A California Church (Dennis Aubrey)

On Tuesday, I sat in a church in Santa Barbara, California. Saint Raphael’s is a large parish church, modern and modest. It has a simple narthex leading to a large open nave with stained glass clerestory windows. There are no side aisles or nave arcades and the transepts are low and functional. The altar is quite attractive with a flat eastern wall – no ambulatory, no hemicycle, no choir stalls. There is no real transept crossing at all.

But this is a church that taught me much on the single day that I was there, because it was here that I sat with my mother, brothers, sister, PJ, and the rest of my family to hear the funeral mass for my father. The large crowd in the church showed me how much he was loved and respected by those who knew him. My father was not an elected official or a public figure. He was a private man who spent his entire life in service. First he spent 24 years in the US Army, serving. He spent the rest of his life serving his church, his community, and his fellow soldiers.

Eglise Abbatiale Lavaudieu, Lavaudieu (Haute-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Eglise Abbatiale Lavaudieu, Lavaudieu (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

PJ told me of an uncle of hers whose funeral was attended by hundreds of mourners, to the complete surprise of his family and friends. The church was filled with people who this man had helped in life, helped without telling anyone, not his wife and children, not the neighbors or friends. He had simply helped those in need and when he died, those who had been helped came to pay their respects. My father’s funeral was like this.

I learned the depth of the love his family had for him, from the granddaughter who sobbed uncontrollably at his loss, my sister and brothers who tried to bravely accept his passing, to my mother whose partner, companion and lover of 68 years was taken from her. All of this I knew, but somehow the service showed me the depths of this love.

And finally I learned something completely unexpected. During the services which were beautifully and personally conducted, I discovered myself tugged by something, like being pulled by a river current or an outgoing tide. I felt part of a great stream of faith that tied my father to his church for his entire life, to the history of those who had preceded him in the church, in life, in sanctity and even in death. His death was part of this massive Orinoco flow streaming to the sea beyond, carrying him inexorably to his God. We mourners were witnesses standing mute in the shallows as he passed, the water tugging at our legs as if to remind us that our time was coming and to mark his passing closely, not to forget. For the briefest moment I felt in my heart the faith of my father, something I sought for my entire life. But like his passing, it continued on and could only feel the lapping of his wake.

Eglise de Mailhat, Mailhat (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Eglise de Mailhat, Mailhat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Someday in the small quiet room where my services will be held, I expect that I will still be a bystander in that river of faith, pretending in my pride that it does not matter. But here at Saint Raphael’s church my father reached back to give me one last parting gift. He made me feel that faith of my childhood, the certainty of God’s grace.

32 thoughts on “A California Church (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Dennis, It’s indescribably hard to lose a parent. I could never have put such a loss into beautiful words as you have done here. He must have been a very good father. Your writing today is exquisite – you surely have been touched by God’s grace. Trish

    1. Trish, my father was an extraordinary man, but modest. His entire life was dedicated to service, first for over two decades in the military and then his church and community. It was remarkable at how many people came to the rosary vigil and the funeral mass. I was humbled. Thanks, as always, for your compassion and understanding.

  2. May memories of your dad be a wonderful part of your days. I find myself in my garden, still gardening with my dad, after 3 years.

    1. Thank you, Jane. PJ and I have France as his memorial … on this last trip we thought of him all the time as we passed places that we had lived, visited, talked about, and studied. He used the names of places as keys to his life, his friends, his family, history, and culture. As such we have these places to remind us of him when we return.

    1. Thank you, Sue. Sometimes the emotions just sweep over me and the words just come out. It is hard to look directly at the deepest feelings for me, so the results are elliptical like this. Wish I could say directly all that I felt, but it just doesn’t happen that way.

      1. “How could I take them all in, and where could I bring them?”

        Dennis, your reply to Sue reminded me of this piece of film dialogue about a loved one. You capture, as it does, the elusive nature of expression and the burden as love is experienced in loss. Many things are not best approached directly. I have long suspected the elliptical results are why writing is so cherished amongst us. I thank you for it.

        I offer my heartfelt condolences.

    1. Thank you, Sonnie. It was so nice to see your name on the comment. I think fondly of you rapt in Paris. I hope that it met all of your expectations … from the look on your face, cannot imagine that it fell far short.

  3. Dennis: What a beautiful tribute your father. It took me back to the wonderful years I spent with my father. You are blessed with the memories and will return to them so many times during the years to come.

    1. Kalli, we all know that we will lose our parents but it doesn’t make up for the shock of doing so. I was lucky to have him for so long and for Mom and Dad to share so much of France and Via Lucis with us.

  4. Thank you. Beautiful. Moving. Engaging. I know this path so very well. However this is the first time I’ve heard it expressed so soulfully… As far and as fast as the artist/ scientist runs there is no escaping the spiritual DNA.

  5. My sincerest condolences, Dennis. I know the loss of both father and mother, not recent but there is always a hook in your heart when you think of them, at least there is for me. I will keep you and your family in my prayers, as I do anyway, my friend. It is that great stream of faith that carries many who do not even realize they believe. You have devoted yourself to recording the beauty of the churches in France and elsewhere, in that you are also engaged in a service to us all. In those very churches, the centuries of faith have left their echos, your images capture them often, the two above are ample proof of that. It is in simplicity, observation and silence that we eventually see faith. A very wise old priest once told me that the Catholic religion was an intellectual exercise accompanied by a leap of faith. I am glad that you were able to experience that again, however briefly.

    1. As always, Aquila, we are moved by your thoughtful comments, especially today. I love the words of your “very wise old priest”, it is the kind of thing that Angelico Surchamp might say.

  6. “The soul is always conducted to heaven by an angel or angels, and never ‘wanders’ into it or goes of its own will or motive power.”
    The Soul After Death by Fr. Seraphim Rose

    Your open doors have always spoken volumes, Dennis….

  7. Dennis, let me say in French “sincères condoléances” .

    Be sure that French people is greatful to your father, coming in Europe for our Liberty. We don’t forget these young American soldiers. Thanks to your father.
    Best regards
    Chantal from Rhone Valley France

    1. Thank you, Chantal. My father loved France passionately. In our seven years living there, he always made sure we lived among the French people and taught us to love them and their culture. I’m sure that my passion for these Romanesque churches comes from that.

  8. Dennis, Your last paragraph is so wonderfully expressed. It immediately brought to mind a few lines from Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow:The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself.

    “And so, there we all were on a little wave of time lifting up to eternity, and none of us ever in time whould know what to make of it. How could we? It is a mystery, for we are eternal beings living in time. Did I ever think that anybody would understand it? Yes. Once. I thought once that I would finally understand it.

    “What I had come to know (by feeling only) was that the place’s true meaning, its presence you might say, was a sort of current, like an underground flow of water, except that the flowing was in all directions and yet did not flow away. When it rose in your heart and throat, you felt joy and sorrow at the same time, and the joining of times and lives. To come into the presence of the place was to know life and death, and to be near in all your thoughts to laughter and to tears. This would come over you, and then pass away, as fragile as a moment of light.”

    – Wendell Berry

    1. Gordon, as always we are touched and moved by you. Your understanding and sympathy for words and their nuance of expression has always been obvious to us, and how you draw on your reading. Your congregation in Chaska was lucky to have you for all those years. And now I have to read Wendell Berry. The only book of his I read was when I first went to college – it was a book of poetry illustrated by Ben Shahn. Sad to say all it did was inspire me to write a mess of bad blank verse.

    1. Mike, thank you for your kind wishes and words. The family is doing as well as can be expected and we are cherishing his long life and the time we spent with him.

  9. Dennis,

    My belated condolences on the loss of your father. However I must say the reaction ‘How can I take them all in’ was unnecessary, if understandable. Crowds turn up at funerals here in Ireland all the time. They don’t come expecting something from the family, they come to show respect – even if they didn’t know the deceased they might know other members of the family, and they are showing their solidarity with these people. It’s nice to know that large congregations turn up for a funeral Mass in the US too! Be grateful to your father that he was so warmly appreciated by others!

    1. Tony, thanks for this. It was amazing to see the church so full of people to send my father on his way. And it was important for my mother, who knew so well how much he gave to the community with no effort of self-promotion. We were lucky to have him for so long

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