by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Father Edward M. Hays was, to many who knew and loved him, one of the most remarkable persons they’d ever had the privilege to know.
As an author, artist and storyteller, Father Hays was a gushing spring of creativity. As a priest, he was known for his deep and contemplative spirituality, and as a spiritual guide and adviser.
Father Hays lived with joy and whimsy, and sought to ask the deep questions of life and God in new, fresh and practical ways. At the request of Archbishop Ignatius J. Strecker, he traveled widely, then synthesized all he had learned from other religions and reimagined ways of understanding and living the Catholic faith.
Father Hays, 85, died on April 3, Divine Mercy Sunday, at St. Luke Hospice Care in Kansas City, Missouri. He had fallen at his Leavenworth home on the day after Easter Sunday.
“He was uniquely able to convey deep mysteries of God in extraordinarily accessible ways through stories, but mostly through the example of his extraordinary life,” said his publisher and longtime friend Tom Turkle.
Father Hays was born on Sept. 8, 1931, in Lincoln, Nebraska, one of the four children of Thomas Edward and Margaret (Nye) Hays. He had two brothers and one sister.
He attended College View Grade School and High School. The family became members of St. Peter Cathedral Parish in Kansas City, Kansas, when they moved there in 1949.
“I grew up in a home that was not particularly pious, but was a very devout Catholic home during the Depression and the Second World War,” said Father Hays in a June 1996 article in St. Anthony Messenger magazine.
“My parents practiced ‘incarnational prayer,’” he continued. “We prayed at meals, we prayed at bedtime; prayer was a very important part of our life.”
He had been wrestling with the idea of becoming a priest or an artist, until a friend told him he could do both if he became a priest, wrote Tom Fox in a Dec. 21, 2007, article in the National Catholic Reporter.
In January 1950, he entered Conception Seminary in Conception, Missouri. He graduated in 1954, and remained for further theological studies. Father Hays was ordained to the priesthood on May 31, 1958, by Archbishop Edward J. Hunkeler at the Cathedral of St. Peter. His first assignment was as associate pastor at Christ the King Parish in Kansas City, Kansas.
A great turning point in his life occurred 13 years after his ordination, in 1971. His prayer life needed renewal, so he asked Archbishop Strecker for permission to spend three months at a Trappist monastery.
The archbishop surprised him by recommending he take instead a yearlong prayer pilgrimage to Israel, India and Tibet. When he returned, the archbishop asked Father Hays to share what he’d learned by establishing a house of prayer.
“Saying ‘yes’ to the invitation to begin a house of prayer was one of the most transforming experiences of my life. Living in a community of prayer with laypeople was a wonderful experience,” said Father Hays in the 1996 St. Anthony Messenger article.
Father Hays named the retreat house “Shantivanam,” which is Sanskrit for “Forest of Peace,” and he served as its director until 1995. Still in operation in rural Easton, it is now known as Christ’s Peace House of Prayer.
Another turning point in his life was when Father Hays began writing books in 1978. Eventually, he wrote more than 30 books and founded Forest of Peace Publishing, now owned by Ave Maria Press. Some of his most popular titles include “Prayers for the Domestic Church,” “A Pilgrim’s Almanac,” “Twelve and One Half Keys,” “The Ethiopian Tattoo Shop” and “The Old Hermit’s Almanac.”
“My desire is to write so inclusively and ecumenically that any reader will be able to find spiritual nourishment in my books, regardless of their Christian denomination, and even if they are non-Christian,” said Father Hays in an interview on his website. “I believe the great challenge facing religious writers of this new millennium is to be able to speak to all people of good will, to all who love God regardless by what name they address the divine mystery.”
He also said this about writer’s block: “I like to say that I only take dictation: The Spirit is the scribe; I’m only the pen.”
“He proceeded to become a prolific and ever-changing fountain of theology and wisdom and insight,” said Pat Marrin, editor of Celebration Publications in Kansas City, Missouri. “He must have reached literally millions of people — not only in the United States but around the world. I suspect in the spiritual writing world he’s right up there with Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, Thomas Berry and others who contributed enormously to the growing edge of a theology that has to be rearticulated or it loses its relevancy to people.”
One of the many people who knew Father Hays was a fellow priest, Father Mark Mertes, pastor of Our Lady & St. Rose, Christ the King and Blessed Sacrament parishes in Kansas City, Kansas.
“Ed was and is bigger than life,” said Father Mertes. “He’s whimsical, challenging, provocative and grounded. Ed was both traditional and revolutionary. He was a synthesizer. He brought together various ways of looking at life and spirituality and the church. It was part of his genius. He synthesized so much spirituality and rooted it in the Christ experience.”
One could say that Father Hays wrote his own conclusion in his Holy Week blog entry, “The Door of Death.”
“On our fateful day, like the dying Jesus, we will plunge into oneness in the Mystery of Life, God.”
Father Hays was preceded in death by his parents and two siblings: Joe Hays and Sister Jane Hays, SCL. He is survived by a brother, Tom Hays.
The funeral Mass for Father Hays, with Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann as celebrant, was celebrated on April 8 at St. Joseph Church in Leavenworth. Father Hays was buried in Mt. Olivet Cemetery at St. Joseph of the Valley Parish in rural Leavenworth County.
Funeral arrangements were by the R.L. Leintz Funeral Home of Leavenworth.