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.
I can recall him, many times, at our diner table dissecting some arcane theological argument with the local priest. It was an unfair intellectual battle, for the priest, who undoubtedly possessed profound faith had, nonetheless, little capacity to explain the basis for his devout beliefs, and my father would pursue the poor man till he surrendered with a defensive mutter: “Ah, but it’s God’s will.”
My father was a wise physician, and he knew life was rarely that simple. He would be the devil’s advocate, one night defending monotheism, and the next arguing passionately for the rights of atheists or agnostics. We were expected to stand our ground, and defend our assigned positions.
Looking back on those wonder-filled years I am reminded of the dilemma faced by the Irish sisters in Brian Friel’s play, Dancing at Lunghasa, when their beloved brother, a missionary priest in Africa, having gone “slightly native,” comes home and tries to explain the universality of religious beliefs, and the indigenous celebrations he would lead for his parishioners in appeasing a reluctant “rain God.” The traditional Irish villagers didn’t want to hear this heresy – they had their faith and their “God” - a complex Father, Son, and Holy Ghost arrangement – and that should be enough for anyone, especially a priest.
But is it? My early kitchen table education was broad and good enough to incorporate other views and, as I began my own life’s journeys, I was very grateful for the stimulating, sometimes perverse, and peculiar philosophical foundation of youth. When I first went to India – more than 50 years ago – I worked in Calcutta, where the Hindu majority believe cows are sacred, and even flies and mosquitoes might possess, in their tiny bodies, a previous being. By the time I left Calcutta, after 4 months, I really wasn’t certain that I might not be a cow in the next life, and I wasn’t really certain it mattered much.