Post 26: An 86-year-old priest wants “to not merely survive but to thrive with dignity, verve and joy.”

This week I want to introduce my readers to Father William O’Malley, an 86-year-old Jesuit priest who, at the end of 2017, shared ten New Year’s resolutions and his desire to “not merely survive but to thrive with dignity, verve and joy.” (National Catholic Reporter, January 2, 2018)

Some of you might remember Father O’Malley for the role he played in the Exorcist – that of Father Joseph Dyer. Dyer was friends with Damian Karras whom Regan, the possessed 12-year-old, threw out the window and down the steps near my Georgetown office.  Something to think about each time I walk by!

But fast forward some 45 years and back to Father O’Malley’s column! He begins by recollecting that he and fellow Jesuit Larry Madden (former pastor here at the Jesuit Trinity Church in Georgetown) used to write musicals based on serious, well known literary classics.  They did it as a way of avoiding the drudgery of seminary life. He writes:

Let’s hear it for arrogance — a musical version of The Odyssey. I wrote a lyric for Odysseus just as he’s trying finally to escape his gilded imprisonment by Calypso. It proved to be prescient. I’m now at an age to understand I was right all those years.

Shall I run and hide my fistful of stars

Or try to harvest them all?

Shall I sit inside secure by a hearth

When the sky’s on fire with their call?

Just to sit and be makes a no one of me

When the gods make the winds blow fair.

And it matters not if I find the spot.

In the going, I’m already there.

That’s where my soul’s at right now.

After 60 years of taunting young minds in high schools and colleges to welcome their odysseys with imagination, fine hearts and quick wits, I’m forcibly retired without the “aged wife” Tennyson gave my forebear. Now, I age along with other beached seafarers wrapped in their own myths of what more or less were our lives. Tennyson’s Ulysses exhorted his old mates:

 We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 …

 Dylan Thomas exhorted us, along with his father, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and a great many readers and I vibrate to Willy Loman: “You can’t eat the orange, and throw the peel away — a man is not a piece of fruit.” And again Tennyson: “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, to rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! As tho’ to breathe were life!”

 What can life legitimately keep asking of us — and we of ourselves and of life — when there’s no real demand that we obey the morning alarm clock, when kids (and even grandkids) are old enough to resist intrusion, however well-intentioned, when the carcass itself sends weary messages? I’ve learned a thing or two because I’ve seen a thing or two, so, here, for you as well as for me, are my prayers and resolutions for the New Year: 

  1. Help me not merely to survive but to thrive with dignity, verve and joy.
  2. Make me contagious with all the aliveness I have left in me.
  3. Encourage me to be more readily forgiving, not just of others but myself.
  4. Firm up my patience with imperfection now that it’s more difficult to avoid.
  5. Make me both prudent and patient in yielding lest I become an amiable pushover.
  6. Remind me that my caregivers have bad days, too.
  7. Allow me a reasoned opinion without becoming opinion-bound.
  8. Sensitize me to the signals that say it’s OK to ask, “How’s it goin’?”
  9. Keep me aware that, if I forget all this, I waste a lot of learning.
  10. Remind me you had a reason to create things that eventually wear out.

Just to sit and be makes a no one of me.

When the gods make the winds blow fair.

And it matters not if I find the spot.

In the going, I’m already there.

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