James Parks Morton: A Remembrance
I wandered into the Cathedral for the first time one week before Dean Morton began his remarkable years at St. John the Divine. I was present for his last Sunday and the wonderful celebration of his ministry in December 1996, complete with a high wire walk by Philippe Petit and a performance by the Forces of Nature dance troupe. As everyone probably knows, Dean Morton was both creative and charismatic. He was also funny and loving. The number of people attending Sunday services was pretty low when he arrived and grew dramatically over his tenure.
His passion for social justice was evident from the first. Just weeks after I began attending, he invited in the United Farm Workers for a special Sunday service. This was during the days of Cesar Chavez and the lettuce pickers’ strike. The iconostasis at the front of the nave was festooned with their flags. In February, just four months into his ministry he invited Native Americans to the 11 a.m. service during the Wounded Knee Incident. He retained a relationship with this community for years.
With rabbi friends and theologians, he put together a conference on Christianity and the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel was one of the speakers. And this brings me to his work on interfaith dialogue and understanding. Dean Morton went way beyond ecumenism, and even beyond worrying about all the children of Abraham, to embrace Hindus, Buddhists, Native American shamans, etc. He went so far that some would question his Christianity. But it was the radical hospitality of the follower of Christ that he was embodying. One story illustrates this perfectly. He had invited Eli Wiesel to preach at an 11:00 a.m. service. Mr. Wiesel was conflicted about accepting the invitation because as an Orthodox Jew and survivor of Auschwitz he felt he didn’t belong in a church. So, the Dean compromised: He turned around all the chairs in the nave so that the congregation faced the West doors. A small table was set up for Mr. Wiesel right near the doors and it was from here that he spoke. We finished the service with a Eucharist, using that little table as the altar. I believe this radical hospitality must have moved Mr. Wiesel. The next time he came, he spoke from the pulpit and he even became a Cathedral colleague.
Beside his work on interfaith issues to which he devoted himself after his tenure at St. John’s ended, his passion, beginning in the 1970s, was for what was happening to the earth, the destruction that human beings were visiting on this blue green ball we call home. St. John the Divine became known as the Green Cathedral. Dean Morton’s passion for both interfaith understanding and for ecology were certainly prescient. It is tragic that the world has only gotten worse on both counts.
I could write reams about the various exciting and moving things that happened during those 25 years: being invited to sit in the dean’s office to meditate with the Dalai Lama; the support for the arts and the artists we were privileged to meet. With Dean Morton’s support, the community that worshipped at St. John’s started a soup kitchen, men’s shelter and clothing closet. What went on in the undercroft was primarily social gospel-related while upstairs in the nave Mass was celebrated and many famous artists, scientist and religious leaders spoke to large crowds.
But there was another side to Dean Morton that could get lost in all this: he was a great priest. He could and did relate to everyone from the homeless or drug addicted, to the Park Avenue matron and everyone in between. He was always ready to listen to the individual in pain, to give advice, to help. He would stay up all night at the Maundy Thursday Vigil hearing confessions. He knew what was going on with so many of us. I personally was the recipient of his wisdom when my mother was dying, comfort after her death and help when my career was caught in a political mess. Just knowing I could call and ask for a word was enough sometimes. He was very aware of what was happening with his flock. He built community in his own inimitable style, from the weekly Cathedral nights that began with yoga and ended with the Eucharist, and the very precious Thursday morning Dean’s mass where we used prayers from the Orthodox Church and finished with breakfast at Cathedral House before going off to work. I remember standing in a circle in the St. Saviour Chapel and thinking to myself: don’t forget this. You are being fed with love and deep connection. To this day I continue to say a prayer of humble access from the Orthodox Church that Dean Morton used:
Unto thy heavenly banquet O Son of God admit me this day. May I never betray thee, nor like Judas greet thee with a kiss; but like the thief may I cry, “Remember me in thy kingdom.”
And now he is in that Kingdom, singing with the angels. I thank Pamela Morton for her warmth and hospitality over those 25 exciting years and for her sharing him with us.