24 February 2016

The Love

"Bless the Lord, oh my soul, all my being bless His Holy Name" (Ps. 103).

In the bitter winter of 2000, I met a tired monk in velcro-strapped shoes. He intimidated without meaning to do so. He led a retreat of a bunch of know-nothing college boys. No one wanted to be with him face-to-face. It was too much, too intense. We all kept to ourselves, playing cards and platitudes.

He mentioned something in a talk about a ramshackle house in Ephesus he never had the chance to visit, thousands of miles away, where Mary supposedly lived after the Paschal Mystery. It so happened that I had visited that place in Turkey after I graduated from high school. That little stone structure a lifetime away gave me my in, and we discussed it and he loved it, and his heart was mine, and my heart was his ever since. He wrote on some scrap of paper a Greek prayer to her. I didn't know what I was doing; I don't know what I am doing.

I wrote him a letter that winter in front of the fireplace at my home in Kentucky, telling him how much his words meant and all else. I never expected a response. The response I received was sixteen years ago, sixteen years of love, sixteen years of direction and tears and laughter and wonder.

I wanted to be him, and so with terrible difficulty I entered the monastery. But it wasn't right. That's not who I was meant to be. I left and resumed my teaching, always with a large portion of my heart tied up in him. The deepest flattery isn't to be someone else; the deepest flattery is to fall in love and be held, and to be given meaning from there and expand to the horizon. He was my horizon.

Abbot Patrick Barry in later life
A few years ago I visited him at the monastery in England where he made is vows and made his life. He was waning. I knew then - or I thought I did - that it would be the last encounter I would have with him in this life. The tears were warm and bountiful. I told him I never experienced love like I did with and for him (he was 83 when I met him). He consoled me, that if his entire experience in St. Louis was meant to meet me, then it was worth it. What a wonderful conclusion. What a wonderful end - walk away.

And so I did walk away, and my heart was left in that place on a rug or a counter or a driveway.

And now he is dead. He has let loose the frail structure of his once-mighty body in order to embark on the greatest trek. His life spanned nearly a century, a century of people and places and experiences. I was a blip on the radar screen of his vast experience but his presence to me was the totality of my heart. And I don't regret it. I don't regret a moment of it. The old man who is now waiting to be buried was and is the absolute love of my life. He left his earthly cares, I hope, gratified and full.

And I am left as a heartbroken son, a struggling teacher who found more meaning in that one man than in all my experiences before combined. I long to be with him, but since I can't, I'm left with some mysterious charge to cast out into the deep, to be for others what and who he was to me. But it's too soon, this task. In my missing him, perhaps I'll live into that challenge.

When I call, answer me, O God of justice. 

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