This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  May 6, 2005

A fellow pilgrim: Jerry May, 64


Psychiatrist and author Dr. Gerald “Jerry” May died April 8 at age 64. He came from an interesting family: His half-brother was Rollo May, a pioneer in the holistic approach to psychology, and their father a Methodist minister. Rollo May’s The Courage to Create was one of the formative books in my adult life. Implicit in all Rollo May’s works was a recognition and respect for the spiritual life. He was just what the doctor ordered.

Imagine my wonderment, then, when, later, his half-brother Jerry became a fellow pilgrim in one of the early Shalem Institute meditation groups. Thirty years younger than Rollo, who died in 1994, Jerry too worked in the area of the mind. A psychiatrist, he found the border of mind and soul fascinating country, and he never ceased to explore that terrain. He came to the meditation group as a seeker, like the rest of us, longing for a taste of silence, trying to fathom what spiritual lights like Thomas Merton had discovered. Our first meetings were wordless, and unforgettable.

The following year -- it would have been the early ’70s -- the director of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation asked Jerry and me if we would co-lead another meditation group. And so we entered into a different way of knowing: planning and talking and praying for those entrusted to us once a week. Except Jerry never thought we were leading the group. He believed -- I dare to say he knew -- that the Spirit was the group’s true guide. He came to that sure knowledge through his work at a drug addiction program in Lancaster, Pa. He told me that he watched patients get better not through his intervention but through something of a spiritual nature, often through the power of prayer. His description of medical healing, physical and mental, was simple enough. Treatment consists of cleansing, alignment and rest, he said. Period. He practiced these skills and beliefs in psychiatric clinics, in jails and with private patients. I once asked him if he ever prayed with his patients, and he allowed that he always prayed for them outside the therapeutic hour. I wasn’t quite sure what happened within the hour.

We co-led a meditation group for several years, worked together on the early stages of Shalem’s Spiritual Guidance Program and ventured into our first books about the same time. In all of these endeavors one could sense that Jerry never really took himself seriously. His was the lightest of touches, his spirit the humblest. You could tell he was having fun being alive. I wondered if his experience as an Air Force psychiatrist in Vietnam (he refused to carry a gun) led him to the point of radical trust.

One of his early books, Addiction and Grace, had as the original title Attachment and Grace -- Jerry’s point being that we all have attachments of one kind or another and as St. John of the Cross (a Carmelite mystic much admired by Jerry) noted, a bird can be held down by a thread or a rope. For freedom to flourish attachment must go. Apparently the publishers thought “addiction” was a more modern term. In any case, the thesis held, and the book was read and discussed worldwide. Other books grew out of his experiential knowledge, broad reading and study. Simply Sane: Stop Fixing Yourself and Start Really Living reflected his fundamental philosophy. Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology, published in 1983, uncovers the distinctions between willfulness (and its blockage of the Spirit) and willingness (and the welcoming of the Spirit). Jerry’s evolving vocation as a contemplative is evident in this work.

One of his last books, written as his body was being diminished by one illness after another, The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth, is again reflective of his appreciation of the Carmelite way.

A generation ago a friend of mine, a librarian, embarked on a course of study to become a poetry therapist. When she discovered that she would have to enter into a year of therapy to be licensed she asked me for recommendations. I suggested Jerry. She later told me that the year of therapy was one of the most enriching years she had ever known. I shared her compliment with Jerry who replied, smiling of course, “I learned so much from her.” I’m sure that was true. As I think about and pray for these old friends during these after-Easter days, I am reminded of a few lines from the Carmelite poet Jessica Powers: “If you have nothing, gather back your sigh,/and with your hands held high, your heart held high,/lift up your emptiness.”

Jerry May gave up his psychiatric practice in 1988 but he remained a senior fellow with the Shalem Institute until the end. The loss I grieve is not only about memory, it is about the future. With ever new explorations of the border of mind and soul, and all that can be learned there, I can imagine Jerry May fully engaged in new discoveries.

Dolores Leckey, a resident fellow at Woodstock Theological Institute, is a former director of the family, women and laity secretariat of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

National Catholic Reporter, May 6, 2005

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: