Several days ago, I gathered with family and friends to celebrate the passing of my friend, Al who, at the age of 83, died of cancer. I have known Al, who, as I learned at the funeral, was affectionately known as “Alfie,” for the past forty-three years. Our association goes all the way back to my first year in theology, 1975, when I was at the tender age of twenty-two. The beginning of what would be a great friendship, did not start that way. As a first year theologian, I lived in the world of books and ideas. It was the place that I knew best in my life and the place that I felt most comfortable. But, living in the world of ideas, in the world of my head, is not the whole picture. And, as part of God’s plan, I was being invited to explore the world of my heart. Looking back it was a graced moment, although at the time, it felt nothing of the sort.
I was taking a class in Pastoral Theology and had just finished a paper on some relevant subject. I can’t remember what the paper was about, but I know that I thought, living in the world of ideas and thinking, I did a pretty good job writing the paper. Part of the assignment was to meet with our teacher and discuss the paper. I thought this would be just fine—I can talk about anything. I met with the teacher and don’t remember anything he said, except when he said “have you ever thought about going to see a counselor.” His question threw me into a panic. My fear was that there was something wrong with me and I would be discovered.
In what I can only describe as a graced moment, despite my fear, I went to sign up to meet with the counselor who came one day a week to meet with different students. I figured if other people thought it this was a good idea, I might as well just go do it. And this might explain that instead of signing up for the usual half-hour appointment, I signed up for an hour.
The appointment was a week away and I spent the ensuing days wondering if I had done the right thing, wondering what I would say when I got there, and wondering if I ought to go and scratch off my name and not show up at all. Fortunately I did not scratch my name off the list. The day came. Al was the counselor and, as I recalled, I said something like, “well I’m here, now you do what you have to do.”
Of course that’s not the way counseling works. I had to do lots of hard work. For the next four years I met regularly with Al. Over time he came to help me understand the world of my heart and to help me embrace that part of my life and to come to appreciate the goodness of my own life. It was a hard journey but a blessed one as well.
In the ensuing years after my ordination, I continued to meet with Al. There always seemed to be something new for me to learn about my life, about the belief systems that I lived by and about how to find healing from pain in my life that most often expressed itself in anger. I came to understand that my journey, while uniquely mine, is not that much different from the journey of other people.
Over the years I worked with Al on different projects and served with him on different committees. The last time I saw him was several weeks ago at the Clinical Pastoral Education Committee meeting at Deaconess Hospital. He announced to the board that he had to resign because the cancer that he had dealt with had returned and it was only a matter of time until his impending death. I gave him a hug and told him to “teach us how to die well.” “I will,” was his response. From the tributes that were given at the funeral, he did that and more.
As I think about Al, I marvel at the way the journey of our lives intersect. I was a young kid from Jasper, going to the seminary at St. Meinrad and Al grew up in Evansville and happened to be hired by St. Meinrad to be available for counseling to the students. Everything belongs, the great spiritual fathers and others tell us. There are no accidents in life. Our job is to embrace all of life and see God in it. And, in the process to be thankful. This Thanksgiving week gives me time to give thanks for the gift that Al has been in my life and how my life has been changed by it.
Then in the end, one leaves the body together with one’s possessions. Knowing this: the intelligent man enjoys his possessions and gives. Having enjoyed and given in line with his means, uncensored he goes to his heavenly state. Addita Sutra