One of Padre's favorite songs was "Reverend Mr. Black", recorded by the Kingston Trio. The "Reverend Mr. Black" was a story song, where the major part of the narrative was spoken, and a sung chorus was used as a break between parts of the story. The chorus was drawn from an Appalachian spiritual:
You gotta walk that lonesome valleyThe Reverend is described as a man who appears to be "tough and mean," yet proves himself to be a man of peace. A lumberjack comes into the meeting house one day, cursing the church people up one aisle and down the other. He ends up at the front, and cusses right in the Rev. Black’s face. Then the lumberjack hits the preacher.
You gotta walk it by yourself
Nobody here can walk it for you
You gotta walk it by yourself.
Rev. Mr. Black turns the other cheek to the lumberjack and lets himself be hit again. "Then with a voice as quiet as can be/he cut him down like a big oak tree when he said: You gotta walk that lonesome valley...."
Earlier in the song, this is a song the Reverend sings to himself. As he sings it to the lumberjack, I get the sense that it’s a form of sermon.
Curious Good News, that. When times get the hardest, you're going to be left on your own. It's a profoundly Existential statement.
The song has a sentimental twist at the end: "the Rev. Mr. Black was my old man."
I imagine Padre sometimes pictured himself in the role of the Rev. Mr. Black. Mr. Black is described as honorable, brave, and strong, all qualities Padre strove toward.
There is no doubt that Padre walked the Lonesome Valley from Wanda's death, in 1975 (at age 45), to his own, in 1992 (at 63). Although Brother Dave and I tried our best to help him, neither of us could transfuse him with the will to live. As I said earlier this week, my theory is that he suffered too many losses (job, health, and wife) within a relatively brief period of time. The stress of those multiple losses undid him.
I spoke earlier this week of the stages Robert Johnson believes men go through: childhood, youth, adult, and old age. Dr. Johnson says that the transition from one stage to the next is a crisis point.
Tradition holds that Jesus began his public ministry when he was 30, and was crucified around age 33. This age is normally the transition from youth to adult. As we have seen in reviewing his Passion this past week, the challenges he faces are several times worse than the average person experiences in a lifetime.
Padre was 44 when Wanda died, and he began to give up on life. Dr. Johnson sets the transition from adult to old age around 55. Dr. Johnson also cautions that trying to go into a stage too soon, or skipping a stage, can cause problems. It would seem that Padre was confronted with the issues of old age early, and this may be one explanation of why the crisis overwhelmed him.
Padre also sang "Lonesome Valley," and especially enjoyed Woody Guthrie’s version, which includes this verse:
There's a road that leads to gloryJesus points one way: keep walking, no matter what. Walk with honor and integrity, not for praise, but because that’s who you are. I believe Padre’s life carries much the same lesson, for he also sought to walk with honor and integrity — even after melancholy consumed him.
Thru a valley far away
Nobody else can walk it for you
They can only point the way
I think my initial reading of that spiritual only tells part of the story. Psalm 23 tells us the Lord is our companion, even in the Valley of Death. We must take each step with our own muscles, but this doesn’t necessarily mean we are alone. Our path may unique, and we make our own choices, but we can call upon companions. They can’t take the action for us, or make choices on our behalf, but they can encourage and support us.
As a Christian, I claim Jesus as my companion in the Way.