This reflection is the first in our Lenten series, “First-Person Faith.” Read more about the Collegeville Institute’s first-person approach to theological discourse in our introduction to the series.
I was 16 years old in the summer of 1967 when my mother announced we were moving to Arizona.
I didn’t want to leave our small Iowa hometown. I’d just completed a happy sophomore year at our local high school as class president and varsity letterman in track. I had excelled at speech class and went on my first real date. I was well on my way to inheriting my older brother’s mantle as student body president.
My father, a high school teacher, had died on Father’s Day when I was ten. He was playing baseball with my brother, some neighbor kids, and me on our nearby elementary school field. I watched from first base as my 42-year-old dad collapsed on the pitcher’s mound from a heart attack. Decades later the image hasn’t faded a bit. When, six years later, my mother announced our upcoming move, it felt too soon—too soon to leave lifelong friends, that elementary school baseball diamond, and the community that had rallied around my family after my father’s death.
We moved within a month.
The years that followed were both exhilarating and demoralizing. We were enchanted by the desert landscape with its red-rock landmarks and easy-going lifestyle. I felt like I was on vacation walking outside between classes in serenely beautiful weather. It was pure magic to start track in January instead of April—I couldn’t believe I was warming up on green grass to the heavenly scent of orange blossoms, while my old friends were facing blizzards back in Iowa.
But the enchantment evaporated in less than a year. My mother entered into a bad second marriage with a man who would have made a great neighbor, but was an inadequate husband and stepfather. And his delinquent children invaded our intimate family circle like aliens. Real Christmas trees gave way to fake ones; real ice cream gave way to “ice milk,” which my stepfather decreed would save money. The worst loss was emotional access to our mother, who seemed to shut down in the face of a situation for which she was completely unequipped.
Even my acceptance to an Ivy League university added to my confusion. I remember promising God that if I got into Princeton, I’d be a really good Catholic. God came through—but I didn’t. I broke the covenant, drifting away from the deep Catholic faith that had given me a lively spiritual life even as a kid, and had given our family a sense of meaning that shepherded us through my father’s death. Faith had frayed along with the fabric of our lives.
I identify with the story of the Israelites wandering in the Sinai desert for 40 years. I was one of them. I drifted. I couldn’t focus or finish anything, including college. I had lost my center, unable to fill the void left by the loss of my faith.
God gathered the pieces for me, gradually—and often painfully—giving dimension to the empty spaces of my soul and reintegrating them. To this day I continue to feel as if the Creator is building me into a Christian, from the ground up. Often it hurts. But the difference is that I’m finally anchored in the Cross-as-the-way-to-resurrection. That has given my life transcendent meaning once again.
My mother, who died a few years ago, never really got over the loss of my father. We took her ashes back to Iowa for a memorial service last June on the 50th anniversary—almost to the day—of my father’s death. My brothers and I visited the baseball field where our dad fell on a similar sun-drenched June day a half-century before. The old bleachers, backstop, and pitcher’s mound were long gone, but the ghost of the field was still there.
As we walked over the fresh green grass that had taken over the infield, I surprised them with baseball gloves and a ball. We played catch to commemorate our dad. It felt like we were completing a circle that had begun five decades earlier.
I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I hadn’t learned that death isn’t just about physical passing. It is also about dying to your old self and growing into a new, more authentic self. Sometimes that process of the dying of the old, false self is painful and absurd. But Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection have taught me that it’s really God’s way of expanding you, stretching you so you can receive more of God’s abundance.
This is how we participate in the unfolding of creation.