I met John Bly of Tenants Harbor two decades ago at a Men’s Weekend Retreat.

John’s approach to life was Zen-like; quiet and peaceful describes that first encounter.

I learned John invited the community (anyone who wanted to come) to his auto garage four times a year on the equinoxes and solstices, for weekends of enlightenment, friendship and learning.

As a non-religious person who believes in something greater than myself, John’s weekends awakened a sleeping spirit that would move my soul and help define me.

The weekends were eclectic; I would go with my wife, Martha, and our sons to stay overnight in the big room over his garage. It was dorm-style, with mattresses and sleeping bags covering the floor, once the drumming, music, dancing and fellowship died down for the evening.

John told me he began the weekends as his way to connect to his community and because, as a culture, we had few conventions and rituals to bring us together. We were not “at one with each other,” and he felt something missing for himself, and for mankind.

There was always a different assemblage of people; each weekend took on its own personality, depending on who showed up, how many (six or 26) and what people shared in workshops. Sometimes I would go to workshops, sometimes I would just take alone time; something desperately needed in that period of my life.

The constants were communal dinners and the sweat lodges. John’s generous spirit was one of sharing; for him it was about the collective forces of the universe coming together.

The sweat lodges were unique and odd, and very spiritual; done in the tradition of the American Indian culture; hot rocks put in a tent with heavy canvas draped over a yurt shape that was totally dark, steaming and sauna-hot as water was poured over red-hot rocks.

We would traipse a mile into John’s woods for four rounds (three hours) of chanting, praying, singing and moments of silence. John made a bonfire where rocks would glow and the fire-master would use a pitch fork to usher them into the tent, splashing water on them to make steam.

It was a way to honor spirit differently than organized religion; no one telling you how to do it, or what to do. With up to 15 people crowded in, skin-to-skin, each round took on a spiritual tone with each person having a choice to speak in the darkened room, or to sit and take it all in; I did both.

John passed in late March, leaving his love and legacy behind. Sometimes we don’t recognize greatness until it is gone. Sometimes we don’t realize what we have learned, or what we owe somebody until it is taken away. When his daughter, Phoebe, put it on Facebook that John was at the end of life and friends were welcomed, Sussman House was overwhelmed with visitors and John’s legacy was recognized.

It happened quickly and many were not able to share with John how he mattered and how he made them better, more whole, kinder and more in touch with their inner being.

John not only made me a better man, husband and father, but provided me a place where I could experience things not found in the “real world” — only in the world of angels like John could one go for a weekend and find kindred spirits; new friends made that day who would walk across hot coals that night with you.

Walking across hot coals was a life highlight; it challenged my belief system and helped me understand that if you can walk across hot coals, you can do just about anything.

Fire-Master Lawrence told us that in order to survive unscathed and unburned, one had to simply believe. He told us the texture was like walking on popcorn and the heat similar to hot summer beach sand.

In preparation, Lawrence said if we didn’t believe, he promised we would veer off. He then told us a story about our belief system. Picture a baby in a crib, staring at the ceiling in wonder, day after day, watching a spider weave its web.

Fascinated, the baby watched in awe until one day, his mother noticed. She looked up, waved her hands manically, bringing the spider and its’ web to the ground, screaming and stepping on it, jumping and yelling at the top of her lungs, scaring the bejesus out of her innocent baby.

Spiders are not awful creatures; they eat pesky flies and keep the universe in balance, while spinning beautiful webs.

However, forever more, the baby turned child, turned teen, turned adult was afraid of spiders; the beauty shattered by a freaked-out mother, a belief system altered for eternity.

John helped us to see the wonder in life, and to not be afraid of spiders.

I love you John; thank you for being part of my life and for sharing your space.

“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

—Fred Rogers, television host, songwriter, author (1928-2003)