Saving grace

Author: Paul Johnston

I was elated when my wife, Anna, was awarded a fellowship from the Erasmus Institute at Notre Dame. Within six weeks of our arrival I sought out the campus leader of the church’s Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), and by the following spring I took my First Communion.

I think I would have joined the Catholic Church in good time whether we spent that year in South Bend or not. In our 20 years of marriage, I often accompanied Anna to Mass, and we had discussed Catholicism and things religious in general. But surely the openness, the beauty, and the thoughtfulness and intelligence I experienced at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart were central to my conversion experience.

As I went through RCIA, I thought often of my father, dead for many years. I didn’t wonder if he might have approved of my becoming a Catholic. Rather, I thought about his soul.

My father was a small-town, 18th-century rationalist. Except for four years at college and a stint in the Army as part of the Allied forces who opened the concentration camps in postwar Germany, the entirety of his experience was that of Michigan small towns. He was the son of a butcher, and he married the daughter of a potato farmer. My mother was a Latin and French teacher at the local high school, my father the manager of the county’s rural electric cooperative. Ours was a well-enough-off family.

My father never went to church, though my mother would take my brother and sister and me to the Congregational Church several times a year. On Christmas Eve, as the rest of us were getting ready for the 10 p.m. service, my father would declare that he was staying home to guard the presents. None of us took this guard duty seriously. Years ago our front-door key had been misplaced the first week we’d moved in, and my father had never seen any need to replace it.

So our presents were safe, and my father would be in our partly finished basement in front of the television when we returned from church, watching some televised church service—for the music and decorations, as near as I could tell.

I took it for granted that fathers didn’t need to go to church. True, the fathers of my friends who were Catholic went every Sunday, but I understood that they had to. That and having way more children than anyone else was what made them Catholic. My father liked to tell stories of Calvin Coolidge, whom he admired for his speaking style, if not for his politics. Having gone to church on a Sunday, Coolidge was asked what the sermon had been about. “Sin,” replied Silent Cal. And what did the preacher have to say about sin? “He was agin it."

That was pretty much it, as far as I could tell. We went to church to learn that sin was bad, and it was clear to me that my father already knew this. We also went in order to wear our best clothes. My father, like other men, wore his best clothes to work every day, and so left church-going to my mother and sister, who had nice dresses and hats specifically for church. And my brother and I went because it was still not entirely clear that we knew that sin was bad.

No Christmas season was complete without my father announcing some unusual bit of knowledge he had learned about Christ or Christmas or Christianity in general. My favorite was when he announced that “manger” was the Hebrew word for “dormitory,” and thus that Jesus had been born not in a stable but in a dormitory. Where he’d gotten this I have no idea. Hart, the small Michigan town where I grew up, had one Jew—Harry the Jew—and it’s possible my father learned it from him at the men’s morning coffee gathering at the Pink Elephant. The idea that there was really nothing special about the birth of Jesus would probably have pleased Harry as much as it did my father, though for different reasons.

Most days our house was a quiet place, except for the noise of my brother and me playing hockey or basketball or assault-the-fort in the basement. When my father came home from work at 5 each day, he would sit down with a can of Blatz beer and read the Muskegon Chronicle, the newspaper of the nearest big city 40 miles away. Then he would take a nap until it was time for dinner. After dinner he would do the dishes before sitting down again to read, usually history or biography. Occasionally he would play cribbage, either with my mother or my brother. If my brother and I weren’t watching television or roughhousing in the basement, I also would read.

My favorite reading was our set of the World Book Encyclopedia. After reading an entry about missionaries, when I was 8 or so, I asked my father why it was fair that God would condemn people in Africa to hell for not following the teachings of Jesus when they’d never had a chance to even hear of Jesus.

What hell is

My father explained that hell wasn’t really a place you went after you died. It was the way religious people had of saying what life is like on earth if you’re bad. The problem with people in Africa, he went on, wasn’t that they were necessarily bad, but that not ever having heard about Christ made them just as unhappy as if they were bad. The missionaries wanted to tell them the story of Christ so they could be happy.

I took this explanation to heart. The Bible stories were meant as allegory, I understood, not as fact. Until I went to college, I never realized anyone believed the stories in the Bible were true. How could they be? The Red Sea parting? A man rising from the dead?

My father and I didn’t often talk about religion, but we did on occasion discuss secular subjects. During the 1964 presidential campaign, when I was 11 or 12, I expressed an intellectual agreement with the arguments I was hearing on behalf of states’ rights, an idea new to me. He explained that the idea might sound reasonable, but it was only a ploy for denying equal rights to those whom society was prejudiced against. Though he didn’t say so, I understood whom he was talking about from the scenes on TV of police dogs, fire hoses and clubs. Hart at that time had about as many black families as it had Jewish families, and I doubt that my father had ever really known a black person. But his concern for their rights was clear.

Ten years later, when I was in college and my opposition to the Vietnam war had become tinged with sympathy for Communism as a corrective to the faults of American capitalist society, my father said to me simply, “Ho Chi Minh is no friend to you.” I didn’t argue. I knew anything I might say would fall short of the complex truth of his simple observation, though I then only vaguely understood it.

My parents may have been the world’s great exemplars of Dr. Spock’s advice on child-rearing: “Feed them, love them and leave them alone.” When I was 15, a friend and I got the idea to take pictures of a flying saucer, which were then all the rage. As I repeatedly threw a black plastic garbage-can lid off the roof of my house, my friend stood below and snapped pictures. This prank produced slides of a blurry disk above the roof peak of our house and the surrounding trees, but the very plainness of the images may have added to their credibility. Soon they were the talk of the town. The state police asked to see them. I showed them to classes at school, where they were pronounced authentic by the adviser to the camera club. Other townspeople reported having seen the flying saucer as well.

My parents didn’t ask me about the pictures, though they couldn’t have helped but be aware of them. My mother taught at my high school. My father had coffee every day at the Pink Elephant. I hadn’t told them that I’d seen a flying saucer and taken pictures of it, of course. My father wouldn’t believe such a thing for a second, and my mother would be disappointed by my obvious fabrication. But they were content to let me dig myself in a hole as deeply as I wanted. They left it to my judgment when to fess up.

Similarly, a couple years later when I got a ticket for being a minor in possession of alcohol—on the testimony of an unlucky friend who’d named me as his source for the beer found in his hand—my father thought I should accept it like an adult, as I didn’t try to hide from him my actual guilt. When I insisted on going to court to expose what I thought were the shady methods the deputies had used to make their case, he merely made me talk to our family lawyer (who also advised me to plead guilty and pay my fine) before appearing in court to defend myself. My father sat in the gallery as I questioned the witness against me about how the deputies had gotten him to implicate me when they hadn’t caught me in the act of wrongdoing. My father congratulated me as we left the courtroom after the judge, having found me guilty, had suspended my fine and jail time in recognition of the degree to which the deputies had overstepped their bounds.

Yet my father could be angry, and he could curse us painfully for our transgressions. Even our sister, who had become part of that first generation of young women to test the new freedoms of the 1960s, was not exempt. Thus it came as a surprise when, after my brother had gotten in about as much trouble as either of us had ever gotten into—drinking and wrecking his car—my father did not respond with anger. Things got even quieter around the house, if that was possible, but no harsh words were spoken or punishment exacted.

The tragic story

Sometime later I learned from my mother why my father’s reaction to a wrecked car was less than his reaction to my brother breaking the neighbor’s window with a long fly ball. When my father was my brother’s age, he had been in a car accident himself. His mother had driven the family car to his college so he and his friends could come home. As my father drove home that night, the car full with his mother, his girlfriend, his best friend and his best friend’s girlfriend, he swung the steering wheel by reflex as an oncoming truck plowed into them. He alone survived—not just alive, but uninjured. He spoke with the police, was looked at by a doctor, and then, in the dark of the night, he walked away.

No one saw him for many days. He had walked to a hotel in a nearby town and taken a room, where he sat alone and thought. He did return home but never really returned to his family. He remained estranged from them, with the exception of his sister, my Aunt Margaret, who eventually found a way to help him; she introduced him to her college roommate, my mother.

When I was in college I went with my parents and brother and sister to a Johnston family reunion in the small town where my father had grown up. That my father had aunts and uncles, and thus that I had other Johnston family besides my Aunt Margaret and her daughter, was new to me. This was the only time I would see them, though some of them knew my name.

There was no similar estrangement from my mother’s family, thank goodness. I knew all my aunts and uncles as well as 27 or so first cousins. And we would occasionally visit my grandfather, who still lived near the farm where my mother had been raised.

A black upright piano sat in his living room, and I was as surprised as I have ever been the afternoon my grandfather said, “Flossie, why don’t you play us something?” My mother sat down at the piano, searched a bit through the music and began to play. I was 10 or 11 at the time and had never known that my mother could play the piano. We had no piano in our house, though we certainly could have afforded one. Even at that age I was able to realize how much my mother must have given up or suppressed in marrying my father.

Ours was a quiet house, though my parents occasionally listened to recordings of Oklahoma or South Pacific or Camelot, as well as Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite.” My mother even had a favorite record album by Don Gibson, with his hit “Oh Lonesome Me,” which managed to be upbeat and sorrowful at the same time. And on Friday nights my father would listen to Hockey Night in Canada, enlisting my mother’s aid as translator on those evenings when the only broadcast he could pick up was in French, though my mother didn’t understand the game.

When my brother went into the Marines and then went to Vietnam, my mother became a more serious churchgoer. It was no longer about nice shoes and nice hats; I realized that perhaps it never had been about these things. My father didn’t go with my mother to church even then, but neither did he begrudge her going. During this time—my senior year in high school—I remember my father sitting at the dining room table where he and my brother had often played cribbage. He now played Solitaire, game after game.

A new phase

If my parent’s marriage began in tragedy, one might say it ended that way as well. One Thanksgiving when I was home from college, my father confided in me that he had some worries about my mother’s memory. She had retired early from teaching, and now, my father said, she was having trouble remembering not just where she’d put things but what she was doing. When I returned home for Christmas, my father said things didn’t seem any better.

As the five of us unwrapped our presents, my mother began to cry. When my father asked her what the matter was, she said she could see it was Christmas and that we had all gotten each other presents, but she wasn’t sure she’d gotten anybody anything. We quickly showed her which presents were from her and tried to make the morning as joyful as we could, though there was no longer any joy for any of us in opening our presents. I saw that morning for perhaps the first time the power of God, though the glass was exceedingly dark.

This terrible period, when my mother knew that her mind was going but was helpless to do anything about it, thankfully did not last long. Within weeks she no longer realized that she couldn’t remember. In place of present awareness, her mind created a world around her from the long-term memories she still had access to, though in an unpredictable way. One evening as she and I did the dishes together, she announced that she’d share a secret with me if I promised not to tell anyone. “I think you’re going to have a new brother soon.” This suggestion was a surprise, coming as it did from my 58-year-old mother. When I coaxed her to tell me more, she began to talk about her sister Betty. Betty was seeing a boy, though she didn’t want anyone to know yet, and my mother thought it was more than just a crush. I soon understood. She wasn’t speaking to me as her son but as one of her brothers.

The new phase of life my father entered into then, the phase that would be his last, tried his patience and his temper beyond their breaking points too many times to count. I was helping my mother with the dishes that night mainly to be with her but also to watch her while my father read in the living room. If I didn’t, it was likely she would wash and rinse the dishes over and over, flooding the counters and floor with water. On another evening, as the three of us sat in the living room, we heard the sound of tearing thread. My mother was ripping the flowered placket of her bathrobe. When my father asked her exasperatedly what she was doing, she answered rather sheepishly that she thought the flowers looked like they might be good to eat.

Many times at dinner she would so fill her mouth with food that my father would have to pull it out with his fingers. Though he’d quickly regain his equilibrium and remind her “Chew and swallow, Florence; chew and swallow,” this wasn’t usually his first response.

Yet at the same time something positive happened. When I would come home for the weekend on a Friday evening I’d often find them sitting together watching television. They sat side by side, holding hands. In my 20-odd years, I’d never seen my parents hold hands. Sometimes my mother would giggle, and they would kiss, and my mother would giggle some more. I realized this wasn’t some newfound affection on my mother’s or father’s part. Rather, it was a glimpse of the two of them living their life together over again.

My guess is that their actual courtship had been nothing like this. My father’s withdrawal, in the months and years following the accident that killed his mother and his friends, would not have allowed such giggly girlishness. But now my mother couldn’t remember that my father was subdued or that she was supposed to be subdued. As a result, the life of affection that she had suppressed all her adult life suddenly became possible for her, and for my father as well. He had not forgotten who he was or all that his life had been, but he good-naturedly went along and, I cannot help but think, enjoyed it.

This is not to say that my mother’s illness was a happy thing. It wasn’t. It was cruel and terribly sad. My mother could bounce her first grandchild in her lap—my brother’s son, born after he returned from Vietnam—but she could never really know who he was. Sometimes when she sat in her rocking chair, nodding her head as she rocked gently back and forth, my father would ask her what she was doing. “I’m counting,” she would say smiling, not sure why she was counting but happy to be asked.

The hand of God

In college at that time I was reading both Dante, foremost among Catholic poets, and Jonathan Edwards, the great American preacher of Calvinist hellfire and damnation. As I pondered the strange hell that had become my mother’s existence, I found the Protestant Edwards’ portrayal of hell far more acceptable than Dante’s. In Dante’s hell the sufferers suffered for what they had done. What had my mother done, except live a life of blameless love and sacrifice? To Edwards, though, the sufferers in hell have not gone there for what they’ve done but for what they are, natural human beings. Our own human weight carries us down. To talk of sin or a just God was abhorrent to me, and I bitterly rejected Dante with his justly graded inferno, purgatory and paradise.

I had seen the hand of God, and it was not a hand of judgment and justice, certainly not the hand of love. This was the hell my father had taught me to think of—not the hell of some supernatural afterlife but the hell of this life. It wasn’t the hell Edwards meant, though, and it’s taken me a long time to come to an understanding of exactly the hell Edwards had in mind. He writes of an implacable God whose torments cannot be endured for even a moment, even as they must be endured not in this life but for all eternity.

What my small-town Enlightenment father imagined in the place of Edwards’ hell—nothingness, nonexistence for all eternity—is no less terrible. If anything, the hell of Edwards is the less terrible, if more imaginable. It is a poetic evocation for those of us without the ability to imagine nothingness itself, the nothingness my father kept company with in those days and nights in a room in a country hotel in the 1930s. This nothingness is the natural end of all natural lives in the absence of such a loving God as might have reached out to keep my father from turning the wheel in just the way he turned it, so that he lived and all who mattered to him died.

In that hotel room my father sat alone, solus, in the presence of the God that is, the God whose face we cannot see, the God who, if he speaks at all, says only I am that I am. At bottom—and yes, the bottom is a long way down—Jonathan Edwards and my father may not have thought about God and perdition in such different terms.

My knowledge and understanding of religious things has continued to grow during the 30 years that have passed since my mother’s illness, intensifying in this last year of my coming to the Catholic Church. I have come to the painful but at the same time liberating understanding that in our worst moments, when we feel what we take to be God’s absence most keenly, God does not intervene, he doesn’t take the wheel and does not exempt those we love from the ravages of illness and death, much that we might wish he did. Instead, he gives himself to us in the person of Christ suffering abandonment like our own on the cross, he gives himself to us in the constant presence of the Holy Spirit, and most of all he gives himself to us in his own omnipresent isness.

I still can’t say what my father would make of this transformation in me. If nothing else, he would probably be glad that I’ve managed to grow up without joining the Hare Krishnas or the Symbionese Liberation Army. Somewhat more seriously, he’d probably think this a step long past due, since I married into a Catholic family almost 20 years ago. He would have long ago scolded my lack of manners in making Anna wait so long. He certainly would have told me, as my first confession neared, to pack two lunches—one for me and one for the priest.

The rituals of the Catholic Church, which now so appeal to me, though once I could not even be convinced to wear socks to school or stand during the national anthem, would probably seem foreign to him. All the standing up and sitting down and kneeling, genuflecting and making the sign of the cross would offend not his Protestantism—he was no more Protestant than Catholic—but his rationality. Yet his life had its own rituals and objects: his newspaper and can of beer each evening after work, the shaving mug in which he made lather from scraps of soap long after the rest of the world had switched to shaving cream in aerosol cans, the change and wallet placed on his dresser before he lay down for his evening nap.

The doctrines of the church, to the extent that they go against reason, would also probably be foreign to him. I wouldn’t think of trying to convince him of the reality of either Mary’s virginity when Christ was conceived within her womb or of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. After all, Ernst Renan’s La Vie de Jesus was for a century the book most beloved of French Catholics, yet even Renan had to stop before the end of the story, declaring that reason wouldn’t allow him as a historian past the crucifixion. If Renan couldn’t go there, why should I think my father could or even should?

Yes, my own coming to Catholicism has been slow. I began attending Mass with my wife even before we were married, and I was always comfortable just sitting while everyone else stood or knelt or went up for Communion. My only request, from the beginning, was that we sit where I could see the statue of Mary, which I would meditate on while the service went on around me. I had no desire to take Communion, and kneeling seemed to me impossible right up until the day, eight months ago, when it suddenly seemed an agony not to. Sitting suddenly seemed a holding back, a holding back from something I needed. My entire life, good as it was in many ways, seemed in that moment to have been a holding back, my reason holding me back from an entire dimension of human experience, the realms of mystery and the sacred.

Beauty in the Church

Unlike my father, but not unlike my mother, I have always been drawn to the beautiful. Now in the Catholic Church I’ve found a realm of beauty to inhabit that is not just the beauty of the stained glass windows but the beauty of the Mass and the sacred beauty of the world and existence, a beauty without limit or end.

In studying the Catholic catechism I came across the famous declaration by Saint Irenaeus in the second century: “_Gloria Dei; homo vivens_.” The glory of God is man fully alive. I like this statement so much that I chose Irenaeus for my confirmation name. It expresses everything that becoming Catholic means to me. I am becoming more fully alive. The great sadness of my father’s life is that after the terrible accident of his youth he was never fully alive, despite all his admirable qualities. There was always an unspoken holding back. There were things he enjoyed—taking his boat out in the summer; singing “Wait ’til the sun shines, Nellie!” at odd moments; going to Friday night football games and standing with the other men of the town along the sidelines, moving with the ball instead of sitting in the bleachers with the kids. But my most vivid memory of him is sitting at the dining room in the winter night playing Solitaire as my brother and I would come in from playing hockey under the street lights.

He did, it’s true, become more alive after my mother’s illness, and not just in relationship to her. I remember evenings then when the last of us kids would arrive home for a weekend together and he would say “Let’s all go in the kitchen and tell lies!” With my father sitting on the counter with a can of beer, my brother and sister and I would talk about what we were doing, my brother and I also with cans of beer, my mother sitting among us smiling enthusiastically at being included, whoever we were. I am grateful for those times, not just for their warmth and love but for the acceptance they signaled in my father of his wayward children.

In all of my thinking and reading on religious matters these last 30 or 40 years, I have continued to search for Christianity’s answer to the question I long ago put to my father: Do Christians—true Christians—really think the natives of Africa will go to hell if they don’t know Christ? Could I join a community of belief that thought such a thing? I have come to my own understanding of death, that it is simply the cessation of existence, not punishment for this sin or that but rather our natural fallen condition. But there remains the question of the saved. “None come to the father except through me,” Christ declares to Thomas. Is there really no other way?

Thus it was with a lifetime of seeking behind me that I sat in the basilica one Sunday with Anna, my sponsor, and my fellow candidates and heard the story of Peter’s vision in the 10th chapter of Acts. Suffering from hunger, Peter experiences a vision of a great sheet being lowered down to him. In it are all manner of creatures that the Jewish law forbade him from eating, but a voice tells him to eat. When he protests that he cannot eat that which is unclean or common, the voice tells him to call not that which God has cleansed impure.

Peter’s interpretation of this vision extends well beyond rejection of Jewish dietary laws. In a meeting the next day in the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, he declares that God doesn’t care who anyone is, Jew or Gentile, but that those in every nation who fear the Lord and walk uprightly before him are acceptable to him. Couldn’t an African, deep in Africa, far from any knowledge of Christ, qualify for this acceptance?

Fear of the Lord

It all depends, I soon realized, on what is meant by “fear of the Lord.” The first time I attended Mass with Anna years ago, before we were married, I witnessed the Holy Bible being carried aloft down the center aisle ahead of the priest by a woman whose visage and demeanor, even the way she held her elbows, suggested that she was ready to swat anyone she perceived to be having unclean thoughts. This stays with me as an image of what fear of the Lord means. There probably aren’t too many of us, African or otherwise, who can withstand such scrutiny.

But is this what fear of the Lord really means, that we break no rules and have no bad thoughts lest we be swatted with the Bible? Perhaps this is a useful understanding for a child, but it hardly can count as mature understanding. To fear the Lord is to recognize that our wills do not, cannot, finally rule in this world, that the will of God, the force of what is, is greater than our will and must be respected. The Africans of my youthful imagination, who probably correspond little to any actual people of Africa, could certainly qualify as fearing the Lord in this sense; the lives of traditional peoples have always recognized limits which mustn’t be transgressed. It is Western man, we builders who insist time and again on constructing the tower of Babel, who can hardly be said to fear the Lord. We impose our wills every chance we get.

As for walking uprightly, there are those who act selfishly or viciously and those who don’t. This condition will separate the wheat and chaff of any group, African or otherwise. Yet Peter’s extension of God’s embrace, the extension that is the moral foundation of Christianity, surely extends to the imaginary Africans who concerned me as a child, in ways known to God if unknown to us. How such come to God through Christ without having heard his name is an enigma, but this is only a limitation of our understanding, not a limitation of God.

But does God’s embrace extend to my father as well? He, after all, had heard the name of Christ. This was the question I pondered for the eight months of my RCIA at Notre Dame. I finally realized that Peter’s extension of God’s embrace must include my father, despite whatever fears I had on that count. Who more than he had respect for the power of a will greater than his will? He came face to face with that will, the implacable will of God, when he sat alone in a country hotel and again years later when he sat with his family the Christmas my mother cried. He accepted this greater will and lived his life within it, even as he let his children test it with our faith in ourselves and our own wills. He stood for decency with the other good people of the town, with whom he drank coffee each day at the Pink Elephant and with whom he stood along the sidelines at high school football games.

A gulf did exist between my father and the face of Christ in this life. My father’s life was not as fully alive as I wish it had been or that Christ would have had it be. I cannot think, though, that this means my father’s life has come to nothingness with his death. When a human life attaches itself only to the things of this world, to glory or wealth or carnality or power and destruction, then yes, it will come to nothing, as all the things of this world come to nothing in death. Yet love endures, love and the wisdom love bequeaths. It is not love of the things of this world or the wisdom of power and advantage, but love of the good and the wisdom of doing right. When I think of my father, I think of this love and this wisdom.

Peter, when he came to the house of Cornelius, brought more than his insight that God’s acceptance extends beyond the people of Israel to all people. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, he brought to them life in Christ. Now, 2,000 years later, in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame, the Holy Spirit brought this gift to me, allowing me, like the good thief in the Gospel of Luke, to spend today in paradise with Christ, however painful my existence in this world may sometimes be. My participation in the full sacramental life of the Church, with all it offers of love, mystery and beauty, makes this fuller life possible. Yet if it is true to say that this is a gift of the Holy Spirit, it is also the gift of my parents, without whose love and wisdom I would not be who I am to receive this gift.

My first religious impressions came from my mother and my sister in the Congregational Church of a small Midwestern town. But my deepest impressions came from my father, whom I never saw in church and who did not present himself to the world as a believer. Yet who knows what was in his heart on those Christmas Eves when he stayed home to guard the presents? The world may understand him as it will, but the world’s thoughts are not God’s thoughts. God’s ways must be mysterious to us, finally. I can know only that the Holy Spirit worked though my father to come to me, that he was chosen by God as an instrument of his love. Who am I to think, even in my fears, that he is lost to God?

Paul Johnston is the chair of the English department of the State University of New York College at Plattsburgh. He lives in Peru, New York.