Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church by Dan Cryer
I finished this biography too late last night and it stuck with me for a few restless hours. Because of mutual friends, we attended Church's ordination in a Unitarian-Universalist Church in Boston in the early 70s so I have followed his career somewhat over the years.
"Being alive and having to die" was why Church said people responded with religion. He was very much alive and amazingly prolific in his writing, his preaching and his pastoring of the All Souls congregation in New York City. He died with great grace and courage at age 61 of esophageal cancer. He smoked and drank heavily for years until he admitted his alcholism and remained sober for the last several years of his life. He almost lost his position due to an affair with a parishioner whom he subsequently married. Cryer, a parishioner of All Souls, admired Church greatly and spent much time with him in the last few years, but this biography is not hagiography.
Church's mantra: "Want what you have. Do what you can. Be what you are."
When asked if he would really want cancer, he replied, " We cannot wish away all that is wrong with us without including all that is right. Each day that I am sick, I pray for the sun to come up, for people to love me, for manageable tasks that I can stil accomplish, for a little extra courage."
Later he said when interviewed, "I don't pray for miracles. I don't pray to cure my incurable cancer. I receive and consecrate each day that I'm given as a gift. I have no idea what happens after we die, and so I go with Henry David Thoreau, who, when he was asked about the afterlife, said, 'Madam, I prefer to take it one life at a time'...One of the beautiful things about a terminal illness is that your friendships become stronger. Your loved ones become more vital and more present. Each day becomes more beautiful. You unwrap the present and receive it as the gift it is. You walk through the valley of the shadow, and it's riddled with light."
There is much I find puzzling about Church's beliefs. I cannot understand picking and choosing Jesus' words and considering him a great man and teacher but denying or ignoring his words about being one with the Father and his death and resurrection. But I very much admire Church's courage in dying and hope that someday I can find that kind of grace when needed.