Anthony Bourdain’s priestly ways, and the pain he thereby onboarded: Robert A. Winter (Opinion)

June 15, 2018 GMT

Anthony Bourdain’s priestly ways, and the pain he thereby onboarded: Robert A. Winter (Opinion)

BEREA, Ohio -- On June 7, I watched the most recent (Hong Kong) episode of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” and finished a chapter in Bourdain’s book “Kitchen Confidential.”

I’m a big Bourdain fan, and I spent most of the next day, as did many others, trying to get my head around his tragic death.

By Saturday afternoon, I was ready to resume my reading, which happened to be at the beginning of the chapter titled “Department of Human Resources.”

It opens with the account of a particularly nasty-minded cook who eventually had to be fired. Then, I read this:

“The cook went home, made a few phone calls, and then hanged himself. It’s a measure of what we do for a living that this kind of a thing could happen.”

How, indeed, could such a thing have happened? All the usual suspects were hauled out and held up, but as a clergyman (I’m a retired Episcopal priest) and as someone with a working knowledge of addictions, I have come to the realization that what killed this vibrant, engaged man was a combination of his addictions and his priesthood.


The thing that has been most conspicuously lacking in media reactions to his suicide has been any examination of the role played by his well-known addictions. There have been a few vague references to his “demons,” but very little examination of what those were and how they affected, not just his death, but also his life.

The people most vulnerable to the disease of addiction are those with high intelligence and a high level of spiritual sensitivity. High intelligence, because one of the principal symptoms of the disease is denial, and it takes a nimble mind to persist in finding “reasons” why one cannot possibly be an addict in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.

But the really dangerous element is spiritual sensitivity. It has nothing to do with being “spiritual” in the conventional sense (although clergy are especially susceptible; see below). It is, rather, an interest in what’s going on around one, a heightened awareness of life; “spirit,” after all, is the essential difference between humanity and hamburger.

Everyone’s life is an amalgam of pleasure and pain, of joy and despair. Most of us learn how to maximize the joy and pleasure and minimize (to the extent that we can) or manage the despair and pain.

So far, so good. 

But if you add to the qualities of intelligence and spiritual sensitivity a set of boundaries that is, for some reason, compromised, you are in very dangerous territory. Because you enter easily into other people’s lives, and it is easy to take their joy on board your own personhood.


This, of course, makes it very easy to “socialize,” and many addicts are known for their easygoing manner and ability to form friendships quickly and easily — many have remarked on how Tony could be “at home” with almost anyone, anywhere, in a very short time. It’s what made his show so captivating ... and so valuable. Ah, but those same porous boundaries make it equally easy for other people’s pain to come in as well.

And the result can be that the addict feels more pain more deeply than most people would. Accumulated pain can become a tidal wave which easily sweeps one away, as was the case, I believe, with Tony.

And again, clergy, who are often most-appreciated if they have a friendly, empathetic approach to others, are especially vulnerable. I still remember the shock I felt when I discovered that there was an organization for Episcopal clergy, seminarians and religious who were in recovery from alcoholism. With more experience, I came to marvel, not that there were clergy who were alcoholics, but that there were any who weren’t.

Anthony Bourdain would have scoffed and laughed long at the suggestion that he was a priest, but indeed he was. The function of a priest is to celebrate things — in conventional terms, things such as baptisms, marriages, and the Eucharist. 

And the celebration of things was Tony’s real business, his most well-honed skill. What, after all, was “Parts Unknown” if not an appreciative holding-up of pieces of life, to be gazed at, understood and celebrated with gusto. 

I can tell you that every baptism, every wedding ceremony, every funeral, every sermon is a journey to “parts unknown,” and in Tony, I recognize the skills and the passions of a fellow priest. 

And also, sadly, the vulnerabilities.

May he rest in peace and rise in Glory — the ultimate in Unknown Parts.

The Rev. Robert A. Winter, a native of Michigan, has been an Episcopal priest for 55 years, serving parishes in Michigan, Rhode Island and Ohio. He retired in 2003, but continues to serve as chaplain to the Berea Fire Department. 


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