VAPORS & HAINTS: Thoughts on Father's Day
This year most of the Father’s Day hoopla out in public – special tables at the book stores, displays at the library, sales, thoughtful pieces on NPR and PBS, schmaltz on Christian radio (sad to say) – didn’t get to me.
The Liturgy is what got to me.
My priest chanted the prayer you probably also heard chanted in your church during the Great Entrance today – for fathers, grandfathers, godfathers, spiritual fathers etc. – and, unlike the other reminders all week leading up to the Divine Liturgy today, the prayer got past my defenses and I wept.
Once again the fierceness of the empty places Dad left behind squeezed out, no, popped out the tears.
So it was ironic that the Orthodox Lectionary assigned Jesus’ teachings about loving Him more than family members (Matthew 10:37f).
At my age I have mined and sifted my way through tons of family psycho-social “archaeology,” trying to sort out my own life. I’m new enough at Orthodoxy to be unsure how much of my own personal past that still, to this day, at my age and all, scrapes my psyche raw is identical with what Jesus might have in mind about getting rid of. Maybe some of it isn't what He wants to see go at all. My personal pocket-sized digital self-evaluator is just too Fallen (boy howdy!) and all. So I won’t go there for now.
But in assessing my family and the ways it shaped me, and today most especially Dad, there certainly are gifts from him that are vital to my own spiritual life.
I think of two in particular.
ECCLESIASTES: Dad could have written Ecclesiastes, minus, perhaps much of the polish, but packed with all the truth. He had few illusions about life and its natural cycles and rhythms, death above all. He had few illusions about illusions – the nonsense values, things and acquisitions a consumer culture like ours uses to screen off the rude side of existence, the ugly side, the harsh, cruel, unfeeling and unjust layers of life and history.
The Hebrew word usually translated “vanity” in the opening verses of Ecclesiastes means something more like “vapor” (that’s oversimplifying, but nevertheless that specific meaning is critical to the word). Existence is vaporous. The Buddha never taught it with any greater clarity than that. Things change, things pass away, things die; and to keep from coming to terms with that, to hide that, we engage in a ton of make-believe, escapism, self-narcoticizing and self-numbing.
Dad wasn’t indifferent to these changes and losses, and in fact near the end of his own life he still could find his own tears with amazing ease as he reminisced about his father and mother. He was, if anything, rather overly sentimental at times.
But he also had a wonderful, down-to-earth way of pulling himself out of the valleys and getting on with life. He never heard the bumper sticker saying -- and I am paraphrasing wildly here, for obvious reasons -- Fertilizer Happens; but he would have been among the very first to appreciate it. Fertilizer Happens -- so you just deal with it, and get on with your life
He could have written Ecclesiastes. And whatever minimal “wisdom” I might have about these matters, I have only because I absorbed it from Dad.
MYSTERY: Dad taught me life is infused by, embraced by, surrounded by, begun and everlastingly outlasted by, Mystery.
He taught me in a way only he could do, that the world is haunted. As old-timers where I come from would say, it's full of haints.
One night, driving me home from a Scout meeting, and apropos of nothing I can recall now, he launched off into one of his monologues while I took advantage of the dark in the car and rolled my eyes until they ached. His topic, for reasons that I no longer recall, was algebra.
He said he liked algebra because of the symbol X. Plug X into an equation and it means, he said, and these are the words I never forgot: “X the unknown!”
He paused and said it again: “X the unknown!”
My Dad went looking for all of the portals earth has to offer, that opened up out of ordinary mundane graspable and predictable reality … into the unknown. Or, as he meant it, the Unknown, capital “U”.
Into God's alternative Reality, an eternally at-hand, on-the-horizon Transfiguration that is the only Real there Really is. That which is always present, albeit in radically different and usually unpredictable ways, depending on situation and context ... which makes of all our derivative, secondary reality a potential Sacrament.
The universe was, and forever more shall be, haunted, Dad believed, although he never put it quite that way. His own father, he told me once in a secret I think he otherwise only told my brother, once saw an angel … or perhaps it was Christ Himself. It happened in the wee hours one dark dark night, "dark" in all senses of the word, above all emotionally and spiritually dark, in the depth of the Great Depression. Granddad lay awake that night, as he so often did, worrying ... worrying about what would happen to his family and him ... what he could do to stave it off ... how little power and control he probably had anyway ... what dreadful things probably would happen, just around who-knows-which next corner.
And suddenly there was, with the darkness, a silent burst of Unoriginate Light at the foot of granddad's bed in the middle of that night during the Great Depression.
And the Light stood there until It had given granddad to understand that all was well, that he and his family would be taken care of.
My Dad also told us about cousins and others who knew of a distant death in the family the moment it happened … of dreams that announced otherwise unknown realities … of ghosts others had seen.
My Dad left me a world full of haints.
Good old earthy vapors, wonderful heart-luring, heart-seducing haints.
In his wonderful way, for which I would not trade anything in creation, he began me on the lonely backwoods forgotten and overlooked path that led to the Living Mystery of Christ.
In the Liturgy today, Dad, my priest brought me again to my tears for you. I love you, and I miss you fiercely, all these 12 years and counting later. Thank God for you, Dad. Thank God for you.
And now, until the Restoration of all things ...