In his latest incredibly insightful book, Ageless Soul: The Lifelong Journey Toward Meaning and Joy, former monk, bestselling psychotherapist and cutting-edge modern spirituality guru Thomas Moore posits that we need to (we must!) celebrate and embrace those who have paved the road before us.
Moore explains that, “Centuries ago artists and writers had a practice of honoring a certain historical line of figures who shaped them. They referred to their own list of inspirers and muses as ‘prisca theologia’–a spiritual lineage.” We all have this gift from the past and present, don’t we? Folks who contribute to our lives, our growth, our thinking, our mental and physical development, our essence. Life benefactors.
Everybody has such a developmental legacy, a set of contributors, not perfect (or anywhere near perfection, of course) but THERE, one way or another, in our humanly sacred DNA.
My life, for example, has been/still is lifted up by a plethora of men and women who gave and continue to give me breath to live–my personal prisca theologia, my spiritual legacy.
Great-grandfather J. P. Saye was my North Georgia hometown Ball Ground’s first doctor.
I grew up with stories about his brand of doctoring. In 1963 the University of Georgia Press published a slice-of-life portrait of turn-of-the century small town Southern Americana, Yesterday in the Hills, by father/son historians and co-authors Floyd and Charles Watkins. One chapter features Dr. Saye, illustrating a sample of what life was like for a country doctor who was often paid with chickens and pigs. Consider Dr. Saye’s obstetrics work, for example:
“Once Dr. Saye was delivering a baby in Andy Cockriel’s home in Lawson Town. Andy said, ‘You keep your hands off my wife. She’s mine and you nor nairy other man ain’t gonna tech her.’ Doc snapped his old black bag, rose, and countered, ‘You deliver the damn baby yourself then,” and walked out the door. Andy had to change his mind fast and beg hard before Doc Saye would return and deliver the baby.”
One of the odder pieces of family history involves my great-grandfather’s house in Ball Ground. Dr. Saye’s first wife Angie spent months at a time at Georgia’s state mental asylum in Milledgeville. During one particularly long stay, “Doc’s home burned, and he hired carpenters to build another house exactly like the first one so that she would not be disturbed when she came home” (Watkins and Watkins). Family stories suggest that great-great grandmother Angie never realized her first house had burned.
I urge you to revel in the quirkiness of your own family lore. According to Thomas Moore, “odd” simply means you have more soul in your family dynamics. (I possess an abundance of soul.) Yesterday in the Hills: “Another oddity is that no one ever knew Doc Saye’s age. How old he was remained his secret until the end, and no dates were placed on his tombstone or those of his two wives who died before him.” My great, great grandfather and I are definitely kindred spirits.
My fifth grade teacher Mrs. Ligdon gifted me with the lifelong joy of reading. We had oral reading every afternoon, either she reading to us (often, classic novels far above our grade level) or the students taking turns. I remember trying to hide my eyes in class when she read the sadder parts of Dicken’s Oliver Twist. (Seriously, Oliver was hungry–he needed more gruel.)
I could write about neighbors, teachers, friends, pastors and favorite authors who have all left their imprint on me. Where would I be if I hadn’t, in junior high, stumbled upon Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (reread time and again) and learned that books not only entertain but impact our lives. This coming-of-age novel showed me the enduring significance of both friendship and fatherhood. Much of my personal legacy can be found within the pages of books.
Today my big non-traditional family is at the heart of my spiritual legacy.
My former wife Donna taught me the meaning of enduring family love, and sticking with it, supporting it. My younger daughter Emily taught me to love gymnastics and to joyfully affirm the okay-ness of jumping up and down, twirling and spinning in life. My older daughter Amy taught me the appropriateness of meandering through the complexities of life and relationships. My grandchildren are continuing to teach me the joy of childish enthusiasm. And Robert continues to teach me the freedom and day-to-day reality of love.
The most longstanding force in my prisca theologia is my elderly dad up in North Georgia. Harold Hulon Saye Sr., my father, is …
He’ll be 95 in November, in the last season of his life. (Unlike Old Doc Saye–and me–he isn’t hesitant to reveal his age.)
Along with my late mother, my father taught me some of (most of?) my greatest life lessons, none more profound than this one I heard in various iterations over the years: “Neal, treat everybody you come in contact with as if they are the most important person in the world. Because when they are with you, they are.” My dad personifies that ambitious life strategy.
Who are the members of your own spiritual legacy, the people who made you who you are today? The models who helped you dream and even believe you could fly? Maybe take a few minutes and jot down a quick list. Can we ever thank them enough? I don’t think it’s possible.
Consider these lines from the gorgeous ballad, “Never Enough,” featured in the recent musical movie The Greatest Showman: “You set off a dream with me. Without you, all the shine of a thousand spotlights, all the stars we steal from the nightsky will never be enough for me.” I agree: without our “contributors,” we would not be us.
If you have a moment, take a listen:
“Towers of gold are still too little, these hands could hold the world, but it’ll never be enough for me … without you.”
In gratitude for life benefactors, Neal.
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Neal (EnJoy) Saye
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