The irreverent reverend
He's a minister who has no use for God.
So right away, that sets people off.
Readers of the Rev. Thomas Ahlburn's newspaper columns have found him "offensive," "arrogant," "inane," "intellectually dishonest," "sophomoric," "narrow and simplistic," "morally bankrupt," "ignorant" and they really know how to hurt a Unitarian "dogmatic."
Even Mr. Ahlburn's friends - and those few of his fellow clergy who responded to requests for comment are unnerved by him.
"He's not my cup of tea," confesses the Rev. James Blair, pastor of the First Universalist Church of Burrillville, whose own approach to the job is to "preach the Gospel." He commends Mr. Ahlburn's honesty, however, "about his faith or lack thereof."
Sister Angela Daniels, a Catholic nun who is one of Ahlburn's good friends, says the public Ahlburn who she believes is not the true Ahlburn drives her nuts.
"Sometimes," she says, "I hope no one asks me if I know this guy."
She points to Mr. Ahlburn's final column on The Journal's religion page, on Oct. 16, in which the reverend, who retires on Christmas Eve, asserts that mature believers eventually outgrow religion; that the goal of religion, in fact, should be to "ditch itself."
"I read it about five times and I can't make sense of it," says Sister Angela. "I said to him, 'Were you in the juice when you wrote this, Tom?' "
MORE THAN LIKELY, he was in the woods.
An "ecclesiastical pagan" with a strong monastic streak, Ahlburn has always found it easier to be alone in nature than just about anywhere else.
It was in the woods, in the spring of 1966, that he spent some time talking with Thomas Merton, the late Trappist monk and student of Buddhism the memory of whom still moves Ahlburn to tears, and haunts his dreams.
Ahlburn's love for Merton, his interest in Catholic mysticism, his invocation of transcendence as a favorite theme, make some wonder if, in his heart of hearts, Ahlburn is not only religious, but Catholic.
Dale O'Leary, a Catholic writer and speaker from Barrington, who respects Ahlburn as "a worthy opponent" and considers him a friend, senses in him "that little bit of desire, you know, for the absolute sureness."
She's promised him that, should she ever hear that he's dying, she will rush to his side with a priest "just in case."
Ahlburn, a large fellow with a great, ready laugh, dismisses the idea of converting, on a deathbed or otherwise.
He likes his spirituality on the austere side, he says, and besides, "so many things that are critical to my life are condemned by Catholicism."
He counted them up once, in a column which, as if to keep everyone guessing, bid a warm farewell to Bishop Louis B. Gelineau after he announced his retirement in 1997. He will miss the bishop, he wrote, despite their divergence on "gay rights, abortion rights, feminism, marriage, divorce, physician-assisted suicide, revelation, God, Jesus, the Bible, heaven and hell."
It's quite a list, considering that Ahlburn began life Catholic.
He was baptized in the church and would have attended Catholic school in Cincinnati, where he was born, but his grandmother thought it was across the railroad tracks and didn't want him risking that walk every day.
So he went to a Baptist church, instead, but that approach to God didn't take. By the time he was 16, he'd read the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell, and thus began the "theological difficulties" the tension between religion and science which would prove persistent throughout his life.
With a questioning attitude he says is common among divinity students, he enrolled in a non-denominational theological school.
There, "it finally dawned on me," he wrote in a column, "that there was absolutely no good historical evidence that anyone even remotely resembling the Jesus of my youth ever existed."
The people of Jesus's time, he maintained, "so wanted and needed a savior or a deity," that they turned Him into one. "This dreary process continues unabated today."
Equipped with such views, the young Rev. Ahlburn found a home in the Unitarian Church.
He served in churches in Ottawa, Canada, and Springfield, Mass., before coming to Providence in 1975 to lead the First Unitarian Church of Providence.
THE FIRST UNITARIAN is one of Rhode Island's oldest, most venerable and, even going back to the 1720s, when it was established as a Congregational church, most liberal establishments.
Its rolls include members of such East Side Brahmin families as the Lippitts, Chafees and Sharpes, although Ahlburn says their leadership of the church ended before he arrived.
On Ahlburn's watch, the congregation grew increasingly diverse in terms of social class, and also belief. (The membership is still overwhelmingly white.) It also tripled in size, as did the endowment, to nearly $5 million. The number of children in the religious education program increased six-fold, to 300.
The result of all this growth was that the church could no longer accommodate everyone comfortably, and a $2.5-million building campaign was launched last year.
In preparing for the project in 1998, Ahlburn promised, "I am committed to our new building. If you need me, if you want me, I will be here. We will do this thing together. I won't run away if you don't."
By September, however, the project had accumulated enough critical mass that Ahlburn felt comfortable announcing his retirement: After 24 years a long tenure for a minister he and his wife would retire to the woods of Vermont.
"I'M NOT GOING to do any ministerial things," Ahlburn vows in the stately parlor of the Parish House on historic Benevolent Street in Providence, a few weeks before leaving town in October. "I don't intend to ever write for a paper again. I don't intend to ever do a wedding or funeral or any sort of pulpit performance ever again."
He says this with no rancor, but matter-of-factly, like a politician who's had enough of public life.
At church leaders' request, he will don his robes and speak from the church's high pulpit one last time, on Christmas Eve, because he instituted the holiday service when he first arrived here, so to end that way has "a sort of gestalt quality."
The congregation will sing the final song, then exit, candles in hand, in silence "Nothing said. And I'll just walk out. That's it."
His gift to his successor, he says, will be his forever absence. He will be "gone, gone, gone."
THE CONGREGATION grieves.
"I've heard people say they don't know what they're going to do without him, what we're going to do," says Cathy Seggel, the director of religious education and a 20-year church member, whose most pressing task these days is helping people deal with Ahlburn's departure.
She tells them this is a good thing for their friend, and that the church will find a suitable replacement, although it may take more than two years to do so.
Church member Marcia Lieberman says she and others are "very sad, extremely sad" about Ahlburn's retiring, and are also somewhat shocked by it, although she understands that people who serve on church committees saw it coming.
Lieberman heads the local chapter of Amnesty International and considers herself a Jew, a Unitarian and a Buddhist a not unheard of mix in this congregation. She first discovered the church four years ago when she gave a talk there and then lingered out of politeness to hear Ahlburn speak.
When it comes to spinning a yarn, Garrison Keillor has nothing on Ahlburn. His talks he dislikes the word "sermons" are full of cinematic detail and humor. Like his newspaper columns, they hang on certain themes: the beauty and indifference of nature, the fact that "the ultimate" is beyond all our categorizing, the importance of kindness and of seeing the world from other points of view.
"I was pretty amazed to hear anything like that in, basically, a house of worship," says Lieberman. "He doesn't preach at you. It was challenging."
Whether Lieberman will remain a church member now that Ahlburn is gone depends on who succeeds him, she says. She can't imagine that the leadership would choose an "overly religious" type by which she means, the sort who prays.
"A lot of people don't understand how you can have a spiritual kind of meeting without prayers," she says, "but you can, you can."
AHLBURN DID NOT invent this irreligious approach to churchgoing.
The term "Unitarian" was born during the Reformation to refer to those who did not believe in the Trinity. The denomination put its roots down in America in 1825, then linked up with Universalism in 1961.
It is a liberal religion, one that encourages individuals to keep questioning as they develop their own philosophy of life. It contends that one cannot know absolute truth, that one's understanding of the truth changes with time and experience.
Each local church is democratically run, answering to no denominational authority. At services, it's common to hear readings from such secular sources as poetry, drama and fiction, as well as from a range of sacred writings.
Ahlburn's particular approach to religion has a pronounced Eastern tilt. He is a Tibetan Buddhist.
"He's so fascinated by Buddha, and Buddha keeps coming into his sermons," says one of Ahlburn's oldest friends, Harold Talbott, who relates a favorite story about it.
"He was standing at the door at the end of a Sunday sermon, saying farewell, shaking hands, and a person stops and says to him, 'You know, Tom, I haven't heard the name Jesus in quite a few Sundays.' "
Politically, too, Ahlburn veers off the usual roads.
In the 1960s, he helped women obtain abortions. During the Vietnam War, he counseled draft dodgers. He has joined with the American Civil Liberties Union in asserting that Christmas creches on public property and tax-exempt Bibles violate the separation of church and state.
Ahlburn feels sure he is the first Unitarian minister in the country to have performed a commitment ceremony for a gay couple. That was in 1971. Since then, he has performed hundreds of such ceremonies, raising nary an eyebrow in his congregation.
Which is not to say that Ahlburn's tenure has been wrinkle-free.
Three years ago, a small group of congregants tried to oust him over what they said was his shabby treatment, then firing, of a female assistant pastor. But they could not muster enough support from the rest of the congregation. The group, along with some others, have since left the church.
"I feel sorry for them. I wish them nothing but the best," says Ahlburn, who sees the coup attempt as mere "revenge" for the firing. He adds, in the style of a favorite Buddhist blessing, "I want all beings to be happy."
IT IS HERE, somewhere along the Buddhist path, that Ahlburn dwells.
What appeals to him about the philosophy, he says, is that it is more focused on experience, and requires no belief in God. "It's not getting stuck in concepts. It's more to do with direct experience of life here and now."
And yet, even Buddhism must take its lumps.
Just as, in Ahlburn's view, Catholicism is about "control," and Protestantism, being so focused on the words of Bible, is "spiritually dead," so, too, are some aspects of Buddhism "just stupid."
In fact, he says, except for the way organized religion galvanizes strangers into a community of people who care for one another, it's pretty much a useless exercise just so much "claptrap."
"I think you don't really make the kind of spiritual progress that is possible in your life," he says, "unless at a certain point, you're willing to let go of what is an impediment."
Belief is the biggest impediment of all, he contends. It is "the problem." It drains all the wonder out of life.
"If you can believe something, then you've settled the issue and it's dead. It's dead. It's gone. . ."
"I'm not against God," Ahlburn goes on. "In a very deep way, I think maybe I would say I'm probably a lot closer to God than the Pope, frankly."
THROWAWAY LINES like that are what prompted so many Journal readers to write the newspaper in outrage in response to many of his columns. But Ahlburn's friends say he really is a gentle, shy, and rather vulnerable sort it's just, he knows not what he does.
"I don't know whether he realizes the power he has in provoking things," says the Rev. Fred Gillis, pastor of Westminster Unitarian Church in East Greenwich. "But he does that in the best sense of 'provocative.' He gets people thinking, he gets people reacting. It sometimes surprises him that people react so strongly to him. To him, those things are important to be able to challenge.
"I wouldn't do it the way he did it," he adds. "I think that he sometimes asks for it."
Sister Angela Daniels pities her friend, searching so "feverishly" at age 60. "I wish him peace," she says.
Her take on Ahlburn is that he has two sides, public and private. She predicts that when the public man retires, the real Ahlburn will be released.
As it is now, she says, "If Tom were to admit belief in God, or get too close to that area, it would belie his public ministry. He would no longer be who he said he was, a free man."
The nun has put this theory to Ahlburn and finds it significant that "he doesn't argue with me."
"I say, 'Listen, Tom, God has you by the nape of the neck. And you're not turning around to see him. He's got you.' I say, 'Tom, did you ever hear of the poem by Francis Thompson called The Hound of Heaven?' I say, 'Read it, Tom, read it again.' "
The Hound of Heaven, a 1947 spiritual classic, is about a man who, though he flees a relentlessly pursuing God "down the nights and down the days," is ultimately no match for Him.
That's Ahlburn, says Sister Angela.
"I say to him, 'When you go to Greensboro, Tom, you will be free to go out and sit with the geese and really think and not be afraid of the thoughts you may have.' "
JUST WHAT DO THEY do up here, Tom and Ruth Ahlburn, in this tiny burg in the mountains, which is even more remote than their former home, in Pascoag, and which is so high, your ears pop as you drive there?
They don't do much but then, that's the point.
They live in a sun-flooded hexagonal house, which was built by artists and which looks onto a purple and blue vista of mountains and sky that's enough to make anyone practically anyone believe in God.
They watch the weather. Listen to music. Tend their many pets, including a noisy flock of geese. Pick up provisions at the general store a short stretch down the road. Then at night, greet Orion, who hovers very near.
"I find myself beginning to pay attention again in ways that maybe I'd let slip for some years," says the reverend, relaxing at the kitchen table in a plaid, flannel shirt and cap. His burgundy minister's robe hangs from a peg in the vestibule, as ordinary as the winter coats, collecting dog hairs.
A Greensboro minister has asked him at least 10 times, he says, to speak at the small church a Church of Christ down the road.
" 'We could do away with the Christ for you,' " Ahlburn says the man told him. "But I don't care if they have Buddha or Mohammed or Rumi. I'm not doing it anymore, no how."
He was happy being a minister, but "the church was never my primary life. It's an occupation." He knows ministers who say they've been "called by God," but that never happened to him. He figures the line must be out.
One of the first things he will do in the new year, he says, is embark on a yearlong solo retreat at home, which will put him out of touch with everyone but Ruth who, by the way, he says, is his real teacher.
Just watching her go about her day, he says, "I'll say to myself, 'That's it. Whatever it is, that's it,' because there's an easy, yet focused attention on what is happening, and an investment in that, but also there's a feedback of grace in the activity, and it's palpable and luminous, and I see it."
Mrs. Ahlburn's eyes widen at this rich compliment, one she's never heard before.
"It's true," he tells her.
They step outside into the cold mountain air to pose for photographs. Ahlburn won't let his guest go without pressing on her a copy of his latest musical find, a CD by a band called Jump Little Children.
There's a song on it, he says, that makes him "shudder."
As mountains and fields roll by on the left and right, the song plays, and it's obvious why it would speak to Ahlburn.
A sad, earnest voice offers up a critique of the old forms of religion all "marble statues" and "peeling" architecture and celebrates Ahlburn's approach to life:
In the cathedrals of New York and Rome
There is a feeling that you should just go home
And spend a lifetime finding out just where that is.