In Brian Moore’s recent novel, No Other Life, his central character, Michael, is a Roman Catholic priest teaching in one of the schools run by his order in Haiti. Fr. Michael, by every appearance, is a very good priest and a very fine person. He strictly keeps his priestly vows and dedicates himself completely to his vocation. Beyond this selflessness, he is also a model of common sense and fidelity.
At he end of the book, however, when he faces his death, Fr. Michael comes to realization that he does not really believe in God. Interestingly, that realization is, for him, not all that painful and empty. It’s more of an insipid thing: “I don’t really believe in God and, in the end, it doesn’t make all that much difference.” He is not haunted by any painful metaphysical questions surrounding this. He doesn’t ask: “Why did I do all that service, prayer, and sacrifice, if there isn’t any God?” “Why did I think I believed during my whole life, if, now, I realize there isn’t any God?” “Is this a test, a dark night of the soul?” He asks no such questions and his bland acceptance of his atheism suggests that he has, at some level, known all along that there isn’t any God. He dies an atheist priest, not all that upset about that inconsistency.
That theme, a life of supposed faith washed away by the realization at death that one does not believe in God, is not that uncommon in fiction today. It’s a popular theme, worked over especially by post-Catholic writers. Most of these writers, too, unlike an earlier generation of existential authors (Bergman, Camus, Beckett), do not ask too many painful questions about it, this reversal of a death-bed conversion. They take it as natural, almost intimating that everyone, deep down, knows that there isn’t any God and that those with real honesty admit it, at least to themselves, in the end.
That’s in fiction. Perhaps it’s also true for some in real life. Let me here, however, share some non-fiction, some real life:
My father was a man of faith. Like Brian Moore’s character, Father Michael, he too lived his life in a pretty selfless manner and he too had pretty good common sense. He lived for his God, his church, his family, and his community. He went to church as often as he could and he prayed. He also made it plain to us, his children, that belief in, and worship of, God was the most important single thing anyone could do in this life. He had his faults, admittedly; but, human weakness notwithstanding, he lived his whole life in the face of his faith.
That faith was to be tested. He was still a relatively young man, 62 years of age, when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He fought the cancer, long and hard, just as those clinical books on death and dying prescribe: denial, anger, bargaining. He most desperately wanted to live, but he lost that battle and that struggle tried his faith. Finally, exhausted, he moved to the final stage in the process of dying, acceptance.
Shortly before he died he turned to some of us, his family, and he said: “You know, during my whole life, I have believed in God, but maybe that’s easier to do when you aren’t facing dying. Now, when I have to face death this squarely, I have to examine that: Do I really believe it?” There was only the slightest of hesitations before he added: “Yes, I believe it. God exists. What the church says is true. There’s a whole world beyond this one. I haven’t been mistaken. It’s all worth it. There is nothing I would change now!”
Hearing those words from your own father, as he lies dying, leaves its mark. Sometimes when I struggle with doubts and questions of faith, I come back to that scene and take consolation, and more than that, from the fact that my own father, a very good man with a lot of common sense, stared the deep darkness, death, in the face with faith in his heart and his faith won the day.
We are given faith by those who have it and those persons are never abstract. They’re real. They have names. I was given my faith by my parents, both of whom left this world young, and both of whom left it assuring us, who stayed behind, that the God they had taught us to believe in when we were little, the God who had taught them to accept life both as a celebration and as a mourning and weeping in this valley of tears, is not a figment of some hopeful imagination or some mythical construct that has been socialized into us, but is a real Person who is worth serving both in life and in death.