James Kavanaugh, Best Selling Poet/author and Former Rebel Priest, is dead at 81
James Kavanaugh, a former Catholic priest whose books started a revolution in the American Catholic Church and whose poetry books sold millions of copies, died in Kalamazoo, Michigan on Tuesday, December 29, 2009. He was 81 and lived his last years in his hometown of Kalamazoo.
Mr. Kavanaugh burst onto the American literary scene in 1967 with the publication of his passionate cry for reform in A Modern Priest Looks at His Outdated Church. This runaway best seller rocked the Roman Catholic establishment and the New York Times called it “a personal cry of anguish that goes to the heart of the troubles plaguing the Catholic Church.”
In a writing career that spanned forty years, Mr. Kavanaugh has been as prolific as he has been profound. He has published twenty-six books of philosophy, psychology, theology, fiction and poetry. Speaking of him, Wayne Dyer says: "I can think of no living person who can put into words what we have all felt so deeply in our inner selves...." It is undoubtedly this quality that makes James Kavanaugh so deeply loved by so many readers.
Mr. Kavanaugh was born September 16, 1928, one of seven sons of an Irish-Catholic Michigan family. A highly-driven family, four of the brothers became doctors, two entered the priesthood, and one took over the family insurance business. As an ordained Catholic priest, Mr. Kavanaugh did post-graduate studies in Germany and at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., earning doctorate degrees in clinical psychology and religious philosophy.
A Modern Priest Looks at His Outdated Church and Mr. Kavanaugh’s second book, The Birth of God, propelled Mr. Kavanaugh onto speaking engagements at university campus, talk shows and appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Yet celebrity was not a garment Mr. Kavanaugh wore comfortably. At the height of his notoriety, while speaking to the Notre Dame graduating class, this “gentle revolutionary,” as college students were calling him, surrendered his Roman collar and scholars robes to begin a lifelong search.
Boarding in a decrepit New York City residence hotel and “Feasting on bagels, peanut butter and cheese whiz,” Mr. Kavanaugh wrote his first book of poetry – There are Men Too Gentle to Live among Wolves. In the prologue, he describes himself more profoundly than any other words can: "I am one of the searchers. There are, I believe, millions of us. We are not unhappy, but neither are we really content. We continue to explore life, hoping to uncover its ultimate secret."
Twenty-five years later, in another edition, he continued this theme: "I will probably be a searcher until I die and hopefully death itself will only be another adventure. To live any other way seems impossible. If anything has changed over the years, and it has, I only feel more confident now about what I wrote then. I am far more aware of the power that guides each of us along the way, and provides us with the insights and people we need for our journey. There are, indeed, men and women too gentle to live among wolves and only when joined with them will life offer the searcher, step by step, all that is good and beautiful. Life becomes not a confused struggle or pointless pain, but an evolving mosaic masterpiece of the person we were destined to become."
Although dozens of publishers turned the book down, when it finally hit the bookstores it sold over a million copies – unheard of for poetry books. It was clearly in poetry that Mr. Kavanaugh found his easy, natural gait. Of this first book of poetry, he said: “I had no idea it would become a modern classic. For years I wondered why. The answer came when I reflected on my own life. I had left the priesthood, ended a marriage, and had moved away to try to find myself. I had written an explosive book…, which challenged the Church of my very childhood and made me alternately hero and outcast. I realized that I was a searcher…” and my “verses became a gentle guide for my soul to find itself and other souls…”
This is reflected in the closing verse of his title poem:
There are men too gentle to live among wolves
Who toss them like a lost and wounded dove.
Such gentle men are lonely in a merchant’s world,
Unless they have a gentle one to love.
Often read at weddings, his third book, "Will You Be My Friend?" reveals the truth about the author and so many of us:
Will you be my friend?
There are so many reasons why you never should:
I’m sometimes sullen, often shy, acutely sensitive,
My fear erupts as anger, I find it hard to give,
I talk about myself when I’m afraid
And often spend a day without anything to say,
But I will make you laugh
And love you quite a bit
And hold you when you’re sad.
I cry a little almost every day
Because I’m more caring than the strangers every know,
And, if at time, I show my tender side
(The soft and warmer part I hide)
Will you be my friend?...
Whom when I fear your closeness, feels me push away
And stubbornly will stay to share what’s left on such a day,
Whom, when no one knows my name or call me on the phone,
When there’s no concern for me–what I have or haven’t done–
And those I’ve helped and counted on have, oh so deftly, run,
Who, when there’s nothing left but me stripped of charm and subtlety,
Will you be my friend?
For no reason that I know
Except I want you so.
When "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" soared to the top of the charts, he was quietly followed by Harry Langendorf Pelican - a pensive creature who distanced himself from the achievement-oriented mindset of the rest of the flock and searches against all odds to find peace and serenity in Celebrate the Sun. Known as Jim to his friends and Jamie to his family, James Kavanaugh revealed much of his own personal struggle in this allegory.
Other creative artists found inspiration in Jim Kavanaugh’s poetry for their own art. While Jim read his poetry, Elmer Bernstein recorded the background music. Grammy Award winning composer Burt Bacharach used the Kavanaugh verses for lyrics to his musical compositions. And Darrell Fetty wrote music to Jim’s first three poetry books and, along with actor Tobias Anderson, they created the musical play “Street Music” in which the threesome performed in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay Area. Among the various songs, the audience swayed to the upbeat music of "Who will make the city joyful?"
Who will make the city joyful
Who will wipe away its tears?
Who will fill the streets with gladness
Who will calm the old folks’ fears?
Who will tell the children stories
Who will make their eyes gleam?
Who will keep the men from killing
Who will give the women dreams?
Maybe twenty thousand minstrels
Twenty thousand poets’ words
Maybe fifty thousand dancers
Maybe clowns and talking birds
Flowers on all the city’s corners
Trees on all the city streets
Maybe fragrances from the sewers
Sing-alongs in subway seats….
Who will sit among the flowers
See the sun and sky above?
Who will make the city joyful
Who will make us laugh and love?
Maybe mothers loving babies
Maybe gentle eyes that see.
Or beyond the other maybes
Maybe you and maybe me.
It was during this time that "Dear Abby" became one of Jim's biggest fans calling him the poet of the American people. Jim Kavanaugh's works run the gamut of human emotion. He has railed against corporate entrapment, expressed relief that the frightening God of his childhood is gone, searched desperately for love, and laughed at his own humanity. His poetry cries out for freedom while struggling to conquer his fears and tame his demons.
Millions of searchers found Jim’s fourteen published poetry books inspiring. So much so that he founded The James Kavanaugh Institute for searchers. No doubt relying on his background in clinical psychology, Jim designated his Institute as “a haven where men and women in such painful transitions as divorce or death, aging or self doubt, or even the awareness that life is passing them by, can meet with kindred spirits. There to find loving support, new insights and fresh energy in Search Workshops that develop the principles of growth that have directed me in my personal odyssey.” As part of this movement Mr. Kavanaugh authored the book, Search: A Guide For Those Who Dare To Ask of Life Everything Good and Beautiful.”
James Kavanaugh is survived in his immediate family by Cathy Markel (who loved and cared for him through his illness from 2003 to his death in 2009) and her daughter, Katherine; three remaining brothers, Phil, Thom, and Dan, and each of their wives; and countless nieces and nephews spread from coast to coast. He will be deeply missed by his first wife, Patty, with whom he lived in San Diego from 1969 to '71 and his second wife, Rene Reid, a former nun and now author, with whom he spent twelve years of his life – wandering away and returning home – from 1974 to 1986. Step-father to her son, Chris, they lived in San Francisco, Denver, Nevada City, Santa Barbara, and Reno.
James Kavanaugh was a wanderer, a dreamer, a lover, a man truly too gentle to live among wolves. His writings are a reflection of his life struggles: the ups and downs, the fears and anxiety, the joy and suffering, the love and anger, the never-ending searching, that so filled his journey on this earth. Until illness set in during his last years of life, he could not and would not settle into a life and love wherein he felt possessed. He thrived on stirring up controversy and raising questions about politics, the corporate world, the Catholic Church, and human relations. No aspect of life was safe from Jim's scrutiny. Despite his unique and sometimes radical approach to life, in his "next adventure" after death, he will at last find the peace and love for which he searched throughout his life . . . while always attempting to walk gently on the earth.
For those who wish to answer James Kavanaugh’s call to friendship and who would like to write a personal reflection at his memorial website, croll down and click on "Click here to pay tribute or offer your condolences" link below.
We love him. We will miss him. But we will continue to find solace in his writings and joy in our memories of him.