Elegy for Ray
Mattie Ross, in the movie “True Grit,” says of her father, who was shot down in the street, that his spirit had flown. Shot down by cancer, Ray’s spirit has flown, but not the memory of his presence among us.
When Father Ray Kehew became pastor of St. Andrew in 1988, David Graham and I had dinner with him at the Manisses the evening before he celebrated his first Mass for his new flock. And for 16 years he tended that flock, winter and summer.
During dinner, our first meeting, he made it clear that “Father Ray” was okay, but he much preferred, simply, “Ray.” A man of the people, I thought.
That settled, Ray told us about his family, his upbringing, his vocation (ordained in 1963 at the American College in Louvain) , his education (a PhD from Louvain in 1969), his parish work and his career at Providence College, where he had been teaching philosophy and other courses since 1976.
Here’s a man, I again thought to myself, with a very full plate and yet willing to become the sole priest in a hybrid parish on Block Island. I say hybrid because while classes were in session at PC, he commuted to the island on weekends to serve a small year-round Catholic community. When classes ended, he lived at the Parish Center full-time and served a much larger and fluctuating body of the faithful comprising year-rounders, summer people, visitors and vacationers.
Since his death on September 19, one gropes for words to capture what we knew of this inspirational man; we don’t want to let go.
Ray was an exceptional human being and an extraordinary man of the cloth. With ease, he balanced a human persona marked by a quick smile on a face that said “I’ll be your friend,” with an aura of spirituality that shown forth each time he put on priestly garb and preached to the people.
With the same ease, he balanced his roles as pastor and professor; he brought humility and mirth to the former and only allowed the professor’s depth of knowledge and experience to surface when he delivered a homily. Thank God for that.
Ray’s personality was not complex; on the contrary, he displayed a positive and open demeanor that made it easy to accept him as a man of God. He was very approachable, a good listener, sympathetic and understanding to all who sought his counsel. He had a beguiling smile that gave confidence to a listener while subtly suggesting that he or she come to church to learn more.
Without his Roman collar, Ray could easily be mistaken for an Irish politician; he knew everybody, knew how to work a crowd, remembered names and family members. He had a knack of knowing when and what to say or ask: “And how is your daughter doing at college?” or “I’m sorry for your loss, I’ll pray for him.”
He was a man of true grit, a friend to all and a model of strength. Ray’s patience with an unusual and, at times, gruesome cancer can only be explained by his great faith in God. When I visited him in June, he appeared gnome-like in a knit cap, the same cap worn by newborns, only bigger. He knew his time was short and it struck me that his head gear would be the same at both ends of his life.
While at St. Andrew, Ray’s pastoral duties were the same as any parish priest: he baptized newborns (and loved to parade them before the congregation), gave first Communion, assisted the Bishop at Confirmation, forgave sins, married couples from near and far (like the Kennedy wedding), anointed the sick, buried the dead, and preached every Sunday.
As a preacher, Ray could draw cogent, everyday advice from the readings at mass. His sermons at daily mass during the summer months were so instructive, they became known as Bible Study 101. Little wonder from a revered professor at Providence College. On Sundays, his homilies provided listeners with the strength to cope with everyday issues in everyday words. Ray didn’t sugar coat controversial topics. I can see him now, resting an elbow to lean forward over the pulpit while raising the other hand to stress a point he was making. Ray was a great American; his talks about God, man, faith, war, peace, and patriotism maintained perspective between church and state.
Near the end of his tenure as pastor, an ecumenical service was held at St. Andrew on Chapel Street to honor Ray. He supported ecumenicism on the island and people of all faiths, in tribute, filled the church. Reversing roles, Ray sat in a pew with the people and listened to good things being said about him by many speakers (one called him a “mensch,” a Yiddish word used to refer to a particularly good person — that he was).
My strongest memory of the service is a spiritual sung by the Ecumenical Choir, “Holy Ground.” The words touched me deeply as I’m certain they did Ray and others:
This is holy ground,
we’re standing on holy ground
For the Lord is here
and where he is, is holy.
These are holy hands,
we’re lifting up holy hands;
He works through these hands
And so these hands are holy.
Ray’s passing has created sadness and a void, neither of which will last. Time heals and soon our thoughts of Ray shall be memories that make us sigh and smile. To help us move in that direction, listen to these words from the prophet Sirach:
A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter;
he who finds one finds a treasure.
A faithful friend is beyond price,
no sum can balance his worth.
A faithful friend is a life-saving remedy,
such as he who fears God finds;
For he who fears God behaves accordingly,
and his friend will be like himself.
Good-bye, old friend, we’ll not forget you. Pray for us.