My dear friend and mentor Edward Shirley died yesterday, August 15, at 5:30pm. The news came to me as I was waiting on my ride to attend a concert in San Antonio. It was, and continues to be, a complete shock. As of the time of this writing, I still have no idea what happened, though I am certain I will learn the details in the coming days. Ed was 58 years old.
I met Ed, to me Dr. Shirley at the time, in 2003 when I was an undergrad at Saint Edward’s University here in Austin, Texas. I was an English Lit major, and through some strange circumstances decided to claim a second major in Religious Studies. I was not religious, but I had a deep academic interest in Biblical literature. Along with the core courses in Ancient Near Eastern history and texts and language, I was required to take classes in theology. Ed was St. Ed’s main man when it came to theology, and as everyone quickly learned about him, it didn’t matter if you were Catholic, atheist, or Satanic to the core—studying with Ed Shirley was an enlightening, entertaining, incredible experience. He was ridiculously funny, maybe a little crazy, and his extraordinary mind was wide, wide open. He incorporated experiences with everything from Buddhist practices to Jewish mysticism into his theological perspective, and he always encouraged his students to never stop questioning. And if you knew Dr. Edward Shirley, even in passing, you were his student.
Over the course of my studies at Saint Edward’s, I came to the conclusion that Catholicism was the thing for me. I dug the ritual, the social justice aspects, and the way it was presented to me by my friend. I had been raised in a 100% secular environment and came to university an avowed atheist, but the open, welcoming, largely intellectual environment at the school inspired me to want to be a part of something. Ed became my sponsor. I was baptized into the Church on Easter 2004.
I kept in close contact with Ed after I graduated and moved to Boston to earn my Master’s degree in Theology at Boston College. During that time, however, I rapidly grew disillusioned with both the academy and the faith. Neither were the same outside of Ed Shirley’s immediate sphere of influence. My BC professors were aloof and self-serving for the most part, and the church we attended in Chestnut Hill was cold, unwelcoming, blindly routine. And when I finished my M.A., I decided I wanted nothing more to do with either the academy or the Catholic Church. I had made a pair of colossal mistakes. I remained an atheist, and there was pretty much nothing my degrees could do for me now that I was out of school. I was deeply bitter about it for a few years after, a lot of that aimed at myself. None of it aimed at Ed Shirley, who continued to reach out to me and give him his guidance and friendship when I returned to Texas in 2006.
We never discussed my exit from the Church. After a couple of years, our time spent together dwindled away. I think I was partly afraid of upsetting him, though I know in my heart he wasn’t. We were Facebook friends; he saw all my anti-religion rants, and though he might have wondered, he just wasn’t the kind of man to judge. He knew there are countless paths, as many paths as people, and that we are much too complicated to be penned in within the confines of a single, unmovable set of ancient rules. He never was. And no matter where my path was leading me, there was always more to learn from Dr. Edward Shirley.
But I supposed I more or less avoided him there for a while. Maybe I didn’t feel like explaining myself. Maybe I just didn’t want to sit across from him and say, “I’m no Catholic, no Christian, never was.” In March, he dropped me a line, gave me his new cell phone number and suggested we get together for drinks. It had been a while. I told him World Horror was around the corner, but when we got back we’d make plans.
We never did. I kept putting it off, putting it off. In recent weeks I began thinking about it, thinking it was time to give Ed a call. I missed him. I miss him now. I was beginning to realize the truth of the matter, that it made no difference at all that I got out of the stupid Church and gave a mean middle finger to academics. Ed was far too much larger than any of that. It did not matter. And he still had so much to teach me.
And then it was too late. Five months of jacking around and I could have called him anytime. And yesterday, August 15, 2012, at 5:30pm, Ed Shirley died. I wish I knew why. I’ll find out tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. The knowledge won’t help anything. I am wracked with guilt and sorrow. I feel that here I made a much more colossal mistake than I ever did messing around with the Catholic Church. That shit is a blip, a fart in the wind. I should have known better.
Hundreds of messages of grief are pouring in on Ed’s Facebook page, messages from family, friends, colleagues, students. All of them students. Always. Most of them are framing Ed’s passing in a Christian perspective, that his journey is not yet over, that his reward lays ahead. Of course, I don’t believe that. But my atheism is not a cruel and angry and bitter perspective; rather, I actually do believe Ed’s journey is far from over because his influence is so far-reaching. So many hearts and minds he touched over the course of his amazing life and career, and all the hearts and minds those students will touch. And the theology of it is entirely inconsequential. I am not a Christian, but Ed changed me, improved me, made me see things in myself and others I never saw before. Ed Shirley was a truly great man.
The world suffers for his unexpected loss, but is so much better for having had him at all. I miss you, Ed. I’m so sorry we never got that beer.