A Jesuit friend assured me that they only invite the most wise and experienced spiritual directors to serve on the 30-day retreat. I’d had some not-so-great directors on shorter retreats, so my biggest concern about completing the Spiritual Exercises was whether or not I’d have a good spiritual director. If you have to maintain sacred silence for 30 days, at the very least, I wanted someone good!
One of the first people I met at Eastern Point Retreat House was Fr. Joe Palmisano, SJ, who was assigned to be my spiritual director. I soon learned that he was only 36 years old, he had been ordained maybe 3 years, and this was only his second time directing the Spiritual Exercises. This could not possibly bode well for my retreat!
But Joey had this bright smile and a way of putting people at ease. We quickly discovered that we had many things in common. Most significantly, we shared a connection with the people of Nicaragua. Joe had traveled there on a service trip during college, and as a campus minister I had taken many students on mission to Nicaragua. We both enjoyed simple things like fresh flowers and saltwater taffy. And Joe had a brain tumor. It was an unlikely connection, but my spiritual director back home had a son, Michael, who was struggling with the same thing.
Joseph Palmisano, SJ, died last week on Christmas Day at age 41. He was first diagnosed in 2008, and when I met him in summer 2011, he was in relatively good health. I knew that his condition had worsened in recent years, and he eventually moved to the Jesuit infirmary at Campion Center, in Weston, Mass. Our last email exchange was nearly a year ago.
The past few days have been a flood of memories. I spent last night reading through my journal from the 30-day retreat, hoping to catch another glimpse of Joe. I am all at once sad, and grateful, and …. laughing! Even as I type this, I keep spontaneously spelling out the word J-O-Y instead of J-O-E.
Joey proved to be wise beyond years, compassionate, kind, an attentive listener, and very funny. I could not have asked for a better director! While I’m sure there are many people who knew Joe much better than I ever will, I am grateful for the 30 days we spent together on the shores of Eastern Point.
As I read through my journal last night, what I actually discovered is that I wrote a lot about JESUS. Encounters with Jesus in prayer, stories about Jesus in scripture, long walks with Jesus along the ocean, and encouragement from Joe to keep spending time with the Lord!
Without a doubt, Joe would insist on giving God all the credit for my experiences on retreat – and rightly so. It is God who forgives. It is God who heals. It is God who transforms our hearts and brings new life.
However, in all my years of being on retreat, I’ve learned that a good spiritual director can make all the difference in revealing God’s presence.
Joey introduced me to authors and poems and saints who I still treasure – Mario Benedetti, Edith Stein, James Alison, T.S. Eliot, a reflection from Gertrude the Great, The Complete Psalms by Pamela Greenberg, and most profoundly, the writings of Walter Ciszek, SJ and St. Claude La Colombiere.
Joey held Pedro Arrupe as his patron saint for healing, and he had a strong devotion to the Blessed Mother. In our prayer space on retreat, he had an icon of Mary, and every week he would bring her fresh flowers. He especially loved orchids. Joe presided at Mass one day – I think it was the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel – and he brought out all this gold fabric to decorate the altar. I teased him about it later and he simply said, “Only the best for Our Lady!” The year following retreat, I emailed Joe and asked for his prayers as I was leaving on another mission to trip to Nicaragua. He sent me a short note along with a photo – an icon of Mary next to an orchid plant.
There are so many conversations with Joe that I will treasure – stories that are much too personal to share or simply too difficult to put into words. I remember his patience with me when the graces of the retreat were slow to unfold. He delighted in the ways God revealed himself to each individual retreatant, especially in ways that took us both by surprise! One day, after a particularly difficult experience of reconciliation, Joey laid his hands on my head and prayed over me. It still brings me to tears.
We all need witnesses. We need mentors and guides. We need trustworthy companions to hear our stories and help us make sense of life. I am so grateful to have Joey as a witness to the tremendous work that God was doing during that time.
Joey also stuttered. I usually forget that he stuttered, because after a while I hardly noticed. It is one of those qualities I truly appreciated about him. His speech impediment had a way of drawing people in. It forced me to slow down and pay attention to the present moment. It reminded me that we are all fragile, limited, imperfect human beings in need of God’s care. And God uses all of what we have to offer – even our brokenness.
On the last day of the retreat, I asked Joe about what is real. Are these mountain top experiences (like retreat) real or simply a figment of our imagination? And how do you know that the Spiritual Exercises actually work?
He assured me that the spiritual life is real! Our experiences of God in prayer are real. Love and mercy and grace and forgiveness are real. And then he shared, quite personally (in details that I won’t reveal), of the ways he saw the graces of the Spiritual Exercises unfold in his own life.
The graces of the long retreat make us free and unafraid to be the man, the woman, the priest, the minister, the friend, the son or daughter, brother or sister whom God wants us to be. It was this heartfelt knowledge of God’s love that made Joey a friend to many and a most authentic soul in the world – even in the midst of a serious illness.
I am grateful to have met him when I did. When I count the spiritual mentors in my life – my spiritual director here in Chicago, the women in my prayer group, lay men and women with whom I have served, my best friends, and numerous priests who I have known as colleagues or confessors – Joe Palmisano will always be included in the litany of saints who have graced my life and brought me closer to God.
Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord
And let perpetual light shine upon him
May his soul and the souls of all the faithfully departed
Rest in peace.
Peace and Love,