Gerald May, MD
Gerald May died in April 2005 at the age of 64 after a lengthy illness. Well-known for his writings on psychology and spirituality, Jerry authored numerous articles and books, including Addiction & Grace, Will & Spirit, The Awakened Heart, and most recently, Dark Night of the Soul.
From 1983 to 2005, he served at the Shalem Institute in Washington, DC, USA, as Director of Spiritual Guidance, as Director for Research and Program Development, and finally as Senior Fellow in Contemplative Theology and Psychology.
Tributes from the Community
I'm a British Family Physician (GP, as we call it here) and I work extensively with addicted people. I give thanks for Jerry May whose book, Addiction and Grace, which I read yesterday, will shift me towards the true Centre in my ministry to addicted people. It resonated in an astonishing way. I was expecting dry learning, and perhaps a useful idea or two, but instead I met something, someone, real. And that meant far more. I am already a believer but my faith and trust in God is enriched through Dr. May's lived compassion and wisdom. One day I will meet him in heaven, and we'll have lots to talk about!
I just finished reading Addiction and Grace and was profoundly impressed and encouraged by the truths that May so simply presented about God and His love for us. I was born again in 1970 when I was eighteen, and I know Jesus lives and that He is the reality and eternal mystery behind this world of ours. When Jesus revealed himself to me, there was no introduction, I knew Him, I said "Jesus!" Why? Because, as May stated, He created me, therefore I know him without my sin in the way. We all do, but sin blinds us to Him. I plan to read several more of May's books. I am looking forward to meeting him in Heaven. He is engaged in God's wonderful purpose and plan for him
I am very grateful for this opportunity to try to piece together my memories of Jerry, to wrestle with questions like: What do I most remember about Jerry? What is important to say?
No matter what the particular memories—and there are many from the long years of working together—the words that come to mind are those of Thomas Kelly, “Be very faithful to that wistful longing. It is the Eternal Goodness calling you to return home.”
These words became the hallmark of Jerry’s life, as I experienced him. He paid attention to that wistful longing and he urged others to do the same. He found expressions of it in his drawing to the good and beautiful, and in the urgency he felt about proclaiming and defending the right as he saw it.
We didn’t always have the same sense of what was right. I remember calling him on his dogged tenaciousness. “Why are you so stubborn?” I asked. He said to me in all simplicity, “I’m not stubborn. It’s just that this is the way I see it, and I have to stay with it till I see differently.” That was the truth of his life, the way he lived, the way he loved. In September of 1984, I celebrated twenty-five years of vowed life as a School Sister of Notre Dame. Jerry wrote a prayer for me at that time that continues to have relevance for me, as I suspect it does for Jerry. It now becomes my prayer for Jerry, and for all of us who knew him: Oh Lord help us to feel you; help us to know how precious we are to you,
That we might become at least half so precious to ourselves. Move within us, according to your desire, Ease our hearts, melt our harsh edges So that we might sense how intimate you truly are. Guide us, God, in an ever more complete embrace of you, that we might bear more of your endless embrace of us, and thereby embrace ourselves. Keep alive within us, Oh Christ, your most precious gift to us Which is our burning, longing, wordless yearning for you. Grant to us the courage and the vulnerability and the dignity to claim our hunger for you in every moment, celebrating in each instant the pain and delight of our longing.
Touch us beneath our will, opening us where we cannot open ourselves. Healing us where we cannot heal ourselves. And, in the vibrant mystery of your Spirit within us accept our eternal gratitude for every act of goodness that comes to us from another or through us for another, for every nourishing way that souls may touch each other, For every bit of love we share, and for the wonder, The tender laughing touching calling beautiful wonder.
—Rose Mary Dougherty, SSND
“The deepest act of love,” wrote Gerald May, “is not help or service; it is immediate, attentive presence”. And that is how I will always remember Jerry: a person so grounded in God that he was attentively present to others in an accepting, encouraging way, a way that enabled goodness to come to the fore and growth to occur. He had a grandfatherly presence: a pipe-smoking, eye-twinkling, unhurried, welcoming kind of love. A love that did not put on airs; a love that laughed easily and embraced much. I first knew Jerry through his books, which conveyed his extraordinary understanding of God’s ways with human hearts.
For many years, Care of Mind/Care of Soul served as my principal reference for the formation of spiritual directors. His writings—foundational for describing the relationship between psychology and spirituality—expressed such warmth and compassion and gentle humor that I longed to meet him. And when I did, I was not disappointed! The opportunity arose in 1989, with the inspiration to explore the formation of a network for the nurturing and support of spiritual directors. As a first step, I picked up the telephone and contacted a few spiritual directors around the country whom I knew or had heard of or read. Jerry’s name was on my list. He actually answered the telephone himself, listened graciously to my request, and without hesitation agreed to participate.
When Spiritual Directors International began formally in February of 1990, and we were forming the first Steering Committee (subsequently renamed “Coordinating Council”), I again called Jerry and invited him to become a member. Given his many other commitments, he said he’d be happy to be of service but could only be on conference calls. However, when the Council met in Washington, DC, he did join us. In subsequent years his involvement with Shalem and its many outreach programs led him to curtail other engagements and withdraw from the Spiritual Directors International Coordinating Council in 1993 (Jerry joined Shalem as a full-time staff member in 1983. From 1983 to 2005, he served there as Director of Spiritual Guidance, Director for Research and Program Development, and finally as Senior Fellow in Contemplative Theology and Psychology).
I remain deeply impressed by his simplicity and availability to the new beginnings of Spiritual Directors International. His graced presence and perspective influenced all of us. When the Spiritual Directors International Guidelines for Ethical Conduct were being formulated, I personally had several conversations with Jerry about them. Convinced that spiritual direction is a vocation from God, Jerry cautioned us against “professionalizing” this ministry and recommended instead that we keep the focus on guiding and accompanying those who already felt this call from God. With typical self-deprecating humor, he wrote of his desire to avoid being a “pest” to directees, and stressed the need for directors to be “exquisitely prayerful, completely humble, and full of faith in God’s goodness and mercy” (“Don’t Be a Pest,” Shalem News, Volume xxi, Number 2).
Jerry had a heart truly awakened to God. Our world lost a gifted spiritual director, and I lost a treasured colleague and friend, when Jerry died on April 8th at age 64, surrounded by family and friends.
—Mary Ann Scofield, RSM
On April 15th, the Memorial Service for one of the most influential contemplative spiritual writers and spiritual directors of our time, Jerry May, was held in the packed chapel of the Bon Secours Spiritual Center in Maryland. Jerry had died a week before at the age of 64, after a long struggle with congestive heart failure, cancer, and related complications. The memorial service was a great celebration of his life,complete with balloons; family; colleagues; witnesses to his spiritual heart, his prodigious influence on people’s spiritual lives, and his phenomenal sense of humor; and singing of four chants that he had composed over the years. I had asked him to join the staff of the Shalem Institute near its beginnings in 1973, and he had been a vital presence ever since. He was on the staff of our first program for spiritual directors in 1978, and he continued on the staff of that program rightup to his death. During these many years he wrote eight books, including pioneering works relating spiritualand psychological development in acontemplative perspective. The books include: Simply Sane, The Open Way, Pilgrimage Home, Will and Spirit, Care of Mind, Care of Spirit, The Awakened Heart, and The Dark Night of the Soul. A ninth book will be published posthumously on his experience with the Spirit in the wilderness. All of his books in print, as well as his audio tapes, are available from the Shalem Institute.
Jerry was a member of one of the earliest Coordinating Councils of Spiritual Directors International. He was passionately dedicated to a view of spiritual direction grounded not in a professional model of counseling, but rather in the historic charism of people with deep spiritual hearts who were recognized by others as a soul friend with whom they could meet in God’s presence, heart to heart. In a Shalem newsletter he once spelled out a very helpful spectrum of different ways of being a spiritual companion (of which the above description is one way), which inspired my own version of that spectrum in my last book, Spiritual Director, Spiritual Companion. I was privileged to be in mutual spiritual direction with Jerry for 20 years (an hour for him, an hour for me). Through all his spiritual evolution and ups and downs, I was awed by his steady, absolute trust that God is real, good, and, as St. Augustine would say, closer to us than we are to ourselves.
He had an extraordinarily vulnerable heart open to God, and he wanted God to be God, through all dimensions of his life, Shalem’s life, and the world’s life. God graced him with a delicate, ever-mysterious, but real intimacy. In his later years he moved toward a more informal, spontaneous, give and take sense of his spiritual companioning relationships. Besides the people with whom he met in person, he carried on extensive e-mail correspondence with many people who sought him out. A little known dimension of Jerry’s life was his deep antipathy to war, stemming from his experience in Vietnam as an Air Force psychiatrist. He helped write the scripts for a number of the annual Memorial Day concerts on the grounds of the Capitol, which were nationally televised by PBS. Those concerts sensitively empathized with veterans and counseled compassion.
In 2003, the Fetzer Institute published a booklet they commissioned him to write which he titled, “From Cruelty to Compassion: The Crucible of Personal Transformation.” He was convinced that such a transition in the world requires intensive attention to the interior spiritual transformation of individuals. (The audiotapes from a workshop of his on this theme are available from Shalem). I hope that Jerry’s pioneering contemplative writings will continue to feed the burgeoning numbers of spiritual directors in the world, especially those who are drawn to attending the Holy with a contemplative heart. And for those who knew him, I’m sure their lives will continue to be inspired by the free, wise, and radically God-loving spirit he so steadily manifested. Certainly I am one of those grateful people.
just the other night i realized he was truly gone from us
i went out to look at the stars
the Twins were holding the moon in their hands
they had overturned its bowl of light
he was our teacher and soul friend
but he is gone from us
no more will we hear that strange beguiling voice
strong enough to flatten all pretensions
soft enough to make your soul lean forward
no more will we see his stylish slow fandango
which he managed standing still
or even sitting in a chair
to any kind of music at all
no more will his scrawl grace our proffered pages
no more books
(well, maybe one or two
as befits a prolific dead author)
he was our teacher and soul friend
but he is gone from us
who filled himself by keeping himself open
who was just himself
in the most ordinary way
which turned out to be
who did not think it too mean a thing
to sense a mystical depth
even in us
and blew softly on the small flame within
who taught us a grave and powerful mantra
the only state you are in
is the state of Maryland”
to tell the truth when i first met him
he was already as good as gone
he looked like death warmed over
he could have said like one before him
“as for me i am already being poured out
i have fought the good fight
i have run the race
i have kept the faith”
though if he had said it
he would have struck a pose
would have glittered in his eyes
and played at the edges of his mouth
for he was quite simply
it was good for us to see him thus
to see death dealt with so lightly
for him (and for us)
grace means freedom
freedom from death
freedom for love and delight
and to live means simply this
daily turning toward love
in all things
in all circumstances
the bowl of light is upended
and he is gone from us
he is up there now
or out there
or in there
(wherever the there of paradise is)
he is hobnobbing with John of the Cross about the Heart
and delights to discover
they both understand it
he is showing Teresa how to move to a hiphop melody
and delights to discover
she is one fine dancer
all his gifts are gloriously magnificently in play
for if heaven is any kind of a heaven at all
it is a place where
the true worth of our gifts
even to us
he is gone from us
but we have his books
small things all
but more than enough
(the bowl of light overflows)
he has one last gift for us
the stars shine with pale dignity
the Twins are holding the moon in their hands
they have upended its bowl of light
grief and joy (and presence and absence)
all mixed together
all splashing down
i lift my hands
for my friend’s last gift of
rich dark silence