Preacher's preacher most enjoys helping people one-to-one
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.''