Pawling, N.Y. — Here in the rich, rolling hills of upstate New York, a senior couple informally hold forth from the stage of a rustic YMCA lodge. ''What is the secret of your success?'' they are asked by a younger colleague. ''How has your marriage and partnership lasted these 50-odd years?'' ''Are there times of stress?'' another wants to know.
The wife, an affable woman of shining eyes and unbending conviction, responds with remarkable candor: ''We undergird each other's weaknesses. Norman is patient with my rigidity. And I am patient with his indecisiveness and negativism.''
The audience giggles - as if in amazement. But undaunted, she goes on: ''I have to exert a great deal of patience when Norman thinks negatively.''
''Oh, I know,'' the wife says almost unsurprised at the response. ''He preaches about it and writes about it. I practice it.'' (General applause - even from the husband.)
Is this Ma and Pa Kettle coming clean? No, this is Dr. and Mrs. Norman Vincent Peale. That's right. He of ''The Power of Positive Thinking'' fame. Thirty-two years and 15 million copies later, we are suddenly learning that Norman Vincent Peale is a closet pessimist. Could that be?
Not really. Ruth Peale, wife, friend, colleague, collaborator, partner, and No. 1 critic of one of the best-known names in American ministerial history, is talking ''truth'' to a group of Protestant ministers and their spouses who have left their pulpits for a week to sit at the feet of a hero, Norman Vincent Peale.
They're dressed not in cloth and collar but in sports shirts and Levi's. And they're letting down their hair - airing problems of the parish: how to cope with youths' use of drugs, marital infidelity, and the tight purse strings of the elders.
In this setting, the man who has sermonized presidents and laymen from the Fifth Avenue pulpit of Marble Collegiate Church for 52 years is not preaching. He's being a friend. He's helping. He's encouraging. And his wife is right there with him saying, in effect: We're regular people just like you. We've been there. In fact, we're still there. There'll be times of stress, of discouragement. But we've learned to deal with it. And so can you.
This is the same Norman Vincent Peale of 29 books, Guidepost magazine, inspirational radio messages, guest sermons, and thousands of speeches on the rubber-chicken circuit. But here in his self-styled School of Practical Christianity, the preacher's preacher is doing what he likes best: helping people on a one-to-one basis.
The Peale formula for success? ''It's simple,'' insists Dr. Peale. ''We pray about everything. Pray without ceasing. . . . We look continually to the Lord's guidance.''
Mrs. Peale adds: ''The Lord answers prayer in three ways - yes, no, and wait awhile.''
Dr. Peale says his message has been the same for half a century. It is that ''every human problem lends itself to spiritual guidance and solution.'' ''You can live above it,'' he repeatedly tells his parishioners. The Peale perspective: self-esteem, self-respect. ''You must love thyself before you can love thy neighbor.''
Although ''The Power of Positive Thinking'' has been a longtime best seller, it is not without critics. Some have called it simplistic and formula-burdened. Dr. Peale has been accused of popularizing religion for those who seek material riches and human success.
A perceived psychological approach (the Peales co-founded with psychiatrist Smiley Blanton the Institutes of Health in 1937, which they still participate in) is seen by many as incompatible with pure theology.
Dr. Peale insists that ''positive thinking'' is merely ''faith in the power of God.'' He explains that he originally wanted to call his book ''The Power of Faith,'' but publishers said it would attract only the church community. And he sought a broader audience.
Mrs. Peale adds that ''second and third generations'' now are finding the book for the first time. ''Many write to us and say 'Your book led me to the Bible.' . . . The Power of Positive Thinking takes you to faith and the Bible and the power of Jesus Christ.''
While through the years the book has sometimes been the subject of controversy, so has Norman Vincent Peale. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once accused Dr. Peale of ''trying to make a success story out of Christianity,'' indicating that he sought a largely white, middle-class audience.
The New York-based minister has also been scored for straying from pure Scripture. Adlai Stevenson reportedly quipped: ''When it comes to evangelists, I find (St.) Paul appealing and Peale appalling.''
The well-known minister was also criticized in the press and elsewhere in the 1950s and '60s for his close political relationships - mainly with Republican Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon. Dr. Peale often frequented the White House during their terms and served as an informal spiritual adviser.
At one point, he undertook an ''official'' trip to Vietnam at the behest of President Nixon. And it was the preacher from Pauling who formally linked the two presidential families by tying the knot between David Eisenhower (Ike's grandson) and Julie Nixon (Nixon's daughter).
Just before the 1960 presidential elections, Dr. Peale raised some questions about whether John F. Kennedy's Roman Catholicism would hinder him in the presidency. These remarks (made without prejudice, Dr. Peale insists) set off such controversy that the minister offered to resign his post at Marble Collegiate. The church elders wouldn't hear of it.
Asked recently by this reporter if he would change anything in his career, Norman Vincent Peale answered forthrightly: ''(I wouldn't) get involved with a politician. A minister should deal (only) with the human soul.''
Today at the twice-yearly School of Practical Christianity (SPC), Dr. Peale does a lot of dealing with the soul. His ministerial students and their families , who come from almost every US state and most Canadian provinces, pay $180 for a week of inspiration and fellowship at this woodsy Pauling retreat.
Participants at the recent May session insist that the value of the sessions is not so much in the ''how to'' but in the inspirational setting. The Rev. Rob Thompson, a young minister of the Brethren in Christ Community Church in Saskatchewan, Canada, says Dr. Peale repeatedly stresses to ''go back to the base of the word of God'' for solutions to all problems. And Benny Cosper, a preacher at the First United Methodist Church in Fairfield, Ala., says that although Dr. Peale talks about the ''practical'' aspects of Christianity, he counsels to ''undergird what you do by prayer and by love.''
''His (Peale's) emphasis on prayer has really impressed me,'' says Roberta Morrison, one of the few women attending the school. The Rev. Mrs. Morrison, pastor of the Marksboro Presbyterian Church in Stillwater, N.J., stresses that women can uniquely bring healing to family situations. Dr. Peale strongly agrees with her.
''There's something in the character of the feminine person that is responsive to the good, the beautiful, and the true,'' he says.
Bern Brunsting, minister of the Christ Church in Pawling, is Dr. Peale's own local pastor. Involved in his school for several years, he says, ''A lot of ministers get renewed here. They get freed up for preaching.''
Mr. Brunsting stresses, as does Dr. Peale, that ''preaching must speak (directly) to the needs of people. . . . Forget yourself and love your audience. Don't tell them. Show them!''
Norman Vincent Peale still commutes from his Pawling home to take the pulpit at Marble Collegiate and keeps a busy schedule of public appearances and media engagements, along with his time for writing. His new book is autobiographical and at this point called ''The True Joy of Positive Living.''
Dr. Peale, now in his mid-80s, still amiably refers to himself as ''a country boy from Ohio.'' He says his work helps him maintain his vitality.
He adds that he has followed the advice of one-time US Postmaster General James A. Farley and never thinks any ''old thoughts.''