Bill Cummings could be described as a man in search of his soul, and he allowed us into the inner sanctum of that search. Many of us have walked alongside Bill in the earnest and caring journey that captured his heart, his mind and his spirit. Because we have been with him, our own souls have been enlightened, our own minds have been stretched, our own spirits have been lifted and our own hearts are more compassionate.
Bill’s intellectual and spiritual journey began in a monastery. In that ascetic, monastic setting, he engaged vigorously in the spiritual disciplines of silence and reflection, of confession and penance, of meditation and prayer. Even so, Bill’s intellectual gifts, extraordinary in their reach, led him beyond being simply a proprietor of the faith. He studied, and mastered more than many, philosophy and theology, epistemology and logic, ethics and church history. He soaked up Catholic dogma and scripture and tradition. He learned Latin and Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew. He studied Spanish and Italian. As he deepened his spiritual devotion in the monastery, he also sharpened his mind. For Bill, his life of spiritual discipline was always tempered by his intelligence and the rigors of logic. He would never live contently with an unthinking devotion.
Bill’s interwoven intellectual and spiritual pursuits took him to high and distinguished places of learning and teaching. He earned an invitation to the Vatican to spend two years pursuing additional doctoral studies. At the Vatican, his life intersected with the historic and transformative leadership and guidance of Pope John XXIII. Bill always lived under his influence as Pope John tried to broaden the embrace of the Church and reform outdated church traditions.
Both Bill’s spiritual bearings and his relentless intellectual curiosity shaped him into a man who believed in the unconditional worth of every person. He could never rest with a mere recitation of faith or tradition. He raised and encouraged others to raise probing questions. He was willing to examine every thread in the garment of the faith in which he had been raised and tutored. He had become not only deeply devout but also a devout scholar.
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It turns out that neither his mind nor his spirit could be confined by the boundaries of the holy orders of being a priest. Though he said to me, “I will always be a priest,” both his religious integrity and his intellectual honesty required that he move to the larger parish of the secular world. In reality, it was not so much that he left a priestly vocation. He was intermittent priest to many of us. He stepped outside the confines of the Catholic Church to bring hope and inspiration to some who might never visit a church or cathedral. In the world of secular affairs to which he moved, he provided lessons on leadership, as well as counsel on how to foster a more humane corporate culture.
Amidst large and diverse corporate enterprises, Bill sought to instill the value of honesty, integrity, respect and responsibility as well as accountability. After leaving the corporate world, he became a management consultant. The signature method he had used in the realms of faith, he also used to help small and large businesses improve. He raised questions. One question inevitably led to another and the probing inquiries were always about improving the company’s well being. He caused executives to look at what they were doing and why they were doing it. He helped chief executives assess their own values and priorities and behaviors.
Bill was a successful adviser and counselor because he listened better than most. It was a skill enriched by his wife, Ann, who along with his son, Bill, and his daughter, Gena, helped him become a better listener. They probably taught him that listening is the most fundamental form of respect that we can show to one another. As a result, he taught executives that their speaking would be heard more clearly if they listened more often. It turns out that listening is a priestly gift.
In recent years, Bill has been known by his challenging and, for some, disturbing, columns on the editorial pages of The Telegraph. On those pages, he invited readers into his own journey of belief and disbelief. He combined his yearning to ask questions with his good will to listen both to his admirers and his critics. I never heard Bill utter a demeaning word about a critic. His respect for others and their own beliefs was resolute and consistent. In every encounter, even those fraught with conflict, Bill always sought a pathway of mutual understanding. He affirmed people, regardless of their convictions, with compassion and grace, and never a hint of judgment.
To know Bill was to know that his deepest belief was that we could know God most clearly in meeting and embracing one another without regard for our diverse creeds or our ethnic differences or our ideological prejudices.
We should remind ourselves that we are all victims of episodes of blindness. Surely Bill Cummings was no different. He did not possess perfect understanding. Hence his persistent and probing questions. Truth be told, perfect understanding eludes priest and scholar alike. But Bill Cummings, unlike many, spent most of his 86 years bringing light to people who lived in the shadows of ignorance. He gave hope to people of faith who had abandoned their religious moorings. He opened new windows of insight for people who had given up on organized religion. For scores of people, Bill’s column, Sunday after Sunday, was the most sought-after feature of the Sunday Telegraph. He challenged. He made us uncomfortable. He provoked. He inspired. Most of all, he left us eager to read more.
Bill called himself a Southern Christian heretic. I call him a saint, disguised as a gray-haired gentleman with a brilliant mind, a charming wit, and generous affection, and, above all else, a man who lived his love for God as love for people. He could not mask his priestly gifts of caring and grace, of loving friend and foe without condition.
I join a chorus of friends who gathered with him often and who loved him deeply. We will ever be grateful that he made our community a better place and he helped us to become better people.