One summer evening when I was 16, my father’s sailboat vanished. I had just returned from getting hamburgers with my younger siblings. In high spirits, we ran out to the front lawn to summon him back from a short sail for the party he and my mother were hosting that evening. The horizon was empty.
A chill froze our hearts for a moment. Then my brother screamed and we followed, racing into the whaler. In seconds we were charging into the chop, sick with terror. We knew all too well what happened when small craft left our bay and entered the currents of the Niagara River. Clutching the sides of the motor boat, our watering eyes stared ahead, desperate for signs of life. Far off, we caught sight of the familiar sail, propelling towards the Falls. If Dad reached the Peace Bridge, he would be unstoppable.
* * * * *
In one of the great Gospel stories, the apostles are wakened from sleep by a storm swamping their boat. They rouse Jesus in terror, begging him to save them. The story tells us that, as he so often did, Jesus calmed the tumult and resolved the threat. But on this occasion, he also chided them. “Why are you fearful, oh you of little faith?”
Most of what I understand about faith, and the presence of God in the world, I learned from my father. And much of this can be summed up in the story of that evening.
By the time I was born, my father had suffered a numbing loss. When he was 16, his beloved older brother died in a plane crash returning from his service in the Pacific war, the casualty of a carelessly overloaded plane. Later, he worried alongside my mother through the years of raising a daughter with a serious heart condition. He lost a son to a violent death.
My father always told us that if my mother predeceased him, he would join the priesthood. Instead, he reveled in the company of his six children, enjoyed a bawdy joke and a good Old Fashioned. An ebullient man, he saw absolutely no contradiction between the call to serve God in a rectory or at the head of a raucous family’s table. Life was infinitely meaningful to my father. Even the unexpected was holy. The first duty towards this holiness was to stay awake to it. The second, to serve and gladden it for others.
I studied his patience with the mentally-ill neighbor who invariably sought him out at dinnertime, his gentle devotion to our Down Syndrome aunt. He was forever seeing the possibilities, no matter how deeply disguised. He believed that affirming such possibility mattered. It mattered to him as an individual, and to the world’s story. And I observed the way he bowed his head in prayer after Communion every Sunday of his life, moments that were the ballast of a life filled with uneven weather.
* * * * *
When I left home, I congratulated myself on having escaped the sentimentality of rosaries and novenas, the superstitions of prayer. Sunday mornings were absorbed in the sacrament of The New York Times. I had to experience the fragility of my own small boat in order to learn that faith is the least sentimental option there is.
In my 30s, I spent time with the homeless, people with no moorings save the kindness of strangers. Listening to them, I was humbled by how easy it is to recoil from lostness. We want someone else to fix it. We write a check and return to our favorite narcotics: ambition, security, materialism. I saw that when we run from the vulnerable, we contribute to a sense of cosmic absence that only intensifies the netherworld in which they exist, on the thin edge of isolation and emptiness.
This was when I remembered my father — his patience, humor, hospitality, and selflessness. Slowly I came to understand that his faith was not a matter of a happy disposition. It was a choice, an attitude, a way of life.
My father taught me that faith is waking up in the boat and asking if we have the courage to choose something bigger and riskier than our fears or self-absorption. It is an act of radical participation — what the British mystic Evelyn Underhill called “a total consecration to the interests of the Real.” My father knew that something holy and powerful comes alive in us when we begin a conversation with the possible — when despite the heavy weather, we refuse to bail.
* * * * *
That life-changing night on the Niagara River, we finally gained on the boat, children in a tossing storm of fear, rage at his recklessness, and unspeakable relief.
At the sight of us, my father beamed. Not for an instance did he reveal the fear he may have entertained if we hadn’t set out when we did. His hand released the useless rudder and he waved. “Hi, kids!”
In time, he faced a storm he couldn’t subdue. I can’t know the conversation he had with God as he lay dying at the age of 68 as metastatic cancer invaded his brain. But I remember his gift to me, the lesson that I learn anew every day: The only viable option is to stay awake to the possible, even in the midst of the chaos that crosses our lives.
Once you know the deal, you begin to load your boat with whatever you can find for ballast – fellow travelers, prayers, stories. We need one another’s stories more than we need almost anything on earth, I think: Stories of struggle and those brief blasts of clairvoyance that help us find our way. They enable us to lift one another up, to calm the waters, and cross those rapids of confusion, illusion, and despair that can overwhelm us on the sunniest of days.
This is what my father taught me, that night on the river. Stay awake and practice love. Everything is possible.