Sunday, October 14, 2018

An Elegant Soul in LIfe and Death: James Keegan, S.J.

The Rev. James Keegan, S. J. (1940-2018), a man of wit and wisdom who brought life to others through his ready grin, bold heart, and sharp mind—always ready to leap the bounds of traditional religious rigidities, died this week into the great mercies of God.
I say this, not because Jim complained or was fed up with life. Not at all. Jim gave life every ounce of everything he had for 78 years. He was born in Franklin New Hampshire, grew up attending Roman Catholic schools and Boston College where he majored in English. He taught high school English and theology in Portland Maine and then was assigned to Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There he met William Barry under whose tutelage he learned to pray, fell in love with Jesus in his own flesh and prayer, and was ordained a priest in 1971—a late vocation you could say. Still, his early experience formed him to be, to use an old-fashioned sort of word, well rounded: all life mattered. Jim Keegan's mantra was: seize life!

In his last years Jim struggled with the diminishments of Parkinson’s disease for many years. He had lost mobility, speech, and most recently, bore up under a case of shingles as a “bonus". Yet Jim retained a sharp sense of the divine voice and energy, so much so that he received visits from people who sought him out for spiritual guidance and direction until just a week before his death.

[NOTE: Despite what you might have heard anywhere from anyone, God doesn’t cause any of this. It just happens. Still, some people seem to have more suffering to bear than others—again, by nature’s design, not divine design, or desire. The sacred holy heart weeps with us who weep, and wept, for Jim.]

The Rev. Jim Weiss, Episcopal priest and Professor of Theology at Boston College, as well as one of Keegan’s directees, shared his own reflections: “The last time I saw Jim for direction I told him I had nothing much to say, that I’d been busy and hadn’t even prayed as I would like. Jim, whose head drooped low and whose speech was generally unintelligible, suddenly lifted his head, his eyes bright and focused, and said clearly: ‘That’s just what you think. There’s a lot more going on.’”

Weiss also revealed that two things about Jim Keegan had stayed predictable and constant right up to the end: his sweet tooth and his penchant for puns. He loved chocolate chip cookies [I can identify!] and wherever he was, in his long career as a Jesuit priest, spiritual guide, teacher and friend, his family sent him tins of cookies. When the cookies arrived his colleagues hung out and hovered, like children ready to pilfer from the cookie jar. Jim would tell them: “There’s a toll for the Toll House Cookies, you know.”

The sermon, delivered by Jim’s friend of many years, Richard W. Bollman, S.J. of Milton, Ohio, was quite splendid—faithful to the person and wealth of character of his buddy as well as to the gospel message of hope in the midst of inevitable aging and death. In John 21, the risen Christ grills Simon Peter about the fortitude of his love. Christ is remembered in John’s gospel as saying to Peter: “When you are old, you will stretch out your hands. Someone else will dress you. Someone else will lead you where you do not want to go.”

Will Peter carry out the vision of love and service in the best and worst of times?  Will we?

Bollman spoke about his visits to Keegan. The phrase he used about pushing his dear friend about in a wheelchair was: “It softened my competence.” Most of us can admit with honesty that when we are helping someone who is disabled, we secretly think about how good it is that we are just fine and able. I know that’s my first thought. Bollmann told us, however, that giving companionship to his suffering friend over time “fractured my poise.” He was plunged into his own vulnerability and rage at Parkinson’s. “Like Simon Peter in the gospel story, I was led somewhere I did not want to go,” he said.  

Jim Keegan’s poems are equal to his presence in the flesh. Words and feelings, raw and real, all move as one. One day in the midst of the dawning of awareness about his condition, he examined his own hands with dismay. As he did, he received a strong vision—newborn hands. It inspired him to write this poem, called “Hands.” The title of Keegan’s collection of poems is These Hands.

When did these hands become foreign to me?
Skewed like a lobster’s claws: about ten degrees
off at the wrist—and bony? Puffy blue rivers
of blood run north-northwest up their back side.

And when did these hands make enemies of
buttonholes, zippers, clasps, snaps, fasteners of
all sorts, screws, safety pins, paper clips or
any kind of knot? Did it happen in my sleep?

My sleep has been visited in recent weeks by a
newborn boy in a crowd. He looks at me and laughs,
stretches out to me ten perfect fingers and
holds my scarred flesh in his divine

Bollman had agreed to come and preach for one reason only: “Because he asked me.” Now here standing in front of the casket he asked his beloved friend: What do you want them to know?  The answer he received was: Tell them that it all belongs.

It all belongs.  Thank you Jim, and goodbye.