further pain and suffering, Father Small reminded us that love must begin right here, right now, starting with yourself. And so this little man, the Giant, jumpstarted more than a few new relationships, new friendships, that cold February afternoon and ignited the sparks of courage that freed many a parent and child from the chains of isolation and loneliness. Joe Small was huge.
He repeated his grandslam on the graduation video, where he looked deeply into the camera and said:
"THIS IS THE TRUTH: you will never be free until you love, or try to love, every person you meet; and try to forgive every person that hurt you. Until that happens, you will never be free."
This is the thing with which he sent the graduates into the world. Less than two months later, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Less than five months later, he died. A king, a Giant, always much, much too big to fit in our hearts but himself with a heart so large, we all easily crowded in.
I think of him still. I remember him reading the latest letters his mother had written him at Mother's Day Mass, about getting his hair cut and keeping his room clean--and at this point, he was over 7o years old. If I can forgive my mom for silly things, really, you can cut your mom a little slack, too, he told the kids. I remember, vividly, all the mothers and children who went out arm in arm into the beautiful spring weekend that day. I also think of him in the cancer that viciously ravaged him so completely, so quickly. Somehow, he was never diminished and I think it's because he was so free. Would that I this day give those around me some of the same freedom, in love and complete understanding and forgiveness.
The 'Kan EWA