Letters to Peregrinus #17 - On a Prince and His Will

Dear Peregrinus (Wednesday, 9 AM):

The musician and businessman called Prince died, as your recent letter mentioned. (Thank you for writing by the way.) You knew about him a lot more than I did, and so I really cannot answer sufficiently your question about what I thought of him. But I did know a little about him, and so I reply this.

During the coverage, I noticed his house, which did not look like a house at all, but like a fort or, perhaps, an enormous mausoleum. It caused me to wonder whether Prince had in fact been dying, in ways other than physical, for a very long time. Massive walls; tiny windows – a soul trapped within itself? And I saw thousands of fans coming there to place bouquets of bright flowers ... affixing them onto a heavy, encircling, steel fence. I remembered the line from Mother Teresa of Calcutta (to be canonized a Saint by Pope Francis on 4 September 2016!): “The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.”

I also noticed how the news coverage never played any of Princeʼs music – obviously Princeʼs pre-eminent gift, for the sake of which he lived his life. Instead, the media talked about all of his money – his “fortune” (such a complex term that is!) – and concerning the fact that there was no Will to designate who now gets to have it. They compel us to be concerned about a mere side-effect of Princeʼs life. Surely Prince, who died alone in the elevator of his house, would will that we not miss the gift he sought to communicate to us, over and over again, through his music and lyrics and dancing, and through his mastery of his sweet guitar.

What if it were the case, and Prince knew it, that his “last” Will was given to everyone, every time, he performed for them? The adjective “last” means, as it does in legal dictionaries, the most recent published version of a personʼs will. So, in this case, it means Princeʼs most recent performance. What if his being able to make people dance, and, at least for a moment because of his songs to feel something deeply was his most perfectly written Will? Maybe for such a person time given to figuring out who “gets” what of his possessions after he is dead just seems ... well, completely uninteresting.

Do you remember Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) in the film Saving Private Ryan (1998)? At one point he speaks to his men about their mission to find in war-torn France Private James Francis Ryan of Iowa and to make sure that he got home alive to his parents, who had already lost three of their sons to this same blood-thirsty war. He says to them:

“Sometimes I wonder, if Iʼve changed so much, whether my wife is even gonna recognize me whenever it is that I get back to her, and how Iʼll ever be able to tell her about days like today. Aw, Ryan. I donʼt know anything about Ryan; I donʼt care. The man means nothing to me; heʼs just a name. But if, you know, if going to Ramelle [France], and finding him, so that he can go home – if that earns me the right to get back to my wife, well then, then thatʼs my mission.” [1]

And then at the end of the film a now aged veteran James Francis Ryan of Iowa stands at the tomb in France of Captain John H. Miller, a man who died on a bridge (as a bridge?), so that Ryan could have his own life fully to live. He remembers how Miller, as he died, gave his last words into his ear: “James ... earn this. Earn it!” In short, Millerʼs last Will was: “Be a life worthy of this gift that I am giving to you here!” And when Ryanʼs wife comes up behind him to inquire whether he is alright, sensing from a distance his deep emotion, Ryan asks her: “Tell me that I have lived a good life.” She replies, puzzled, “What?” And he says, “Tell me that Iʼm a good man.” And now she replies, beginning to understand what he is asking her, “You are.”

Peregrinus, whose name means “pilgrim,” you and I have known each other for a long time. Because of the sacrifice my vocation asked of me, I have long understood that I have nothing to write into a Will, no possessions to pass on. My only and greatest physical possession is my Vow Crucifix, put into my hands on the day I knelt before the altar on the feast of St. Rose of Lima in August of 1975 and offered my Vows to God – “Almighty and eternal God, I, Rick, understand how unworthy I am in your divine sight, but I am strengthened....” And so perhaps I am more aware, more than your other good friends, that each sentence or paragraph that I write, on any particular day, or in any talk that I write and give, or in any heart-felt effort I make each day to bless any person God places into my path to see and meet, I am “writing” my last Will and Testament. And, old friend, I find myself more often in my old age standing before Christ on the Cross asking, as did James Francis Ryan ask at the white Cross marking the tomb of Captain Miller:

My family is with me today. They wanted to come with me. To be honest with you, I wasnʼt sure how Iʼd feel coming back here. Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, Iʼve earned what all of you have done for me.

 Thank you, friend, for always knowing how to receive my last Will each time I write it.

I am your friend in Christ,

Rick, SJ


[1] I am grateful for the IMDb website through which I am able to get to the lines I am trying to remember in films I care about.

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