Another Bernie, a loving, quietly radical priest, has died

This memorial piece was first posted to the Anglican Kossacks group blog at Daily Kos. Father Bernie is also one of the religious influences to whom I dedicated my lengthy socialized reflection piece on Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium.

I can’t do this “justice,” but I wanted to at least acknowledge to Anglican Kossacks and others who may be interested the loss of someone not particularly well-known but nonetheless very special to the faith and justice movement of the southeast. Not everyone earns a doctorate in theology from Accademia Alphonsiana in Rome at the height of liberation theology and does a dissertation on “Civil Disobedience as a Christian Option.” Not everyone then brings this audacious scholarship, blends it with a warm Irish soul, and influences a generation of minds to consider that concern for the poor and disenfranchised is far more important in God’s eyes than material success. Thus did my dear Father Bernie.

I will be driving from Nowheresville across the Deep South on Saturday to Jacksonville, Florida, where my spiritual father will be memorialized on Sunday. It was with great sadness that I received an email from a friend on Thursday with this gut-wrenching information:

Death Announcement

The Rev. Robert Wallace Bernard (Bernie) Dooly died on Sunday, May 31, 2015. Fr. Bernie faithfully served as Canon of St. John’s Cathedral from 1994-2001, beloved Chaplain of the Episcopal University Center, Ruge Hall, in Tallahassee from 1979 – 1994, and also served at Trinity Episcopal Parish in St. Augustine from 1977-1979.

A Celebration of his Life will be held at St. John’s Cathedral, 256 East Church Street, Jacksonville, this Sunday, June 7th, during the 10:30 a.m. service. There will be a potluck lunch held in Taliaferro Hall following the service. All are welcome to attend.

Rest eternal grant to him, O Lord; And let light perpetual shine upon him.
May his soul and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

I know for a fact that at least one democratic socialist who also happens to be an Episcopalian will be in attendance. The person whom we will be honoring is why I am both, although he made no effort to recruit me into any recognized political movement.

Father Bernie was the kindest most vivacious soul I have ever met. However, his kindness and vivaciousness did not leave him meek before injustice. He was quite clear that he did not like what the Republicans were doing to the U.S. and our world in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. That was when I was part of his flock, or more accurately, his organic community of fun, deep conversation, contemplative prayer, Taizé music, folk guitar, and shared simple meals.

To me, in hindsight, he was like an Irish American Martin Luther King, Jr., liberating me from a lifetime of self-recrimination and isolation. He preached with no more than a few notes written on a bulletin wonderful, honest, and passionate sermons from the heart and the mind. He said that the first obligation of a human being toward God is to bring God our authenticity. Imagine that, being honest with, as opposed to fearful of, God.

***

One lonely Friday night in the early summer, I happened to make eye contact with a friendly “Masters in Social Work” student standing near me outside a used book store as I walked to my car to leave. She was with a group of women laughing and chatting, and I did not have much laughter or chatting in my life at that time.

Somehow, I’ll call it a miracle, she said hi, and seemingly started peppering me with difficult questions like “How’s it going?” and “What are you up to?,” but it did not seem flirtatious. She simply seemed to be a very self-assured and observant person who did not need to act like we had not seen each other. It was almost like that moment in Steppenwolf:

Trying to postpone returning home, where he fears all that awaits him is his own suicide, Harry walks aimlessly around the town for most of the night, finally stopping to rest at the dance hall where the man had sent him earlier. He happens on a young woman, Hermine, who quickly recognizes his desperation. They talk at length; Hermine alternately mocks Harry’s self-pity and indulges him in his explanations regarding his view of life, to his astonished relief. Hermine promises a second meeting, and provides Harry with a reason to live (or at least a substantial excuse to continue living) that he eagerly embraces.

It felt wonderful to be courteously interrogated. We immediately started chatting intently about authors we liked. It was to me like coming to a fountain in the desert. I am embarrassed to say, looking back, but this was, believe it or not, new to me in my by then late 20’s, this idea of simply having an open intellectual conversation about books, particularly with a female. She said that she loved A. A. Milne, the author of Winnie the Pooh. I said that I loved C.S. Lewis, and she lit up.

C.S. Lewis was, indeed, quite important to me at that time in my life, although, strangely enough, I had only read his non-fiction rather than his fiction. While still in fundamentalism, I had discovered through C.S. Lewis that I might be able to maintain thought processes without abandoning Christianity. But at that time the path remained more than foggy; there seemed to be no path at all, just dreary fear of hell, for which I had worn out my enthusiasm. And while I had recently abandoned fundamentalism, there was as of yet no path forward, just a feeling of being lost in the woods of my mind and sad life history.

She said that I needed to come hear Father Bernie, who knew all about C.S. Lewis’s fiction and who preached these incredible brilliant sermons like nothing I would have ever heard before.

This was a wow moment that was the first of many wow moments. Just like that, I was rolling downhill toward hope for the first time in my life. Raised a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid, and having been utterly burned by fundamentalist religion, I had never been to an Episcopal Church or any other liturgical form of service other than once going to a friend’s brother’s bar mitzvah.

I met her on Sunday morning two days later, and she brought me with her to an open-minded campus church of the bedraggled communion, where she introduced me to Father Bernie, and my life changed drastically, or I should say, radically, forever for the better.

That first summer, we spent our Sundays after the service in a book club that discussed the Chronicles of Narnia. Never have I had more warmth and pleasure in my heart than that summer when sitting on worn out couches and comfy chairs with a small group of friends led by Bernie discussing Aslan, et al. (I came close to repeating the feeling when I spent a summer reading most of the Chronicles to my own then very small children. We did not quite finish them, and before they completely grow up, I hope we can complete the task. Life goes by too quickly.)

Within months of my going to the chapel Father Bernie ran, he recruited me to be an illegal chalice bearer helping to serve people the wine after he handed them their bread. It would be a decade before I officially became an Episcopalian, but that kind of detail did not matter to Bernie. He lived by the heart and the mind, not some arbitrary rule book.

In addition to religious and moral guidance, I got some life-changing practical suggestions from Father Bernie. One of these was that if I didn’t want to die alone I probably should start being more loving toward others. Another, somewhat contradictorily, was that, no matter how things turned out in the particulars, I would always be loved, and things would be okay. I would always be part of a family and always have a quiet sanctuary. There is tension in this ethos, a personal/heavenly dialectic, as we each become a small part of the creation of justice while we also try to find a nurturing place for ourselves in the world.

After several years of my life revolving around being one of Bernie’s free-spirited followers, he moved to Jacksonville. I soon thereafter left for the rest of my life to another part of the southeast. It was like moving to the other side of the world from family. One by one we who were once part of one body were scattered by the mysterious wind to where, I suppose, each of us was meant to go. But this scattering had its costs to be sure.

I never saw Bernie again. Life became so busy. Stuff happened, not all of it good. I tried once, but he was in Ireland visiting family when I got there. [Note to self: Always call ahead before going on a pilgrimage.] Nor other than a couple of times have I seen again any of the other people with whom I shared Bernie’s fatherhood. Perhaps I will see a few of them on Sunday, and buckets of tears of joy will surely be shed with thanks to the blue sky for a life so well lived for others in the most natural way. He made it look easy and made us feel that our burdens were light.

He was, according to the Daytona Beach Morning Journal of February 8, 1978, “a genuine Irishman.” While that was certainly true, he was also a citizen of the world first and foremost. He taught us that no one can own God’s creation and no one should be treated as a leper or as not a neighbor.

He put love before all things, even before his “vow” to avoid marriage. When he returned from Rome he unintentionally fell in love with a Catholic art teacher, Marcia. He decided to be authentic toward God, leave the Catholic Church, and marry Marcia. I certainly wish the Catholic Church would have recognized that for Father Bernie to marry was in no way a breach of our common faith in Jesus’s love. I believe that God, if God exists, was certainly smiling with Irish eyes looking down upon their many long years of laughter and love together.

Here is a painting my dear friend Marcia did long ago of Father Bernie at rest reading a good book. He had a lot of good books, and he taught us some of what was in them when he talked, lived, and rightly divided the word of truth. Although I never saw Bernie again, I have looked at this painting almost every day of my life since then and felt a mix of gratitude and longing to be together, all of us, like the old days, forever and ever amen. I will not know what to say when I see Marcia on Sunday. Perhaps words won’t be necessary. A seabird named Bernie handled all of the introductions a long time ago.

2 thoughts on “Another Bernie, a loving, quietly radical priest, has died

  1. Thank you very much for this. I too was an illegal Ruge chalice bearer (91-94). Bernie inspired within me a renewal which Kindles to this day.

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