‘Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.
And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.
And another man, who remains inside his own house,
stays there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot’.
Rainer Maria Rilke translated from the German by Robert Bly
Once upon a time there was a boy who was born into a large family, a boy with a special destiny. Because he was special he didn’t go to the village school, like his brothers and sisters, but to a boarding school far away. Because he was an intelligent boy as well as a special boy, his parents didn’t have to give the school any money.
But as the boy got older, he thought he might like to be special in a different way. He wanted to help people heal their bodies rather than help them heal their souls. He wanted to be a doctor, not a priest. This made his father angry. He was ashamed that the boy wanted to be special in the wrong way. He told him that he was no longer his son and that he should leave his house and never come back. And so the boy did. He left his family and his village and his church and he never went back.
The boy became a soldier. He became a man. He fought on the battlefields of a country far away. He killed men and he watched men die. Their wounds were in their bodies and their wounds were in their souls. This made the man sad. He realised that he couldn’t heal the body wounds. He couldn’t heal the soul wounds. Only God could do that and God was far away, in the house of his father.
And so the man got married and had a son. The wife loved God but in a different way to the way her husband had loved God; back in the days when he was still special, back in his own land. This made her angry and it made her sad. The son was confused by the presence and the absence of God in his family. The God who was missing and the God who spoke in a loud voice about punishment, about a place called Heaven and a place called Hell. He decided that when he grew up, he would live in a house without God.
Many years later, the son got married and he too had a child. A daughter. God wasn’t welcome in his home, but other gods were, gods with different names. The daughter missed her father when he went away to visit these gods in faraway places. But, she wasn’t bothered by the one God, the God her grandfather had abandoned all those years ago. Because….well….. they had never been properly introduced.
The daughter grew up and married a man with no God in his life either. It was uncomplicated. For them and for their two children. There was no God language, no talk of punishment. No Heaven. No Hell. No ceremony either of course, no church, no community, no faith in the invisible, no support beyond the material. But that was OK.
But it wasn’t. Not really. So, the daughter started going to church. She started speaking to God, hoping that He would speak back to her. She loved the prayers, the poetry, the incense and the candles. She loved saying the Hail Mary, pretending she was a proper Catholic, like her grandfather, in the special days, before he became ordinary. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. She wished, with all her heart that she too could dip her fingertips in the holy water and make the sign of the cross on her body. But she couldn’t, because God was not her companion. Not really. The daughter felt sad but she recognised the truth of it – that Faith is a gift not a given.
One hundred and ten years after the once-special boy stood up and walked out of the home where he was born and raised, his great-great granddaughter was baptized in that same church, which he forgot. She is the first Catholic in our family for five generations. She may make her own choices in the future, but blessings have been offered, on behalf of both the living and the dead. A sense of gentle remembering and a quiet peace has fallen on the family.