My dad died in August at the age of 85. Dad converted to Catholicism when he was 19, intellectually convinced that it was the true faith founded by Christ. Yet through most of adulthood, his faith life consisted of following the rules. For instance, he told me we go to Mass because the Church commands it, and if we don’t go, we will go to hell. Although he derived no joy or comfort from the celebration, that was reason enough for him.
I think he prayed, but I was never sure (as opposed to my mother, whose rosary and prayer books were constant features.) Rather than using words, he expressed his faith (and his love) in actions, and lived an extraordinary life of service to the community and his profession.
It was only after retirement that Dad started to explore the deeper realms of his faith. He read the entire Bible twice and devoured books on scripture, faith, morality, and Catholic doctrine. Unfortunately, he became harshly judgmental of those who questioned the hierarchy or various Church teachings. Indeed, it became difficult to have a conversation about faith with him, since his primary objective was to convince others that he was right and they needed to change their ways.
In the past 18 months, Dad‘s faith changed again as repeated hospitalizations required facing the inevitability of his death. In his active desire to grow closer to God, ideology took a back seat. He gradually became more understanding of other positions and faiths, and accepting of people wherever they were. He let go of anger and bitterness, and professed repeatedly that he held nothing against anyone who had hurt him. His main goal was simply to love and be loved. When death finally came, Dad was peaceful and hope-filled. He was ready to go, and we sang and prayed him into the arms of God.
I wish my dad could have arrived at the faith of his deathbed earlier in his life, and it prompts me to deep self-examination. I try to live my life as a transparent instrument of God’s healing and loving power, but what if I were on my deathbed today (which honestly could happen)? In what ways would I wish I had grown closer to God, opened my heart, let go of anger, forgiven wrongs, and simply loved others? How have I become (as St. Paul writes) captivated by empty, seductive philosophies based in human thinking rather than living in imitation of our God, who the psalmist tells us is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and ever faithful?
I want to live with the kind of peace and total trust Dad found at the end. Yet I don’t want to wait until I am staring death in the face to make the necessary choices that further the process, that transform my heart, deepen my faith, and bring me ever closer to God and my ultimate home. This is, of course, no easy task, and life constantly throws obstacles in the path. Yet I believe the full communion of saints, which now includes my dad, urges us on, and through the grace of God poured out in our hearts, it is possible.
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://www.amyflorian.com/.