Faith begins in the earliest stages of life. Researchers have found that young children have an innate spiritual sensibility – and the form it asssumes depends on the language and culture of the family and the community where the child grows up. I was named after my father – perhaps that is one reason why he played such an important role in my own spiritual development.
My father was a scientist with a PHD in Chemistry who worked in the technical labs of GAF, and later Ciba-Geigy, on films and dyes. We belonged to a local Church (Presbyterian). I recall very little conversation on religious matters, although we did gather as a family at home to sing Christmas carols – Dad would bring out his old cornet and Mom would play the piano. I do remember stacks of Science Magazine and National Geographic, his keen interest in mathematics and the natural sciences, and his occasional bad pun. We lived just up the hill from Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.
One Saturday morning my father had offered to take me to the Lafayette football game – just me – none of my four older siblings. This was an incredible thrill! I went outside to play with the kids on our street until the time came for the game, but then I lost track of time. When I remembered, I rushed home in horror only to find that my father had already gone to the game. I was crushed and shamed. A short while later, my father came home at half time. He took me back for the second half of the game. His simple act of kindness made an indelible impression — far more important than any religious education — an act I have always wanted to live up to.
Shortly after I graduated from High School in 1969, my father died of pancreatic cancer, eight months after his diagnosis. We siblings had gathered around my mother in the final days of his illness. While “hospice” did not yet exist, their decision had been that he would die at home. We did our best to support each other and our parents in the final hours. Being in the presence of death, even while surrounded by love, is a deep and difficult experience. Shortly after the body had been taken away, we were all gathered quietly together in the living room. The day was cloudy but calm, and we heard a large, single clap of thunder rock the house. Perhaps it was just an errant meteorological event, but we all shared it as a sign of his departure to another realm.
Some twenty-five years later, I saw the movie Forrest Gump. The nostalgic replay of four decades of American culture triggered deep but inarticulate feelings for me. When I went into the men’s room after the movie, there were a series of angled mirrors above the sink. As I looked up into the mirrors, I saw multiple images of my own face interposed with the faces of my father, my brother and my two young sons. Tears were streaming down my face, tears of sadness and joy, and of something deeper.
As I now write this, almost twenty-five years in the future, I have come to accept these events as threads in a tapestry of meaning. Each thread fixed in the determinate past yet flowing and interweaving into an open, infinite future. They are not discrete or disconnected, but integrated with each other and with the entirety of my experience. The physical, emotional and spiritual facets are linked in a single, coherent, but incomprehensible fabric of space, time, value and purpose. They provide a wellspring for my faith in the beauty, joy, love and transcendence of life.
Continue to Episode 2 – The Downward Spiral