Eulogy for Ralph Anthony Johnson
by Rev. Jonah Evans. Given on August 19th in Spring Valley, NY.
Ralph Anthony Johnson lived and died for love. His life journey led him to the profound mysteries of how it is that within this world of suffering and emptiness, loss and rejection – how it is that the human soul can find the source of love. And he found this source of love, and this source found him.
Ralph was both a man of the spirit and a man of the world. He lived in a dynamic tension between both the impulse to live well in this material world, leading, directing, organizing. And at the same time, carried the constant desire to give everything worldly away and devote himself to the life of silence, renunciation and devotion. These two impulses never found harmony within him. He was like a kind of warrior-monk; when in battle always longing for the monastery and when at the monastery always longing for the battlefield. These two lived in his soul, both wanting his full attention.
The name Ralph comes from Nordic-Scottish roots and means wolf, crafty wolf. Dealing with the world, Ralph was indeed crafty, intelligent and wise in the best sense. He was a gifted leader, a compassionate boss who deeply cared for his employees. I often remember him telling me stories of generous and loving things he would do for his employees. He had a knack for business. He was gifted at knowing how to get to the core problems quickly. He knew how to make something successful. He loved helping people and organizations learn business, learn how to manage and lead, learn how to work ethically in this material world.
Ralph loved health, health foods and healthy lifestyles. His whole work life was dedicated to spiritual and bodily health. He loved vitality and the experience of taking care of his body and mind. One of his favorite things to do was go to the Cayman Islands and bask in the warmth, walk on the beach with the crystal clear blue water.
However, at the end of his life, he often lamented to me about the strangeness of how even though his whole life was about health, it didn’t matter. He still got cancer. The absurdity of this he felt strongly. But at the end he wrote in one of his journals, “The truth is that no one really knows what heals some and others not. All I know now is that healing my spirit is the most important thing I can do, for no matter what happens, this path to old age, sickness and death is real. Sooner or later we all have to face this reality, I just have a bit of a head start…”
Ralph was loved by his family, his friends, his community. One of the gifts of the cancer was that it made him realize how much he never allowed himself to feel this love, how much there was in his soul that blocked this. Finally feeling this love from others was one of the biggest gifts of his life.
Ralph loved his family. He was deeply devoted to his wife Bonnie but struggled, as so many of us do, to selflessly love our partners in the midst of our own weaknesses. He deeply loved his children. But he struggled, like so many of us fathers do, with how to discern between what our children really need and what we think is best. He struggled to know the depths of his love and be able to express it to them.
He came to understand all of this most profoundly after he received the diagnosis of stage four colon cancer. He wrote recently, “The most striking thing of all has been my lack of true appreciation of love in my life.… In these days I have come to know love more intimately than ever before, I have come to see how much love I have for those around me and my own deep emotional heart which is so tender and full of love. I see now that I was limited in my understanding of love. I have for the longest time lived on the surface of love due to my own fear, weakness, shame and doubt, not that I wasn’t a loving person, but I never let myself feel the true depth of love .… I didn’t know that I had the capacity to love deeper than I do now, for my wife, my children, the people I work with.… For me now there is no more fear of rejection, shame, holding back, worries, insecurity, which doesn’t serve me anymore. My heart just wants to feel every ounce of love around me. …to touch others with my heart and let them know how much I love them. Even now I know there is still depths of love I’m not aware of, but I’m heading towards these depths…..”
Ralph loved sports. The first time I met Ralph was on the Green Meadow Waldorf School basketball court. We coached the 7th and 8th grade girls team together. He coached for many years and left deep impressions on those young women. We spent many evenings together watching football, basketball…and one of his favorite things to do was playing tennis with Skip at the park.
He loved humor! He loved to laugh and make people laugh. Ralph used humor to help ease tensions and lift spirits…and sometimes he used it to avoid intimacy.
Ralph was a Buddhist. He loved the teachings of the buddha and sitting in meditation. He loved the teachings on impermanence and emptiness, non-self and renunciation. He loved Taoism, the Sufis, the wisdom of Judaism and Hinduism. He loved St. Frances and Mary. And despite his difficult Catholic upbringing, he even loved a Christian priest! More than once he would tell me that at the root all religions is the same, and all paths lead to the top of the mountain.
But I want to return to his name. For the name Johnson means Son of John. Ralph was also spiritual son of John. Spiritually, to be the son of someone means to take after or repeat the same spiritual pattern but on a different level. John is the writer of the John Gospel. And one of the secrets of this fourth gospel is that John is Lazarus, Lazarus the disciple whom Jesus loved. And the initiation-pattern of Lazarus-John was to touch death and then to be awakened by the being of love. At the end of his life, Mr. Johnson followed this pattern, this path. For in the depths of Ralphs despair, in the depths of the darkness of his realization of death, like John, Ralph was awoken by the being of love.
This is how it happened:
A few months ago, Ralph called me one evening and told me that that day he was feeling completely lost. He was consumed with despair, feeling completely alone and helpless. He felt so angry that this was his reality. As he lay in his bed, he told me, overwhelmed with anguish and darkness…he called out to Christ with all his heart… , “Help me…”
What he then described was one of the most touching moments I have ever had on the phone with a person. He told me that in that darkness, a presence came to him. It was a powerful presence, but so tender at the same time. This being, this presence, he described, didn’t speak to him in words, but simply came close. This being place his hand on his head and embraced him around his heart. In this embrace, Ralph said that he felt the most profound love he had ever experienced. He said that it was the feeling of finally finding home.
In this moment, we both knew that this was why he got sick, this was why he had chosen to be born, to know for himself the reality of love.
Some days after this experience he wrote, “In the past few nights, the image of the depth of love has continue to haunt me. When I think of Christ or the Buddha I am perplexed with the depth of love they showed towards the world. I ponder how this kind of love can manifest in myself, beyond my own personal desires. And try as I might to stay connected to this kind of love and the softness of a heart that could exist within a person, the complete wholeness of such a soul is way beyond anything I can realize. Yet, there is a place within me that wanted to know what this experience must be like. In the past few days I find myself melting away in the soft heart of Christ, the softness I feel is so powerful and all consuming, melts my whole being. Experiencing something so unfamiliar to me, beyond anything I know, which causes me to feel uncomfortable with the sensation of such an overwhelming love, to allow my entire being to accept this powerful grace…..I so desperately want to know this place, this level of love and compassion. I often think about it and think I’m doing my best, but so often I fall short of staying in that place. In so many ways I want to exhibit this place of love all the time, to be gentle, understanding, compassionate, kind and loving. To live in a place of pure unadulterated love. When I think of this I can feel this tingling within myself knowing that this is my goal, that this is my deepest passion at this time in my life, is to be this loving being in the world. That all my personal needs and wants will vanish and I would be blessed to service and find the never ending love, which goes beyond this world. When I reflect on my life, for me it has always been my personal white whale, which has haunted me my entire life, knowing that the depths of love is within my grasp in this life…. A mixture of grace and suffering sharing the same place.”
Ralph Anthony Johnson lived and died for love. May his spirit continue to grow in this light. And may his spirit continue to inspire us; that life is about encountering the depths of despair, suffering and absurdity…and finding in this darkness the strength and grace to love.