Travels with Father Walter
Father Walter and I met every Thursday. I played with the idea that it was a metaphor of the Last Supper. Father Walter surrounded out there on the Reservation by his children, the men and women, aunts and uncles, dogs and coyotes, raising the Chalice and Bread, blessing them and proclaiming the presence of the Kingdom of God.
As I drove off the exit ramp towards Mexico, Tucson came to an abrupt end. Passing the last wall, the last sign, marked the end of one world and the beginning of another. Here the desert rose into its vast spaces after being gutted and paved over with the glittering refuse. Here you felt breath coming back into your lungs and the dusty wind of long, empty horizons promised the promise that all deserts have- meeting God.
Several miles ahead, the White Dove of the Desert, San Xavier del Bac, appeared out of the morning mists that clung to the mesa and hovered over the fields along the dry bed of the Santa Cruz. The Mission's two tall bell towers and long white walls rose in a wash of yellow-grey sands and rocky outcrops. Here, seen from every horizon was the Spirit, the One Who Comes to meet Man as sacrament in the heart of the desert.
It was still early, and the morning sun was turning from a friendly warmth to the pale white heat that would soon cause all of God's creatures to search for shade. A spray of small, bright desert flowers mixed with prickly pear cactus, quivered in fragile beauty along the Mission road. As usual I was ten minutes early and as usual Father Walter was earlier, sitting on the bench outside the cloisters waiting for me.
I first met Father Walter at the old Franciscan monastery of San Solano at Topowa on the Tohono O'Odham Reservation. The Mission rested amongst the parched rock and deep silence of prayer a couple of kilometers from the Mexican border. I had arranged a contemplative retreat for our Franciscan Fraternity and we needed a Priest.
We had just finished praying the Mid-Day Office. And there he was, standing at the door. The blinding light of noon spreading through the cool shadows of the Mission's Common room, pouring in around his slight, elderly frame.
‘Hello, I'm Father Walter, is this where I am supposed to be?’ Here was one who seemed to be lost in every moment of life. Not overwhelmed, just lost.
But then seeing his eager, self-apologetic smile, you sensed a great warmth and trust, a particular humility that comes from a heart that has been staring at God. You recognized the look of the Spirit. You also knew that this was not the work of self-mastery, great insights, or even a sinless life. This was one whom the Spirit had called, chosen simply because he led a life of vulnerability that only those who dare to know themselves can know. Those who dare to love beyond their own capacities, then yield themselves over and over again to God's Grace that flickers in the darkness of their doubt and pain. He was Poor in Spirit.
We came to know him as impatiently quiet, endearingly clumsy, either beaming with a deep inner joy, which bordered on true happiness, or a distant burden of sadness that seemed to go beyond his ability to identify or understand.
His sermons were 'off pulpit', letting the words choose themselves as he wandered up and down before us; revealing a love made innocent that lived and burned in spite of himself, seeming to beg for us to understand what he was saying. When the tongue wasn’t capable of expressing the heart, he would reach out with both hands that said what words couldn’t- Just look at me. I'm only the impossible messenger. Like St. Francis.
Going to him for Confession was like discovering Christ in yourself- there is nothing that can follow that statement.
It became every Thursday at eight. I carried a stepstool in the truck so he could get into the high cab of the big Dodge Ram. We would drive until we reached San Vicente then turn into the horizon. We began breathing deeper as Route 86 dwindled into the distance on its way to Puerto Penasco, and we settled into the quiet, driving the long empty roads of the Reservation, their vast spaces opening like a womb of light and Presence.
Silence surrounds all things with an embrace of bright expectation flowing out from under mesquite and chaparral, blowing through dry arroyos, down shaded canyons and over lone mesas. It holds the soft low growl of the truck's big hemi engine, the small crackling sound of tires on the gravel, and the cry of a hunting eagle riding on the winds. We can smell the sun-hot dust on our skin.
This is when Father Walter, usually a man of few words, begins to talk- ‘there's a village about fifty miles up this track, I'd like to see how they're doing- do you mind driving up there?’ He asks in his roundabout way.
In the next hours, I would hear about every person in the village. The fathers and mothers, children, aunts and uncles, relatives in Mexico or other villages. Who had died, who had been sick (I hope she recovered), who got married, and hope he's doing better with the alcohol.
A group of five or six adobe houses, an ocotillo-rib Ramada, and a small adobe Church, suddenly appears in a horizon of broken rock, and high saguaro.
The place seemed to be completely deserted. Then a little dusty crowd of children all crying ‘Father Walter! Father Walter!’ came running out of nowhere. He embraced, shook hands, ruffled hair, and sometimes stopped, and all would fall silent as he lay hands on a bowed forehead for a short blessing. He always seemed mystified why anyone would ask for his blessing. And overwhelmed by feeling the power of Christ in his hand.
His love created a memory that was astounding. In village after village he would greet everyone by name, ask about distant family members, enquire about the outcome of a trial or a disease; ask, ‘and who is this new little one, I haven't seen you two since you were married five years ago over at Covered Wells’.
After all had re-shared their lives, joys and sorrows with Father Walter, we went up to the Church. He stood for a moment before entering, very still, as though asking his own memories to call him, for life to beckon him once more, and God to answer before opening the door. In those moments, when he was caught up in seeing what we could not, his face would change, a gaze of such love and humility that it broke your heart. Raw sorrow and Joy. Coming all too close.
It was cool and shady inside. Sister Spider and Brother Pack Rat had made the nave their own, but the altar belonged alone to God. It was there that God and The People turned wine into the Blood of Christ, sorrows into Hope, and death into Resurrection.
Proudly he pointed out to me all the repairs made over time by the villagers. The Gift Blanket woven by one of the Grandmothers, the colorful tribal band painted around the ceiling by the men, a doll with a fluffy white dress and a rosary around its neck left as a memorial. And the red lamp burning by the Tabernacle in the deepest shade of all, the dark Light of the Spirit.
Poverty has many faces and many expressions. Even we the rich and privileged acknowledge some of them. Lack of funds, lack of health care, lack of good housing, lack of nourishing food- but this is the knowledge of the poor that the rich and privileged have. It thinks of poverty only as a lack of things.
There is a deeper poverty, one you find everywhere out here in the desert where the dust devils roam and God meets Man. A poverty of identity, a life where you have no name, no longer know who you are, have lost your people, lost your future, lost your hope. So poor that only the Spirit can recognize you. Just as Jesus had to lose himself in the Father in order to become the One Who Lives. But then, we are all gifted with the Graces of those lost in the poverty of Christ as we share the altar of sacri-fice, the 'making sacred' of our lives together. But we often forget.
Over roads and tracks that led the many miles into the beauty of the desert's sacred spaces, these travels through Father Walter's past became a journey through the Beatitudes. He would talk about everyone he had known, former students, fathers, children, elders, and the work worn mothers. Some of the tragic that committed suicide, some who sat in prison, those dying of diabetes, those killed on the road by alcohol or lying in the government hospital waiting for death; those who got good employment off the Reservation and those who disappeared without a trace into the vast steely spaces of the White World. In his voice, a great sorrow and tenderness, and an edge of anger as though struggling with the Angel of God. There were also the hushed tones that revealed feelings of failure and personal responsibility; apologizing for everything he, or anyone else had ever done to create so much pain, apologizing for 'what I have done or have failed to do'. A confession that only the Cross could absolve.
Most often, we would stop first at the graves. He would take me from grave to grave and remember each one of the dead. To which family they belonged, how he knew them, how they died. He would linger silently over the all too many graves that were heartbreakingly small, the dead village children. I could have done more, he would say.
From place to place, month after month, fifty years of memories and places, tracking them all down. Driving hours without seeing another vehicle. The blinding noon sun that stunned the brain, afternoons where light slanted through the land, making long shadows of the Suargo, and reflecting like clouds of fragile diamonds in the thorns of the Jumping Chollas. Listening to the silence. Finding God again.
We pulled into a group of deserted buildings, what was left of St. John’s, an old boarding school. Father Walter had been rector here sometime before the school closed down. There was a lingering sadness flowing like a shadow through the partially demolished buildings and echoing in the landscape that now lay dying, dry and abandoned, over run by Chollas and Prickly Pear.
You could feel the tethered dreams of several hundred Tohono O'Odham young taken from their families and villages by the government and interned in boarding schools like this one to become 'Americanized'. To become good productive citizens like us. To become lost.
A lone caretaker emerging from a tangled shade of mesquite caught sight of us and came over. He had been a pupil at the school. Someone still here, wandering like a ghost among the ruins who remembered Father Walter for his love and concern as a teacher and did not judge him, did not count him among those who had brought despair.
He opened the Church for us and we prayed together for a few minutes. As we walked slowly back to the truck, he had returned to his work, carrying buckets of water for the flowers around the statue of the Virgin.
The wind began to buffet the truck as we drove up into the saddle of El Capitan Pass in the Pinal Mountains. Suddenly we crested the summit and the whole world opened up in a gasp of surprise. Vast spaces filled with light and shadow, green distances, blue mountains and golden mesas. This was surely a place of the Spirit. Ancient Indian burial sites in this high land fenced off between mining shafts and refuse dumps of the mining companies from our East. A meeting of two cultures.
We pulled to the side, sat on a rock overlooking a deep chasm, and brought out our sack lunches. The earth was so silent and unhurried that you could see the sun move. A thermos of tea took the edge off the cold wind. But yes, the wind still sang its song of land and water, cloud and sun.
Singing the song of the Singer.
As we moved farther down into the broad valley, we reached the outskirts of the Apache Reservation at San Carlos. We drove through the new government housing project to an Indian Bureau home, a modern American look-a-like. The house of a young couple that Father Walter had married several years ago. They had been waiting a child. Nothing moved in the dusty stillness. If you squinted your eyes a little, it could look like a Yuppie condo, a lot of glass and flying roof beams. But if you opened your eyes, you could see emptiness behind the long windows, peeling insolation, rusted bearing bolts, and the refuse of despair spread all around the neighborhood. They're not really such unclean or careless people, he would say apologetically, it's just that these aren't their homes. They are dreamed by someone in Washington.
We had tea with Father Gino in the parish refectory, an old frame house attached to the Church. Father Gino was a wood worker and loved everything Apache. He still had that look of inspiration and purpose in his eyes, but they were already showing signs of the fatigue that you can see on all the Brothers, Sisters, and Priests that work on the Reservations. The result of winning most of the battles but losing the war. The sign of effort beyond means leavened with Joy.
The tea was good.
The new beams in the church glowed golden in the afternoon's last light.
On the way out of San Carlos, we visited the Apache cemetery. The burials were on the rise of a low hill just outside of town. As we walked among the rows of wooden crosses, I began noticing that some names began with 'Father' or 'Brother'. Franciscans that had served here at San Carlos buried among the families of the community to which they ministered. These families now their own.
Father Walter said, when I die, I don't want to be sent back home. All these you have seen are my family and I want to be with them.
At the San Solano Mission, the sun was just rising. It broke, blazing forth from behind Baboquivari, the sacred mountain, like a fire cast on the desert floor. The dawn crept forward through the Mesquite and Palo Verdi, down across the Dance Floor, flashing suddenly golden on the Missions’ Cross. We were praying Laudes. This would be the last journey with Father Walter.
In the Mission's sanctuary, the Stations of the Cross, the Passion of Christ, followed the walls of the nave. Paintings depicting the Passion, painted many years ago by a member of the Tohono O'Odham Nation. Jesus and the crowds were all clearly Tohono O'Odham in their dress and hairstyle, whereas the hated Romans were just as clearly brutal Apache with dark hard lines on their face and blood-red headbands. In the last Station, the dead body of Christ, lying in the back of an old wagon was pulled through a black stormy darkness towards light breaking through the clouds over the mountain. Traditional enemies. Traditional suffering. All suffering.
There is something of the call of Christ, something of the pain and joy of another world, the Kingdom of God, that was right here with what's left of the old Solano Mission; one Priest and four teaching Nuns, right in the middle of it all- Blessing God throughout the world's night. Praising God at the world's dawn. Praying with the People. Dancing the Dance of Life on the Dance Floors. Meeting Life with songs of praise. Listening and longing.
Father Walter was buried with the Tohono O'Odham at the White Dove of the Desert. Just one of the many graves with thin white crosses.
So Father Walter... I just want to tell you, nothing is in vain. You and God have already lost yourselves in each other’s gazes, your former pupil the caretaker is still watering the flowers for the Virgin, and the altar of life that you sacrificed yourself upon, is still transforming the mundane and mortal into the holy and eternal. Still proclaiming that God's greatest gift is His presence. What we call Love. In all. For all.
The sun reflects off the brilliant white of the Mission as I drive back to Tucson. He was home. I hope he remembers me.
David Russell OFS San Xavier del Bac