During my time as a student at Saint Ignatius I had the privilege of being in the classroom with a number of legendary teachers across a spectrum of disciplines. To name them all would be a sort of “litany of the saints” catalogue of the giants of the classroom at Wildcat High, but even to look at the stars whose classrooms I entered as a mere freshman would reveal an incomparable list of titans: Fr. Arthur Walter, S.J. for Latin; Mr. Bill Murphy for speech; Mr. John Wirtz for physical education; Mr. Joseph Thomas for English; Mr. Tom Pasko for world history.
But the freshman year mentor who has had the most lasting effect on my theological and spiritual life was Fr. Jim Lewis, S.J.
A little more than a month ago I received an email from my friend Bob Zoller ’76 telling me that his uncle Jim was, as he so gently put it, “in declining condition.” Within a few days I received a follow-up email notifying me of the passing of Fr. James Lewis, S.J.
In offering my condolences to Bob and his family I also noted that I remember his uncle fondly as both a teacher and retreat master, as well as a man who truly loved Saint Ignatius High School. Unlike his brother, the late John Lewis ’49 (who went on to teach at St. Ignatius in the History Department), this feisty future-Jesuit attended a brand new all-boys Catholic school in Lakewood. Within two years of high school graduation Jim Lewis left the Case Institute of Technology and joined the Society of Jesus.
He taught at his brother’s Alma Mater as a scholastic and then as a priest. It was in that latter capacity, in what is now the Styles Room – the staff and faculty room on the first floor of Loyola Hall, that he taught theology, exposing wide eyed freshmen to their first experience of the Jesuit way of proceeding.
The curriculum for freshman theology in the fall of 1973 was the Old Testament. We all had our orange covered paperback copies of the St. Joseph Bible from which we read each night and which we struggled to fit into our pleather blue and gold Ignatius book bags (imagine an elongated bowling ball bag).
Fr. Lewis was at his best when bringing to life the events of the most well-known and famous Old Testament stories. Not one of the members of homeroom 1B will ever forget Fr. Lewis standing on his desk and whipping the class into a frenzy of screaming over and over again “GRUMBLE-GRUMBLE-GRUUMBLE!” as we imitated the Israelites during their Exodus journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.
It has been almost 50 years since I had that unique experience and yet I remember it as if it happened during first period today. Any students of mine, past or present, who wonder why I can be a little “animated” in my classroom demeanor can trace it back to that day, and others like it, in my freshman theology class with Fr. Jim Lewis. [And, as a side note, to be totally transparent, the histrionics of Mr. Pasko are also partly to blame.]
Yet, despite that pedagogic influence, the greatest gift that Fr. Lewis gave me was in his role as spiritual director during my first 30-week Ignatian retreat, also known as the 19th Annotation retreat. It was during his time as faculty chaplain in the 1990s, and I succumbed to the badgering that he used on all of us to get us to do what we knew we should do, but claimed not to have time for.
The most lasting effect of that experience with Fr. Lewis as my guide was the importance of knowing that God’s love truly is unconditional without being a free pass, and that we need to be able to forgive ourselves and move forward. Jesus did not say to the woman caught in adultery, “Go and next time be more careful so you don’t get caught;” nor did He say, “Go, you blew it and now your life will forever be a mess.” He said, “Go and sin no more.” Jesus loved the woman caught in adultery, but not by overlooking the adultery and not by wanting her to belittle herself over it for the rest of her life.
Fr. Lewis was a great spiritual director to myself and literally hundreds of faculty, staff, administrators, parents, benefactors and friends of Saint Ignatius. His guidance helped so many to see that they were, as Ignatius himself said, loved sinners who are precious in the eyes of the Lord. Let us pray for the repose of his soul and also ask him for guidance, especially this Lent, as we strive both to “go and sin no more” and also to be the Fr. Lewis – the voice of the loving God – in the lives of those we meet.