My father has been dead for more than 13 years, but every once in a while he pays me a visit. No, he doesn’t appear in the dead vast and middle of the night with his beaver up. Instead, he shows up in the words that fly from my mouth whenever I have cause to nag someone – a student, a customer-service representative, (and, in the past) a faithless or tepid lover. Even in mid-harangue, I’ll recognize that distinctive style of his – part bark, part sneer, part whine – and experience the frisson that comes with nearness to the dead, along with the satisfaction of having come into my inheritance.
In general, my father was one of the most charming men I have ever known. Others would concur – he seems to have reminded everyone he met of one Rat Pack member or another. Having established this up front, I don’t think it slights his memory to confess that my most vivid recollections are of his rages. Fathers get angry – that’s their job. They get angry when sons fail, which is not their job. So if anyone comes off looking bad here, it’s me, the great disappointer.
If I have any bone to pick, it’s with his habit of taking my failures as personal insults. A Freudian, he believed that everything is subconsciously willed, and he could imagine no reason for me to will myself out of grad school, to cite just one example, than to get back at him. Exactly what I was supposed to be getting back at him for I never did find out, but this conviction explains why I think of him less as the suave Martin than the mercurial Sinatra (with me as the hapless Frank Jr.).
He would certainly have seen my conversion to Catholicism as a direct repudiation of himself – one reason I never entertained the idea seriously, despite occasional promptings, till he’d been dead for several years. Though I would argue that being daunted by Judaism, with its piles of mitzvot and tarrying Messiah, is one thing the two of us had in common, praying for him in a strictly Christian idiom has always felt presumptuous. Or maybe I mean I’m afraid of pissing him off again.
But on All Souls’ Day, my Patheos stable mate Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble posted instructions on how to obtain a plenary indulgence for a soul in Purgatory. Here, it suddenly struck me, was a chance to do the old man a good turn that would make up for cars dented and money borrowed, and better, make my conversion, so to speak, kosher. My father was never one to argue with success. If some Malebranche, scowling through mirrored shades, were to bellow at him from one of the guard towers, “This here’s your lucky day, shitbird! Your temp’ral punishment’s done been re-mitted. Now hustle your ass down that yellow line,” he wouldn’t ask too many questions.
All things considered, obtaining a plenary indulgence for a soul in Purgatory is no more or less difficult than obtaining a photo ID from the State of Arizona. Just find a church of public oratory sometime during the octave of All Souls Day, pray the Our Father and recite the Creed. The fine print does require that you receive Communion worthily at some point over the few days, and, within 20 days of All Souls’ Day, make a full confession and “pray for the Holy Father’s intentions.” Clearly, whoever came up with this formula did his best to idiot-proof it. He knew who he was dealing with.
Nevertheless, yesterday evening, when I knelt in one of the back pews of my parish church, I realized that the people in charge of indulgence procurement had overestimated my judgment by trusting me to know which Creed they meant. I heard my father shout, “DON’T RECITE THE WRONG ONE” in the voice he used during our few driving lessons, just before yanking the wheel from my hands.
Fortunately, when it came to Creeds, I wasn’t exactly facing an embarras de choix. Not being a regular rosary-sayer, I had not committed the Apostles’ to memory. That left me with one, the Nicene. Reasoning that it contained all the professions of the Apostles’, plus a few extras, I mentally took back the wheel.
There is a wealth of paternal-filial stuff in the Nicene Creed. One clause identifies God, the great Jehovah, as a literal begetter of Jesus. The next explains that the two are consubstantial, sharing a single substance, a relationship far closer and more harmonious than Jesus’ simply being a chip off the old block. In the next few clauses, Jesus quits the eternal parental manse, becomes Man, and comes to grief at mankind’s hands, all in his Father’s name but with minimal supervision. Here was a son who could be relied on.
So my father and had I shared a fondness for the sitcom Taxi — by then cancelled and in syndication – whereas Jesus and his Father shared an ousia. A good self-drubbing can either wreck a moment of prayer or flavor it with special poignancy. I was still wondering what effect my own reflections would have when it came time for the Our Father. That turned things around considerably. A heavenly Father who hands over bread every single day without complaint – what mortal father could compete with that? I said “Amen,” completing my good deed for a lifetime, with a certain unworthy glee at not being the only one tried in the balance and found wanting.
Comparing earthly parents and children to the divine kind is really a mug’s game – you know who’s bound to win. This was not what Jesus had in mind when he encouraged his followers to address his Father as theirs. I sometimes wonder whether one of his aims in embedding his human nature in a (slightly offbeat) human family was to give everyone a more reachable mark to shoot for. That would account for those statues of the Holy Family, looking very nuclear and very functional, that seem to grow from the rest areas at every Catholic parish.
Anyway, better men than me have fallen into the same mistake. The future St. Francis of Assisi began his ministry in earnest by informing his father that, going forward, he would answer only to his Father in heaven. Now there’s a repudiation for you. And quite a bit farther than I’d ever care to go. Christianity as I understand it strikes a comfortable balance, maintaining the Fifth Commandment — or Fourth, have it your own way — while allowing its favorite Son to steal the show.