Thomas Merton on Guy Patrick’s Life and Death

This Saturday, I’ll be traveling back to Berea, Kentucky where I lived and taught for more than 40 years. The sad occasion will be a memorial service for my life’s best friend, Guy Patrick who died at the very beginning of this year. Guy’s widow, Peggy, has asked me to read at the ceremony an excerpt from one of Guy’s favorite authors, Thomas Merton. What follows is my “translation” the Merton passage as applied to Guy’s life. Afterwards, I include the great Trappist monk’s original words, so you can see if I got them right.

Guy’s death has created a hole in my own life that will never be filled.  

Paradoxically,
Guy Patrick’s life
Affirmed itself
By all the endings
It contained.

He was blessed
To learn early on
The self-transcendent
Rewards and meaning
Of dying to himself and
Of using his time,
Effort, strength
And intelligence
To serve others
By giving them
Everything he had.

Doing so
Made Guy
The very embodiment
Of a mature man.
It set him apart
As uniquely
Productive and complete
Because he wasted no time
Seeking money or power.

So, at the age of 85
With nothing else
Left to give
To family world and humanity
He showed us
How to die
As his final bequest.

For Guy
The “end of life”
Meant culmination
Not termination.
It was an act of love
Of acceptance
And surrender
Of his entire life
With its good and bad
Sins and love,
Conquests and defeats
Into God’s gracious hands
Who then, no doubt,
Fulfilled Guy’s fondest hopes
By finally 
Revealing life’s meaning and worth
Its point and destiny – 
For all of us too.

Thank you, Guy
For your love, generosity
And wondrous example!

Thomas Merton On Worthful Living and Culminating Death

Thomas Merton

As a man grows into other stages of human development, he realizes that there are ways in which life affirms itself by consenting to end. For example, youth begins to discover that by bringing to an end some egoistic satisfaction, in order to do something for another, he can discover a deeper level of reality and of life. The mature man realizes that his life affirms itself most, not in acquiring things for himself, but in giving his time, his efforts, his strength, his intelligence, and his love to others. Here a different kind of dialectic between life and death begins to appear. The living drive, the vital satisfaction, by “ending” its trend to self-satisfaction and redirecting itself to and for others, transcends itself. It “dies” insofar as the ego is concerned, for the self is deprived of immediate satisfactions, which it could once claim without being contested. Now it renounces these things, in order to give to others. Hence, life “dies” to itself in order to give itself away, and thus affirms itself more maturely, more fruitfully, and more completely. We live in order to die to ourselves and give everything to others.

But since contingent lives must end — they are not interminable and there is nothing whatever in their constitution that justifies us thinking that they are — it is important that the end of life itself should finally set the seal upon the giving and the sacrifice which has marked mature and productive living. Thus man physically and mentally declines having given everything that he had to life, to other men, to his love, to his family, and to his world. He is spent or exhausted, not in the sense that he is merely burned out and gutted by the accumulation of money and power, but because he has given himself totally in love. There is nothing left now for him to give. It is now that in a final act he surrenders his life itself.

This is the “end of life,” not in the sense of termination, but in the sense of culminating gift, the last free perfect act of love which is at once surrender and acceptance: the surrender of his being into the hands of God, who made it, and the acceptance of the death which in details and circumstances is perhaps very significantly in continuity with all the acts and incidents of life — its good and its bad, its sins and its love, its conquests and its defeats. A man’s last gift of himself in death is, then, the acceptance of what he has been and the resignation of all final judgment as to the meaning of his life, its worth, its point, its ultimate destiny. It is the final seal his freedom sets upon the love and the trust with which it has striven to live.

Walks with My Granddaughter Eva

Our granddaughter, Eva, has just been elected Ms. President of our town, Westport, CT). We couldn’t be prouder.

In my declining years, I’m leading a charmed life. Here Peggy and I are living in Westport, CT, just down the street from our daughter, Maggie, her husband, Kerry, and five of our grandchildren.

Here’s a picture of our house where we moved just three years ago:

Our grandsons, Oscar (10), Orlando (8), Markandeya (6), and Sebastian (2) usually stay overnight on Fridays and we have breakfast together Saturday mornings. All of them (except little Sebastian) love baseball, so Peggy and I spend a lot of time cheering them on in their Little League games.

About three nights a week, Peggy and I also have dinner at our daughter’s beautiful home. And with the advent of warmer spring nights, we’ve been eating outdoors, where we share not only Maggie’s gourmet meals, but the day’s “roses and thorns,” i.e. all of us taking turns telling about the highpoint and low point of our days.

When my turn comes, my “rose” is often an account of my morning walk with my granddaughter, Eva (12), who is the reigning “Ms. President” of Westport. [That’s right, Eva recently ran (albeit unopposed) for our town’s Ms. President and was elected based on her compelling presentation of a platform promoting planet-saving vegetarianism.]

In any case and for years, Eva has often joined me for my daily four-mile fast walks (which are getting slower all the time). This often happens on weekends, but sometimes we end up walking together to her school about two and a half miles distant. About half-way through our routine, we invariably stop for coffee at Starbucks and spend about 30 minutes just talking there on the shore of the Saugatuck River that runs through Westport’s heart. Our conversations are uniformly wonderful.

We often discuss what we’ve seen and heard lately on “Democracy Now,” Amy Goodman‘s Monday through Friday news program which Eva watches faithfully every day. (I’ve told Eva that if she continues her practice, she’ll end up knowing more about the world than most of her teachers at her Pierrepont School which she absolutely loves.)

Pierrepont School, Westport, CT

Both Eva and I are admirers of Malcolm X. So, we’ve watched and discussed Spike Lee’s film together (along with “Fahrenheit 451,” “Soul,” and “My Octopus Teacher”). We’ve also read Malcolm’s autobiography, and we’ve talked about Les Payne‘s latest biography about our hero, The Dead Are Arising (which I’m sure Eva will read on her own when she gets a bit older). I can imagine her producing some kind of research paper on Malcolm in high school or college. Anyhow, we often talk about X; Eva is intensely interested — as she is about almost everything.

And our conversations are so much fun.

For instance, just this morning, we had maybe our best exchange yet. In her history class at Pierrepont, Eva’s studying the Illiad and Odyssey. While Eva loves the tale, she was mildly complaining that her teacher takes the classic too seriously — i.e. she leads discussions as though Homer’s work were something more than what Eva recognizes as historical fiction.

“You know, Baba,” she confided to me, “I think they’ve misplaced Homer in the history section of our library; it really belongs in the fiction aisle. I mean, all this stuff about Helen of Troy as the cause of the Trojan War doesn’t make sense. How does anyone know that her abduction started the whole thing?”

“That’s a brilliant question,” I said. “You should ask your teacher.

“But you know,” I said, ” that’s probably true of all of the books in your school’s library. I mean they all should probably be classified as fiction. That’s what historians and other authors do; they write accounts that reflect their own biases. And that goes for the Bible too.” (I voiced that last part, because Eva considers herself an atheist, so I wanted to be even-handed about fields of study — she knows I’m especially interested in questions of faith and biblical interpretation.)

“But don’t be too quick to dismiss fiction,” I added. “Fiction is often more revealing of truth than history or scientific theory. It’s like my friend, Guy Patrick, used to observe about the Bible. . . ‘All of it is true,’ he’d say, ‘and some of it even happened.’ Hemingway’s and Faulkner’s novels are true, even though they didn’t happen. You might say the same about the poems of Emily Dickinson.”

And Eva could see all of that. Despite her atheism, she even agreed that the biblical stories of creation might be truer (i.e. more revealing of human meaning) than Darwin’s revolutionary theory. Stifling a theatrical yawn, she said “Darwin might be factually true, but it’s more boring, I agree.”

Can you see what I mean about a charmed life — and about my charming granddaughter?

In Memoriam: Guy Patrick (1935-2021)

Guy (far left) posing with new homeowners in his capacity as director of Habitat for Humanity in Madison County, KY

I lost my best friend today. Guy Patrick died around 11:00 this morning, a couple of weeks after we celebrated his 85th birthday. For years, he had predicted his death “this Easter.” And then when it didn’t happen, he’d laugh and say, “I guess I’ve been given another year.”

I had known Guy for more than 40 years. Also former priest, he had a kindred monk’s spirit and was wonderful example of the deepest unshakable (though critical) faith. It let him settle for a date near Christmas rather than Easter.

I first met Guy (I forget exactly when) in the late 1970s. He was “in transition” as they say – exploring his exit from the priesthood and an anticipated move to Berea Kentucky. There, his future wife, Peggy Anibaldi (a former religious sister) had just secured employment as a head resident at Berea College where I ended up teaching all those years.

Earlier, Peggy had looked me up having got my name from the bulletin of CORPUS, a Catholic organization of ex-clergy and religious whose mission was to help members find employment and community.

I remember Guy’s Peggy visiting my Peggy and me in our home in Buffalo Holler 5 miles outside the Berea city limits. No sooner was Ms. Anibaldi inside our doors, it seemed, than my Peggy was on the phone to Ruth Butwell (the director of Berea’s residence halls) telling her of this wonderful woman who would make the perfect head resident. Ruth hired Peggy, it seemed, almost on the spot. (My Peggy is very persuasive!)  

In any case, when Guy finally joined his Peggy in Berea, we hit it off immediately. And there in my office on the 4th floor of the Draper Building, began a conversation that lasted through Guy’s final days. It was always the same: some about politics, yes, but mostly about God, philosophy, theology, church, life and death. Always the same. Always delightful. Usually over double Manhattans and popcorn. Sometimes quite animated. Never dull. I loved Guy.

And what was there not to love? He was a wise accomplished man. As he described it, his career path could be roughly divided into 10-year segments. It took him, he said:

  • From Catholic school and setting bowling pins as a kid in PA
  • To the seminary and ordination
  • To securing a degree in theology at DC’s Catholic University
  • To teaching in his diocesan seminary and later in an associated high school
  • To working as a youth minister (with Sister Anibaldi) at Mercyhurst College in Erie, PA
  • To serving as a Berea College head resident and later as a factotum at Emmaus House, an intergenerational home for the elderly which Guy’s Peggy directed as part of Fr. Ralph Beiting’s Christian Appalachian Project
  • To assuming his role as the truly legendary director of Habitat for Humanity in Madison County, Kentucky
  • To retiree status in which he continued to work for Habitat and (always with Peggy) to animate our local St. Clare’s Catholic Church until he (along with other progressive Catholics) surrendered in the face of restorationist pastors rejecting the spirit of the Second Vatican Council

Through it all, Guy retained a wonderful self-deprecatory sense of humor. A laugh or a joking remark was never far from his lips. Some of his more memorable sayings included:

  • “As my dad used to say in similar circumstances, ‘Meh. . .’”
  • “Well, we all have to be somewhere.”
  • “Organize? Hell, I couldn’t organize a two-car funeral.”
  • “They say I’m a pessimist, but I’m really an optimist. A pessimist says things couldn’t get worse. I always say, ‘Oh yes they could!’”
  • “In marrying Peggy, I was just following the advice of Martin Luther. He said ‘Every man should marry a nun.’ And that’s what I did. Never regretted it. Luther was right.”
  • “In fact, (again quoting my dad) here’s the way I’d summarize my life, ‘I loved every minute of it!'”
  • “For that reason, I like what Woody Allen had to say about death: ‘It’s not that I’m afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’”

Woody Allen notwithstanding, Guy was indeed fully there when it happened. That became evident in meetings of “The Manhattan Club,” a men’s group in which 7 of us Berea types participated for years. At our meetings we each usually drank 2 Manhattans – as well as “cheating on our wives” (as guy put it) by eating non-vegetarian snacks. The conversations were always quite lively.

[And speaking of cheating on our wives. . . Guy and I loved to have our own men’s night out at Richmond’s “Golden Corral Steakhouse.” There we’d select steak, ribs, chops and roast beef from the buffet — not to mention mashed potatoes, gravy and rich dessert samples. Then we’d waddle across the street and bowl a few lines at the alley that always evoked stories about his boyhood days setting pins. (Guy was a good bowler and quite the competitor.) We’d finish at the bowling alley bar for a nightcap.]

But towards the end, our evening Manhattan Club gatherings switched to mornings with coffee. And week by week, we witnessed Guy’s health decline. Nevertheless, he always had reflections to share as well as gallows humor about his approaching end. To the very last he was reading Plato, Thomas Merton, and the postmodernist, Jacques Derrida. Guy went out puzzling over Derrida’s reflections on “the gift of death.”

And at our final Manhattan Club meeting with him, guess what Guy talked about? He was full of recollections of his 6 months spent in Americus GA with the great Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity. He expressed his intention to make one more appeal to his friends to contribute generously to the organization in his memory.

His final sentiments were characteristically prayerful. “After all of this,” he said, “my only prayer is ‘Oh God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ Along with that, it’s just ‘Thank you.'”

That’s the kind of Guy he was.

A Blessing for Guy Patrick

Just before he left us, our men’s Manhattan Club met via Zoom to say a formal farewell to Guy. I was asked to give a final blessing. As we all extended our hands, this is what I prayed:

 I give this blessing
 In the spirit of the conversations
 All of us have shared
 Over the years
 When we debated questions of life, meaning
 God, and destiny.
 Those were intellectual,
 Head-centered conversations
 Full of laughter and joy.
 We absolutely loved them!
  
 At this important moment however,
 Let’s set all of that aside
 And enter the depths of our hearts.
 Let’s embrace the wisdom of sages
 Who throughout the millennia
 (Along with Guy)
 Have insisted
 That what awaits us all
 Beyond the threshold humans call “death”
 Is the fulfillment of everything
 That any of us can hope for or desire.
  
 Please enter that realm with me now.
 (Pause)
  
 Guy, we bless you
 At this transcendent moment.
 We send you with all our hopes
 On your way –
 Onto the path that all of us must trod.
 We send you into the realm
 Of all the wise people who have ever lived –
 Of angelic beings and light beings
 The realm of our Father-Mother God.
  
 Please know that
 You take with you
 Everything positive, holy,
 Constructive and good -- 
 Every holy thought, word and act
 That has ever crossed your mind,
 Your lips and your heart.
 (There are so many of them
 That you yourself
 Have blessed us with.)
  
 Go in joy, confidence, assurance
 And peace
 Knowing that we are with you in spirit.
 Ours is one of gratitude
 For the blessed life you have lived
 For the lives you have changed
 For the students you have inspired
 For the homes you have constructed
 For the love you have shared
 With Peggy, Gina, Anna, their babies
 With the rest of us
 And so many, many more.
  
 You have especially blessed this group of men
 Who now return the favor.
 You are our brother, our friend, our companion,
 And our inspiring conversation partner.
 You have been our priest, dear Guy
 You have always been that
 And will remain so
 Forever.
  
 (Dare I say it?)
 Yes, I will:
 Behold the Great Priest
 Who in his days pleased God!
 “Ecce sacerdos magnus 
 Qui in diebus suis placuit deo”.
  
 Thank you so much
 For all of that,
 For your wonderful life
 And for showing us
 So marvelously
 How to die.
  
 Go in peace, dear beloved brother.