Radiating Love

“Beloved: See what love the Father has bestowed on us.” That’s the first line of the second reading for the Solemnity of All Saints in the Catholic church this year, from John’s first letter. It’s also what anyone might have said upon meeting Fr. Joseph Boyle, abbot of St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado.

To stand in Joseph’s presence was to receive an outpouring of strong and gentle love. You felt the love he radiated. It warmed you, and your heart opened in response the way a flower unfurls its petals to catch the sun’s rays and so becomes ready to welcome whatever visitors bring it life.

I grew up going on retreat at St. Benedict’s with my mom and a group of women around her age. Joseph entered my life in the way that people sometimes do when you’re a kid—effortlessly with no questions asked. As I got older, my appreciation and gratitude for the gift of this remarkable, kind, and generous human being grew.

I didn’t realize that I thought Joseph would live forever until he was gone. I haven’t seen him for many years, but without knowing it, I held this belief that whenever I returned to St. Benedict’s, his steady and loving presence would be there. I simply couldn’t imagine the world without him.

On my bookshelf waiting to be read is a book titled Humility Matters: Toward Purity of Heart. Joseph had a depth of humility, a pureness of heart that few people do. Perhaps I’m so surprised by the strength of pain and loss I’m experiencing because he manifested and offered God’s love so freely and purely that one received the gift without completely realizing its immensity.

Once after mass, he and I were talking when he saw someone across the room and said, oh I can’t let this person leave without receiving some of my love. It was a revelation to me that one could deeply respect the value of one’s own love and know the importance of sharing it without a trace of self-importance. Joseph always knew that the source of his love was God and didn’t feel it necessary to get in the way of God’s love flowing through him and out to the rest of us.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God,” reads one of the lines in the Beatitudes, the Gospel reading for All Saints. They will see God, as Joseph did, in their fellow human beings, in all creation, and in themselves. And now that he has passed on from this world to whatever communion awaits, surely he is seeing the fullness of God; surely he is continuing to become the beautiful love he shared with anyone fortunate enough to meet him.

In Memoriam

Looking back, it appears that sometimes in life, the Divine has picked me up and placed me where I needed to be without my having much to do with it. That’s how I feel about having landed my first full-time job in the office of one W. David Conn, vice provost for academic programs at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

At thirty-one, uncertain that I had any marketable skills but in need of a steadier income, I took an administrative assistant job in David’s office. Universities, I would learn, are very hierarchical places, and administrative assistants are near the bottom. I didn’t learn this from David, however.

Instead, when I’d been there only a few months, he asked me to take a crack at rewriting the university mission statement. He didn’t take my work to his meeting with the vice presidents—he took me and my work. I had no idea at the time how unusual this approach was.

David expanded my concept of generosity. When a decision needed to be made, he always focused on how it would affect the students rather than whether it meant more work for him. He championed causes like diversity and student advising when they had no home in the official university structure, not because it was his job but because he was passionate about doing the right thing. And he didn’t say a word the time I almost sent an important university report off without letting the president review it.

When we no longer worked in the same office, I saw him a few times a year to share a meal, and he always brought a tangible joy to the gathering. To be the kind of boss with whom it is easy to have a graceful transition into friendship is no small thing.

David recently passed over to whatever comes after this life, a far too early exit for such a wonderful human being. It’s hard to believe I knew him less than twelve years—his presence in my life and the beauty he brought to it seem larger than could have fit in that time.

Here are some other things I loved about David:

  • His eyes twinkled, never more so than when his grandchildren came to visit.
  • He laughed often.
  • He remained thoroughly British—at least to my American sensibilities—despite having spent most of his adult life in the U.S.
  • He never took himself too seriously. He always said, “The battles in academia are so fierce because the stakes are so low,” even though he was a lifelong academic.
  • He worked hard but maintained a healthy perspective on life. Both for himself and for those he worked with, family always came first.

I’m a better person for having known David. As they say in the Jewish tradition to which he belonged, may his memory be for a blessing. It certainly is for me.

Rest in Peace

My Uncle David died last Monday. I am relieved that I will not have to see him again or feel guilty for not visiting more often while having no intention of doing so. Can you say you loved someone you really didn’t want to be around?

My uncle suffered from schizophrenia, and suffered is an apt word. As difficult as it was to listen to his ranting about what his cat said or what the government was plotting, I’m sure it didn’t compare to the torture of being inside his head. There probably wasn’t a moment after his break around the age of twenty when he felt at peace, when he could relax and enjoy this world and his life in it.

People say, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” and I want to say, “Don’t be.” Though I have felt a strange grief at his passing, I suspect it has mostly to do with the death of any hope that he might change, that he might be healthy. Or happy.

Even before his break, many of his childhood stories were grim. While sorting through his belongings, we found old pictures of my grandfather. My mom told of how, when David was around thirteen, my grandfather chased him the length of their apartment, which was half a block long, beating him with a belt while my grandmother watched.

Let me include a few positive memories because no life is ever one-sided. David was incredibly intelligent, deeply spiritual, and always concerned with social justice. He taught me to play marbles and Chinese checkers. The people at the retirement community where he lived the last decade or so of his life truly appreciated his friendship.

I burned a yahrzeit candle for him, a Jewish mourning tradition. When looking up the prayer to say over the candle, I came across one that said, “May his memory be for a blessing.”

I tell these stories here as a member of a people that has survived 5,773 years by remembering. Because David wasn’t and isn’t the only one. I think it’s important to remember that when you scratch the surface of almost any family, you rarely have to go more than a generation to find scars a mile wide.

I can’t say what I was supposed to learn from knowing my uncle, except for that one lesson that we can never learn often or deeply enough—that everyone we encounter is in need of more compassion than we can know and so we should offer what we can. What we can may vary. Being physically present for my uncle wasn’t something I could do often, nor was talking on the phone. But maybe I can help his memory be for a blessing.

So here is a remembrance, a prayer, a wish, a hope for all those, living and dead, whose demons dig their claws in so much more forcefully than most of us will ever know: may you rest in peace, whether in this world or the next.