“Moments in the Breach: Meditations on Life & Ministry,” by Fr. Gary Smith, SJ. Available on Amazon.
“Moments in the Breach: Meditations on Life & Ministry,” by Fr. Gary Smith, SJ. Available on Amazon.
Near the end of “Moments in the Breach: Meditations on Life & Ministry,” Jesuit Father Gary Smith calls his new memoir “a book about my heart.” The small phrase wasn’t even the central idea of the sentence, but it offers a key to the whole project.

Father Smith, a longtime minister among those who dwell on the streets of Portland, is one of Catholicism’s best storytellers. And for him, stories have a high purpose, explaining how divinity dwells in the hurly-burly of everyday life. It’s been the center of Father Smith’s ministry and heart to develop clearer vision of divine initiatives and then act.

Below is a taste of some of the writing from Father Smith, 85, who also spent years among refugees in East Africa. The passage concerns a group of three fun-loving children who saw the tired and dejected priest walking down a road in Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya. The pint-sized faux bandits ran from behind a fence playfully.

“With their little arms whirling, and yelling in their beautiful Lingala accent, ‘Father Gary! Father Gary! Father Gary!’ they were on me. I was swamped by guileless, unaffected, howling-with-glee, let’s-go-for-his-legs love. … I fell to the ground in mock fear and terror, begging for mercy, indicating by my wailing that I would surrender at any cost. That only made them pile on more, accompanied by an avalanche of giggling, gurgling laughter. There was no stopping them, these little attackers belonging to the dreaded Confederacy of Lovers.”

Like Jesus, who recognized a reflection of divine ways in children, Father Smith carries this story with him as a sign of God’s wacky, ebullient love.

This 192-page book is packed with story after story that both amuse and then strike the reader in the solar plexus with insight about the nature of God.

The memoir doesn’t have a classic narrative arc. Though this reader at times thirsted for a more chronological autobiographical structure, Father Smith organized the 20 chapters according to themes, which in the end is a more selfless and perhaps useful format. After all, Father Smith is not trying to trumpet his personal story, but to show that many small moments add up to something great God has done. He reflects on this dynamic after telling a story about seeing fireflies on a warm evening in the Bronx.

“My life is one full of the individual fireflies of my experiences, and the totality of them, like that New York City night, reflects the presence of God, holding all together, giving meaning to the moment right in front of me. Giving meaning to the night. Giving meaning to the day.”

The book is packed with Oregon stories, including tales from homeless men seeking mercy and two Northwest Portland children selling 25-cent chances to pet rabbits. There is a fine tribute to Genny Nelson, co-founder of Sisters of the Road Café and a kindred spirit of the author.

Father Smith tells stories about his beloved Jesuit mentor, the late Father Andy Dufner, a shy wise scientist who in later years ran a rustic retreat site on the Oregon coast and was beloved by many.

Father Smith has many tales from his time in Africa, where no doubt he performed heroic ministry. But mostly he explains how the great hearts of others affected him, whether it was the bishop who came to comfort him during a bout with malaria or the man who sought mercy after informing on his friends to a brutal regime.

Some stories show how grace can be utterly savage. One night in Oakland in the 1970s, young Father Smith was mugged at gunpoint. Sitting afterward in his 1968 Volkswagen Bug, his tears falling onto the steering wheel, he pondered the near loss of his life and only then realized his mere existence is a gift worth dancing about.

Though this is not an autobiography, readers can tell that Father Smith is part Jack Kerouac, part Thomas Merton. He’s an adventurer who takes his experiences into his inner monastery and then sings poetically about them, always alert to the bigger meaning.

He started as a smart-aleck high school jock who became a priest with a knack for telling things straight, still something of a wise guy. He credits folks on the street for teaching him how to dispense with hogwash. But he also knew and was embraced by some luminaries, including Father Pedro Arrupe, the famous Jesuit superior general. It all adds up to tremendous compassion.

Father Smith’s stories about regular people resonate most and give flesh to the great Jesuit spiritual truth that God is in all things. A memorable moment occurred in San Diego when he went to take Communion to a couple. The man had no legs, could not speak, drooled and in general was not a pretty sight. Father Smith felt repelled. But when time came for Communion, the wife gently picked up her husband, hefted him to a porch swing and then looked down at him, saying, “God, I love that man.”

As with many of Father Smith’s memorable meditations, the reality of God in the world punches the reader square in the nose.