Where and how I find God in my life in this troubled world
A leading physician and international humanitarian speaks out
The question of “The role of God in my life” requires definitions – of “God” and of “my life."
The challenge the title poses reminds me of an invitation I received in 1988 to deliver the Georgetown Bicentennial Address. Since it was at the university – not just the medical school – and since I had never been at Georgetown before, the President made what he thought was a helpful suggestion for a theme: “build your talk around the single book that, in your entire lifetime, you went back to most often for inspiration or stimulation.”
I chose the Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, for that was a book I had read, over and over again, while courting my wife, celebrating the birth of my children, or seeking solace or perspective from the hurts of the world.
The problem was that, while I loved Yeats’s poetry, I was not a Yeats expert, and the setting for the address was to be at a university with plenty of poets and scholars. This evening I find myself, once again, in a similar situation – giving an address in a church, talking about “God,” and I am certainly not a theologian.
I will therefore approach the task with an emphasis on something about which I do know – “my life” – and will try to define a concept of “God” that began in a first generation Irish household in the Bronx. The immigrant relatives I can recall, had a deep faith in the Roman Catholic Church, and much of the cycle of our lives was defined by weekly Confessions, Lenten fasts, First Friday Masses, Baptisms, Confirmations, and the celebrations of the joy of life at the birth of the baby Jesus at Christmas or the Resurrection from the dead on Easter morning.
Nevertheless, this immigrant clan was not afraid, at least in the privacy of the home, to question both the pronouncements of religion and the logic of clergy, especially the official hierarchy.
There was a fundamental respect and loyalty to the Church but, again, this was tempered by a deep suspicion of pomposity and assumptions of unquestioned authority. We were told to beware of those “who genuflect too much”, who deferred too easily to “the cloth,” when they should be seeking justice and equity and truth, whatever that was. Also, as was typically Irish, dinner conversations were filled with probing questions regarding the mysteries of life.
My father was the first physician in a generation of police officers, and seemed to have inherited the mantle of family chieftain – at least for that part of the clan that multiplied in cold water flats from Fordham Road to Hells Kitchen, and later out to Breezy Point and Belle Harbor. He had been well trained in Jesuit logic – some people claim that is an oxymoron – and he encouraged his children to parse and analyze diverse intellectual positions. At the end of the day he would probably accept an ex cathedra declaration by the Pope, but he sure didn’t like it. He didn’t want to miss the chance to argue every facet, to see and appreciate every nuance of every issue.
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