The late, great Fr. William “Bix” Bichsel, a Jesuit Priest and peace activist from the Tacoma Catholic Worker, passed away on February 28th, 2015, surrounded by his family, friends, and community. Bix was a dear friend and mentor to the Seattle Catholic Worker. The following is an article written by Peter that will be published in the Spring, 2015 issue of The Inbreaking (which will be out in a couple weeks), speaking to his experience of Bix’s last lucid moments, as well as chronicling his mentorship to our community.
Love is the Most Powerful Force in the World: Remembering Fr. Bix
by Peter Gallagher
“Love is the most powerful force in the world.”—Fr. Bix
I had the privilege of being with Bix for his very last lucid moments on the evening of Wednesday February 25th at Jean’s House of Prayer, one of the many houses that constitutes the Tacoma Catholic Worker community where Bix spent the last 25 years of his life. We had all received word that morning that Bix’s much-maligned heart was finally due to stop beating within a day or two; he had just been released from the hospital and had received his last rites. I was headed to the Pacific Life Community gathering in the Bay Area the next morning (which Bix had planned on attending before his health deteriorated) along with Megan and Melissa from the Tacoma Worker, so I made arrangements to stay the night with them in Tacoma that evening, knowing that this would be our last chance to say goodbye to Bix. That evening ended up being the last time he was fully conscious before he passed away on Saturday.
When I arrived at Jean’s House, Bix’s bed, respirator, and other medical gear were all stationed in the living room, which was adorned as ever with photographs of prophets and peace activists such as Sr. Jackie Hudson, Gandhi, and Dorothy Day, whom Bix would soon be joining. There hung a tattered plaque bearing the words of Jesus in Matthew 25 that were so foundational to Bix’s life, that would be read at his funeral:
“Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these my sisters and brothers, you have done it to me”—Matthew 25:40
There were already a number of people milling about the house, and a constant stream of people coming and going. It was an ostensibly bustling environment, but I remember a distinct air of pending grief: of everyone feeling forced into coming to terms with death in too short a time. There were moments of laughter and levity, but there were many, many tearful goodbyes—droves of locals pouring in to pay their respects, as well as old friends from out of town calling to say a final farewell to Bix by phone.
Yet with all that, what struck me as both remarkable and just classic Bix is that he was not only the least grief-stricken person in the room, he seemed to be in reasonably good spirits, as affable as ever. You’d have thought he just stumbled on the good fortune of receiving a lot of kind visitors that particular evening. When someone asked him how he was feeling, in a very serious and concerned tone, he almost seemed at a loss for anything interesting to report on an emotional plane. “Pretty good, I’d say….you know…it’s been pretty much gravy so far.” He demonstrated the new method of drinking water he had learned from his nurse that morning (the “chin tuck method”), and happily crunched away on ice—long a favorite pastime of his, I learned—as his last solid “food”. “I think ice has got to be one of the greatest inventions of all time”, Bix declared thunderously. I mumbled, to no one in particular, that ice is less of an invention and more of a naturally occurring chemical state, but who asked me? No one. So we meditated on that for a time.
Suffice it to say that Bix was not mired in sadness or existential anxiety on his death bed; rather, he was of service to others until his last. He greeted everyone with a sweet care and tenderness, giving his whole, undivided attention to each person’s farewell. He told Megan, “you are so good with people”; he told me what an inspiration I and the Seattle Catholic Worker had been to him in his last years.
Throughout the evening there were a number of moving testaments, tributes, and farewells. A young Native boy sang and drummed a song of his people at the encouragement of his family. Seth Martin played a back-breaking rendition of his song, “Lone Wild Bird”…
We wear your seamless cloth of joy and loss, severed roots and limbs, time to start again. Start with
I am thine
I rest in thee. I rest in thee. I rest in thee,
Great Spirit come and rest in me.
…and ended his sharing with a kiss on Bix’s forehead. I shared a couple songs at Bix’s encouragement (“Peter plays the most wonderful music”—can you imagine what it meant to me to hear that?), including my favorite blessing from the Hebrew Scriptures:
May God bless and keep you
May God’s face shine on you
May God be kind to you,
And give you peace
But what sticks with me the most were some words Bix shared after we all sang “We Shall Overcome”. It was the only point in the evening I witnessed where he wasn’t occupied with receiving a stream of visitors, so it was probably the last reflection that he ever offered. He said (and I will never, ever forget this): “You know, love…is the most powerful force in the world. More powerful than all of the nuclear weapons. I do believe this. We really can do it, you know…I do believe in the power of the resurrection, the power of the creator God.” And then he stopped talking to receive more visitors.
“Love is the most powerful force in the world.”—Fr. Bix, February 25th, 2015.
By all accounts, Bix’s whole life was a testament, an incarnation of this belief. He was an ordained Jesuit Priest for over fifty years, beloved by many Catholics, especially the poor; the founder of a thriving Catholic Worker community in Tacoma, and an internationally renowned peace activist to boot. At the ripe age of 81, he and four others partook in a Plowshares action at Bangor Naval Base, cutting through two fences and pouring vials of their own blood on the ground, after which Bix performed an exorcism of the base that is home to thousands of nuclear warheads. He brought with him a handful of sunflower seeds, a symbol of the way of peace, of the irrepressible life of the world to come.
After a fair amount of publicity (including a humorous video segment from the Seattle Times, highlighting that all the Plowshares activists were in their 60s or older, titled “Old vs. Navy”) and an opportunity to witness at trial, Bix entered prison with a number of health conditions that left him susceptible to not receiving adequate medical care in prison and dying inside its walls. Thus, in the truest sense of the phrase in the 21st century, Bix took up his cross for those he loved—he was willing to lay down his life for an end to weapons of mass destruction:
“I tell you that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for their friends.” (John 15:13).
I first met Bix in October 2012 at Guadalupe House, just a week or two after the Seattle Catholic Worker first opened its doors. He had extended an invitation for us to join them for one of their regular Tuesday night liturgies and dinners, so myself, Eli and Nick Ogle made the drive down after we got off work, arriving just as dinner was wrapping up.
It would be difficult to overstate how badly we needed guidance at this time, and how much of a balm meeting Bix was to us. Anyone who’s taken the path of trying to start your own community knows how daunting it is, especially in the beginning. We just did not know what we were doing. But this skinny old Jesuit priest, fresh off a stint in prison from his recent Plowshares action, was just the picture of delight and wonderment at hearing that we had started a new Catholic Worker house in Seattle. He didn’t give advice or force-feed us tales of yore: he and Nora simply sat with us over dessert, just listening to our sharing and responding to our questions, without a trace of condescension or know-how.
Bix ended up being one of SCW’s most faithful supporters and mentors, from our inception to his passing. He attended almost all of our community gatherings, bringing along many others from Tacoma. He offered just the most achingly beautiful opening blessing at our first Kumbayawesome at the Hillman City Collaboratory on March 1st, 2014, almost exactly a year before he would pass away. He and Br. Gilberto Perez shared that evening about their experience resisting with the people at Jeju Island in Korea against the U.S. Naval base being constructed there, an experience which he referred to as a conversion experience (in his mid-eighties!). At Jeju he was captivated by what he called “eucharistic resistance”–the sharing of bread and wine—Life at its most elemental—as the very source of resistance to the forces of death. His ability to continually be inspired anew and to truly listen to others was what made him such a tremendous mentor to us as we got going. His friendship meant the whole world to us. Who knows where we’d be without him.
Fr. Tuohy’s homily at Bix’s funeral rightly centered on “The Power of the Resurrection”—one of Bix’s favorite phrases, a phrase he made sure to invoke on his death bed. Bix’s strength and conviction were not the result of white-knuckling or a stubborn, made up mind; as he put it to the National Catholic Reporter: “I believe strongly in my heart in the power of God and the power of creation and the Resurrection. They are much stronger than the powers of death.”
Now, one detail I’ve yet to mention from my last night with Bix was that after my emotional goodbye and as we were all being ushered out, I realized I had forgotten my phone on his bedside table. Whoopsie. So I shuffled sheepishly back to his bedside to grab it. Everyone had left the room; Bix was still awake. I said, “Bix?” “Yes?”, he said. “I just want you to know that we are going to keep the movement going. We’ll keep on working and witnessing for peace and justice and an end to war.”
“Oh, that’s good”, he replied.
The next morning, Melissa, Megan, and I made the drive down to the Bay Area for the Pacific Life Community gathering, receiving updates on Bix’s health along the way. Bix was grieved and remembered beautifully at the PLC: many folks in attendance had witnessed with him for decades and were losing one of their closest friends. One of the artists that attended the conference fashioned a number of placards with Bix’s face on it, which we all wore to the civil disobedience action at the gates of Lockheed Martin.
Being there made me remember when I attended Bix’s keynote address at the PLC in 2013, when it was held in Tacoma. Afterwards, Bix found me, clasped me on the shoulder, looked me square in the eye and said, “Peter, we need you”.
Welp, he’s got me, and indeed a holy host of others who will continue witnessing for peace and justice until we’re laid in our own grave.
Love is indeed the most powerful force in the world. Bix’s whole life witnessed to this truth. I give thanks that I got to see this incarnated so beautifully in William Bichsel, S.J. He’s crunching ice in heaven; we’ll be planting seeds here below.
Fr. Bix, PRESENTE!
Peter Gallagher is a member of the Seattle Catholic Worker