The Death of a Very Close Friend

I originally wrote this eulogy for those who knew my friend. I post it here since it is not only about my friend’s life, but about a way of life, and about the Tree of Life. It is also about death, about karma and the communion of saints, about Buddhism and Christianity, about smiling and singing. All my writing is personal since I know no other way of thinking. Yet this is more personal than most. So I ask anyone who chooses to read on to permit my weave of reminiscence with broader reflection, as well as the resultant length.

My very good friend Joe Kroger died on July 18 from complications following heart surgery. He was 76 and only a month retired from 45 years as Professor of Religious Studies at St. Michael’s College in Burlington VT.

I first met Joe in August 1959 when we joined a group of “novices” at a monastic solitude in upstate New York, just a year-long induction to a way of life we’d all been attracted to. It was the way of a group or “order” of Catholic Brothers (mostly monks, some priests) called the “Society of Mary” or “Marianists.”

Most of us were just out of high-schools run by those Brothers, graduates of what today might be called “elite” prep schools for boys, but back then were simply the next step of aspiration in the Catholic world of places like Joe’s Cincinnati and my New York.

Filled with the energy of youth and the optimism of that period, yet also a bit frightened and challenged, we made friends quickly and often very deeply – friendships which in many cases have lasted now almost 60 years. So let me first say something about the “common bond” among those men, for it was the context of my long friendship with Joe.

The years have, of course, taken their toll. Joe’s death is a memento mori, a reminder that we don’t need to ask for whom the bell tolls. Yet far more important than their toll has been the joy and achievement and love experienced through those years, even amidst (often because of) the serious challenges each of us has faced.

I admit bias here, but do not hesitate to say that much real good (or “good karma”) has been brought into this world by that remarkable group of young men I became friends with back then. So I now think of our interwoven lives as one branch – knotted and twisted but still blossoming – of the Tree of Life. And I’m grateful that there are so many similar branches around the world.

We were Marianists together as we grew into a brotherhood larger and more interesting than we’d first imagined. Then, for various personal and cultural reasons, we were former-Marianists still sharing a bond of brotherhood. We have worked (some still do) in an amazing variety of careers: many were teachers and professors, in science and humanities, engineering and arts; many did corporate personnel work or civic social service; others had successful business careers; some have been very good artists, writers, and actors; others lawyers and doctors and environmental biologists. Some of the priests who left the community continued to serve elsewhere as Catholic priests; some who left the brotherhood became priests or ministers in various Christian denominations. Most have remained Catholics, often active in parish or diocesan ministries and even in national church offices; others (like Joe) took up different forms of belief (his was Buddhist); and many are happily secular in their humanism. As men they experienced the great but ordinary joys and hurts of relationship with lovers and wives (and now some with husbands), with their sons and daughters, with friends and enemies.

That is the context for my memories of Joe, and the memories give particularity to that larger context.

Yet living again with those memories in recent days, and at his funeral this past weekend, I find myself overwhelmed. Because the memories are so many, and so good. But also because I embrace Joe’s belief in karma as the ever-renewing energy of compassion. So for me, quite honestly, these are not just memories, they were and remain realities – real “moments,” if you will, or “pulses” wherein Joe’s richly good karma continues to contribute to that fundamental cosmic flow of compassion. Some might want to think of such reality (as I also do) as the “communion of saints” or the “resurrection and the life.” In times of immediate loss (and of so much death globally) it can be difficult to sustain such belief. Yet they are the gift of two of the world’s great religions.

A brief outline of Joe’s life might be helpful here. After a number of years with the Marianists, teaching in Dayton OH and doing graduate studies at Georgetown and St. Louis U., Joe decided to leave that life. He married, did graduate studies at McMaster University (Ontario) where his son was born, then moved to Vermont. Over the years at St. Mike’s he taught courses on Buddhism and Hinduism and Christianity and became a leader in the faculty.  He frequently took students on study trips to Mexico and El Salvador (as part of his interest in liberation theology) and once to Japan (following his interest in Buddhism). He was very active in work for social justice and was advisor and campaign manager for his wife Althea’s political career in the Vermont House (four terms) and Senate (two terms). More recently he and Althea split the year between his work at St. Mikes and her educational business in Poland. After her death 5 years ago, he began a gradual retirement which allowed him to spend the Fall semester in Burlington and to enjoy their condo in Florida during Vermont’s very cold winters. He chose to do recommended heart-valve replacement surgery this July as part of his transition to full-time retirement. Yet unexpected complications followed the surgery and he died surrounded by family (his son’s and the larger Kroger family).

Joe and I had good arguments from the first – what guys often do as a way of talking.

During one long car trip from Krakow to Budapest we finally seemed to sort out the difference between his Buddhist belief in karma and my Christian conviction about the resurrection, a difference which had grown over years of study and experience. More recently, one evening in San Diego, Joe joined another brother in virtually silencing my counter arguments defending Catholicism – no easy achievement. Even more recently, at his winter home in St. Augustine, my wife joined us in a far ranging dialogue between Presbyterian, Buddhist, and Catholic. At night, on the balcony overlooking the ocean, Joe and I enjoyed cigars and the three of us sipped cognac as the dialogue gently released into the rolling music of the surf and the silent song of star-lit sky.

Joe’s “buddhist catholicism” (my term) was complex. Roman Catholicism was the rich soil of his family’s life and led to his years with the Marianists. He did graduate studies in philosophy at Georgetown and began seminary studies at St. Louis University. After he left the Marianists, Joe married Althea Przybylo, a Polish Catholic woman from Chicago. For his PhD at McMaster he specialized in philosophy of religion with a minor field in Hinduism and Buddhism (my course of studies as well when I joined him there a few years later). He then became professor of religious studies at St. Michael’s.

His move away from a supernaturalist or “two-story universe” worldview reflected currents in theological and religious studies in the 1960s and since – remember the “death of god theology” and the important Marxist influence on “liberation theology” which Joe studied and embraced. But I sensed in our discussions that his shift away from Christianity was most affected by a particularly skeptical form of “historical Jesus research” – an effort to identify the actual words and actions of Jesus of Nazareth in order to distinguish them from later Christian beliefs about Jesus Christ. Said differently, I think he found in Buddhist “naturalism” (no two-story universe) a religious but deeply humanist alternative to the way he understood Christianity.

He regularly taught courses on Buddhism and Hinduism which he had studied not only at McMaster, but later at the University of Hawaii and in his meticulous preparation for classes. He also regularly courses on Christianity. He rejected Christian “metaphysics” as he understood it, but remained deeply Christian in his practice and sensibility. He was very active in the Catholic group Pax Christi  in Burlington and in other Christian work for peace and justice. He will be buried, quite appropriately, next to his wife at a Catholic cemetary in Chicago.

Those who knew him remember his strong and beautiful tenor voice. First noticed by the likes of me in that upstate New York solitude when, each evening, we would encircle an outdoor stature of Mary and one of us (often he) would intone the immensely beautiful plainchant “Salve Regina” before the rest of us joined in full-throated chorus. At McMaster he sang in the Bach Chorale and has since always been involved with some form of choral singing, most recently with a St. Augustine group that did both musical comedy and classical cantatas. On a more personal note, he and Althea sang Paul Stookey’s “Wedding Song” at my wedding in 1971; more recently he sang Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” at our son Peter’s funeral in 2004. I believe that he sings still today, accompanying the great Cosmic Dance.

Friends would joke about his penchant for order. I’ve already mentioned meticulous class preparation — not pedantic but deeply serious. To enter his office and even more his home was to experience the quiet beauty of such order — in his large library of carefully selected books or the video collection of much-loved films, or just in his kitchen. And he, unlike many of us, knew where each book was and should be. He kept an collection of stand-out student papers which he’d consult when asked for letters of reference or emailed with greetings. And all this literary order was, in his home especially, framed within the quiet beauty of visual art – family photos, to be sure, but even more prominently a number of large and strikingly contemplative Hindu and Buddhist sculptures, especially one bronze Buddha which Althea somehow had managed to ship from Asia despite its size and weight.

His quest for clarity and order came to another beautiful consummation with the publication of Aztec Goddesses and Christian Madonnas: Images of the Divine Feminine in Mexico (Ashgate, 2012), co-authored with his Mexican anthropologist friend Patrizia Granziera. The book gives rich detail about “the divine feminine” in Mexican history and culture, along with pages of images (most of the Madonna photos taken by Joe during travel in rural Mexico). The book is encyclopedic, but with analytic seriousness – not just a collection of facts and images, but a historical and comparative contribution to contemporary feminist studies. It’s not hard to see how his study grew from Catholic and Marianist roots and the later influence of liberation theology. (See my short review and reflection on the book for The Denver Post.)

Joe was above all an adventurer, in his own uniquely steady and persistent way. His first major adventure was joining the Marianists. That, in retrospect, was the beginning of the larger philosophical and religious adventure of his adult life, with its years of study and teaching and travel. Yet there were also smaller adventures. In Vermont he became a licensed pilot, eventually rated for small-engine commercial flight. He did it for fun and because flying also involved the skilled mastery of so much technical detail. He also had “flying fun” on his motorcycle, and undoubtedly read Robert Pirsig’s best seller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Yet the great adventure is the one he took with his remarkable wife Althea. It took them together from St. Louis to Canada where their son Andrew (now a medical doctor with the CDC in Atlanta) was born. It led them to his academic work at St. Michael’s and her important contributions to Vermont politics. Along the way she did graduate degrees in politics and law and government at the University of Vermont and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Yet her political career was cruelly interrupted by a brutal cancer which she somehow beat. That scrape with death led her (with him) to a long-dreamed connection with her Polish homeland – where they opened an English language school for business and civic leaders in her family’s hometown east of Krakow. They then commuted between Vermont and Poland, maintaining two careers and occasionally finding vacation time in Florida. Then came a second and mercifully short bout with another cancer that led to her death in 2012.

Let me end with one final form reminiscence. We humans are embodied spirits and nowhere is the spirit more evident than in our faces. Joe had a wonderfully bright and gentle smile that graced his handsome, strong-jawed and clear-eyed face. Yet he had many other characteristic facial gestures: the intentness of his listening and pausing; the slight swing of his head, with quizzical eyes, as he responded to my typically sweeping assertions; the serious look which accompanied his counter assertions; an often relaxed calm of content (most recently for me with cigar and cognac in hand); the energetic intensity of eyes and jaw when he sang; the big happy laugh which I remember especially when he bounced a Polish grand-nephew on his knee. These gestures, as I’ve said and believe, now grace all creation.

In the big picture of world “news,” his life and passing is hardly noticed and will be quickly lost. Even on the great Tree of Life, his bud and blossoming seems small indeed. Yet the small is in fact the most real – the gestures and moments of our lives what really count. The tree grows, as does the dance, only one bud or movement at a time. We know this in the day by day reality of our lives, but need to be reminded lest we get, as T. S. Eliot said, “distracted by distraction.” Perhaps more positively expressed is the Buddhist call to re-minding: “chop wood, carry water.” Amen, and alleluia.

4 thoughts on “The Death of a Very Close Friend

  1. John, I was touched by the depth of your fraternal account of your love for your life long friend Joe Kroger. For those of us, who in our youthful idealism entered religious life or became ordained priests and subsequently left that calling to become husbands and fathers, you captured what a great fraternity that calling has meant to us. I have always felt that such a fraternity is a mystery of God’s grace that cannot be adequately described or explained. So, thanks for profoundly sharing your own experience of this fraternity.
    Lee Kaspari


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