At a point in my life as a priest, one of my colleagues, another priest, Father
Gary Garnett, received word that he had lung cancer. It was in an advanced stage, with no medical hope. He shared the news with me in my office at the Cathedral, leaving us both in a pool of tears.
It was ironic, because Gary had stopped smoking, adopting a healthy life style, began to work out, especially on an old Schwinn exercise bike that I can still see…not exactly a Pelaton! He was on his way to health…or at least that’s what he thought.
I had met Gary years before. As a young, newly ordained priest, I often was the scheduled Celebrant at the daily Noon Eucharist in Mikell Chapel. The schedule gave each resident priest, called a Canon, one day a week to celebrate the rite of Holy Eucharist, a fancy Episcopal term for communion or Lord’s Supper for Baptist south of God.
I thought it was so generous of the other senior priests to “allow” me to celebrate on their assigned day! Little did I know of the motivation behind their generosity but I was thrilled to get the opportunity. Almost every day at Noon, I would celebrate the Holy Eucharist in that small, intimate chapel tucked beside the massive stone Cathedral. I felt like I was the luckiest priest in the world….or the most blessed (sounds more holy!).
For a number of days, I saw this distinguished looking man, graying hair, with eyes, attentive, with a sparkle, black readers perched on the end of his nose, held in place around his neck with a black cord. He was there, day after day for about a week, which made me wonder, in the immortal words of Butch and Sundance: who is this guy?
Like any bar, we had our regulars. Elizabeth Dickey who lived behind the Cathedral in the high rise retirement facility, Cathedral Towers. She was a cousin of the writer, James, but preferred not to talk of him, just saying, as she laughed nervously, he was a rascal. Phil Sapero who was around the Cathedral any time the doors were open. I was never sure of how he make a living but he was faithful in his attendance.
Elizabeth and Phil were like salt and pepper shakers in my life. Elizabeth always had a good word of encouragement, Phil would offer his latest complaint at the drop of a hat. Phil was always half a second early in his liturgical responses, as if to say he was just a little ahead of the other communicants in his personal holiness. Elizabeth who suffered with Parkinson’s, silently, was about a half a second late in her responses, with a kind of stutter. This irregular cadence kept a young priest on his toes in terms of keeping the rhythm of the rite right! Syncopated liturgy is not pleasing to the nostrils of the Most High God, or at least that is what Bishop Child taught me.
So Gary stood out from the regular crowd that shuffled in. I would always stand in the back, after the Eucharist, to greet the worshipers. It provided a great pastoral moment to check in with folks, what was going on, what was on their hearts and minds. With Gary, it was a perfunctory hand shake and polite hello for many days until I finally was overcome by curiosity.
“I’ve noticed that you are here almost every day for about a week. What’s up with that?”….a shrewd pastoral move I learned from fellow Southsider, Kenan Thompson.
Gary disclosed that he was, in fact, an Episcopal priest. He had been a “a fast track” priest in North Carolina but had “burned out” in the tornadic life of a parish priest. He had left the church, went into the antique business. I did not know him well enough at the time to ask him as to what the difference was! I asked him to join me for lunch, a daily offering of food at the Cathedral by two other players in my personal sitcom, Lamar and Christine. He joined me and told me his story, a fascinating journey of faith and self discovery. It was there, over a carefully weighed salad, that a new friend entered my life.
We continued to have lunch on occasion during the next season, with me finally asking him if he would like to celebrate the Eucharist with me at the Noon service. His eyes lit up like a Tiffany lamp. As we celebrated the Holy Mysteries together at the altar, I sensed his deep spiritual connection which flowed through his presence at this ritual action that, for many priests I had observed, had come to be a pedestrian routine. There was a naturalness, a flow that came easy, but a sense of awe that pervaded his being.
Long story shorter, we slowly increased his presence around the Cathedral with me getting him on the regular schedule of weekday celebrants. I had learned such graciousness from my elder priests! I was able to hire Gary to come onto my pastoral staff as the Pastoral Visitor, visiting our parishioners at the variety of hospitals. He became beloved by those he visited when in extremis in the hospitals as well as the Elizabeth Dickeys of the world. He was a good man, a faithful priest, and a fun guy to be around. He became one of my closest friends and valued colleagues.
So it was peculiarly hard to hear his death sentence. I went home that night very upset, at that time, self-medicating with single malt scotch. When I eventually fell asleep, I had a peculiar dream, one that was rare for me, very distinct. I dreamed I was standing alone in the same chapel where I first met Gary. Except the chapel setting was positioned on the side of the mountain in my beloved Pine Mountain area, Dowdell’s Knob to be specific, a place where FDR would picnic, a place where my grandfather would take me as a child.
I remember being in tears in the dream, a sadness deeper than the ocean of salt water tears. I looked up to the sky and cried out a damnation directed toward the Almighty that I knew dwelt there. “Damn you for letting my friend Gary die. It’s not fair!”
And then in a deep basso profundo voice, with a Southern drawl, of course……He sounded just like my mentor, Carlyle Marney, He said a simple sentence of reassurance that I reckoned was from on High: You let me worry about Gary, and you go grow roses.
That was it? I was expecting a bit more. No ontological explanation, no epistemological argument. Just this simple sentence that was distinctly remembered when I awoke.
I have to say I was gifted by a serenity that even Glenlivet could not give me. There was a calmness that was real, peculiar in the face of my previous sense of upset. I got the part about giving Gary’s fate to God, trusting in God’s grace to ferry him across the river of transition. I had given that pastoral admonition to many who has consulting with me about the vagaries of life. Trust is at the heartbeat of a living faith. Trust Gary to be cared for by God. Check. Got it.
But what about roses? I had no history of roses other than wearing them on Mother’s Day at a Baptist Church to proclaim that my mother was alive. It was a fine unquestioned Southern custom that was just one of many. But grow roses?
I can’t remember the exact sequence of events but I took the godly admonition seriously enough to consult expert rosarian, Burl Brown, as to how to grow roses…and, as he framed it, how to do it right.
Basically, Burl said the key was to amend the soil. I live in a part of the country that is known for its red clay. Good for making pots but not so much as a soil for growing plants. Burl advised me to dig out the clay in my proposed rose beds, about three to four feet down. Are you kidding me? Do you really want to grow roses, Burl asked.
Install French drains. What the hell is that? Add a soil mixture of sand, peat moss, vermiculite, perlite, and a special super secret mix of additives that if I tell you, I’d have to kill you. The alchemy of rosarians is magical and mystical which seems that it should leave you with a cosmic high. It does not. It leaves you sweaty and smelly, and not of incense.
Burl told me that a precise, predictable amount of water if critical. He counseled me to install a drip irrigation system, with scientific timer, individual tubes that would measure the number of drops of water to each plant. Wow. Amazingly, I installed it and when I turned it on for the initial watering, my house did not blow up. Good so far.
What about disease? In the humidity of the South, black spot is just waiting to ruin your gorgeous perfect roses. And insects love roses, LOVE roses. The amateur answer: pesticides, more accurately known as poison. When you have to wear gloves, a face mask to limit the inhalation of carcinogens, you might get the message that this is some dangerous stuff. And it is. Burl was clear this was to be avoided, that I was to be an organic rosarian. This is possible if you choose your roses carefully, prepare the beds, amend the soil, fertilize properly, monitor the water. Your roses should thrive. And you, you will experience a self-satisfaction, a pride that is remarkable. Being an organic rosarian, you will feel special, a cut above. But I already felt that. I am an Episcopalian.
That year I grew some amazing roses. And my thrill was taking them to share with my staff, particularly Gary.
But the real lesson was hidden immediately but revealed in praxis. All the hard work which my friend Burl had prescribed was simply living life. Of preparing with care the things you could, tending to the things given to your charge, caring for them by properly giving them what they need, and enjoying the beauty right there in front of you. That was the secret I discovered. Taking care of the little plot of ground that has been entrusted to you so that things can grow. For me, the word that captures that clear attention is FOCUS.
It proved to be true in relationships, in parenting, in leadership, and in living. Advice given in the flow of a dream, delivered with a Southern drawl.