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I drew a volume from the shelf in my study the other day, and as I placed it on my desk, enlisting it in the week’s sermon preparation, it fell open to the first page, and there on the upper right hand corner, scrawled in pen, was the familiar name: “Michael Prewitt.”
That handwriting, that name, the approach of All Saints’ Day, and the reality that, when this piece publishes, I’ll be at a cohort meeting for a doctoral program named for his friend Eugene Peterson, have me remembering Michael. It might sound strange to call a Presbyterian minister a “saint,” but he was one — and the most interesting one I’ve ever met.
I met Michael when he walked into the church I served in Philadelphia. He and his wife Maureen had just moved to the city to be closer to her work at Pennsylvania Hospital. Michael immediately fascinated me: he had been in Ethiopia with the Peace Corps, bicycled competitively in Key West, and worked on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. He had started his own company, and then left it to pursue seminary at Princeton and ordination as a minister. He had planted a church and was being certified as a contemplative spiritual director.
One Saturday morning, he was out for a bike ride on the trails of West Fairmount Park, and had an unexpected blackout, which resulted in a nasty fall. Followup tests revealed Michael had brain cancer at an advanced stage. And that news began a two-year journey I’ll never forget.
Most Thursday afternoons during those two years, I’d ride the Blue Line train west from the church office in Rittenhouse Square to his brick twin home in West Philly. We’d talk, and read together, and pray, and I’d serve Michael the Eucharist.
On those Thursdays, I got to know someone who had an insatiable thirst for living. Michael loved wine, and music, and gardening, and design, and meals, and literature, and golf, and cycling, because he had a bottomless appetite for life. He loved his wife Maureen, and his children, and I watched him love them by immersing himself in whatever they cared about — whether his wife’s medical research, or his son Joe’s DJing, or his daughter Catherine’s writing.
Michael was intellectually serious, and curious. When he was affected by someone’s writings — Eugene Peterson, Wendell Berry, and others — he’d hand-write them letters and oftentimes wind up striking up a friendship with them. But he also never took himself too seriously. He had an easy humor and a generous spirit. He once called me on a Sunday afternoon, asked if I was home, and told me, “I have a couple books I want to drop off for you.” Minutes later, a U-Haul truck pulled up in front of my rowhome, and his family members unloaded his entire theological library — over 40 boxes, whole sets of Calvin, Barth, patristics, mystics, and more — filling my study so full that the door wouldn’t even open.
Michael also showed me what it looked like for a human soul to go to their grave with hope and even excited curiosity. As I asked him about how he felt about dying, he’d tell me again and again, “I have mixed emotions. I’m not scared of dying; I’m eager to see what life beyond death will be like. But I also just love living so much.”
At his funeral, his daughter Catherine, with a crack in her voice and a glisten at the corners of her eyes, eulogized her beloved father. As she did, she told of their mutual affection for Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, which Michael loved for its final scene. Emily Webb, a young woman, dies in childbirth, and she returns posthumously to her little New England town of Grover’s Corners to relive a single day from her life — her twelfth birthday. Overcome at the experience, she cries out:
“Oh, Mama, look at me one minute as though you really saw me…Let’s really look at one another!…I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back — up the hill — to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye. Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”
Emily then asks the Stage Manager, a semi-divine narrator-character, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?”
“No,” the Stage Manager says. “The saints and poets, maybe they do some.”
Michael was one saint who did.