Issue Date:  December 21, 2007

Fr. Edward Hays
A worldly summons into Divine Mystery

Fr. Edward Hays encourages holy fools and Mad Hatters


Fr. Edward M. Hays recalled with a smile a time when priests who were not members of religious orders were called “secular.” To some, the term secular seemed diminishing, so they came to be called diocesan priests.

By contrast, Hays today hails the notion of being a secular or worldly priest. He views the world as the domain of the Spirit, even Spirit itself, and said that Christians, believers in the Incarnation, should be especially worldly people. It is a view that took root in an unusual career twist for a cleric -- when his bishop decades ago instructed him to take off for far-off places and to come home ready to pray.

For some 35 years now the poet-priest Hays has been teaching us, through some 30 books, in his casual, lighthearted, often tongue-in-cheek style, to recognize the mundane -- washing clothes, eating vegetables, holding hands, changing diapers -- as invitations into Divine Mystery.

The seams between the secular and sacred, flesh and spirit, dissolve in Hays’ unusual mind and writings. So to describe Hays as a contemporary spiritual author is only partially correct, because the description engages a traditional dualistic view of flesh and spirit that doesn’t entirely apply to Hays’ approach.

“In my books I don’t use ecclesial language because most of those words are zombie words. They go by like empty box cars. You have to find words that make people think. Grace, for example, is a zombie word. It’s beautiful, but nevertheless a zombie word. But if you speak about ‘God’s energy,’ or about ‘nuclear energy’ in the Eucharist, you might better connect. The word ‘salvation’ is another dead word. It really means ‘liberation.’ So we can see that Christ really came as our liberator.”

This interpreter of life is quick to say he is no theologian, merely “a translator of the message of the teacher.”

“New language always needs to be cultivated to keep old ideas alive. To remain vibrant the Gospel has to be constantly translated,” he said. And where does he look for information to be translated? “From newspapers, odd bits of trivia, daily chores, they all make up the fabric of holiness in daily life.”

It is not difficult to locate a Hays book on a bookshelf. An “amateur artist,” he draws the illustrations for most of his book covers. They reveal his unique imagination, a locus of fire-eating dragons, celestial rabbits, magic lanterns, court jesters or a ladder reaching to the stars.

-- Illustrations by Ed Hays

When asked for a photo of himself, Fr. Edward Hays sent this "self-portrait."

“Learning is 80 percent visual, since we are prehistorically oriented to images instead of linear words,” Hays said, explaining the drawings that embellish his books’ text. “Jesus spoke in pictures, parables and metaphors. So I strive to write my paintings (calling them parable-icons) and paint my novels and other books.”

Hays’ books are filled with parables, fables and legends that keep them engaging. “Stories and parables,” he said, “never grow old or lose their magic, magnetic power because they are soul stories.”

He is a funny person, gentle to the core, but stubborn too. A publisher’s worst nightmare, he enjoys writing but avoids all forms of self-promotion. He does not do book tours, rarely does public speaking, and unlike most other authors, never allows his mug shot on his book jackets. “Not good for the spirit.” He does not normally allow interviews, and it took some coaxing to persuade him to agree to one for this article.

* * *

I met up with him recently as he was entering a Chinese restaurant where we had agreed to have lunch. It’s not difficult to spot him. At 76, he walks quickly, stands erect at 6 feet 2 inches, and wears a neatly trimmed white beard, matching the color of his hair.

“Here, Tom,” he said, beaming. “Take this.” He plopped into my hand what he called his “new driver’s license.” But this one, he said, allowed him to fly dirigibles. Dirigibles? Next to his photo was a picture of a sleek dirigible and next to it an image of a man wearing a cap and looking like a character out of the Beatles’ movie “Yellow Submarine.”

“So what do you think?” he asked smiling and feigning pride.

This man is imagination put to purpose. He once told me he is a “God spy.” Beneath his sometimes disarmingly madcap manners the plausible always lurks.

It’s as if he wants to point out that anything worth taking seriously shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

Within minutes we were inside sipping green tea and I was pushing him about his playful nature. “Yeah, I’m a clown,” he admitted. “I think I mentioned in [his book] Holy Fools that all courts once had jesters, fools.” And their purpose, he continued, was to speak the truth, to say in clever ways things that, if said by others, “they’d cut their heads off.”

Hours later I looked through Holy Fools and Mad Hatters: A Handbook for Hobbyhorse Holiness, published in 1993, and found this passage: “We might gain a unique insight into the personality of Jesus by imagining him wearing a black top hat! It would be no ordinary top hat, but a crazy one like the Mad Hatter’s in Alice in Wonderland. Jesus, the Mad Hatter, would open our eyes to the fact that he often seemed as crazy at the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll’s tea party. What made Jesus appear so eccentric to many was his profound belief in God’s presence here and now.”

That’s Hays explaining Jesus, the iconoclast, but it might well have been Hays explaining Hays, the iconoclast. “Spirituality has a reputation for being a solemn, serious undertaking, and I personally -- and in my writings -- do not find the quest to be a joyless adventure.”

When not writing at his home in Leavenworth, Kan., or painting and drawing, he is out on the road advising those who seek his direction. He calls this work “spiritual misdirection.”

“You know, I’m probably misleading people.” If so, they seem to feel fine about it. Hays attracts souls like a magnet. People find in him a quiet presence. Stillness surrounds him wherever he goes.

The story of that stillness begins in the mid-1950s when a young Midwestern youth couldn’t make up his mind about whether to become a priest or an artist. Eventually a friend advised him that if he went to art school, he wouldn’t be able to be a priest. However, if he went to the seminary he could still practice art. Art school may never have been an impediment to priesthood, but off to the seminary he went.

In 1958, Hays, after eight years of study in a Missouri Benedictine monastery, Conception Abbey, was ordained a priest for the Kansas City, Kan., archdiocese. But from the outset, he recalls, he found something missing in his prayer life.

“I was concerned so I went to my archbishop, Ignatius Strecker,” Hays recalled. “It took me a while to get my courage up, but I asked him for three months off to go to a Trappist monastery to see if I could learn how to pray again.”

Strecker surprised the young priest, suggesting that three months was not enough. The archbishop further wondered if he could learn anything new in an American monastery. So the archbishop suggested his young priest take more time and wander around the world, praying with all kinds of people. “That’s the way to learn to pray,” Strecker said.

“I was flabbergasted.

“ ‘Have you ever been to the Holy Land?’

"The Jesse tree is an evergreen sign of God's ability to sprout a new divine dream after it has been cut back and apparently destroyed," Heys wrote for NCR when this artwork appeared on the 2002 Christmas cover.

“I said, ‘No,’ and he said, ‘That might be a place.’ I said, for some reason -- because I had not consciously thought about it -- I could go to India or Tibet.

“ ‘Fine, go,’ Strecker said, adding, ‘If you come back,’ and I loved the if, ‘what do you want to do?’

“I said, ‘I guess if I take a whole year to pray, I could take any assignment.’ He said, ‘Good. Your only assignment will be to pray. We’ll buy some old house and you’ll live there, and when people want to learn about prayer, they can come and talk to you.’ ”

The year was 1971; Hays was 39. Three months later he took off with a backpack for India. “As I traveled through foreign countries, for I didn’t speak the language, I had this longing to share with somebody what I was experiencing, both inside me, spiritually, and outwardly, so I began to write a daily journal as a way of doing that.”

That daily journal was to become the first book he ever wrote. To this date he has never offered it for publication, though he thinks one day he might.

“That trip had changed me, changed my thinking,” Hays said.

With an interpreter, he visited Hindu holy men living in caves at the base of the Himalayas. “Those experiences opened my heart to the catholicity, the universality, of prayer and of the search for holiness,” he said.

Hays recalls seeing a Hindu holy man, who had taken a vow of silence for 40 or 50 years, sitting in a cave. He wrote questions on a slate. Had he ever seen God? The holy man wrote, “Yes” several times, each with larger letters. And then Hays chalked back: “What’s necessary to see God?”

The man grabbed the slate again and replied: “You must have a pure heart.”

“Wow! I was blown away. Those were exactly the same words as Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God.’ ”

Those kinds of experiences were repeated again and again, Hays recalled of that formative trip. “I had found that my own religion’s truths could be found in other religions too.”

After returning from India, Hays learned that he was to be charged by Strecker to set up a house of prayer on 120 acres of timbered farmland outside Leavenworth. The land had one structure, a horse barn. Hays took up residence nearby in a small camper. Soon he attracted an eight-member lay community. Inspired by the simplicity of the ashrams or prayer houses in India, Hays’ community renovated the horse barn. They made an altar out of an old manger on the original dirt floor of the barn. The community was to be grounded in simple living and contemplative prayer.

Being so un-churchlike, Hays recalls, required a new kind of prayer. “You couldn’t celebrate churchy liturgies or churchy prayer inside a barn, so that gave birth to the book Prayers for the Domestic Church,” a writing project begun in the early 1970s and published in 1978.

Prayers for the Domestic Church: A Handbook for Worship in the Home remains to date his best-selling work. In it one finds countless ordinary prayers and rituals, like ones used for blessing a Christmas tree or renewing the commitments of two people, or blessing a marriage bed or accompanying the taking of medicine.

“Rituals and prayers are significant.” Hays explained. “They’re one of the great gifts of our tradition because they are awakening sacraments to experience the divine presence in the most humdrum, the most common of human activities.”

From the meager beginning of that horse barn eventually grew the house of contemplative prayer known as Shantivanam, a Kansas City, Kan., archdiocesan prayer and retreat center that Hays directed for 23 years. Shantivanam is a Sanskrit word that translates to Forest of Peace.

The Forest of Peace publishing house grew out of that prayer center and became the principal vehicle for Hays’ books until Ave Maria Press took over the Forest of Peace imprint in 2003. It now publishes Hays’ works.

Hays’ writings have been influenced by other writers and authors. I asked him to name the most influential.

  • Thomas Merton: “I loved his books. I sensed great depths in his writing, but I had difficulty comprehending what he was talking about. He was speaking about a depth, a degree of prayerfulness that I didn’t have when I was in my 20s, and that was a struggle. That was something that had to come with age and experience.”
  • G.K. Chesterton: “I delighted in his use of paradox. That would become an integral part of my writing also.”
  • Jesuit Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “His cosmic dimension to theology and prayer really exploded the frontiers of my inner life.”
  • Matthew Fox: “His On Becoming a Musical, Mystical Bear delighted me because it was confirming -- good books confirm what you feel, what you think -- and his is a spirituality of naturalness, of the everyday-ness of the presence of God.”

Hays’ spirit seems irrepressibly upbeat. So two years back when he was finding himself down he decided to write a book on joy, published last year. Chasing Joy, he said, grew out of his “great distress” over the Iraq war and what he sees as reversal of the Second Vatican Council. “I was getting grumpy and I said, ‘No, I’m not going to let any pope or president take away my joy, an inheritance that Jesus promised, a gift to his disciples.’ ” And thus his book on how to live joyfully in bad times came to life, another example of his “translation” endeavors.

In his next book, Hays will continue to shine light on darkness. As a counselor he has listened to stories of Catholics alienated from their church. He calls them “Exodus Christians,” not “fallen away” but “pushed away” Catholics. Ave Maria says the book will offer instruction, guidance and reassurance.

As I was nearing the end of my interview the subject turned to Hays’ acquaintances, many of them strong advocates of justice in the church and wider society, their disappointments and some recent deaths. The sometimes whimsical Hays grew quiet and philosophic.

“I like to use for myself a saying,” he said. “ ‘Any dream worth giving your life for that you can see in your lifetime isn’t worth giving your life for.’ So you’re always living out a dream, a hope, an aspiration, that you won’t see, but if it’s a great one, worth your life, then it’s worth it.”

By that measure, Hays’ readers would agree, his dreams have been worth a life -- and more.

Tom Fox is a former NCR editor and publisher.

National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2007

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