Oil on Linen
20 x 24″
A portrait of Father Richard Maxwell painted for the FACeADE project. A delightful experience. Painted in St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Coral Springs, FL.
Interviewed February 21, 2020
at St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church
ER: Your Name. What is your nickname? Do you have a childhood nickname?
RM: Richard Anderson Maxwell: I grew up being called Dick or Dickie. Horrible nickname especially for a gay man. It’s a WASPy nickname. I didn’t know anyone else with that nickname growing up. It wasn’t until I went to work at the Metropolitan Museum (which is the land of WASPs) that I met other men with the same nickname: two vice presidents (including the vice president I worked for) and the chairman of the board. One day I picked up the phone and heard. “Hi Dick, it’s Dick. Is Dick in?”
I had a friend who worked in the director’s office; I was in the development office. The museum’s executive offices were linked by a long hallway and every day a coffee service was brought up and laid out half way down the hall. One morning as my friend was getting a cup of coffee, I started down the hall and greeted her by name. She was about to do the same, but then she said, “I can’t call you that anymore! I’m going to call you Max.”
For a while she and her husband were the only people who called me Max. Eventually, I went to work for a theatre company – this was several years later – and the producing director said, “I can’t call you Dick, is there anything else I can call you?“ And I said that I had a couple of friends who called me Max.
So I became Max at the theatre company. And the nickname just started to take over. So when I went to seminary I just introduced myself as “Max.” Without me asking anyone, it just changed. Even my sisters started calling me Max. That’s how that evolved.
ER: How old are you?
ER: Where were you born? Where did you grow up? Where do you call home?
RM: I was born and grew up in Midland ,Michigan. As had my mother and grandparents. My great grandfather was one of the founders of the town, and I used to feel quite connected to the town. But now all of the physical things that would identify the place as home to me, including my mother’s family house, are gone. My sister and nephews live all over the country. Midland doesn’t feel like home anymore.
That old family house was important to me; the past was present there for me. Early in the 20th century, my great grandfather sold some land next door to the house to a man named Herbie Dow. He had founded a company called Dow Chemical, which is still headquartered in Midland. Mr. Dow built his mansion on the property my great grandfather sold him and that piece of property is now a public garden. By the time we came to live in the family house, the Dow family had been clamoring to buy it for a long time. And when the house became too much for my mother to care for, she called Herbie Dow (grandson of the first Herbie Dow) and told him she was ready to sell. A check arrived the next day. Several years later the house was torn down to expand Dow Gardens. All gone. I think my sister is still a little angry with my mother for having sold the place.
Home now is wherever Paul and Cosmo and Lyndon are. (Paul Kline, an abstract painter, is Max’s husband. Paul is represented by the DCA gallery in Miami and the Cortile Gallery in Provincetown, MA.
Cosmo, the dog is 10 ½, and Lyndon the cat is 14.)
ER: Where are your parents/grandparents from? How did they influence you today? (big question)
RM: My mother was raised a Roman Catholic, my father was raised without much faith at all, I think (although I’m told his mother was a “healer”). My sisters are much older than I (15 and 11 years) and my parents were at a different place in their lives when I was born. My father had been quite poor growing up but by the time I came along he was pretty successful. And my parents were then in their 40s. I sometimes jokingly say that when I came along my parents were “over children.” But that’s actually kind of true. I can’t remember ever being told, “I love you.” I can’t remember being hugged. But there was also no yelling, no anger, either. We were a very reserved family.
When I was about 10 years old my parents started traveling a lot. They would be gone 6 weeks to 3 months a year. And in the summer I would go to camp for 6 weeks: Chippewa Ranch. It was a horseback riding camp in middle Michigan and I loved it. But I did spend a lot of time alone growing up.
By my 20’s I needed a serious dose of talk therapy. The talking cure. I had done a lot of acting in high school and college, in fact I moved to Manhattan after college to be an actor. I loved the attention. But one of the plays I was cast in was an absurdist play. It was the first time I was cast in something with no plot, with none of the traditional hooks on which to hang a character and emotions. And I was asked to summon up all sorts of intense emotions, seemingly out of thin air. I couldn’t do it. I began to think I didn’t have any emotions. I had so bottled them up I thought I didn’t have any. It was only through acting classes and therapy that I realized quite the contrary.
I’m remembering a movie called, “A River Runs Through It,” based on a wonderful novel with the same title. The emotional restraint of the family whose story is being told, the silence of their house, reminded me of home. In the movie, one of the sons in this family dies and when his mother hears this news there is utter silence. As I remember it, there’s a shot of the parsonage hallway and staircase to the second floor. We see the mother, betraying no emotion – although you can feel it! – coming down the hall and going up the stairs silently. She disappears. And then we hear the ‘click’ of her bedroom door quietly closing. I saw it with a friend who was attempting to be a playwright. He was so disappointed. He felt that the situation was such an opportunity for drama and emotion. I said, “No! That was a perfect scene; that’s exactly the way that mother would behave!”
That reserve does run through me and I can still be surprised by my emotions. I can still be surprised by what I don’t know I’m feeling until it is suddenly there. I think that’s from my childhood.
ER: What is your heritage (ethnicity)?
RM: I did a “23 and Me” test: 97% Celtic… Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall, Brittany. I was hoping for something more exotic. Like Native American
When I was a child I was taught that there were only 3 races. You were either Caucasian, Negroid, or Oriental. That was it. When I went to register for college in California one of the forms had a whole column of ethnicities that I’d never thought about: Polynesian, Pacific Islander, all of these fascinating things. I read it and one of them was Native American. I thought, “Well, my mother’s family has been here since 1640 so if I am not a Native American, I don’t know what I am!” So I checked Native American. During my first term in college I couldn’t figure out why I was getting mail from the Indians. Eventually it stopped. I guess they probably figured out that Richard Anderson Maxwell was not a very Native American name. My, my, my, I had a lot to learn! (Still do.)
ER: Why do you live here? How did you get here?
RM: A job. We’ve been in Florida less than two years. The more interesting part is the interim rector business. In 2004 I became the rector of a church in Hartford, CT. That was a mistake. The parish turned out to be quite different from what I expected.
I sincerely tried to make a go of it. But after about two years it was clear that it just wasn’t going to work. So I started looking for another job. That became my second job, looking for another job. And I couldn’t find one. I looked for almost 8 years. I gained 90 pounds. I was seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist. It wasn’t until one of my doctors said, “They’re killing you!” that I admitted that I had to do something else, and fast.
I called the diocese and asked about becoming an interim. I knew that I needed to be trained and that it might take a while to find a position. This was not long before Thanksgiving. However, in about a week I got a call from the diocese and shortly after the new year I was the interim rector at a church in Fairfield, CT! This parish was about as different from my old parish in Hartford as it was possible to be. I loved it. And it was a very healing experience.
My next interim position was in Madison, NJ. Another wonderful parish. I was beginning to think this interim work was pretty terrific. When it was time to look for another job I began networking. I have a friend who was then the executive director of the National Association of Episcopal Schools, and I contacted him. He said, “There is a church in Coral Gables, FL that might be good.” And the next thing I knew, we were on our way to Florida.
ER: Do you speak another language?
RM: No. I studied Latin and French in high school and college. But when I went to France with a friend a few years after graduating from college, no French came back … and English left! For a few days I barely had any language at all. My friend found it pretty amusing; I found it pretty frustrating! Maybe if we had stayed another week the French would have come back. Maybe…
ER: What is your favorite color?
RM: That changes. Right now, maybe orange.
ER: Do you have a pet(s)?
RM: Cosmo and Lyndon. Since a puppy (10 years) and a kitten (14 years)
ER: Do you have children? How many? How old are they? Tell us about them. RM: No.
ER: What is your passion? What are you doing when you are most happy?
RM: Writing. It’s mostly sermons I write now.
Right now, I am probably happiest when I get out of my head, out of “me” . . . when I’m totally concentrating on something so that I’m not thinking about my “to do” list, or worrying about how “x” or “y” is going to turn out. When I’m writing a sermon I’m not thinking about “me.”
When we were in Fairfield I took several life drawing classes. That took me out of my head, out of “me.” The process of looking and drawing is consuming . . . “I” am not there. I’m totally focused on something else. It used to be playing the piano that took me out of myself to someplace completely different. I haven’t played in a long time. Maybe I’ll start again when I retire.
ER: Do you have a mission? A reason for doing that which is your passion?
RM: I’m supposed to be a priest. Although I fought it every step of the way.
I was raised a Roman Catholic by a very devout mother. That meant confession every week and fasting until mass on Sunday. When I was a little boy I thought I would be a priest but what I really wanted to be was a saint. I didn’t tell anyone that because I knew people would think it was pretty strange. And besides, I thought that because I wanted to be a saint, I couldn’t be one. You see, I equated wanting to be a saint with pride, and I didn’t think pride had any place in a saint.
For a while, when I was a teenager, I toyed with the idea of becoming a monk. Fortunately, I had enough sense to realize that what I really wanted was to run away. You don’t become a monk because you want to run away from something; you become a monk to run to something…to God. I wanted to run away because I was pretty miserable while growing up.
However, when I left home and went to college, I started having the most magnificent time. I didn’t think I needed God or church or any of that stuff anymore. Nevertheless, I kept having what I call “God events.” Suddenly I would be consumed with the thought that I HAD to be a priest. Sometimes during these “events” – which would last a few days or a few weeks – I’d begin taking steps in the direction of priesthood. But eventually the “urge” would vanish as quickly as it had begun. I was always relieved when these spells ended. I jokingly likened them to psychotic breaks.
Like lots of young adults, I was pretty aimless in my twenties. Eventually, I decided that I had to make a plan for my life. Because of my love of acting and theater (I wasn’t getting anywhere as a professional actor) I decided to work toward running a theatre company. But with every step I took in that direction my life seemed to get worse. Finally I landed a job as the planning and development director at a small, innovative theatre company in NYC, and I thought I was making some progress. The company was founded and run by a woman who was a genius. She was also a severe and angry alcoholic. As the fundraiser I could never raise money as fast as she could spend it, and I became the focus of her rage. I discovered in alcoholic terms that I am the perfect enabler. I was really close to a breakdown when I screwed up the courage to quit. After an incredibly ugly scene she finally asked me what I would do next. Words came out of my mouth that I hadn’t planned, that I didn’t think would ever come out of my mouth. I said, “I’m going to Seminary.“ I was as shocked as she was.
I went to Union Theological Seminary pretending to myself that I was just taking a break and I was just going to study. A purely intellectual thing. Nevertheless, there are two Masters degree programs at the seminary. A two-year MA program, which is a purely academic degree and preparation for working toward a PhD., and the three-year Master of Divinity program, which is the professional degree that you earn if you are going to be ordained. Although I told myself I was simply going to study, I signed up for the Master of Divinity degree.
In the second year of the M.Div. program you have to do field education. I didn’t belong to any church. I didn’t belong to any “brand.” So doing field ed. posed an interesting challenge. This was also during the early 1990’s and I had been living through the AIDS crisis in NYC, volunteering to work with PWAs, who faced some serious stigma. One Sunday while I was trying to figure out what to do about field ed., I walked into a Unitarian Church and they were having AIDS awareness Sunday. That blew me away. I decided to join the church and eventually asked if I could do my field education there. Yes!
At our first meeting my supervisor said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I want to find out what it would be like to be a minister.” They let me do everything. I did weddings, funerals, I preached, I shaped liturgy, I did it all. While I was at this church, my supervisor was running to be the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I kidded him about becoming Pope of the Unitarians. And then he won.
He really, really wanted me to be a Unitarian minister. As a gay man in the early 90s to be really, really wanted anywhere was pretty appealing. And to be gay and also wanted as a minister was overwhelming. The problem was that my experience there had taught me that I was a Christian. I couldn’t avoid it. You see, Unitarians are not necessarily Christian. During one of our conversations about all of this I finally said, “John, I can’t be a Unitarian minister, I’m a Christian.” He said, “I’m a closet Christian.” Without thinking, I said, “John, I’ve been in one closet, I’m not going in another.”
So with the help of my friends and my seminary advisor, I finally found the Episcopal Church, became Episcopalian, and started the ordination process. Because I did the ordination process all backward, it took a really long time. And I still was determined not to be a parish priest. This is when I tested a vocation as a monk. I went to Holy Cross Monastery on the Hudson River, about 80 miles north of NYC. I’d been there about 6 months when Paul came. You don’t go to a monastery to meet someone and fall in love. But that’s what happened to us. We fought against it. But we lost. After about another year it became clear that we needed to leave the monastery.
So I got a job as an assistant rector back in the city, my first job in a parish. I loved it! I fought every step of the way. Yet this is clearly what I am supposed to do.
ER: What are you really good at doing? Why?
RM: I’m really good at reading people, I think. I’m a good listener. And I think there’s a reason for this. Growing up gay, I had to spend a lot of energy figuring out who was safe and who wasn’t. Sometimes I had to figure that out really quickly. I think reading people is a survival skill.
ER: What do you do that might change the world? Why?
RM: I’m a priest. If anything I do changes the world, it’s the Holy Spirit working through me. And I have a feeling that if I do or have done anything that has an enormous influence, I probably won’t know about it. While I was at the monastery a lot of people came to me for spiritual guidance. Occasionally, a visitor might say something to me like, “Thank you so much! I saw you six months ago and you saved my life!” I’d thank them for telling me and say something encouraging. But usually I was also thinking, “But I don’t remember you; what could I have possibly said or done that had such an effect?”
ER: Do you need to remember who they are?
RM: No. That’s the point. Because it’s not about me. If something I said or did was truly helpful, it’s the Holy Spirit at work not me. It’s like when people thank me for saying something in a sermon that I didn’t actually say. They hear what they need to hear. It might not have been what I said or what I meant to say but somehow, they heard what they needed to hear and are grateful. Hooray for the Holy Spirit!
ER: What is the most interesting thing you have ever done?
RM: Interesting to whom? I took acting classes with Paul Newman’s daughter, Tyrone Power’s son, and a fellow who turned out to be Tom Cruise. Some people think that is the most interesting thing I ever did.
I worked at the Metropolitan Museum. I met and worked with some very fancy people. Some people think that is the most interesting thing I have ever done. That is why I said, “to whom?”
ER: To you!
RM: To have gotten to this point in my life as who I am now. That’s pretty interesting to me. Because at lots of stages in my life, this moment was not ever pictured. This moment. If someone took my picture in a town called Coral Springs, a town I had never heard of in a state I said I would never live in, the “me” of even a few years ago wouldn’t believe it. How all of that has come about is pretty interesting to me.
ER: What is your greatest accomplishment?
RM: Being here now. I was in Manhattan in the thick of the AIDS crisis. It is pure luck that I am not dead. Pure luck. Paul, too. It’s interesting that when I volunteered to tell my story here, I realized that when I tell a version of my story I almost always leave out AIDS. And yet it’s a huge part of my past.
ER: What are your regrets?
RM: I thought about this when I saw your list of questions. I remember decades ago I heard Barbara Bush say something like, “I don’t have regrets. I think people who have regrets are stupid.” I thought, “what a horrible thing to say.” Everybody has regrets. But over the years I’ve thought about it from time to time. Of course, I have regrets. I regret I didn’t get my hair cut before this morning. I really wanted to have my hair cut for Libby. I regret that I didn’t get it done. But I don’t have huge regrets. Life regrets.
Like most everyone, I’ve made decisions that altered the course of my life. Going to seminary, for example. I don’t regret those decisions, but I do sometimes wonder, “what would have happened if…………” In hindsight, I was on a path that might have led to a really successful career at the Metropolitan Museum. I didn’t see this or care about it at the time. I was 30, a kid! Interesting things could have happened with that job if I’d cared about it at the time. And I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I’d stayed at the Museum. But I don’t regret leaving because if I’d stayed I would not have this…I would not be who I am now.
Another, “what if?” comes to mind: When I left the monastery I needed to find a job. I was interviewing at two different churches to be the associate rector. One was a church in Manhattan, The Church of the Incarnation, which has a beautiful building but a very small congregation. The other church was Christ Church in Greenwich, Connecticut which also has a beautiful building … and a big congregation filled with important people. I took the job at the Church of the Incarnation for a number of reasons. But I was not thinking in terms of career. If I had been thinking in career terms, I would have fought for the job at Christ Church in Greenwich. That’s a prestigious credential. One that might have led to big things. Like being a bishop. “What if…..?”
ER: What are your struggles?
RM: Trying to do my job well. I always have a sense that I haven’t done enough. I haven’t done it well enough. I can be pretty hard on myself. Doing this kind of work – ministry – there are lots of ways to do that…both to mess up and to be hard on yourself. Maybe my goal still is sainthood! Ha! I don’t think I’m going to get there!
When I told my story to the parish here I referred to Thomas Merton. He was a Trappist Monk who was really popular in the ‘70’s. His books are still great but he’s not in fashion anymore. He converted to Roman Catholicism as an adult and eventually made his way to become a monk. There’s story about him that I shared with parishioners: Merton was walking through Manhattan with a friend who happened to be Jewish. His friend was curious about his recent conversion to Roman Catholicism. This might have been the 1930’s. His friend asked Merton, “Now that you’re a Catholic, what are you going to do?” Merton replied, “I guess I just want to be the best Catholic I can be.“ His Jewish friend stopped and said, “No! You should want to be a saint!” Maybe we should all want to be saints!
When I was a kid I had a particular stereotype of what I should be like if I were to become a saint . . . humble, never putting myself first, meek, never angry. A very typical stereotype. But if you look at the history of saints, they are all sorts of people. They are kings, queens, warriors, philanthropists, intellectuals… even curmudgeons like St. Jerome. There’s a book called Lesser Feasts and Fasts. We used to use it when we observed feast days in the Episcopal Church. St. Jerome’s hagiography ends with something like this, “although Jerome was rarely pleasant, he was never dull.”
I think sainthood is really about being the most we can be. The most that God has created us to be. For my Paul, it might involve his art. About doing it the best he can.
It’s about doing, being what God created us to be.
I still remember a sermon from when I was little. I don’t remember my own sermons now so the fact that I still remember this sermon is pretty remarkable. I was 6, 7, maybe 8. We always sat in the front row, right under the pulpit. A substitute priest was speaking. He looked really old to me (he was probably my age now), and he looked mean. Sitting right under the pulpit it felt like he was talking right to me. I knew that I had better listen or I would be in big trouble.
His sermon was about humility. His point was that true humility is being utterly truthful about who you are. It’s not about always putting everyone else’s needs before your own, or any of the other silly stereotypes we have about saints and sainthood. Yes, it’s about acknowledging your weaknesses, your flaws. But it’s also about acknowledging your gifts and accepting them, celebrating them. True humility is about being truthful. What a great lesson for a young kid trying to hide who he was.
ER: What are your greatest adventures?
RM: The word adventure makes me think of travel, of course. In my 20’s and 30’s I had the travel bug. I don’t so much anymore . . . to Paul’s great disappointment. I think my greatest adventures now come when I pray and meditate because I don’t know what exactly I’m going to meet when I go deep.
I didn’t know I was going to tell you that. But I think it’s true.