Priest and Poet – Andy Parker – 1957-2018

Andy Parker – Priest and Poet – 1956-2018

The Triumph of Love


So – Croker, MacSikker, O’Shem – I ask you
what are poems for? They are to console us
with their own gift, which is like perfect pitch.
Let us commit that to our dust. What
ought a poem to be? Answer, a sad
and angry consolation
. What is
the poem? What figures? Say,
a sad and angry consolation. That’s
beautiful. Once more? A sad and angry

Geoffrey Hill from Selected Poems, Yale University Press, 2006

Geoffrey Hill might have taken these words, a sad and angry consolation, from Italian writer Leopardi but he makes them his own in this startling description of poetry, what it should be: a sad and angry consolation. That fits for me today with the shocking death from cancer of my beloved friend Andy Parker from Houston. Andy, dead, I still can’t believe it, at 61 after a five-month fight against cancer.

And so with those words in mind, a sad and angry consolation, I share this fierce poem by Anglo American poet David Whyte. Its sad and angry consolation. The consolation from stating so poetically the truth, the isness, of his grief. I dedicate this poem to Andy. I feel the same anger and confusion at the wrenchingly quick illness that took Andy from us, as does Whyte in this poem at the unexpected death of his friend:


For Tom Charlotte

Last night they came with news of death
not knowing what I would say.
I wanted to say,
“The green wind is running through the fields
making the grass lie flat.”
I wanted to say,
“The apple blossom flakes like ash
covering the orchard wall.”
I wanted to say,
“the fish float belly up in the slow stream,
stepping stones to the dead.”
They asked if I would sleep that night,
I said I did not know.
For this loss I could not speak,
the tongue lay idle in a great darkness,
the heart was strangely open,
the moon had gone,
and it was then
when I said, “He is no longer here”
that the night put its arms around me
and all the white stars turned bitter with grief.

David Whyte from River Flow – New & Selected Poems 1984-2007, Many Rivers Press, 2007

This is one of my favorite David Whyte poems. How it captures the shock and surprise of grief at the death of a beloved friend. That sense of dislocation. Blossoms like ash, fish belly up, fish as stepping stones to the dead. A world gone wrong. And this morning when I heard the news, my world gone wrong, terribly. No night to put its arms around me. No white stars, bitter with grief. Just west coast gray clouds. And rain.

When I think of Andy I can’t separate him from poetry. Nor from prayer. How he used poetry so often for devotional purposes to take him deeper into the mystery of God whom he so trusted all the way through his life as an Episcopalian priest. One of those poems was by Geoffrey Hill, a favorite poet of his, and I wish I could remember it. He had it memorized, and he recited it once impromptu with the English priest and poet Malcolm Guite in Houston.

When Andy knew he had cancer he began to meditate through particular poems to give him strength. One such poem he shared with me was this much celebrated poem by Rainer Maria Rilke as translated by Robert Bly:

The Man Watching

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great.
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Robert Bly from Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke,Harper & Row, 1981

Andy and I talked about this poem a month or so ago and I promised him I would memorize it. Haven’t yet. But I will! I promise! Andy read out these lines: What we choose to fight is so tiny!/ What fights with us is so great. He went on: When we win it’s with small things, / and the triumph itself makes us small./ What is extraordinary and eternal/ does not want to be bent by us. Ouch, I say. But I wonder if he was consciously bending to a courageous acceptance of his illness? Trusting God. Trusting the deep poetic wisdom he felt in this poem.

Then Andy kept reading about the wrestlers being beaten by the angel and then read out the line he said resonated most with him: Winning does not tempt that man. I don’t remember if he finished reading the last lines. They sure get me: This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively/ by constantly greater beings.

Andy was gentle man. But oh, so strong. But not in a look-at-me way. His strength came from deep integrity inside him. It made his gentleness for me even that more admirable. I felt that strength in his choice of this poem.

Andy didn’t stop fighting when the cancer hit. He kept working and enduring the impact of his drugs with great courage. And I wonder as I read this poem again and again if he found a comfort in the idea of accepting the possibility of defeat without giving up and from this gaining a sense of spiritual strength? Now, I wish I had asked him this directly.

I so appreciate that in thinking of him hours after his death I am thinking of him in the context of a poem. Of wrestling over what it meant for him. Because it was poetry and God that brought Andy I together when we met at the Glen Writers’ Workshop in Santa Fe in the late 2000’s. There Andy invited me to lead a poetry as prayer retreat in the Fall of 2009 for his parishioners at St. Timothy’s in Lake Jackson, south of Houston, where he was the rector. A gift I will cherish always!

I led that retreat for nine years in Lake Jackson and another two in 2016 and 2017 in Houston after Andy and his wife Liz (also a cherished friend of mine and an Episcopalian priest) moved to new parishes there; Andy as rector of Emmanuel and Liz as the associate priest at Palmer Memorial. I was scheduled to lead another Houston retreat a few weeks ago but my health and Andy’s made that impossible.

In June this year Andy and Liz sent me a birthday present: a book of prayers. Many of them poems. Here is an excerpt from one by John Henry Newman:

So long thy power has blest me, sure it still
            Will lead me on
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
            The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

I don’t doubt for a moment this prayer/poem would resonate with Andy. Priest and poet. Not an unusual combination according to this quote by Friedrich von Hardenberg-Novalis:

“Poet and priest were one in the beginning – only later times have separated them. The true poet is however always a priest, just as the true priest has always remained a poet. Ought not the future to bring back this ancient condition of things.” In this, perhaps Andy was ahead of the times. Already priest and poet.

Dear father, dear grandfather, dear husband, dear friend, dear priest and poet. Farewell. So many will miss you.