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.
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.
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.