Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Friendship That Can Never Cease: A Tribute to the Rev. Dr. Rhys Williams

Today marks what would have been the 82nd birthday of my friend and former minister, the Rev. Dr. Rhys Williams.  It seems funny now to say that Rhys was my ‘friend;’ we never spent much time together when I taught at the church he served for over 35 years as senior minister, the former First and Second Church in Boston, and we socialized very little outside the church.  I attended his daughter, Nory’s, wedding. I am still happily shocked today that I even received an invitation to it since I was a very new member of the church at the time it took place.  The Christmas party he and his wife, Eleanor, hosted each year was the only other time I saw him socially apart from a few surreal lunches we shared at his favorite restaurant on Newbury Street, Thai Basil.  Still, Rhys was my friend.  I know that more certainly today than I ever have, and as I think about him today, I realize that he has been the truest, most devoted human friend I’ve ever had though I could hardly appreciate this fact when he was alive.  The famous 19th century social reformer and former Harvard Divinity school intern at the church, Henry David Thoreau, once said, “Friends . . . they cherish one another’s hopes.  They are kind to one another’s dreams.”  Rhys embodied this definition of friendship.

One afternoon after I had finished setting up my classroom for the following Sunday’s lesson Rhys’ inimitable assistant, Susan Twist, and I were talking in the office at Park House about possible subjects for my senior thesis, which was to encompass an aspect of 19th century American history.  Rhys happened to pass through the office to pick up his phone messages during a lull in our conversation, and, peering at me over the top of his glasses as he scanned his messages, he began to casually relate the broad outlines of the careers of the more outspoken of the church’s social reforming ministers, such as that of Thoreau’s friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, encouraging me to consider one of them as my subject.  It seemed preternatural, his intuition at this moment, and I thought, ‘Wait.  He only just walked in.  How does he know we’re talking about my coursework?  Does he remember the majors of all the church’s members who are in college and their matriculation?’  It took me barely a second to realize that he did.  In the deepest parts of his psyche, Rhys cared about others.  He cherished their hopes for themselves and silently cheered for them to achieve their greatest dreams probably just as much as they did, offering whatever help he could as he saw a need.  My own commencement would not have been possible without him.  Having been made ill yet again by a vaccination, which officials at my college claimed was prerequisite to my undertaking a student teaching practicum, I struggled in my part-time transcription jobs to afford my increasing tuition and living expenses.  By the end of my junior year, it looked as though I’d never be able to finish my final two semesters – until Rhys loaned me nearly $900 from the minister’s fund, which enabled me to do so.  He only ever asked one thing of me in return, several years after I had graduated:  to help Susan, who was then in the thick of what would be an almost ten-year battle with breast cancer.  I was pretty sick myself toward the end of her struggle, but I knew better than anyone by then that there’s a difference between giving people the ‘help’ you think they need and giving them the help they actually need.  Having witnessed my declining health even as he waged his own battle with cancer, Rhys recognized that I was uniquely capable of the latter – not least because he, himself, demonstrated this type of empathy time and again, with me and with what I have come to learn have been countless others.  I have come to believe that Rhys was something of an expert at empathy and the friendship it makes possible – another byproduct of his meticulously honed insight into the nature of human relationships.  Though Susan eventually lost her battle on opening day, April 2, 2001, I was honored to lend her what support I could to make her chemotherapy appointments and her life a little easier.  In return, I was privileged to enjoy Susan’s famous hospitality, wry sense of humor and a closer friendship with her than otherwise would have been possible – she, sharing her secret passions for jeopardy and the Red Sox with me while we ‘gardened’ on her small balcony at her Longfellow Place condo, and I, perfecting my favorite holiday recipes with her help.  I still miss it, the friendship Susan and I developed in that last year-and-a-half of her life, and I’m thankful to Rhys for having made it possible.  I suspect he knew I needed Susan’s friendship as much as she needed mine.  His vision of the ministry and friendship he knew we are all capable of when we embrace the noblest of our human characteristics was flawless, and he set an unremitting example of that vision, deftly offering only the subtlest guidance when he saw a need for it.  He could bring out the best in us because he could see in us not merely our own dreams of the best versions of ourselves (he certainly understood deeply that we are all works of art in-progress) but also the best possible versions of humanity in each of us.  That’s only possible in a person with profound humility – a person with a more-than-usually healthy distrust of his own perceptions and judgment.

Others who have been lucky enough to know Rhys have remarked on this particular gift of his, this remarkable ability of his to lead from behind.  I like this testimony from one of the many interns he mentored, the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen (now also deceased), because it exemplifies so well Rhys’ atypical ability to see others in process and yet, as whole, worthwhile human beings:

“Rhys was very much what I like to think of as a ‘Hands-on/Hand-off’ kind of mentor.  He was always there to listen, and to provide encouragement; but he never tried to tell you what to do or how to do it, and whenever you came to him uncertain of yourself or the quality of your own work, his response would inevitably be ‘I’m sure it will be fine.’  Not that it always was, mind you, but he gave you the freedom to learn from your mistakes without necessarily suffering the consequences of failure.  His leadership style was to find the best people possible and to give them the room to discover and do their best; and he was particularly adroit at mentoring younger seminarians such as myself, who may have possessed plenty of ability and ‘potential’ but who were perhaps not quite as sure of themselves as Rhys was of them."

I’ve thought a lot about our first meeting over the years, about the time I first noticed this particular grace of his, that day we first met.  For many years, the only way I could conceive of the experience of being in Rhys’ presence was to liken it to being smiled on by the sun, if the sun were to have a face.  Rhys radiated a deep respect for others.  His focused, yet respectful attention on the person in front of him unsettled me when I found myself facing him in the recession line after services the first Sunday I attended them – until I realized the unsettling feeling I was experiencing came from the fact very few other people with whom I’ve interacted in my life have had the same abandoned yet purposeful approach to others; it was a pure, non-judgmental expectation of what might come from an encounter with another person that Rhys had which captivated me that morning way back in 1985.  I think most people who knew him would agree that Rhys was not the type of person one occasionally sees throughout one’s life but with whom one has no genuine connection.  That observation might shock a lot of people; I’ve heard him described as “conservative,” though I knew him as more self-disciplined than ascetic, more reserved than dogmatic.  Early in my church membership Rhys said to me, “If this country is ever going to be saved, it will be by the work of people who are trained in the Humanities.”  It was late in Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and people then openly feared the prospect of the increasingly despotic administrations that have succeeded it.  One clergy member who I met a few years ago and who claimed to have met Rhys described him to me as “charming,” and I thought, ‘Well, she must be confusing him with someone else,’ because although Rhys was personable, he was in no way beguiling.  Rhys simply had no allure – other than his gentle, albeit stoic, willingness to engage with others, which might easily have been mistaken for not for charm but actual aloofness by those who couldn’t accord him the same space in which to be himself that he accorded others.  He treated me that day as he always did:  as though he believed in my ability to face all of my encounters with the same grace – even those times I gave him controvertible proof of that ability.

Though I rarely took advantage of his open office door and willingness to talk I knew instinctively that if I so chose, I could rely on Rhys to listen to my greatest hopes and deepest regrets, knowing he would accept me graciously into loving communion, no matter how ludicrously high those hopes, or how repugnantly disappointing those regrets.  I have had a chronic pain syndrome – debilitating dysmenorrheal – since I was 11 years-old.  Every 28 to 30 days, five days and four nights of constant, often knife-sharp pain incapacitates me.  I spend these days in stupors, taking 10 to 12, 200 mgs. Tablets of Advil every four hours – whenever possible, in a steaming hot tub – because in 37 years of this torture no doctor has treated me with appropriate pain care.  And I have seen more than my share of doctors.  It’s hard to live a normal life like this – to hold a regular job, to attend school full-time, to plan for a normal social life – but there’s no point complaining about it.  We get by as best we can:  drugged up and lethargic, darting in and out of a regular daily routine as best we can, hoping not to be noticed and missed every fourth week, and then pacing ourselves the following week while trying to recover from the poisonous level of OTC pain killers we must take.  Then comes the exhaustion from trying to live full-out in a week of relative freedom, before the cycle starts again.  It’s a recipe for bi-polar disorder.  Rhys and I collided in the church office again at the end of one of these final weeks for me, when my back was beginning to stiffen, signaling impending disaster.  I was fretting anxiously to Susan about how impossible it then seemed that I could accomplish the coming week’s demanding schedule.  “This is intolerable sometimes, living like this,” I tearfully confided.  Sue’s eyes darted toward Rhys as he approached the corner of her desk from behind me.  “Next Tuesday, when I ought to be here, preparing my lesson for the following Sunday, I’ll be in a bathtub from morning to, well, the next morning, and the next morning, and the morning after that.  It’s torture.”  The only thing that kept me from crying was the shame I felt for my self-absorbed near tantrum.  And then I heard Rhys gently say, “What’s the matter?”

Another woman probably would have been embarrassed, but I’ve always gracelessly subscribed to the ‘misery loves company’ maxim where my period is concerned because I know that I am not a graceful person by nature.  A person as sick as I often am, who is expected to appear and act as does everyone else who is not as sick as I often am, cannot be graceful about it.  She might be for the first decade or so on most occasions, but after that, it isn’t her priority to spare others the discomfort of having to experience her pain vicariously.  It’s not her priority to spare others the disequilibrium that results from having to confront the fact that we live in a society ruled not by compassionate professional people, some of whom occupy gate-keeping positions within the health care industry, but rather, in a society that is run by social Darwinists, who not only have no understanding of Jesus’ teachings but don’t want one either – including, especially, those within the medicoresearch industry.  She could care less about the feelings of others who could care less about her actual torture, and that’s a shame because such a state of mind usually precludes engagement with the compassionate, few though they may be in number.  I say, ‘usually,’ because on this occasion, it didn’t.

Rhys listened, gently twirling his reading classes by the ends of their half-folded arms with his left forefinger and thumb, occasionally rubbing the back of his left hand and wrist with his right hand.  “I’m just venting, I know,” I began.  “But it’s really frustrating, trying to live a normal life while having to carve out huge chunks of it when you can’t live at all.”  I explained about how the next day I would have to start a week of sleeping in a hot tub, gobbling handfuls of Advil.  How, every day between that day and the following Wednesday, it would be the same:  Advil, bathtub, throw up, pass out; Advil, bathtub, throw up, pass out.  The following day, that would be the routine; and the next Tuesday, it would be the same routine.  The day before Tuesday would be the same as Tuesday.  “What do you have planned for next Tuesday, Rhys,” I challenged him.  “I have nothing.  I can’t have anything.  It’s ‘Advil, bath tub, throw up, pass out day.’  Think of me tomorrow; that’s what I’ll be doing.  And any time that you think of me between now and next Tuesday – any time, day or night, on the train, walking through the Garden, in a meeting, at a concert – I’ll be doing the same thing.”  That Sunday, I managed to drag myself into the church long enough to teach, and then I threw myself into a cab I could hardly afford and beat it back home.  The next Thursday was the earliest opportunity I had to get back to the church to work on the following Sunday’s lesson plan, and when I passed by Rhys’ office, I heard him quietly say, “Nice to see you.”  Slightly more civil (and a whole lot more embarrassed) that afternoon, I poked my head into his office, and he looked up from his desk – again, peering over his glasses.  “Hi.  Pretty day, isn’t it,” I muttered.  My face flushed.  He smiled, then offered, “I thought of you on Tuesday.”  It wasn’t the shot of morphine I’ve always known could restore me to normal function, but it was the first time in my life – the very first and ONLY time – another human being acknowledged my unnecessary distress as real (yes – dozens of gynecologists, PCPs, researchers included; the only relief I ever received was after five years of the antiviral treatment that cured the non-HIV/AIDS I had for a decade).  It shocked me near mute, this tiny act of compassionate seeing.  And it also reminded me that I had an obligation to my friends not to inflict my distress on them unnecessarily.  I shook my head up and down.  “Thanks,” I managed to croak, and I skittered up the stairs to my third-floor classroom before the tears started.

I don’t question for a moment Rhys’ commitment to me, or to the many others with horribly unmet health problems I’ve subsequently learned he helped.  He saw people for who they really were – in toto – not merely the trappings of their social roles and their talents and aspirations, their foibles and the challenges they faced, and none was more worthy of his ministry and friendship than another.  I prize it a gift this supremely graceful individual accepted me enough not to hold my meltdown against me.  Only the person who believes in your capacity for grace even when you don’t believe in it (or, rather, especially when you don’t believe in it) yourself can do that for you.

And what else other than this unfailing acceptance of others might anyone have expected from the person who wrote, when he applied for his own ministerial internship: "I wish to become a minister because I believe in the total worth of each person, I believe in a force beyond human understanding and the ethical values of Jesus."  He was, indeed, the truest Christian I’ve ever known, this humble Unitarian-Universalist minister – embracing with his every interaction both tenets of the Agape doctrine with evident and abundant belief in the ‘force beyond human understanding’ to which Jesus had hoped to draw our attention with his dual prescriptions.  He was – and I don’t think I’m overusing this word here – uncommonly graceful.  He could treat others with the respect he wished to receive from them because he believed each and every one of us was as capable of giving that respect to others as we were worthy of receiving it.  Here is a testimony by the (again, very sadly) late Rev. Dr. Forrest Church about Rhys’ unwavering trust in the worthiness of every person:

“I owe,” he wrote, “my own ministry to Rhys Williams.  Taking me under his wing during my years as a master's and doctoral student, he guided me from the academy to the parish.  His direction was so deft that I remained completely unaware of it.”

I feel certain that at the heart of his own ministry was Rhys’ belief that by helping others to be their best selves the best vision of humanity – the ideal of harmonious, peaceful communities of people committed to civilized society and freedom for all – was brought to reality.  In another casual conversation that Susan, Rhys and I had during my protracted deliberations on a topic for my thesis, Rhys said, “You know, the people who founded this country were idealists,” and then he dematerialized from the room, leaving me to ponder what type of people were the people who were then ruining our country.  It’s taken me some years and lots of observation of the brutal changes that have taken place in American culture and society to realize precisely what type of fascist the hypocritical moralists who have controlled our country these 30 years are – and why Rhys felt the need to draw my attention to the difference between our founding fathers and the criminals in control of our country today, no doubt anticipating the deleterious effect on our union of neocons’ political rhetoric on “values.”  One day, after being fed up to the back teeth listening to George W. Bush harp on about ‘values’ as he bombed into oblivion innocent infants, children, elderly and productive men and women in Iraq, I realized that I was listening to an arch-hypocrite – cut from the same cloth as those who had falsely accused as witches, and then hanged, their neighbors in 17th century Salem.  Same thing, his father, with his ‘thousand points of light’ cast, no doubt, by the incendiaries he lit when he set in motion the combining of local law enforcement with the most insidious of our military, the CIA, by proposing the latter share their secret weapons with the former at a time just after his predecessor made military surveillance of American political dissidents a feature of domestic policy.  “Ideals are immutable.  Freedom.  Truth.  Justice.  Everyone knows instinctively what these are, even if we can’t always agree on how to achieve them, but values are always biased.  Neo-cons say LGBT community members don’t have family values; they say, ‘Of course we do.”  Whew.  Talk about hands-on/hands-off mentoring!  One tiny – teeny tiny, if I’m honest – observation to ponder, shared at the most auspicious moment with the most receptive mind.  One itsy-bitsy musing on which to feed, as it turns out, for decades.  I think now Rhys was also a bit of a magician.

Rhys and I never talked about theology.  Church history – Anne Hutchinson and the Antinomian controversy of the Puritans; Roger Williams and the history of the separation of church and state – sure.  Not theology.  He cast an appropriately demur look at me the day I brought into the office the issue of Rolling Stone on which the Rev. Matthew Fox, author of Original Blessing:  A Primer in Creation Spirituality, was pictured in the cover art.  But for one, single question he asked me regarding my beliefs, the informal discussions Rhys and I had that touched on theological matters were just that:  informal discussions and only incidentally theological.  I can’t, therefore, say what his thoughts and feelings were about the Agape doctrine, nor would I wish to speculate on them.  We have his testimony, and we have the evidence of the life he lived as a friend to all, denying brotherhood to none.  That’s more than enough evidence of his profound understanding of it.  Still, sometimes I find myself wondering what he thought about the first of the two positive prescriptions Jesus said were the only things we G_d –revering people must do:  love G_d with all one’s heart, mind and strength.  It’s been clear to me for quite some time that Jesus conceived of G_d as the omnipresent, almighty, infinite source of all, just as Moses did, the kingdom of which is “at [our own] hand[s]” and not any type of being, however supernatural. It’s difficult for me to resist seeing Rhys’ unrelenting devotion to creating the ideal human experience as each moment to do so presented itself as evidence he believed G_d to be just as omnipresent and almighty, just as powerful a tool to create the kingdom of G_d that lies within the reach of us all – the “force beyond [ordinary] human understanding.”  He was a much bigger catalyst for creating good than I’m sure I will ever know, but as I look back on our first meeting and I once again realize that what Rhys was offering me in his greeting that day was an opportunity of engagement that might precipitate such a moment for us both, I am comforted that this vision of the kingdom of G_d was likely what he anticipated with each of his interactions.  That’s faithfulness – that act of creating the kingdom.  Sure – I sometimes miss the effortless way he offered a pointed observation to guide me in a particular, more rewarding direction than the one in which I may have been headed whenever he saw the need for it, but more than anything, I miss his presence and the tiny piece of the kingdom I was privileged to enjoy with him.  The memory of it makes me realize how accomplished a mystic was Jesus; you really don’t need ten rules or a library of Midrashim to live a good life.  You just need be passionate -- with all your faculties alert -- revering the ever-present force beyond human understanding, and you need to be respectful of others. 

St. Jerome said, “The friendship that can cease has never been real.”  It seems when I look back on it as though my friendship with Rhys couldn’t be ‘real.’  There are no high-school yearbooks penned with mutual affection; no stories of long nights studying together; no vacation pictures of our two families together; no reminiscences of joyful or sorrowful times we shared, other than the faint memory I have of the beautiful day Nory was married.  But it continues to this day, this friendship I have with Rhys.  Its effects, equally as intangible, are nevertheless vivid and palpable all around me in the confidence I have in my own ability to see truth and relate it soundly in my writing, often relying on the things I learned during my years as a member of Rhys’ church; in the certain knowledge that I have as much right to live in freedom as those who aspired to the same ideal before our country became a closed, police state; even in the righteous way in which my never-prepossessing comportment now fails to hinder my resolve to help others free themselves (I yam what I yam and that’s all what I yam).  Graceful in the way Rhys was I shall never be, I know, even though I can see his influence prodding me toward that better vision of myself all the time.  I often feel his patient, serene, subtly enthusiastic energy around me, ready to help bring to fruition whatever dream I feel compelled to contribute to this vision of the kingdom of G_d.  He is in death to me as real and as supportive a friend as he was in life.  The sense of encouragement and support I received from him when he was alive seems to grow in magnitude with each goal I accomplish, and I feel a diffusion of this same loving concern just as much (and often, more) today as I felt it when he was alive.  It never diminishes, or goes away.  I have no doubt the observations he shared with me at those three or four odd-for-so-many-reasons lunches we shared were to guide me as well, and I pray often for the ability to eek out of each of their memories every intersection, conjunction and fractal of possible meaning, implication, motivation and message of which they give evidence so that I may be as effective as I can in my work, which I hope proves me worthy of Rhys’ belief in me.  And if ultimately it doesn’t, if ultimately my work fails today to inspire others as Rhys inspired me, I’m OK with that because I understand now that the greatest testament to my friendship with him is our shared belief in a noble vision of humanity based on Jesus’ values – whatever anyone chooses to name them – and my own belief in my ability to give life to that vision in each moment I am blessed with time-space dimensions -- including by supporting others who share it.  The way is what matters, not solely the final destination.  Today, almost eight years after Rhys’ passing, the exquisite depth of insight, compassion and vision which were his alone continue to inspire in me the confidence to live my life in full faith that each moment in which I find myself is a moment of boundless opportunity for engagement with divinity and perfect therefore, no matter how dark any one of them at times may be.  I hope one day it’s said of me that I was able to befriend others this way.  I understand now, thanks to Rhys’ exemplary life, that this is the only type of friendship there is – the real friendship that lasts forever, true brotherly love.

No comments: