The famous author and well-known spiritual teacher, Fr. Richard Rohr, wrote an endorsement for Barbara Benjamin’s engaging biography of Fr. Joseph F. Girzone, The Joshua Priest: A Biography of Faith. The endorsement noted: “It has been said that ideas do not change people, but people change people. In this book you will have two beautiful ‘people’ encounters – with a great man and with the great woman who writes about him. Be prepared to be changed, enlightened, and readied for an even greater Encounter.”
That sums up well my experience with the life and writing of Joseph Girzone, a man that I now have the joy of calling my dear friend.
Barbara Benjamin shows how faith, for Joseph Girzone, is not an intellectual state but a deep conviction, or what the writer of Hebrews calls the evidence of “things not seen.” Faith is, to use another expression, an attitude of being convinced by the person one trusts and loves. My friend Joe Girzone is convinced of Jesus and by Jesus. Guided through a life of pursuing God from childhood Joe eventually came to realize that his fear of God was rooted in not intimately knowing Jesus through faith. His journey was always taking different turns in the road, as Barbara Benjamin’s biography shows, but his destiny was clear – to know Jesus and to make him known to the world. If I had to say one thing about Joe it would be this; he knows and loves Jesus in a deeply personal and completely human way!
Barbara Benjamin writes, in the final two paragraphs of her story of The Joshua Priest:
Looking back over the Joshua years, and over a lifetime filled with so many small and wonderful miracles, Father Joe remains deeply humbled. For his faith journey has led him closer to Jesus, closer to God, and closer to his own unique ministry than he could ever have hoped for. It has led him to met people from all over the world and from all walks of life and to share with those people the new sense of Jesus that had renewed his own soul and brought him unimagined freedom and joy. And he has graced with the opportunity to see people of every nationality and religious persuasion respond to God’s universal love, respond to the healing compassion of the good shepherd and to the living spirit of Jesus among them.
Indeed, his journey with his deeply rooted, living faith had led him to Joshua and to his own spiritual rebirth as The Joshua Priest (135-36).
This was precisely how I found Father Joe to be in the flesh. He was exactly what I expected in every way. He was as non-pretentious as any spiritually-formed man I’ve ever met. He prayed with me, he shared meals with me (he is a good and healthy cook), he listened to me ramble on about this and that, he argued with me and even watched a Stanley Cup hockey game with me! We discussed Jesus, faith, politics, the church, the sacraments, Mary, visions, homosexuality, the scandal of so many priests who’ve been charged (often falsely he believes and I now do as well) with molesting children, the afterlife, the beauty of creation, the history of Albany (NY), the wonder of friendships, etc. Three days with Fr. Joe was rewarding and life-changing.
Joe lives in Altamont, New York, a small place outside of Albany. After the success of Joshua in the late 1980s Joe bought this lovely large home to be a place for him to pray, rest, write, counsel and entertain friends. I spent three days in a large, quiet room where I could see three states: New York, Vermont and Massachusetts. The spring flowers and foliage were gorgeous and the days were not too hot. We walked to the higher reaches of Joshua Mountain, drove into Albany to see sights and generally relaxed and talked a lot about the real Jesus, the one so many people (sadly) do not know. Joe gave me many of his books that I have not yet read and opened his heart and home to me as if I was a long lost brother. Each morning began with the eucharist and morning prayers. Our pace was relaxed and our conversation not prepared in any sense. We just “hung out.” For a man who was told thirty years ago he might not live another six months Joe is fit and energetic at age 81. He also maintains an active life through the Internet, the telephone and the guests he sees around his home. Several times a month he conducts evening times for teaching and people come to Joshua Mountain from around the area. It is all simple and straightforward. No pretense and no barriers. Joe is one of the freest and most genuinely joyful souls I’ve ever gotten to know.
After conversation for several days I determined that Joe clearly is a Christian mystic. He understands contemplation, practices it and does not get distressed over the things that bother so many people. He walks and talks with Jesus who is closer to him that the world itself. What does distress his soul very deeply is to see people, especially poor and weak people, being treated unjustly by other people and by social systems like government and the church. He feels the pain of the oppressed deeply but lives with joy, the very same spiritual paradox I see in the life of Jesus.