Shortly before my arrival in this parish the (then) Senior Warden thoughtfully sent me a copy of the parish directory. Of course it was just a sea of names to me in those days, but glancing through the pages my eyes spotted a certain entry:
The Honorable Heyward Isham.
Coming from the “Old World” I immediately assumed that within my congregation I would have the pleasure of meeting with an aristocrat – the son of a viscount, baron or earl. How deep was my ignorance of American titles and structures? Very deep indeed, for I had not a clue that I would be meeting a retired US Ambassador!
As a result of my poverty of knowledge I was thus educated, and in my meeting Heyward Isham I was then enriched.
I don’t think that it is an understatement to say that time spent with Heyward always contained an element of the spiritual, albeit sometimes cloaked within his own personal narrative, his vast experience and his indefatigable memory. In conversation with me and many others he was always concerned with the spiritual angle, or consequence, as it were.
In the obituary published last Sunday in the Washington Post there is mention of the time when, in 1977, he was challenged by two men and wounded. What the story does not tell is that Heyward later made a purposeful visit to an Episcopal priest to ask if there was any spiritual significance to this event. The priest wisely pointed out that the attack had probably more to do with Heyward’s counter-terrorism appointment than it had to do with the hand of the Almighty!
Now setting levity aside, there was a wonderful, gentle side to Heyward’s spirituality. It went back through many years, and was shaped by many experiences and people. By his worldly travels and diplomatic challenges; by his wife Sheila, whose depth of spirituality is evident, not only in her art, but also in her very presence and conversation; and finally, sadly, by the death of Sandra, their daughter.
No father’s spirit can remain unchanged after such a tragedy. Heyward remained strong, but on occasion we, he and I, would quietly and gently re-visit that dark valley. I was privileged to share in his perennial grief, a grief that has now ended.
Heyward’s personal Christian faith led him to embrace the ways of the Episcopal Church, and the older Anglican traditions. Sheila once shared with me a press report in which Heyward quietly expressed his love of Anglicanism – because it held together the length, breadth and depth of so many expressions of Christianity. It seemed to match his own spiritual journey.
The pilgrim on this spiritual journey was a man who, one minute was reading and implementing intelligence from Washington, Bejing, and Moscow, and the next minute drawing inspiration from metaphysical Anglican authors and poets such as John Donne and George Herbert.
And the result of this spiritual (and physical) journey was that, for many years, we were blessed and privileged to have Heyward in our small community and our parish church of St. Ann.
Of course, just as Sheila grieves, and Ralph and Christopher and all their families grieve, we can grieve, as it seems that that special blessing of Heyward’s presence has been taken away. And it is right that we do, for this giant, gentle man, wise and full of love, is no longer here.
But as Heyward once told me, “Matters of the heart are unaffected by time.”
And he was so right. For he is as much in our hearts now as he was before he died, and his spirit, now journeying on, is inextinguishable.
Within the Christian faith and hope we have read these words from John’s Gospel.
“I am the way, the truth and the life.”
We take heart from these words, just as Heyward did, and drew strength also from the words of George Herbert, priest and poet, who will have the final word for now.
Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a way as gives us breath;
Such a truth as ends all strife,
Such a life as killeth death.
Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a light as shows a feast,
Such a feast as mends in length,
Such a strength as makes his guest.
Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a joy as none can move,
Such a love as none can part,
Such a heart as joys in love.
Goodbye, my friend. Amen.