Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Happy Father's Day -- The Legacy of No Spiritual Legacy

A couple of weeks or so ago a message about my father came to me in meeting for worship.

He passed a year or so ago, at the age of 87. He left me no spiritual legacy.

Mom was a regular at the Congregational and then Presbyterian church of my youth, in Medford, Oregon. She was superintendant of the Sunday school and such. When the pastor would come over to the house to talk business with her he would always greet my father, who was polite and kind. When the pastor would leave he would say to my father, "Now, Dick, I want you to know that it's a big strong building we have and it will not fall in should you pass through the doorway."

But he never did.

As he spent his last few years sitting in a chair, in front of the television set, in and out of paying attention to the world and those of us around him, I often thought of Thomas Kelly's statement, in a Testament of Devotion, about how we all spend our lives creating our spiritual shelter and then we crawl inside it to die.

My father died with no shelter, like one sitting in the rain. I had to admire his strength, his ability to look into what he conceived of as the complete oblivion of death and not blink or mourn. Not outwardly, anyway.

The few times I dared to try to broach the subject with him he rebuffed me. All I ever learned in trying to talk to my father about his spirituality was that, unknown to me, I had a Quaker great grandmother (in Indiana) who left the meeting (it might have been a church, my father was unsure as he was a small child at the time) because it wasn't conservative enough for her. Otherwise I learned nothing about his spiritual history or that of any other member of my family in generations before.

He died in that chair, without ever telling me anything about what he thought his life--or any life--was about. It was about projecting strength, to him. And when his stregnth did not prevail he conjured up his very business like anger to control situations and other people. (anger, I know, now, is a product of fear and a means of banishing it).

Afterward my younger brother, who still lives in Medford, went through what was left (for my father did not love things and did not become attached to them) and divided it up among the three sons. Part of what I got was a box in which I found a KJV Bible, black leather cover, with my father's name embossed on it in gold. It was so new and unused it might well have come in the plastic wrapper. Someone gave it to him, at some point, and, although he never opened it (from the look of it) he didn't throw it away, either.

When I held that Bible I thought of the old saying "The condition of a Quaker's soul is the opposite of the condition of his Bible." There I held my father's Bible--as pristine and crisp as the day it was manufactured. I cried as I held it. I cried, again, a week or two after this last Father's day, in meeting, when I told this story in meeting.

This was truly a message to me, through me, to others. Although I feared I had been self indulgent and done nothing other than display my selfish grief, testing the indulgence of the meeting, I was told afterward that this story had touched hearts and reminded others of the responsibility we all have to our children. I had, I understood, honored my father while making a warning of him to others.


Rich in Brooklyn said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings about your father.

Your account is moving and sad, inasmuch as he seems to have lacked the cojfort of an outward "spiritual home". He did, though, have a spiritual life, acknowledged or not, and that life is a legacy which you may yet draw upon. To be unchurched and non-theological is not the same as to be unspiritual. I notice you say that "my father did not love things and did not become attached to them". In this respect, at least, he seems to have acheived something that many "religious" people seek for and never attain.

- - Rich Accetta-Evans
Brooklyn Quaker

Zach A said...

I appreciate your story.

It's funny – my father was the complete opposite in terms of religious zeal, but very similar in terms of (what it sounds like) being unable to emotionally relate to his children.


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Hmmm -- so "the condition of a Quaker's soul is the opposite of the condition of his Bible," is it?

Maybe, in that case, your old man -- for all his other failures -- actually had a well-thumbed, carefully-studied soul. One might hope.

I was very moved by this posting, you know. I had a difficult father, too. When you said how you cried for yours in meeting, I could feel the tears in my own heart.


C. S. Lewis made a comment in Mere Christianity to the effect that we should not judge one another because we do not know how hard or easy it is for one another to practice a given virtue. It may be that some of those who seem so saintly deserve very little credit because their saintliness comes easily, while some of those who seem very difficult deserve great credit because they've secretly struggled long and hard against the inclination to behave even worse.

I know you a little, and I know you work very hard to behave decently. I imagine you maybe get that from your parents. It inclines me to give your old dad some benefit-of-the-doubt.