Sunday, November 1, 2009

For My Father, Saint or Soul

For the first 56 years of my life, not one member of my family died, other than grandparents. In March 2008, I was received into the Catholic Church, and six months to the day afterward, my father died. Dad had become my best male friend, so I lost that too. You might say the Catholic Church didn't bring me the best of luck.

As we move from All Saints to All Souls, from the brightness of an autumn Sunday in New England into the murky unknown of Monday at the start of a new week, I am thinking a lot about my father as both saint and soul. At his funeral, in the Episcopal church I attended as a youth, Dad's last pastor eulogized him as a “saint,” a term that surprised even those who loved him best. Dad probably would have been appalled. He didn't wear his religion on his sleeve, didn't engage in heroic acts of charity or kindness, didn't stray far from the comfortable confines of the home he loved sharing with Mom and their socially inept Abyssinian cat, Dodger (orange-ish blob in photograph, hogging center stage). Yet Father Alves told stories of my father's final days in a hospice, of their last conversations, and of Dad's interactions with the nursing staff which, combined with Dad's staunch support for his parish, added up to at least the suggestion of saintliness.

One "saintly" story here: Dad was a business executive, first in the hot cereal business, later in cookies and crackers. He loved the fact that the companies he worked for made simple foods, mostly baked from grains grown in the heartland where Dad was born. A few days before his death, a Jamaican hospice nurse wearing a boldly colorful headwrap entered and asked Dad what he had done for a living. Without a pause, and in all sincerity, Dad said, "I was a cook." The lady didn't believe him. "Oh, Mr. Bull," she said, "I bet you were much more important than that. What did you cook?" Again, Dad's answer was as immediate as it was honest: "I cooked American foods."

In his homily for All Saints Day, Father Barnes spoke about a couple of saints he had known: a retired Maryknoll Father with whom he had shared lodgings as a young priest and a Sister of Notre Dame at whose funeral Father had recently concelebrated. Neither of these was a great saint, a saint noted on the liturgical calendar; both were quiet saints, invisible saints working in small corners with great faith. If my father was any kind of saint at all, he was like that: quiet and all but invisible.

If Dad was a saint, he was also a soul, of course, and is a soul. The Catholic Church teaches that many good but imperfect souls go to purgatory. I do not understand purgatory. I do not understand heaven or hell either, for that matter. So I cannot speak with the confidence that e. e. cummings seems to have had when he wrote, “if there are any heavens my mother will(all by/herself)have/one.” A saint or not, Dad going straight to heaven (or a heaven of his own) is not my call, but I am comfortable thinking of Dad in purgatory, where God now has a chance to finish, to perfect him. I don't think Dad was that far from perfection for an ordinary God-fearing father of six, always true to his one wife and most of what he believed in. I am heartened thinking that my prayers for him on All Souls' Day might be efficacious. It makes me realize that I am a Catholic not only because of my father, as I've written previously, but also for my father.

Hard as it was to lose Dad, I felt a deep-down conviction that he was fine, in God's hands now. And I have my faith to thank for that. I was "lucky" after all. Two months before he died, I wrote Dad a long letter. In it I explained this conviction, saying I did not know where Dad would go when he died, but given the goodness of God, I was sure it would be a good place, a place where Dad would be reunited with his own beloved parents.

Dad and I never talked about that letter afterward, but by then it was hard for him to talk about such things while keeping a rein on his emotions. I do believe that Dad is quite deservedly in a better place, and tomorrow, on All Souls Day, I will pray for him, and for the souls of other dear departed friends and family members: Ruthie, Gene, Ammie, Grampa, Granddad Ewing, Maggie, Barry, Ellen, Kevin, Grandad Bull, Grandma Bull, Helen D'Orio, Sr. Marguerite, Heidi's Mom, Dr. Bassage . . . . Saints and Souls, souls and saints, on and on and on—the one feast blends into the other, and we are all together in the end—or so we all can pray.