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Jerry May; Mixed Psychiatric, Spiritual Therapy

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page B06

Gerald G. "Jerry" May, 64, a psychiatrist and author who became a senior fellow at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, an ecumenical Christian center in Bethesda, died April 8 at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He had lymphoma, congestive heart failure and sepsis.

Dr. May joined the Shalem Institute as an associate in 1973 and became a full-time staff member a decade later. At his death, he was a senior fellow in contemplative theology and psychology.


Gerald May was a senior fellow in contemplative theology. (Family Photo)

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His books include "Simply Sane: Stop Fixing Yourself and Start Really Living" (1977); "Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology" (1983); and "The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth" (2004).

Early in his career, he did psychiatric work for the Air Force and later the Maryland state prison system before focusing on spiritual matters. He said he saw some overlap between pure psychiatry and his time at the Shalem Institute but liked to highlight a distinction.

"There's a difference of intent," he once told a reporter. "Therapy deals with relationships, feelings and the goal of leading more efficient lives. Spiritual direction deals with prayer life and one's experience of God."

Gerald Gordon May was a native of Hillsdale, Mich., and the half brother of the late Rollo May, a leader in existential psychotherapy in the United States.

Their father's death when Dr. May was 9 prompted a degree of spiritual wonderment, but he later described his most revelatory moment as being when a friend in college shoved a salt shaker in front of him during dinner and asked, "Do you realize that this is actually here?"

Dr. May told an interviewer: "He sounded like an impromptu Zen master. I experienced a profound depth of transformation with that. Yes, I did realize the salt shaker, and everything else in creation, really is what it is. It may sound silly, but that one revelation opened up a whole new world for me -- a world of direct experience, where my commentaries, judgments and projections are wholly absent, a world of immediate realness."

He also cited the example of a psychic who told him, "You won't be a good doctor until you learn that you don't do the healing." That, he said, led him to question a purely psychiatric approach to his career.

He was a 1962 graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and a 1965 graduate of Wayne State University's medical school.

Early in his career, he was an Air Force psychiatrist during the Vietnam War and soon lost his desire for treating young soldiers who, he said, were transformed from idealistic liberators to trained, remorseless killers. He also refused to carry a gun while in Vietnam.

When he returned after a tour of duty, he filed for conscientious objector status and became chief of inpatient services at Andrews Air Force Base. Soon after, he became director of a drug addiction program at Lancaster (Pa.) General Hospital and an instructor at Pennsylvania State and Temple universities.

He settled in the Washington area in 1973 and spent several years on the psychiatric staff of Patuxent Institute in Jessup and Spring Grove Hospital Center in Catonsville, Md. He also had a private psychiatry practice until 1988.

A Columbia resident, he provided technical support for his wife's theater productions at Little Theater on the Corner in Ellicott City. He also played the guitar and a flurry of other instruments, from the hurdy gurdy to the dulcimer, in search of the "perfect drone."

Survivors include his wife of 42 years, Betty Clark May of Columbia; four children, Earl May of Wayne, Pa., Paul May of Fort Myers, Fla., Greg May of Columbia and Julie May of Randallstown; a friend of the family whom he raised as a son, Christopher Gunther of Columbia; a brother; and nine grandchildren.


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