As recalled by his longtime friend, Sister Ave Clark, O.P., when Arthur was a young Jewish boy in Brooklyn, New York, he was walking by a church one day. The parish priest came out and invited Arthur and some other children in the area to come enjoy a carnival the church was having.
The other kids quickly accepted the invitation, but Arthur just stood there and responded, “Well, I’m not Catholic.”
The priest said, “That doesn’t matter. There’s hot dogs and fun.”
That simple welcoming attitude made an impression on Arthur, prompting him to further explore the Catholic faith. Though he always maintained a love for his Jewish heritage, he eventually converted to Catholicism. “He loved to go sit in church quietly,” said Sister Ave. “He said he would just look up at the cross and feel Jesus comforting him on his journey with his own cross.”
That cross was the mental illness schizophrenia. Arthur read about the disease, said Sister Ave, “and he realized that this would be a lifelong journey. He took his medication. At times, it would help. And other times, it would make him feel weary.”
Schizophrenia manifested itself in Arthur mostly through fragmented thoughts. Sister Ave noted, “He would be chatting with you, and all of a sudden he would go into his own reality or start talking about things not related to the conversation.”
When he did this with Sister Ave, she would gently redirect him back to his original point. Arthur would then tell her, “Thank you for getting me back on track so politely.”
Sometimes people made fun of Arthur because of this tendency, but he would never get angry. He would just turn the other way. It was an example of what Sister Ave calls “radical kindness” in Arthur.
She said, “Sometimes someone has hurt us, and we want to ignore the person. Or we feel we’ve forgiven them, but we know deep down we’ve only half forgiven them. Arthur forgave them. Arthur forgave some people who said harsh things or left him out or made fun of him. He said, ‘If I hold onto the hurt, I become it.’ That struck me as [the] radical kindness that we are asked to be.”
Later in life, though, instances of people insulting Arthur didn’t happen frequently, especially when he became a member of Brooklyn’s St. Jude parish. Sister Ave said, “I think people sensed Arthur’s goodness. From what I gathered, most people accepted him. They understood that he had differences mentally, but they always welcomed him. I think the greatest gift he had was…a beautiful soul.”
Sister Ave first got to know Arthur over 15 years ago when he attended an evening of prayer she was holding at a Brooklyn church. At the end, she gave out a holy card with her phone number and address on the back in case anyone wanted to contact her for counseling or just to talk. Arthur asked if it would be okay for him to call at 10:00pm that night. She told him, “Yes,” and that began a friendship which included a phone call every day until his death earlier this year.
It was Arthur’s passing that prompted Sister Ave to write a moving and profound book about her friend, called “Arthur, Thank You For Being Jesus’ Love.” His example, she believes, could be a benefit to all of us on many levels. Regardless of what difficulties he faced, he would respond, “I know God is going to get me through this.”
Sister Ave said, “He wasn’t Pollyanna about life. He understood that there were hardships. Sometimes he would be disappointed or hurt, but he didn’t let that control his life…He chose to have a good attitude.”
He also helped Sister Ave choose to have a positive attitude during one of the most trying times in her life in 2004 when the car in which she was driving was hit by a runaway train in Queens (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/12/nyregion/workers-say-brake-was-set-on-engine-that-rolled-off.html). “I wound up in the hospital for almost a year, learning to walk again and also to write,” she recalled. “Arthur would send me a card, saying, ‘Sister, don’t you worry. I believe you’ll walk again. Just lean on the heart of Jesus’ love in others.'” And she did just that.
Sister Ave hopes that reading about Arthur will help others “choose” kindness and goodness as well. She recalled that one time, Arthur was walking near a bus stop when he spotted a man fumbling around, looking for something. Arthur asked the stranger what was wrong, and he explained that he couldn’t find his Metrocard to get on the bus.
“Arthur took his card out of his pocket,” Sister Ave said, “and [told the stranger], ‘You could have mine.’ The man says, ‘Then what will you do?’ Arthur said, ‘It’ll make me happy.’ The man did take his card, and he told Arthur, ‘You’re a fine gentleman.'”
When Sister Ave asked Arthur what he did the rest of the day, he answered simply, “Oh, I took long walks.”
Arthur’s selflessness is one of the qualities that made him so Christ-like and inspired the title of Sister Ave’s book. She said, “He would always would say that: ‘Thank you for being Jesus’ love.’ One day I was sitting next to Arthur. It was the day before he died, last Holy Saturday. We were sitting at the prayer garden. As I looked down, his shoelaces were untied. I was thinking, ‘He could trip.’ I quietly leaned over and I tied his shoelaces. As I looked up, he was smiling. He says, ‘Thank you for being Jesus’ love.’ I have to tell you, it just struck me very deeply, not knowing that my friend the next day would have passed away. That’s how much he did love Jesus.”
Arthur spread that love not only through words, but actions. Sister Ave once told him that he was a missionary. He didn’t quite understand, responding that he’d never been to a foreign country. Sister Ave explained, “No, Arthur. You’re an ordinary missionary of everyday life.”
She continued, “He’d wave at the garbage man, the mailman. Everybody knew him. He’d smile and be waving at them. I said, ‘Arthur, some day you will be like St. Therese. You’re going to live your heaven doing good on earth.’ I believe he is.”
(To listen to my full interview with Sister Ave Clark, click on the podcast link below. You can order “Arthur, Thank You For Being Jesus’ Love” through Amazon. Or if you’d like a more personalized version that includes a picture of Arthur as well as a holy card with a poem about him, you can email Sister Ave directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.)