Nothing can harm us

Up at Saint John’s, as I was rising from what I hope and trust to be the darkest moments of my grief after Hal’s passing, an email buzzed through my phone from Pastor Richard, Hal’s gallery co-artist and my co-eulogist. It said, in part, “You will have pain, but don’t be afraid, it can’t harm you.”

by Richard Patt

It made me recall a favorite Zen teaching, by the Korean master Seung Sahn, who preached the importance of a “don’t-know mind” that lets loose of selfish thoughts so the big mind of the universe – what a Christian like me calls God – can take over. “If you keep a don’t-know mind one hundred percent, then your demons cannot find you. Suffering cannot find you. Karma, problems, life, death, coming and going, good and bad; nothing can touch you when you only keep a don’t-know mind.”

It’s Good Friday as I write this. On this day a couple of thousand years ago, an angry mob tried to kill a radical prophet who’d come into the world to turn its ungodly power structure upside-down. To make the lowest of the visible world into the highest of the ultimate world. His prosecutors nailed his body to a cross. But they couldn’t get at his spirit. They couldn’t harm him. His love spilled out into the embodiment of God for me and more than two billion other people today.

My husband’s fuel pump gave out. But the true self of his spirit was not harmed. His love lives on as strongly as when he was in bodily form. I felt a rush of it this morning looking at the goofy picture of me he painted as a visual bandage one Saturday after I wiped out on my bicycle. I feel it when I water his plants and maintain our house. I feel it when I tend his gallery and carry forward his artistic vision. I feel it when I turn what he means to me into words I hope will benefit others.

As a fan of words I know “grief” and “mourning” don’t have the same meaning. Grief is a feeling of loss. Mourning is the public expression of it.

When love is strong, physical loss brings grief, in some form, forever. Mourning is meant to be temporary. If mourning goes on too long, it confines the spirit of those we mourn. This blog is about to become something new in Hal’s spirit. Watch and see.

Easter is nearly here. Mourning will be over. Love will never end.

A happy homecoming, or The Case of the Missing Lawnmower

Transitioning home from my retreat at Saint John’s University, I had some fear the house would seem lonelier after the support and commotion of the abbey and campus. But it feels more like home than ever. It’s good to be surrounded by space Hal and I designed and renovated together, and that gleams with his art, including paintings of me. It’s like I’m being enveloped by his spirit.

Speaking of such, I’m sane enough now to start turning my attention to the nuts and bolts of maintaining the houses without Hal around to help (physically). Already mine was the most nagging task in the yards: mowing the lawns. Except that last summer, after our little electric push mower conked, Hal bought a fancier mower he ended up not letting me use. He feared it was too heavy for me to get up the slope in front of our house without an accident. It was heavy even for him, with his farmboy strength. He let out a growl if I even wandered near that mower.

Before I left for Minnesota I went out to the half of the garage we use as a yard shed to see if the mower was really that unwieldy. Hal’s spirit didn’t seem to object. When I got to the garage I understood why.

no mower

The lawnmower was gone.

I’d seen it in there not long ago, next to the snow thrower. What happened to it is a mystery and may remain so forever. The two likely scenarios are:

Hal couldn’t bear the thought of me trying to use that mower or another summer of handling it himself, so one of his last acts was to get rid of it, somewhere, somehow.


He left the garage door open and someone swiped it.

I view the first scenario as Hal still protecting me from beyond, and the second as God doing it on Hal’s behalf. Either way it’s joy.

Having awakened too early the last morning of my retreat, before I left Collegeville I searched for something to stream into the car radio to keep me alert on the road. I found the National Public Radio “Fresh Air” archive and selected an amazing interview with Nadia Bolz-Weber, a former stand-up comic who’s morphed into a no-nonsense heavily-tattooed wisecracking rockstar Lutheran pastor. The segment was so great I spent most of the rest of the drive listening to fabulous sermons by Nadia and her co-pastors and successors at the countercultural congregation she founded in Denver, the House for All Sinners and Saints (acronym HFASS, pronounced “halfass”).

That six-hour drive turned out to be an extension and perfect end for my retreat. The sermons were funny, moving, and delightfully simple, befitting the message needed by a congregation heavily populated with the outsiders of society Jesus loved and too many contemporary so-called Christians (led by the president they elected) revel in persecuting: the addicted, the alien, the homeless, the sex-or-gender-different. Themes:

  • Grace is always there.
  • God is closest in suffering.
  • Joy comes in the morning.

When I got home the snow had melted and the grass on the front slope was starting to grow. Gotta find a light little mower. Easter is Sunday.

The first corner of the maze

Today I reluctantly leave Saint John’s University, a day earlier than originally planned. People need me back in Milwaukee and rainstorms are on the way to chase me out of Minnesota. But just as it was special for Hal in its architecture and nature and its position halfway between his two homes, Saint John’s will remain special for me the rest of my life. I’m sure I’ll return regularly to the place that lifted me enough to look grief in the eye and not blink.

The ceiling of the Zen space at the Episcopal House of Prayer,
Saint John’s.

It’s not hard to get an intellectual understanding of life and death. Sacred books and science books are converging on the same conclusions. What we see, hear, touch, taste and smell is only the constantly changing clothing of reality. It’s how the world looks, not what the world is. What we perceive with our individual minds as the loss of someone we love is only a change of clothes, from the temporary back to the eternal.

To feel that, to not merely know it or say it but believe it, is the challenge of a lifetime. It’s a fearsome challenge. To accept that the person I loved most in the world, the most widely beloved person I ever knew, will never again be next to me in human form saddens and frightens me almost to death.

We’re all called to face the challenge of change and loss. When we meet that challenge, we not only conquer our own suffering, we live better for everyone. We understand the world is not about our selves. It’s about the unending, un-bodied self containing all of us. What Zen practitioners call the absolute and Christ called the Father. This may be what physical life and death are here to teach us.

Hal used to say one of the secrets to any building is not the building but how it lets light in. The building is the container of the light. Hal also called light the key to any painting. As our friend and fellow artist Richard mentioned in his eulogy, Hal was obsessed with capturing his subjects in the perfect light and translating that to the canvas. If he had the light right, the rest fell into place.

I didn’t finish the challenge of grief here at Saint John’s. Like everything else in life, it doesn’t feel like a direct path to a certain goal. I know it will have twists and turns and reverses. But in this place where nature and knowledge, East and West, contemplation and action, solemness and cheerfulness all meet at one beautiful point my soulmate cherished and remains in presence, I think I turned the first corner of the maze, into a wider section where light starts to come in.

Close encounters of the ultimate kind

After Hal’s passing I made a pact with myself and his soul to visit places and do things we didn’t find time for together in our happy but overpacked artistic and academic lives. Near the top of the list was a visit to Saint John’s University on a lake in the woods about an hour northwest of Minneapolis. The university is operated by Benedictine monks, and their abbey church, designed by Bauhaus alumnus Marcel Breuer and finished in 1961, is one of Hal’s favorite buildings. Also its modern guesthouse was designed by a former colleague of Hal’s. Peaceful and picturesque, Saint John’s makes for a wonderful, contemplative retreat, made all the more welcoming for me by the campus of one of the country’s great small colleges.

The sanctuary at the Abbey Church

Yesterday was the first of three days I plan to spend here (though dire weather ahead may bring me home a day early). The weekend began as beautifully and poignantly as anyone could hope, with a Palm Sunday mass lifted heavenward by Saint John’s amazing boys’ choir. The homily by the monks’ abbot was about how Luke’s account of the Passion is an especially strong call for us to clarify our lives. He used the example of a parishioner who made her life simpler and more service-oriented after the passing of her husband. As you can imagine, I had wet eyes, and so did a woman sitting just down my pew in that spectacular church. At the peace I offered a hand but she was too lost in her thoughts to respond.

I hadn’t checked in at the guesthouse yet so I went for brunch at a diner in nearby St. Joseph, Minnesota. The woman from my pew sat next to me at the counter and struck up a conversation. It turns out she’d lost her own husband, years ago, to the same “widowmaker” heart attack that claimed Hal. She is a physician and advised me not to spend energy wondering if we could’ve prevented it. Symptoms are often nonexistent or mild, which is how the condition gets its grave name. Her husband had a full physical shortly before he died. She provided more good advice, too much to list here, though one piece I’ll share is not to rush through grief. It’s necessary for healing and new growth.

I left the meal feeling like God had plucked me out of Milwaukee with a thumb and forefinger and set me at Saint John’s. Afterward, though, I checked my phone and found that Hal’s and my old friend Peg had surrendered to her cancer. I had seen her, barely responsive, before I left for Minnesota, kissed her on the cheek, and knew she would pass during my retreat.

After I checked in at the guesthouse and the campus fell Sunday-quiet, the solitude began to close in on me. With many gratefully accepted social invitations I’ve not allowed myself much time alone with my grief, especially in the early evenings, which for some reason seem to be hard. The evening prayer service with the monks was not a help. Unlike the mass, the service felt eerie and soulless, with a dry reading from Jeremiah and a sung psalm of the “hooray we killed all our enemies” kind I hate. I’ve always found the promised-land stuff bothersome and cherished its absence in Zen. In coming back to Christianity I’ve meditated it away as a historical lesson about how human faith has grown since.

At dinner in the guesthouse I was welcomed by a monk who’d been tipped off to my reason for coming by a friend of mine who was once a Benedictine. But the guesthouse and dining hall were next to empty, and trying to inject my glumness into the conversation of three monks at a corner table didn’t feel right. I wandered campus afterward seeing next to no one, assuming many students were away for the weekend or in their dining halls for Sunday supper. Back in my room I had a bout of grief almost like a panic attack. I’m not in distress about Hal – I know he’s fine. And I’m not frightened of dying myself. What I’m frightened of is getting through the rest of this life without my buddy and protector.

Too soon for this, I thought, and bailed on the retreat. My phone was sending alerts from the Bucks’ first playoff game. I Googled up the nearest sports bar, eight miles away in a suburb of St. Cloud, sped there in my Ford and ordered a beer. By this time the Bucks were ahead by like a million points. Nothing to watch. No one to talk to. Nowhere to go.

I’d brought my backpack. I pulled out a couple of books I’d taken along for the retreat, setting them on the bar to read.

“In the ultimate I dwell.” The ultimate is the foundation of our being, the ground of being. The ultimate, or God, or the divine, is not separate from us. We are in it all the time. It is not somewhere up there beyond the sky. But we have to live in our true home in order to dwell in the ultimate.

Our foundation is nirvana, the ultimate reality. You can call it God or the kingdom of God. This is the water in which we live. You are a wave, but at the same time, you are also water. You have a historical dimension and you have an ultimate dimension. If we understand that our true nature is of no birth, no death, no coming, no going, then our fear will depart and our pain and suffering will vanish.

“Yeah!” cried out the man next to me, hands in the air like a prophet. The St. Louis Blues had scored. I went back to Thich Nhat Hanh.

We run during the daytime and we run during our sleep. We do not know how to stop. Our practice is first of all to stop, then to relax, to calm down and to concentrate. When we can do this, then we are in the here and now. Then we become solid. And when we are solid, we can look around. We can look deeply into the present moment, we can look deeply into our true nature, and we can discover the ultimate dimension.

I breathed. Hal and Peg were partying in the ultimate dimension. I took a sip of beer and joined them.

Finishing a chapter, I picked up a different book, by the Benedictine sister Joan Chittister, which I’d bought a few weeks ago not knowing I’d be taking it to a Benedictine abbey in sorrow. She talks of how St. Benedict’s God is not a “Doer of Magical Miracles outside the natural order” but the God who is nature.

…this caring God loves us and so refuses to interfere with our judgments or prevent our experiments with life. Instead, this God does us the respect of simply standing by, of being there to hold us up, of confirming our trust by leading us through the dim days and long nights. How else to explain the depth of soul of those who have survived great calamity, endured the brutal death of a child, struggled through crippling debilitation, torturous addictions, and yet come out of all of it praising the God who carried them through? This God trusts humanity to work its own way to the fullness of its soulfulness.

Benedict’s first step of humility – this mandate “to keep the presence, the fear, the reverence, the awe of God always before our eyes…and never forget it” – does not crush us in the dust. Instead it makes us vulnerable to God. We are now accessible to the call of God. We are ready to live in the presence of God. We are open to the will of God for each of us and for the world.

I looked around at the loud, flashing bar and let out a laugh. St. Louis dude laughed too, looking like he wanted to know why we were laughing, but laughing doesn’t need explanation. What was I doing here, instead of next to a lake in the woods? The ultimate dimension was both places, but I knew which I preferred.

I left half the beer and a good tip and drove back to Saint John’s. With dinner finished the campus had come back to life, softly lit in the dusk. I strolled around taking some pictures and soaking in the student camaraderie. The bells of the abbey church exploded to life and I heard the organ of evening mass, a replica of the morning’s, with the stirring opening hymn “All Glory, Laud and Honor.” I peeked into the church but shooed the student who offered to seat me, telling him I was good. The guesthouse parking lot had filled and conversation could be heard in the halls. I breathed in front of the lake, read some more wisdom, and fell asleep in the ultimate with God and Hal and Peg and everyone and everything.

Eulogy for Hal by Richard

Here is the text of the eulogy delivered by Hal’s friend and gallery display partner, the Rev. Richard W. Patt, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Milwaukee, Thursday, April 4, 2019.

As you can see, I am wearing an outfit that looks like clergy apparel. Actually it is, because I am now an ordained Lutheran pastor for over 58 years. Yes, you heard that right! After retiring 20 years ago, I chose a career as a practicing fine artist.

“Brilliant Wisconsin Morning,” by Richard Patt

The clergy shirt, by the way, is one of the newer type. No stiff white collar. When it’s unbuttoned at the top, like it is now, I function as a clergy-person. But when I unbutton the top – like now [unbuttons top button] – I am a lay person, like you.

Now I am speaking as a fellow artist, which many here tonight are, as well. Several years ago Hal Koenig invited me (imagine!) to become a kind-of permanent guest artist in his beautiful gallery in the lobby of the Marshall Building in the Third Ward. Thank you, Hal, thank you.

By the way, you may have noticed that I pronounced Hal’s last name “Keh-nig.” I come from rich German stock. I know that K-O-E-N-I-G is pronounced “Keh-nig.” The letter “e” denotes an umlaut, so it has to be “Keh-nig.” After being in his gallery for about six months, I noticed at one of the gallery nights that everyone was calling him “Hal Kone-ig.” Afterwards I asked Hal, “How do you pronounce your last name?” He said, “Richard, you can pronounce it however you wish.” He was that kind, that gentle in his dealings with everyone. He had at least six months’ worth of patience with me.

Being an artist, I speak of Hal Kone-ig as an artist. His paintings are painter-ly – fastidiously planned. His cityscapes are always in exact perspective, due in part to his background as an architect. His use of color was pretty flawless. A lot of his canvasses are monumentally large, but he was able to keep all of the artistic requirements in tow, so that the unity of these giants is a marvel achieved and a joy to behold.

But beyond his superb artistic achievements, these paintings were part of Hal’s mission. Some viewers looked at his Milwaukee cityscapes and remarked, “That’s Milwaukee? He sure makes Milwaukee look good!” And that Hal did. He did that because he loved this city. He wanted Milwaukee to be an inviting place. He wanted this to be a place of unsurpassing community where all of us live together for the sake of one another, where we can be comfortable in our neighborhoods and comfortable with who we are. He wanted our civic places to be civil places. He did not want our “circumstances” or our fears to rule us. His paintings usually showed us Milwaukee in its cheering early morning light or its splendorous late afternoon glow.

Thank you, Hal, for giving us a vision of what we will yet become as a city and of what we all can be, as kind, loving, understanding human beings, who go forth in each morning’s light, as humanely as you did, and to come home washed by the glowing afternoon’s sunlight with the satisfaction that we contributed one more day to this city’s beauty and hope. That is what you did each day, Hal.

So as a clergy person and as a friend, I say, Amen! And Amen!

Richard will debut a series of paintings entitled “Night Sky” in tribute to Hal at Oil Gallery’s grand reopening on Spring Gallery Night, Friday, April 26.

More on the eulogy: God, Jesus, Buddha, physics, life and Hal

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts.

– The Dhammapada, verse 1

In Him we live and move and have our being…

Acts 17:28

Since the memorial service for Hal I’ve received repeated requests to expand on my eulogy, especially the part about faith and quantum physics. Some people asking about it were close to Hal and are grappling with a lot of grief, as I am; others are confronting questions of life and death intensely in other ways too. I’ll use this memorial blog to try to explain more, in hopes that others may find the ideas comforting, as I have.

An ancient Zen parable tells about a king who loved string music and ordered a guitar chopped to bits to try to find its essence. Of course, the essence couldn’t be found in the material of the instrument. Someone had to pick up the guitar and play it.

Modern physics is like this. Physicists have chopped matter into ever tinier bits, into atoms and slices of atoms, to try to find the essence of existence. Increasingly they are finding nothing at the root of matter except our own perceptions, our own consciousness, our own mind. The smallest building blocks of matter, known as quanta, seem to behave differently according to our observation of them.

Scientists are arguing, as scientists do, over what this means, bringing their own biases and preconceptions to the argument, as humans do. But some are coming to believe reality exists in our consciousness rather than outside of our thoughts and minds. Those who are resisting that conclusion don’t have much evidence in their corner. Science, for all its advances, has made no progress in explaining consciousness. Scientists can’t explain the existence of our thoughts – only the function of our brains.

Given all the above, it makes sense to me that our consciousness is everything. The universe is made up not of matter but of mind. Being the building block of all existence, consciousness is impossible for us to measure from within. It’s like the classic tale of the fish asking “Water? What’s water?” Trying to perceive our minds with our minds is like trying to see our eyes with our eyes.

So if our minds are creating the universe, why can’t we control it? Why can’t we imagine a wall is not there, then walk through it?

The answer is that the universe isn’t being imagined by your mind, or my mind. It’s being imagined by everyone’s mind as one. By some grand mind in which all our minds exist, and are separate from only in our small human perspective while we’re in material form on earth.

Whose mind might that be?

A Buddhist might say it’s the mind of the Absolute, the mind that is not relative to anyone or anything else but comprises all as one. For a Buddhist, everything on earth is relative to everything else – more physics – but in an absolute sense it’s all one thing, made of our thoughts and minds.

A Christian (such as me) might say the universe is the mind of God. We’re being imagined by God and moving in that dream freely, just like other people move freely and without our control in our own dreams. When we leave our bodies, we wake up as if from a dream, to the consciousness of all. Like matter in physics, consciousness can’t be created or destroyed. It’s simply there.

If the universe is made up of mind and not matter, has Hal actually gone anywhere? When we talk of his spirit, is that some squishy Hallmark-card idea? Or is our continuing memory and perception and consciousness of him actually as real and true as his body was? Maybe even realer and truer?

I’m in serious grief over the physical loss of Hal. Our imperfect earthly minds can’t grasp as well as our eyes and ears and fingers. I’ll miss the sight and sound and hug of Hal for the rest of my life.

But I’m not in despair because the most important part of Hal is still here. In meditation – all that means is letting loose of our own minds so the mind of all existence or the universe or God can come in – it can feel as if he’s sitting with me. Especially in the shadow of a tree he put next to my meditation bench right before he left earthly form. In our art gallery it’s like I’m working beside him. To my surprise and delight our gallery and home are places of great comfort and joy for me right now. He poured his unique creative vision into them, and they live on with his spirit. As I do.

Eulogy for Hal by Bob

Here is the text of the eulogy delivered at Hal Koenig’s April 4 memorial service by his husband of 32 years, Robert Schwoch.

Going through a loss like this melts a person’s brain into clichés. One cliché I’ve said over and over these past days, and even put in the memorial notice in the paper, is that everyone who met Hal loved him. You’ll probably hear something like that at most funerals across the world. But we all know in this case it’s not just a cliché. It’s really true, isn’t it? I mean, that smile! Hal was impossible not to love. He could be very shy about meeting new groups of people, unsure if he’d make a good impression. I’d tell him, would you relax? If someone doesn’t like you instantly they’re dead inside! He’d say, aw, stop it, and I’d say, no, YOU stop it. That’s Hal and Bob in a nutshell.

Hal’s lovability might be hard for people to put into words. But I can. I know why he was so lovable, and why he always drew wonderful people into his orbit. Let me tell you a little story, and as a bonus, it relates to our gospel for today. You get a eulogy and a sermon together. No extra charge!

Around the house I could sometimes annoy Hal – okay I could often annoy Hal – but he greatly preferred me being in the house annoying him versus me being anywhere else. When I would leave home for more than the occasional overnight in Madison, I’d get texts and emails from Hal saying he missed me, and for my return he would almost always prepare some sort of surprise for me. It could be something as simple as a special meal, or something as large as having remodeled a room in our house. One time I went off to a writers’ event for a week and came back to find a new patio in the backyard. Another time I went away for a weekend and he painted a giant landscape of my Italian family’s hometown for our bedroom – one of the fastest and best paintings he ever did. He would always hide somewhere away from the surprise so I could trip on it by myself and then run and find him and say “Halsie, what did you do?!” And he’d be smiling his Hal smile, just as pleased as punch. Never did I see him happier than when he would pull one of those surprises and see my reaction.

One of the last surprises he pulled on me, when I was snowed in at Madison a few weeks ago, was to pull his old architecture office out of what is supposed to be our living room, because the gallery had become his office, and change the back room we’d been using as a living room into a beautiful office for me, with a writing desk and all my diplomas and certificates and knickknacks. That room has always had a bay window nook, facing Lake Michigan, where I have a mat and kneeling bench to meditate and say a few words of prayer first thing every morning, a habit of many years.

The Aralia tree

At the end of the night we lost Hal, as I settled into my office desk trying to cope with what had happened, I looked up at my meditation nook and saw Hal’s final surprise, one he never got a chance to spring on me in person. Next to my meditation bench and mat he had placed a gorgeous, six-foot-tall Aralia tree, with woody branches and jade-like leaves arching gently over to shade me while I meditate and pray. It is stunning. I found the tag and receipt on our kitchen counter. He had bought it for me at some expense from Mileager’s Garden Center two days before, while I was gone at a novelists’ conference in Vermont.

Now some of you may know that next to painting, raising plants inside and outside the house was Hal’s favorite pastime. I never got involved much in it because it brought him so much joy to do. I have a number of plants in the house to take care of now, and I’m researching all of them on the internet to see what type of care each plant needs. Tending those plants is bringing me an amazing lift of joy, as if Hal’s spirit is cheering me on while I do it. I sort of “get” gardening all of a sudden. This is one reason my urge is to keep the houses and yards even though I’m going to need lots of help with them, because as some of you well know, I am not Mr. Handy. I am capable of flushing a toilet but nothing better go wrong!

Yet I’m glad to report all the plants are doing great. They have not dropped one leaf. Even the maidenhair ferns, which Hal loved but had some difficulties with, are as he left them or maybe even a little better. I can tell you that the Aralia tree in my prayer nook will thrive in our house if I have to buy it its own doctor!

So what does this have to do with Hal being lovable by anyone except me, the unbelievably lucky guy who got so much love back from him from 32 years? What you need to know is he was this way about EVERYONE. He lived to make other people happy. It was pretty much the only thing that could make him happy. He enjoyed designing buildings. But he loved painting more because he thought people loved the paintings more. He would never let a painting go up for display without asking me what I thought of it. If I would say, it’s great, he wouldn’t be satisfied. Compliments didn’t mean much to him. It was not until he heard me say “people are going to love it” – or even better, a certain kind of collector or a certain person or group of people will love it – that he would start thinking it was finished. And he loved raising plants because, even though they can’t express their gratitude, they’re living things and they were made to thrive by his care. Just like me.

This is what the gospel I chose for today is about. This is what faith is about. This is what life is about.

Some of you know that across my life I’ve adopted two religions, since many years ago when the meditation practices of Zen Buddhism helped me cope with the disaster of AIDS and the way it hit friends and family. This is why we had an Eastern reading along with our Bible reading today. For a while the two faiths seemed in conflict with one another, then they came into conversation with one another, and now I feel like they supercharge one another. A theologian might say Zen and Christianity are different, even opposite. The theologian would be wrong. The paths are different but the end is the same: Love God like the whole universe and love others like we are all one. There. I just summed up two of the world’s great religions for you in one sentence. No extra charge.

I’ve meditated and prayed on those faiths every day for decades. But the key to my strong faith is the amazing example I had in my own house for all those lucky years. Hal lived to give. His personal mission was to make the world more colorful, more beautiful, more joyful. He poured his whole heart into buildings and plants and paintings for the enjoyment of others without a thought of accolades or awards or even money. He would try to hide when an award would come at an art show. He was happy for the ribbon to draw people to the tent, but he didn’t want to be in the photo with the presenter. Sure, he wanted to make a living – he was delighted to make his art his full-time work. But he always thought his paintings were too expensive, that he was charging people too much. (Fortunately I didn’t!) Hal couldn’t even put up the price tags next to the paintings. That’s always been my job. If we had been wealthy enough not to worry about expenses he’d have given the paintings away. He gave himself away continually without thought of return. The Rev. Richard Patt, who spoke just before me, told me Hal is a Christ figure to him. That’s coming from someone who studied divinity at Harvard.

So what do we do now, without Hal’s physical presence among us?

First, we realize that in spirit we all commune together as one. The apostle Paul wrote that there is not Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, because all are one in Christ. The great Zen Master Seung Sahn wrote, in less flowery but no less truthful language, that if we are attached to our thinking, you and I are different, but if we let go of our thinking, you and I are the same. The most important part of Hal has gone nowhere, except the same realm where we’re all destined to meet and mix more meaningfully when our own earthly vehicles conk out. If you think that’s a bunch of New Age mumbo-jumbo, if you can’t buy it from the Bible or the Tao Te Ching or the Dhammapada, go study a little bit of quantum physics. See where that’s heading. See why the world’s top scientists are starting to become religious. See why the Dalai Lama – that’s the Buddhist pope – has just written a scientific book called The Universe in a Single Atom.

Knowing Hal is gone from us only physically, it’s our responsibility to carry on Hal’s spirit in the physical world. We keep Hal alive and honor him by living as he lived.

We pour our souls onto whatever canvas best fits our talent and desire, not for ourselves, but to bring joy to the world. We do it without needing to be in the award photo. We care for others with tenderness and good humor regardless of whether they can show their appreciation. Whatever we gain we take as if we didn’t deserve it. We take it humbly and with gratitude to the universe, consciousness, mind, energy, the absolute – whatever it is we truly believe in. For me that thing I truly believe in is God, and Hal felt the same. We had talking about God a lot lately as we were searching for a church to join together with both our former churches having closed. God doesn’t have to mean a white-bearded dude hurling thunderbolts from a cloud. But anything not called God seems too small to carry the universe.

If we think our world is nothing more than a bunch of accidental physical molecules spinning through space with no greater logic or reason, that’s not logical or reasonable. There is balance in the spiritual world just like the natural world. That’s the answer to all the hard questions about tragedy and death. There’s some balance to it in a realm we can’t touch with our fingers or see with our eyes. There has to be. That’s the only way what just happened to Hal makes sense. The only way what just happened to Hal gets turned into good.

It’s up to us not to use too much time and energy mourning or grieving Hal. For one thing, it would annoy Hal, and like I said, I knew how to annoy him. Our short, precious time on this earth is better spent imitating Hal. Not unlike people use Buddha or Christ as a model. Except we were lucky enough to have Hal physically and joyfully among us for 61 beautiful years. Let’s rejoice with thanks for those years, and many more years of Hal alive and real in our hearts and souls.

Video and notes from the Memorial Service

On April 4, 2019, several hundred folks visited St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in the Bay View neighborhood of Milwaukee for a memorial to beloved artist and friend Hal Koenig, who had passed away suddenly and without apparent suffering 11 days earlier from cardiac arrest. As Hal’s husband of 32 years, I planned the memorial service, delivered a eulogy, and have been humbly and gratefully overwhelmed since by expressions of love for Hal and compliments about the memorial. Many who were there and others who couldn’t be present have inquired about video of the service and transcriptions of the eulogies. I’ve also received questions about the elements of Christianity, Zen Buddhism and quantum physics I mentioned in my remarks.

Rather than respond individually (which would take a long time) or rely entirely on social media, I’ve decided to put up this blog as a preservation and continuation of the memorial service. Video of the service is available here. I’ll post transcriptions of the homily by The Rev. Debra Trakel and the eulogies by Richard Patt and myself as soon as I can get them into written, edited form. More video to come of the scene surrounding the service, including the visitation line out the door and onto the Herman Avenue sidewalk. And I’ll be posting a little more about my blended Zen-Christian belief and the way physics may be changing humanity’s conception of reality and death to fit those faiths.

For now I can answer requests I’ve received for recommended reading. You could pick up or order the below books from Hal’s and my dear friends at Boswell Books in Milwaukee or a similarly great independent bookseller nearer to you. I’m not sure how anyone survives this kind of loss without the sort of faith and knowledge that lives in these books.

  • The Harper Collins Study Bible: A New Annotated Edition by the Society of Biblical Literature. Would you pick up a 2,000-page book written in ancient times and translated from ancient languages and expect to understand it without help? Here is awesome help, including verse-by-verse notes, from Bible experts across the Christian and Jewish religious spectrum. There are many study Bibles out there and I have a shelf full. This is my favorite by far. No, every word of the Bible is not literally true. The Bible contradicts itself often, and much of its recorded ancient laws and history are in conflict with its teachings. (Which is correct, “Thou shalt not kill” or “Kill all the Canaanites”?) But the truth is in there, just like it’s in our big, complicated world, to find with the brains and hearts God gave us.
  • Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death, No Fear. Meditations on existence and change from the world’s most famous Buddhist teacher (with the possible exception of the Dalai Lama). Written in language that shows similarities between Buddhism and other religions, like Christianity, that name God. Spoiler alert: Death is a figment of our imagination. So is the universe.
  • His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom. The world’s most prominent Buddhist leader is fascinated by the way science, especially quantum physics, is moving toward Buddhist principles, including that the universe may be made up of consciousness. Challenging reading for those who want to dig more deeply.

Is our consciousness of a loved one less real than their bodily presence? Is it just as real, maybe more real, even if we can’t see or hear or touch it? Do we all exist in some common place – energy, space-time, mind, consciousness, nirvana, heaven, the body of Christ, the kingdom of God – that we perceive imperfectly while we manifest in physical form on earth? Are these questions worth meditating on, at least?

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” – 1 Corinthians 13: 12-13