A Centennial Homage
He would have been one hundred on the 12th of April. He made it to ninety-seven, in fine fettle almost till the end. He was born in Maastricht, Holland, which was overrun with infantry and cannon during the Great War. As a child he was traumatized by the horror. He grew up to become a doctor, a surgeon, and a dentist. He took art classes on the side while practicing in New York in the Forties. In the Fifties he worked with Albert Schweitzer as a dentist at Schweitzer’s Clinic in Lambarene, Gabon, and he entered deeply into Schweitzer’s philosophy of awe at the mystery of life. Returning from Lambarene, he asked to become official artist to Vatican II because he believed Pope John xxiii was the leading edge of a new, open, and inclusive Christianity. After leaving Vatican II, he bought a ruined mill and house in upstate New York, which he rebuilt over the next thirty-odd years as Pacem in Terris (named after Pope John’s most famous encyclical, “Peace on Earth”). He envisioned Pacem as a “trans-religious oasis of spiritual inwardness.”
His name is Frederick Franck and many of his books are still in print; his paintings, charcoals, and drawings are housed in museums from New York to Amsterdam. His real artwork, however, continued to be Pacem in Terris, which was graced for years by summer concerts of outstanding music by great performers.
I met him in 1974 after his popular book THE ZEN OF SEEING was published. Over the years we would meet in person, correspond frequently, and he would lead workshops in settings where I served in university ministry and teaching posts. In his last years I allowed complications in my life to rob me of the visits that were like balm to my heart. When I left the east to teach in a mid-western seminary he said with great earnestness and some anxiety, “Don’t let them steal your soul.” He would check in from time to time to make sure I kept my soul. I miss his earthly presence.
Gnome-like, quick and darting in motion, Frederick was deeply centered on the spiritual vision and mission he shared with his beloved wife Claske and his son Lukas, who continue on as caretakers and builders of Pacem. He worked tirelessly to ring an alarm on our decadent society. He wrote to warn us that we must wake up and oppose the forces of greed and violence wherever they arise in our society, beginning with ourselves. We must, in short, repent.
He painted and drew and sculpted to show what he called the Specifically Human, the eternal human face that informs all of our individual faces. As a youth he had had a vision of a gigantic fish on which, upon inspection, each individual scale was a human face. The fish, carved, is one of the artworks that grace Pacem in Terris today. It is his vision of human unity.
Frederick believed that we could only reclaim our Western heritage by way of the East, that Buddhism could inform our Christianity and vice versa. He saw Buddhism and Christianity as partners in the struggle to retain our humanity. He thought that we had sold out to a “logic” that kills the soul, stamps out imagination, and drives us to a demonic acquisitive spirit. He thought that the opposite of faith was not unbelief, but a negative spirit that renders human effort empty and meaningless. For him, Buddhism offered a way to overcome the negativity and, even, return us to the feet of Jesus and a renewed
Happy birthday, Frederick. Your message continues.
(Published 3 Apr 09)