The Reverend Canon Peter Gwillim Kreitler spoke to the Palisades Optimist Club on Tuesday about his new book, “Dear Father Peter: Forty-nine Years of Letters to a Priest.”
The book, published by the Virginia Theological Seminary, features 160 of the more than 1,600 letters Kreitler received from the time he was ordained to the priesthood in 1970 until the present. His reflection on each letter in the book highlights the themes of his life.
“We do not learn from experience; we learn from reflecting upon our experiences,” Reverend Richard A. Busch wrote in one of these letters.
Krietler asked how many of the Optimists were over 75 years old and then reassured those who raised their hands, “Wisdom starts to accrue at 75.”
The book is not a “thriller” but rather something that can be read a letter or two at a time and then pondered. A reader can think about what the person was asking or saying, and then read Kreitler’s interpretation or background.
There are ideas to contemplate, and thoughts, which can be shared with grandchildren and their parents about life and living. As Kreitler writes in his book, “Never discount the accrued wisdom of those who live into their eighth or ninth decade.”
Kreitler, who grew up on Cape Cod, attended Brown University and then Virginia Theological Seminary. Before coming to St. Matthew’s, where he served 16 years, he worked at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Kansas City for five years. Then in 1990, he started a nonprofit, Earth Service, that advocated for a healthy stewardship of the planet.
He officiated at many weddings. But he’s especially proud of the letter from a couple thanking him because he married them when others wouldn’t because one was divorced. They have now been married 44 years. Kreitler writes that a photo of the newlyweds posing happily, while their adult children from a previous marriage smile in approval, captures the “triumph of hope over experience – the hope that comes with having a second chance.”
Kreitler told the Optimists that “second chance” might be his appropriate nickname. “I was given a second chance at the Loomis School; at the Lighthouse Inn on Cape Cod, where I was fired from my waiter position and rehired the next day; at Brown University, where I had flunked out but was readmitted following my sojourn in India in 1963; and after my divorce from my first wife in 1981, when Katy accepted my hand in marriage in 1985.”
With some letters there are quiet insights that are especially relevant.
When Kreitler was in India, he worked with Reverend Ken Coleman, who advised “Feed the belly first, and then talk about the church and its teaching later.”
A January 1973 letter from author Robert Johnson (“He, She and We”) urged Kreitler, “Stay with what you have, even if it means much suffering. When everything has burned that can burn—then one must be still. It is the place of miracles. Just stay quiet where you are. There is no other place for you to go.”
The book includes letters from U.S. Presidents (fellow Palisadian Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush), politicians, judges, corporation presidents and Hollywood figures, such as Norman Lear, Ed Begley, Jr., Chevy Chase, Charlton Heston, Mel Brooks and Tom Hanks.
Other letters were written specifically to Kreitler about St. Matthew’s. A November 5, 1978 letter from Louis Van Phalen expresses sympathy over the loss of the church in the 1978 fire. “The only consolation is that it was God’s will and He will see that you and your congregation soon have a new and lovelier one.”
Kreitler explains his connection to Van Phalen and then writes, “I certainly didn’t expect Mr. Van Phalen to write me a week after the fire, but I’m glad he did.”
Then there’s the human tragedy in the letters that every priest, minister or rabbi eventually addresses.
“I have spent countless hours with many couples addressing the havoc that cheating has wreaked on their relationships,” writes Kreitler, who penned “Affair Prevention” (with Bill Bruns) in 1981. “But in part because we are constantly bombarded by television and newspaper stories glorifying extramarital affairs – adultery continues to degrade the heal of marriages. Infidelity truly remains ‘a preoccupying problem of our time.’”
There are sobering letters such as one from a friend of a 15-year-old girl. The girl was pregnant and had been doing dope (pills, speed and acid), and then had an abortion and was given more drugs. The friend wanted to know what to tell the girl.
“Receiving a letter like this in the beginning of one’s career is very sobering,” said Kreitler, who added, “I think a good pastor should also recognize her or his limitations.” He noted that he had developed relationships with a group of counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists that he relied on for advice.
“I have been the first call following a spouse’s death by suicide, when a small child drowned in a hot tub, and when my bishop, the Right Reverend Robert Rusack, suffered a massive heart attack,” Kreitler writes. “I have sat on several beds with family members as we joined hands with the deceased and said prayers. Words can be hard to come by and often feel inadequate, yet they are never really as important as being there. While I never ever liked visiting jail, especially with young people who were caught possessing drugs, I showed up because that is the best response for that situation.”
There is sadness as Kreitler tries to share with his parishioners that AIDS cannot be spread by saliva and how he was called to a man’s house one day. The man told Kreitler that he had a sexual fling while on location filming a movie and had contacted AIDS. A month later the Reverend was called to the house because the man’s health had deteriorated. “His remorse over cheating on his spouse was so intense that he cried out for help. The formal rite of forgiveness I could offer that day was powerful and healing. He died shortly thereafter.”
Kreitler said the letters supported him throughout his career and “helped define who I am. We do not walk alone.”
In its simplicity this is a powerful book from a man who lives the Toltec’s four agreements: 1) be impeccable with your word; 2) don’t take anything personally; 3) don’t make assumptions; and 4) always do your best.
“Dear Father Peter” can be purchased on Amazon ($32.50). Kreitler lives in Pacific Palisades and is receptive to speaking engagements.