My neighbor has a rock-rimmed pond
At the front of his house
And a frog of some
Unnatural material stands tall
Verdigris on the bank
Though evenings tiny flesh frogs honk there.
This tall tin toad is the only skyscraper we
Know in this neighborhood and makes us kin with
beaches in Florida that are spiked with new vertical
hotels and cheap fastfooderies that
squat the marshes and keep the shifting
sands out of sight.
It’s kin to the breast implant that sometimes walks
Past our house and the garish
Signage on the road between Albuquerque
And Santa Fe and the golf course
Where a Hopi kiva and condos were
A patch of wilderness recently. . .
Note: Occasionally on this blog and elsewhere I’d like to continue the work I did in A Blue Fire and expand on, teach and, I hope, elucidate some of James Hillman’s teachings. His genius is so precious, I want to do what I can to keep it present for us.
“An axiom of depth psychology asserts that what is not admitted into awareness irrupts in ungainly obsessive, literalistic ways, affecting consciousness with precisely the qualities it strives to exclude. Personifying not allowed as a metaphorical vision returns in concrete form: we seize upon people, we cling to other persons.” Re-Visioning Psychology, p. 46.
James Hillman always spoke of the Greek gods as if they were present, not literal but real. Years ago I read Karl Kerenyi’s idea that religion begins in the atmosphere of a place or situation. I thought of Artemis, a spirit I feel strongly in play in my life, and I imagined feeling her presence as she is depicted in classical poetry, as the atmosphere you sense when you are in a pristine forest, far from civilization. I can imagine that same “atmosphere” within myself, some place so pristine and uncontaminated that is has the qualities associated with Artemis. So I can speak of Artemis in me and in the world without being naive or simplistic.
An image for Hillman is not an intellectual abstraction but a presence, again, one that is real but not literal. The Mona Lisa, Hamlet, and Sherlock Holmes have become so real in some people’s imagination that they relate to the figures as real presences, though they know they are fictions. Seeing the astrological conditions of an ordinary day may be another way of taking certain images seriously without turning them into abstract ideas or confusing them with actual persons.
My daughter recently made an oil painting from a photograph of her when she was ten years old. She’s now twenty-one. This painting, made alive by the oil is an image of my daughter, a memory that is a kind of imagining, rather than a literal representation. The painting has striking vitality not because it shows her as she was but as it makes our memories of her vivid and present.
I live near Boston, where the tragic bombing at the Boston Marathon took place not two weeks ago. Understandably, many were immediately ready to prosecute or kill those responsible. Some felt that if the two young men were put away, one way or another, people would be safe—again, personalizing a situation that is far more complex. In this case, by personalizing we free ourselves of responsibility or involvement in the conditions that gave rise to the atrocity. If we reflected differently, we might realize that we have not yet responded to the world situation where we are implicated in injustices and biases that play a role in the rise of violence. As a friend of our family said right after the bombing, “I am responsible.”
In former times religion has given us images and stories that have kept imagination alive, but now that society has become so secular, it has also become even more personalistic. We don’t take art seriously enough to allow its images to affect our way of being in the world. Imagination is failing, and with its weakening come increased literalism and personalism.
A month or so before he died I was deep in conversation with James Hillman, when he stopped in the middle of a sentence and looked at me and said, “I wish I had time to give one more talk on images. I’d present them even more radically than I have in the past. We have to face an image, giving up entirely the need to explain and interpret it.”
In my therapy practice I have become more aware in recent years of the integrity of a dream image. I see how the dream can heal, far more effectively than my rational intelligence. I have to help give the dream image a presence, to let it speak and reveal its fullness. I have to get out of the way and let the image shine. I don’t have to understand it. I can offer insights and even passing interpretations without reducing it to an idea. I can keep it alive and resist killing it, like an animal, for its meat. I can hear it, see it, feel it and even obey it.
If I don’t treat the images of dream and the stories of life as powerful and serious fictions, therapy itself becomes personalistic. I get involved in my own pet ideas and agendas, and I try to influence the person I’m trying to help rather than care for the soul. Therapy becomes life management based on personal prejudices or on the wishes of the client.
And so, it’s important to read fiction and poetry and drama; to contemplate paintings and movies; to listen closely to music and to make interesting photographs—all to keep imagination alive, to serve what Hillman calls “the metaphorical persons,” the gods and characters and personalities of fiction, because fiction is more important than we could ever imagine. Wallace Stevens wrote: “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else.”
I grew up in such a deeply positive and devout Catholic family that the Christian feeling for life will probably never leave me. But I have changed. I have been strongly affected by my own new book A Religion of One’s Own, where I speak of the “conviviality of traditions.” We are living in a new era, when exclusive attention to a single spiritual tradition is not necessary for most of us. In that spirit, I see Easter as a celebration for everyone. It’s an essential and profound piece in the theological imagination of Jesus, but it is also a deep-seated mystery for us all. We all die our small deaths as life makes its demands, and we can all resurrect again and again.
A few years ago I translated the four New Testament Gospels from Greek, paying close attention to each word, looking especially for nuances and histories that may have been overlooked in the past or ignored because of certain agendas of the translators. I noticed that one word used for Jesus’ resurrection is the same word used for times when he tells a sick person to “get up” and walk, the same word that means “wake up,” not from death or literal sleep, but from general unconsciousness, from a sleepy point of view.
All these thoughts are with me today as we remember this mystery in the human experience, the unfathomable mystery of waking up from “sleep” and “getting up” from our sickness of soul and taking on life with fresh spirit and imagination.
On Good Friday I listened, as I always do, to John Eliot Gardiner’s sublime version of J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The music and words take me to places I would never discover on my own. I tried to find online an inspiring or at least beautiful Good Friday service, but all I heard was the empty, tired language of an exhausted clergy not able to perceive the vast depth of the mystery before them. If our world is to wake up, our churches should start by giving good example, finding radical renewal for themselves.
One penetrating interpretation of “resurrection” that always inspires me but might be a bit too intellectual for most is the chapter on resurrection in Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body. Here is a short selection:
“Language is always an old testament, to be made new; rules, to be broken; dead metaphor, to be made alive; literal meaning, to be made symbolical; oldness of letter to be made new by the spirit. The creator spirit stands in the grave, in the midden heap, the dunghill of culture (as in Finnegans Wake); breaking the seal of familiarity; breaking the cake of custom; rolling the stone from the sepulcher; giving the dead metaphor new life.”
The context for this passage is a meditation on how our world comes to life when we can perceive its metaphorical depth and multi-layered meanings. To think poetically, not to take anything literally, to see past conventional meaning. The very significance of our lives and the world in which we live resurrects when we bring imagination to it all.
This means that every moment of every day is can be an instance of the mystery we celebrate on Easter. It is no small thing, because it prepares us for the ultimate transformation we all have to achieve as we face our mortality and wonder about life and death.
Just a few days ago I submitted the raw manuscript for my new book A Religion of One’s Own. Usually I take a year to write a book and six months to get it ready for publication. This time I gave myself only six months for the writing. I was full of ideas, probably because this book flows immediately and naturally from my experience, from the arc of my own life. I started out as a child in a devout Catholic family, spent thirteen years in a religious order while studying for the priesthood, left the order and got a Ph.D. in Religious Studies, and have been living what I think of as a religious, intensely spiritual life with no association to a particular church or tradition.
I wrote this book for people who are finished, as I was, with the familiar organized religions but still want a religious life of some kind. I’ve never wanted to leave behind the monasticism of my early years. I found it fulfilling in almost every way. I love its particular kind of spirituality and its aesthetics. So I bring a monastic style to my everyday life.
My ideal is to saturate my secular living with the lessons and qualities I have learned from my Catholicism and my study of the world’s spiritual traditions. I also want to saturate my spirituality, my own personal religion, with the secular lifestyle that I love so much. My ideal is a spiritual secular life or a secular spiritual life. I like situations where you can’t separate the two.
For instance, as a writer I focus on spiritual matters, draw from the many religious traditions, aim at making a contribution to the world and keep my ethical standards high. Is my life as a writer secular or spiritual? I hope it’s difficult to say.
Some would find it difficult to call me a Catholic. Yet my own feeling is that with all the deep changes in my thinking and way of life my Catholicism has only deepened. Now it has become absorbed into my secular living, so it’s difficult or impossible to see. I suppose you could say that I am not connected to the official Church these days but live the spirit of Catholicism that became so much a part of me in my childhood and youth. One day I’d like to write a book for Catholics on how to be a new kind of Catholic, a deep Catholic, in these times. A few years ago I floated the idea of a book called Zen Catholic, but it got nowhere in the publishing world.
My new book is for those who have left formal religion but want the deep experience of religion and for those who are still members of a church or other religious community and want to deepen their experience. Whether you are a church member, a seeker, or an atheist or agnostic, you can still nurture a religion of your own. I don’t mean a self-centered, introspective religion, but one that you have made your own through your own values, tastes and understanding.
People often ask me: What about community? Isn’t that necessary? My own feeling is that we can now shed the idea of a literal group of people professing the same beliefs and instead link up with people searching for their own way. We could also see community as the entire world of beings on our planet and beyond who make up our new community. Religion without borders. In the book I consider the issue of community in this way.
The publishing process is still slow today, and the new book won’t be out for several months. Soon I’ll have a separate website for it, and I hope you engage me there with your observations and questions.
Like most games, golf is easy to ridicule. Grown people chasing a tiny white ball. But basketball involves even taller people trying to toss a ball through a hoop, and in football grown people smash into each other trying to get a ball close enough to a couple of tall sticks to get a few points. Sports and games are ridiculously simple, and yet they elicit passion, emotion, allegiance, hope, faith and often despair. Why? Because they are pure symbol, metaphor and even myth.
I took up golf about seven years ago, when I had some heart problems and was looking for ways to get exercise that I might enjoy. I took to the game immediately. I mean I enjoyed it, but I don’t play terribly well. I like being out in the sun and wind, in the midst of nature—we have two courses near my home that are not over-groomed and full of wilderness and cultivated natural beauty.
For many years I’ve been interested in game and play as important aspects of human life and culture and cousins to religion, my field of study. I’ve read many good authors on these themes, including Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga, about the play element in culture; Peter Berger and D. W. Winnicott on play in ordinary life; and my graduate advisor David L. Miller’s book, Gods and Games. My friend Lynda Sexson wrote one of the best books I know about religion and culture, Ordinarily Sacred, in which she shows how play functions in religion.
Games have much in common with religion: seasons, defined time periods, rituals, physical boundaries, rubrics. For example, golf has strict rules or rubrics, clear in-bounds geography, prescribed tools and language, an etiquette of its own, a list of heroes, a colorful history, pageant, and a dark language of hazards, clubs, traps and bogeys.
Politics is truly a game. After presidential debates, set up with the rules of a game, we always ask who won. Most of the work we do has a strong play element in it, and often the more play in it, the more we enjoy it. I like the game I play: Write a book and see how many people buy it. When I give a talk, if it’s playful I feel good about it. That doesn’t mean it’s effective, but it’s fun. (You might check out a Huffingtonpost blog I wrote on “fun.”)
I see a game like golf, then, as a ritual, a way to play the pure play dynamics of life. It’s an abstraction from real life, but not unreal or irrelevant. I think it helps to play “deep golf,” taking advantages of all the opportunities the game offers.
Now you’ll find out that I’m playing here, because I want to advertise a retreat for golfers I’m leading in Ireland May 12-17, 2013. We’ll play on beautiful courses and have times for reflection on the game as ritual and on life as sacred play. We’ll see how important the natural world is to this game, one of its outstanding benefits. We explore the language of the game to see its deeper dimension. We’ll learn how to relax and play better and with greater awareness. And, we’ll see how golf can be a method for spiritual deepening and the working out of the soul’s issues. I think this retreat will lead to more fun and greater meaning.
Remember, I don’t play well, so that’s not a requirement. In fact, you don’t have to play at all. You can be a spectator and use the time for pure retreat. I’ve spent most of my life living in and visiting Ireland. There’s no better place for a retreat where fun is an essential part of the package.
If you’d like to join me for a week in Ireland, get more information at: http://www.specialtygolftrips.com/golf-events/golf-with-a-soul-retreat-killarney-ireland-may-12th-17th-2013/
One of the best things about the archetypal psychology I got from James Hillman and his friends was a point of view that doesn’t reject the annoying and messy aspects of our lives. I’ve been practicing psychotherapy for well over thirty years with that precious insight. I also find it in Jung, who is also good at seeing the value of the messes we get into, treating them as the raw material, the prima materia in the alchemy of becoming a person of depth. He compares our personal chaos and mess to the tale of beginnings in the Book of Genesis: Just as the world was made from original chaos, so we make our souls out of our messes, which, he says, are pregnant with a blue, liquid spirit.
As always, Hillman pushes the issue further and offers less hope. In his book The Dream and the Underworld he places our personal garbage under the mythic care of the night goddess Hekate, “who makes sacred the waste of life, so that it all counts, it all matters. . . . The junk of the soul is primordially saved by Hekate’s blessing and even our trashing ourselves can be led back to her. The messy life is a way of entering her domain. . . . [From Hekate’s point of view] we may observe our own catastrophes with a dark wisdom that expects little else.” (pp. 39-40, 49-50)
Another archetypal psychologist Rafael Lopez-Pedraza, who taught me with raised voice to honor the dark, says that we therapists have to enter the rhetoric of the archetype. If we are in a mess, or our client or friend or spouse is in one, it is best not to go somewhere else for comfort, to offer sweet promises of better times or moral persuasion to shape up or pseudo-religious pieties about it all having a purpose. No, the thing to do is to enter the mess and speak for it and use its language.
This is what dreams do. I don’t think I’ve ever had a client who did not have at least one messy toilet dream, and some had several of these. Intuitively, I have always been encouraged by these dreams, believing that we were getting somewhere. The mess has appeared in all its g (l) ory. Now we can’t avoid it. Avoiding the mess is to avoid actual life, destiny, and the human condition.
A person says “My life is a mess.” You can hear that from the house-cleaner’s point of view and immediately wonder how to get things in order, or you can honor the night goddess, appreciate the mess, explore its history and its components. You can take it as the sign that the alchemy has commenced, life is going on.
It takes a special frame of mind, a particular archetypal viewpoint, and a special goddess of the darkness to enter the alchemical massa confusa without any humanistic and compassionate resistance. Hekate has to have stung you and given you a dose of her poison and made you a child of her night. You have see through her eyes and not some other self-protective ones. You have to be willing to save the garbage and resist the understandable urge to clean it up.
The messes of our lives are the chaos of Genesis. Without them there is no beauty and no meaning. I like Hillman saying that even trashing ourselves is redeemed in Hekate’s night vision. But, of course, we do need the alchemy and the religion to see through the garbage and self-trashing to the goddess, to the necessity and to the depth of what we’re doing. As a therapist, I want to stay with the trash, looking and looking (Hillman says Hekate has three heads so she can look in all directions), not to finally get rid of the garbage but to see the blue liquid sky that appears out of it. There are no short cuts.
This is not positive, humanistic, happiness-based psychology. It’s an Underworld psychology pointing to an Underworld spirituality that is not weakened by being too optimistic and hopeful. It acknowledges what the Greeks were smart enough to enshrine: Necessity (Ananke). It’s an embrace of life rather than a ranking of the good and the bad. Ultimately it gives rise to a dark humor that allows us to laugh and tell jokes about our messes. I never saw Hillman look more impish and full of fun than when he was talking about these things.
The Philosophical Plumber
My father died on Thanksgiving Day this year. We had just celebrated his 100th birthday in late September, when he was alert, happy, loving and characteristically mischievous. On that day he seemed to have achieved bliss, sainthood, the fulfillment of his humanity. I’ve never seen a person glow so translucently as on that day as friends and relatives surrounded him with sincere and lavish love. I don’t mean that he was happy; more than that, he had transformed into someone from another world. I knew then that he was ready to leave us.
He was a born teacher, forever showing someone, usually a young person, how to do something, usually fun. He was not a heavy-handed teacher. He didn’t focus more on his skills than on his student, as many teachers do. He gave a few hints at how best to practice a skill, and then he backed away and watched you learn by trying.
He was interested in theology, ethics, sociology and psychology, but he had never completed high school and never enrolled in college. He read regularly and widely. He read my books each more than once and asked me probing questions. Once, he told me he finally found a mistake. I had used a word that wasn’t in the dictionary: chthonic. I told him that he should get a better dictionary, because I knew it was a genuine word. I didn’t make it up. He was skeptical. This was all in fun.
When I was a kid, he taught me what every boy should know: How to use a saw, how to catch a baseball, and how babies are made. He gave me the biology version of that last matter: quite uninteresting and ultimately disappointing to me. Most of all, over the years, right up to that celebration of his 100th birthday, he taught me how to be a human being.
He had one of those two-word philosophies, like Albert Schweitzer’s “Reverence for Life.” My dad’s version was: “Respect for People.” He honored people of all races, creeds, ages and genders. He spoke to them with respect and good humor. He had a constant ready laugh and a big smile. He had his faults, but I can’t remember any right now.
He could build a house, if he needed to. I’ve watched him hang wallpaper and plaster a ceiling. Try doing those tasks, if you’ve never done them before. He built a small room onto his home outside Detroit, and he and my mother practically lived in it for fifty years. Once, when we were visiting my aunt and uncle, they asked him when he was going to remodel their living room, as he promised. “Do you have a hammer?” he asked. They gave him one and there and then he plunged it into a wall. They all laughed, and the next day he got to work.
For many years a highly positioned psychiatrist would come to our house, go down into the basement with my father for a two-hour conversation and then leave. My mother was nervous having a psychiatrist in the basement. I wondered what he saw in my father to use him as a confidant. A prominent psychiatrist consulting with a plumber.
Yes, my father was a plumber, but after a first years of working on jobs he became teacher of plumbing at a trade school. At home he would spend many evenings coaching young people as they trained for their master plumber’s license. He was interested in water per se. I saw some alchemist in him, and I know that he used plumbing as a base for philosophy.
More than once he tried to get a local school to let him teach about water to young children—where it came from, how it became clean enough to drink, how to get the right temperature and pressure in a faucet on the fifteenth floor of a hospital.
I’ve often told the story of the time he designed the plumbing for the autopsy room of the city morgue. The plan included a safety valve reaching high over the edge of the table, but technicians casually hung their coats on the valve. Eventually, the valves failed, and waste from the tables began appearing in the drinking fountains. Yuck!
When he learned he had to go down to the morgue and solve the problem, he took me with him and seized the opportunity to give me a life lesson. He arranged for a tour of the morgue that culminated in viewing bodies in storage. He thought it would be good for me to become acquainted with life’s mysteries through death. That’s what I would call a philosophical plumber. When I tell this story, I think of Jung, who referred to such an adventure as nykeia, a visit to the land of the dead.
My father and I had many long conversations over the years. At the end, he would always comment on how wonderful it was to be able to sit and chat like that. On a visit about five years ago, my father told me that my brother had given him a new tv that he loved, but he couldn’t find the channel for the Catholic Mass. He couldn’t get to church any more, and he liked to attend Mass on TV. He asked me to help him find the channel.
But we got talking, as usual, and I left without thinking more about the television. When I got home, I got a call from him. “Right after you left,” he said, “I fell asleep on the couch. In my sleep I heard a beautiful woman’s voice. It said, ‘269’. I got up and put the channel on 269. There was the Mass. Was that telepathy or something?”
My father was a mystical plumber. He developed what they call sidhis in India, special powers known only to those who really live life at its center. My father knew what’s important and what isn’t. He also knew the absolute importance of a good sense of humor and the capacity for play. Out of those insights he lived a remarkable unremarkable life.
So now a plumber has passed on. But to me we truly have a new saint in heaven, because I can’t imagine anyone having any higher attainment in life than my father, a plumber who loved life and had unlimited respect for people.
On Saturday, November 17, 2012, I’ll be giving a webinar on the theme of “Finding Your Depth” through the NY Open Center. This is a special offering based on certain experiences I’ve had as a psychotherapist. I find that many people are discovering a new, deeper life through distress, loss, depression or just spontaneously, as they are invited to live from a deeper place. I’m going to offer guidance for dealing with these life-changing moments. I’ll also explore myths of deepening: Odysseus, Psyche and Eros, Orpheus, Persephone, and Dante, all as sources of insight into our own fall into the soul. I think this fall happens frequently but is often misread as a life problem rather than an invitation. I’m also going to lead a meditation on Stravinsky’s ballet Orpheus and discuss one of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus on this theme. The poem is one I’ve thought about for many years and my translation of it is at the end of this short post. Please consider joining us for two hours of thoughtful reflection on our initiation into depth. Contact: http://www.opencenter.org/live-webinar-finding-your-depth/
Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, I,9
Only one who knows what it’s like
to lift up the lyre in the shadows
is prepared to voice infinite praise.
Only one who has eaten the poppy with the dead,
their flower, will never lose
that most delicate of tonalities.
Although the reflection in the pond
is often blurry to us:
Grasp the image.
I usually try to stay home in October since the weather is so good in New England and the leaves are fit for peeping. But this year several offers came long that I couldn’t resist.
First, I’m making my first visit to Findhorn in the highlands of Scotland. I’ve been busy in Scotland in the past few years, for the most part because of my work with gynecologists and obstetricians there. Dr. Clare Willocks has been my contact and friend. This conference at Findhorn, celebrating this famous educational outpost’s 50th anniversary, looks to be exceptional. If you ever want to get to know about Findhorn, the week of September 30th is a perfect time.
Next I go to Dallas, where I lived and worked for ten years, 1976-1985. I’ll be back at SMU, the Plano campus, speaking to students and faculty in the counseling graduate program and giving a public talk. I love to speak to therapists of all sorts and to present my many ideas about how to bring soul and spirit into the counseling process. I’ll also speak to the public about self-therapy and caring for your soul.
The next day I’ll be speaking at the First Unitarian Church of Dallas on “worldly spirituality.” Whenever I speak to a Unitarian community I always re-identify with my model and inspiration, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Although he left that community rather early in his career, he has continued to inspire Unitarians, and I take up his mantle in my own way.
Next, I go to the Osler Symposia in San Diego on October 21st. This is a special gathering of doctors under the leadership of a caring and effective leader, Janice Mancuso. Doctors talk to each other about their experience of being doctors. We had the first symposium last year in Albuquerque, and I was moved and impressed by what happened there. I wish all doctors could spend a few days with Janice and her friends and be refreshed. I will talk about the doctor as a spiritual guide. It’s part of the job, though a part that has been forgotten in recent years with the gradual increase of the science/fact archetype in medicine. All you have to do is look at effective medical practitioners around the globe and at the history of Western medicine to see how soul and spirit have always been part of medical care and healing.
From San Diego I go to Santa Fe to teach my usual course for the New England Educational Institute headed by my friend Dr. Rob Guerette. I’ve been teaching for his organization 18 years now. The class is usually made up of psychiatrists, clergy, social workers, doctors and nurses and counselors of all kinds. I use the same outline every time, but the course is always different. It’s a rich experience, and being in Santa Fe every year is a joy. This year I hope to get out to Georgia O’Keeffe’s house, since she has a significant place in the book I’m writing now.
Let me push into November and include my last event for 2012, a workshop on soul and spirit at Wisdom House in Litchfield, CT, Nov. 9-11. Whenever I give talks, I mention the distinction between soul and spirit I learned from Jung and Hillman, and people always ask for clarification. I notice their interest and so decided to give an entire workshop on the theme. I’m looking forward to working with the staff at Wisdom House who do a great job of creating a warm and intellectually sophisticated atmosphere. While in Litchfield I hope to see two old friends, the painter Thomas McKnight, who puts on canvas the fascinating ideas of Renaissance Italy that I put in my books, and David Rabe, an incredibly gifted writer whose plays always raise the roof on Broadway.
You’ll find all the details for these events on the events page of this website. I hope you’ll seriously consider one of them. As I get older I’m thinking about putting an end to all the travel, so there won’t be many more occasions for you and me to meet, outside of my continuing presence in New Hampshire, New York City and the Isles of the Celts.
Yesterday I watched as several young women hugged and kissed an old man in a wheelchair. He smiled calmly and received their attentions with good humor. He had turned 100 that day. The women were workers in the assisted living residence where he lives in a northern Detroit suburb. Later, members of his family arrived. He said he enjoyed their enjoying each other more than the thought that they had come to honor him. The organization had supplied a tub of vanilla ice cream and a cake dedicated to him. One of the managers presented him with a card from the White House signed by President and Michelle Obama. The old man was so impressed that his voice failed him and he couldn’t speak for several minutes. Overall, it was a grand event.
Ben Moore, known by many children and former children as the Pied Piper of their hearts, is my father. In his old age he has become a saint. There’s a glow around him, and he speaks with an unearthly tone in his voice, slowly and deliberately. He can’t walk because of the weakness of his legs, but his mind is sharp and his appetite strong. He has no illnesses and enjoys life, but especially people. You could see this as his family, the workers at his residence, old neighbors, lifelong friends and new friends, and his two sons took so much joy in this birthday. It was as though all the sorrows of the world vanished down a hole at this 100 year-old smile.
But I know he hasn’t changed. When I was about six, my friends told me how much they loved my father and how much fun it was to be around him. He loved to tell the story of how he once led a group of children on a tour of a lakeside bog and brought them home caked with mud from head to toe. My wife and I tell the story of our wedding. He was uncharacteristically dressed in a well-tailored suit, and for an hour before the ceremony he played with the children on a nearby hillside, getting grass stains all over his new, beige pants. He then sat, somewhat sheepishly, in the church with his green knees and disheveled shirt.
Look at his face in the photo taken at his 100th birthday party. Ask the question everyone puts to him: “What’s your secret?” I know. He loves people and treats them with respect. He rarely drops his sense of humor and his outrageous feeling for fun. Ordinary people are happy to be around him, so much so that in his early 90’s a hospital hired him to be their go-between for their Alzheimer patients. He could laugh with these people and somehow reach into their world and sense their needs.
I’m delighted to know that there’s a living saint in our midst today and even more delighted to know that he’s my father. I feel that every day the world retreats farther from the universe in which he lived his 100 years. We are forgetting his gentility, his profound respect for the ordinary person, his lack of interest in making money, his sense of humor, his plain and very human dignity. It is one of the great gifts of my life that I had a place at his party.