My Father was a man of great faith.
He grew up across the street from a large Catholic church where his own father worked part-time as a janitor. From an early age, he was steeped in the religion; he served as an altar boy, was educated by the nuns. And the messages he heard really spoke to his heart, so much so that he even considered a career in the priesthood.
But then he met my Mother. You know how it is. But still, he never lost his passion for God.
Mom converted to marry him and they took raising my siblings and I Catholic very, very seriously. Predictably this backfired, ironically irritating my Mother more than Dad, partly because as he aged he became truly what I would call “a seeker.” The church was important to him, but he was a voracious reader and devoured M. Scott Peck, Dr. Wayne Dyer, Jack Canfield, and Deepak Chopra before any of them became household names.
I grew up listening to Earl Nightingale on tape during car rides and was the first kid on the block to read Ageless Body, Timeless Mind. And as much as Dad had taken to the teachings of Jesus, I took to these modern day philosophers; something in their messages resonated deeply with me. Over the years Dad and I would gift each other our latest discoveries; he introduced me to Caroline Myss, I bought him his first copy of Conversations with God.
Looking back, I think Dad enjoyed these nontraditional writings on the nature of spirituality as an enhancement to the deep seated religious faith he already had. For me, the relationship with the church was tenuous, at best. The undeniable hypocrisies of the “all-loving, all-powerful” God who rejected some of His own creations and had nitpicky rules of conduct that could be overlooked if the “sinner” donated enough money to the institution in question left me feeling rather faithless, in spite of my undeniable attraction to the wisdom of the New Testament.
A prophet who teaches “Love thy neighbor as thyself” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” juxtaposed with the preaching of exclusion and judgment was the definition of a contradiction in terms to me; the readings my Father and I shared were the bridge to get across to a place where I didn’t feel the need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as it were. I could live my life by the principles Jesus taught outside of the church. I started exploring other faiths, even reading the Quran, but had the ultimate realization that the basic messages were all the same, and the basic messages were sound.
So I kept the messages and lost the rules.
This worked for me for many years and I developed a belief system that both acknowledged a higher power but also took full personal responsibility for my own behavior and its outcomes. I felt grounded in a practical faith and my Father and I enjoyed many a rousing discussion/ debate about the merits (or lack thereof) of organized religion. I felt very strongly (and still do) that handing over the nature of your relationship to God to an external authority, whether priest, rabbi, shaman, imam etc. was a mistake; my Dad argued for the strength of the shared community.
When my Father became terminally ill, the faith of a lesser man might have been put to the test. Instead he served as ambassador to us all, gently guiding us along the journey to his final days. His sense of humor and connection to the greater good was breathtaking; if he felt fear about “what comes next” we never saw it. He remained the core strength and moral center of the family until his last breath.
We had his funeral in the church he grew up across the street from, and even in death he could not resist one last joke; as an altar boy with such impressive proximity, he was often called upon to serve at the earliest services. This arrangement resulted in him frequently dozing off and then jerking awake, unsure of how long he’d slept. As a result, he became quite renowned for ringing the altar bells often and at the wrong time; parishioners joked that when he was serving at mass, everyone thought there might be a fire.
Sure enough, during his funeral service someone kicked the altar bells at a completely inappropriate time, inspiring both laughter and tears. But also a strong sense that he was with us. His body was gone but his spirit remained.
I was still avoiding church at this time in my life, although the birth of my son had prompted me to reluctantly start shopping around for some kind of religious community for him. My standards were rigorous—no organization that taught of an excluding, punitive God would be considered. In the first four years of my child’s life we moved twice, and this allowed me to justify letting the search go cold.
But as he was growing and becoming more intellectually curious, the idea of God seemed to intrigue him; a lot, actually. He was asking very pointed questions that I was fumbling to answer, not because I didn’t know my own mind, but rather because the onerous responsibility of being my precious offspring’s only resource when it came to such an enormous subject was daunting. The idea that I must find a place of worship for us became pressing.
And this is where my faith demonstrated; I was led, through a series of casual inquiries and profound coincidences, to a church community that suits our needs perfectly. An open, inclusive environment that preaches above all that neighbors help neighbors. And PS, everyone is your neighbor. I have a hard time imagining a congregation more committed to both community service, local and global, and supporting the wellbeing of each other.
Now when my son and I talk about God, we don’t talk about some external being who watches and judges but instead of an internal drive to be of use. To behave in a way we feel good about, not because we will be punished if we don’t, but rather because…well, it feels good to feel good. And when we behave in ways that are hurtful to others or we are in any way not proud of, then we don’t feel good.
Can life be that simple?
I think it can, actually. My Father was generally a very contented man because he behaved in ways that he felt good about. The essence of his faith was “do unto others” with generosity and kindness and no concern for what or how they are doing unto you. By withdrawing judgment about how others were living their lives while taking full responsibility for how he was living his own, he achieved inner peace.
But it was his gratitude for the ability to be of service in the lives of others that brought him the most joy.
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