The XX Factor

The Vatican, My Wife, a Song, and the Death of My Father

Today’s piece, from David Dawes, describes a situation that many of us will be able to appreciate. Having been born and brought up in a religion, he found it had little to do with his intellectual-or rational-understanding of the world as an adult. A trip to the Vatican and his father’s illness made him aware that religion, prayer, and spirituality might have nothing to do his rational perceptions but were still vital to his life.

I’ve very much enjoyed all the thoughts on religion that you have sent in. Thank you everyone. We will return to this subject on a regular basis.

I was born into a Catholic family and baptized as a baby. I attended mass on Easter, Christmas, and maybe six or eight other Sundays each year. I fell in love with rationality as a teenager, did well academically, and convinced myself that rational analysis solved the issues that needed solving. I dropped the church, seeing it as an anachronistic collection of odd practices and ideas that had no utility for me.

It took me decades to realize just how much Catholicism determined my outlook. We are all imperfect; do unto others; be diligent; notice your mistakes and try to do better: I was still pretty Catholic in outlook, just not in practice. I also noticed I felt a little better during and after going to Mass, but since I mostly only went on Easter and Christmas, I chalked that up to the beauty of the service and the music. I didn’t think in terms of grace and exaltation at that time.

I married a Catholic woman who believed. She prayed for me to return to the church, and made sure our children got some indoctrination and took First Communion. I went to church due to her influence-I wanted to keep her happy.

In February 2001, I got to fly to Rome for a sales conference. I was able to go to St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum of Religious Art. In the basement under St. Peter’s, I saw a golden crucifix with a large multifaceted gem. It was simple and beautiful, and it touched me on some level I didn’t recognize. I tracked down a description and found that a jeweler and a gem-cutter had worked together to create and donate this to the church several centuries before. I now think that it touched me spiritually, that I felt grace just looking at it. The feeling was somewhat foreign to me outside of Mass, so I didn’t quite get it, but I felt it. With all the art and archeological treasures in Rome, I felt it repeatedly and powerfully.

My father suffered from scoliosis, which twisted his spine and then his ribs. This eventually left him paralyzed below the waist. As he recovered in the hospital, his kidneys failed. We were told he had a few weeks to live. I’ve never felt so helpless. My mother insisted that the doctors had told her to expect she could bring him home after 2 weeks, and she was going to do so. Being in a hospital and paralyzed was horrible for my father.

I couldn’t sleep; rationality was a joke. Rationally, my dad would be dead in 2 weeks. He’d never meet his grandson, never be around to talk to. I just couldn’t fathom it and couldn’t bear it. I tried to find a way out. What would my wife do? She’d pray. I hadn’t tried that yet, so I prayed. I felt grace and calmness as I prayed. I threw myself on God’s mercy, admitting I had no power, and prayed that Dad would live long enough to get to know his soon-to-be-born grandson. I was finally able to sleep, thank God.

Two weeks to the day after my father went into the hospital, my mother and brother went down to get him out. The nurses and doctors opposed the thought of my father leaving. Mom argued for eight hours that Dad preferred to die at home, then wheeled Dad out and brought him home.

Within days of returning, my father’s kidneys kicked back in. His blood recovered quickly, and he was as fine as he was ever going to be as a paraplegic. He recovered enough to take the dog for runs down by the beach from his wheelchair. He attended my son’s baptism, and was able to get to know him for the first few years of his life.

Dad died years later after a full and happy life. His last years were progressively harder as his health issues mounted, and when he finally died, I was as ready for it as I was going to get.

Praying not only granted me the grace needed to endure his suffering; it also miraculously led to his cure. As a rationalist, I could explain away his recovery as a coincidence, a fluke, with nothing to do with my prayer. Somehow that didn’t seem that likely any more. There is more to life than my earlier love of rationality had allowed me to believe.

As a therapeutic/creative effort, I occasionally try to write songs. The words are often not put together consciously; they just sort of bubble up. I consider myself to be a happy, well-adjusted person, but the song lyrics that bubble up are almost invariably downbeat and depressing. One day a particularly powerful verse (at least to me), which included the phrase “to try to fill the aching spiritual void,” bubbled up.

Wow! I thought. Do I actually have an aching spiritual void? The answer was obvious as soon as I thought about it. Without a spiritual life we are helpless-or at least clueless-in the face of the most important events in our lives. We don’t have the tools to understand or survive the worst that life can throw at us. Perhaps some see my need for higher meaning and spirituality as a crutch, but sometimes it’s hard to exist without our crutches.

Many things grant me grace: praying, Mass, confession, volunteering, being of service, experiencing art, accomplishing useful tasks, listening to a great performance, sharing, and loving. I am now a confirmed Catholic and I receive the sacraments available to me as frequently as I can. There is grace all around us, and we are finely tuned-dare I say evolved-to experience it if we don’t blind ourselves by oversimplification.

David Dawes: “I am a Seattle-area family man-with a wife love so much I married her twice and three wonderful children-and a software engineer and music- and robot-hobbyist.”

Photograph of cross by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images.