I found this photograph while cleaning out Dad’s office after his death last fall. The caption on the back, in my mother’s hand, reads, “Dave and Web, Galesburg, December 1951.” Which makes this my first Christmas. We must have been visiting Dad’s sister Roz and her family in Illinois. It’s not exactly St. Joseph and the Baby Jesus. I look like I’m in the presence of Jesus, or maybe Darth Vader. In any case, it is very dear to me.
Now that he’s gone, I understand better that Dad was the single most influential figure in my life, especially in my spiritual life as a Catholic. This is odd, first of all, because Dad was not a Catholic.
There was a time when I thought he was too tough on us kids. (I am the oldest of six, so I had more encounters with Dad the Disciplinarian than any of my siblings.) There was a time, somewhat later, when I thought he was a jerk. (But then I was nineteen.) Looking at him now through the lens of my own fatherhood—and my own Catholicism—I understand what an extraordinary debt I owe him.
Dad largely espoused Catholic social teaching without being himself a Catholic. He sat me down at age nine or ten and talked to me about the evils of masturbation and the virtue of remaining a virgin until marriage, and I always understood that he had practiced what he preached, even when I didn’t. If nothing else, and he had his faults, my father was a straight arrow. A few years later, when I was ready, I suppose, he sat me down again and spoke sensitively but firmly about homosexuality. I know that my father fell head over heels in love with my mother and never let himself fall out. It is impossible for me to imagine him being unfaithful to her. Six months before he died he told me in confidence that Mom had been a perfect mate for him. He had no regrets, he said; there was not one thing he would change about her.
Although neither of my parents was Catholic, they lived a committed “Catholic-style” marriage. I don’t know the intimate details, but the fact is, they had six children. My wife Katie’s parents, who were Catholic, had “only” seven. I know that my youngest sibling was a surprise, and my parents made room for her too. My parents were “open to life.” Mom loves telling the story about a Catholic lady friend who told her, “Nan, you’re not Catholic, you’re just careless.” Maybe Mom and Dad were more Catholic than her friend supposed.
A word about Mom: She was a huge influence too, and a positive one. I am most grateful for Mom’s influence in a more worldly realm that is very important to me, the realm of culture, of books, of art, and of theatre. Arguably, I would not be writing this blog without Mom’s influence. This blog is about Catholicism, however, and this post about Dad.
Dad took his paternal duties seriously—not just playing sports with us in the yard and attending our plays and games and Christmas sings, but especially teaching us good habits, like turning off the light when we left a room and not going outside in our stocking feet, like putting things away in an orderly fashion and putting up the toilet seat when we (boys) had to pee. He taught me to shake hands firmly and to look the other person in the eye. He taught me to shave. I used to love sitting on the edge of the bathtub and watching him shave—meticulously, first with downward strokes, then with upward. He had a thick beard. More important than shaving, though, was cleaning the sink meticulously after you were done. I can still see Dad’s hairy hands with those knobby knuckles scooping the water from the faucet and rinsing every last whisker down the drain, as he explained his technique. When the time came for me to drive, he taught me to be a good, safe driver in an extraordinarily detailed fashion. His method, boiled down, was, Even if no one’s driving with you, drive as if your passenger were the most important person in the world, and make the ride safe, secure, and enjoyable for her.
And there is this about Dad that was extraordinary: As a parishioner, as a vestryman, Dad was committed to his church (raised Methodist, he attended Congregational, then Episcopal churches as an adult) and he engaged in worship with manly intensity. I know this because I stood next to him so many Sundays, impressed with his erect bearing and intent expression, and embarrassed by the passionate way he sang the Protestant hymnal. If he saw me gazing up at him, he would turn to me with that amazing Dad smile, with his lips pursed and his eyes twinkling with love, as if to say, I love you and isn’t this great?
I think I learned by his example that worship can be a manly pursuit. This may seem an odd statement, but when you consider how much of our culture is based on do-it-yourself and self-help, and especially how our culture often defines manliness as go-it-alone individualism, I think it is important for boys and young men to understand (especially by gazing at the example of older men) that getting down on your knees before your Creator and singing loud hymns of praise to the Holy Trinity are fine, good, manly things to do. My father did these things without blinking, because he believed what he professed.
There was a contemplative side to Dad that I found particularly congenial as he grew older and perhaps my own rawest ambitions for worldly success began to quiet down. He told me a few years ago that as a child what he most loved to do, after dinner, while his parents were sitting on the patio with their friends, was to walk down to the lake alone and swing from the swing that hung from a tree branch there. Dad would swing out over the lake, and I can still imagine him swinging, gazing at the lake surface in the evening light, in total harmony with his God or maybe just with the breeze whistling in his ears. We saw this contemplative side later in life, as Dad was quite content to sit, just to sit—yes, sometimes with the television on, sometimes with a book—but sit, with Mom on the other end of the couch and their feline pal, Dodger, purring between them. There was a calm and a contentment and an enormous gratitude for God’s gifts about Dad when he sat.
There was a loneliness too. When he became sick with melanoma and felt nauseous most of the time, he declined visits from most of his friends and told me that he would prefer to go off into the bush alone the way a Masai warrior does at the end of his life. I think Dad would have been happy ending his life that way, alone and speaking to his God.
So it was not entirely a surprise, though it was a delight, to read the final paragraph of my father’s memoir, which he completed with the help of my daughter Martha in the last months of his life. Dad wrote:
I’ve been extremely interested in my son Web’s conversion to Catholicism, because I’ve always had the impression that Catholics are in general more serious about their religion than Protestants. I don’t know if that’s actually true. There have been times in my life when I wondered whether I couldn’t make a good monk. I believe strongly in discipline, though not unquestioning obedience to leadership. I believe that if you’re going to do something, you should try to do it as well as you can and work at it. I believe that satisfaction comes from the struggle of trying to do things well.
As I near the end of my first month of writing this blog, I am buoyed by the love of my wife and daughters, and steadied by the good advice of friends like Ferde and Elizabeth and Julie, but most of all, perhaps, I am sustained as always by the thoughtful love of my father, David Bull. He would appreciate my working at this blog at all hours, trying to do it as well as I can, and he would share my satisfaction with it as though it were his own.