This will be my last column of 2023. I will pause a moment to let the applause and cheering die down.
As with other columns of this ilk, the end of the year represents the opportunity to look back, before looking forward to the new year. It is also a dangerous time for columnists, as the urge to put together a best and worst list is a clear and present danger. Those exercises have two primary functions. The first is to give the reader something to read about, and the second, to give the writer something to write about.
Since Christmas is fast approaching, I will forego the “best” and the “worst” and instead, bask in memories of times long gone.
Thomas Wolfe may have been right about not going home again but he did not say anything about visiting for a spell. Every Christmas I cannot help but think about my past, and especially the role my parents played in forging it. I think about my deceased parents regularly — which means they have either made an enormous impact on me for the good, or I have yet to properly process my childhood. Since it is late in the game for the latter, I will continue to focus my memories of them on the former.
We all start out thinking our parents are immortal. I remember feeling a sense of awe that my father could navigate a Ford Country Squire Station Wagon all the way up the center of California without a map, light a wooden match with his thumbnail, and work six days a week without complaint.
My dad’s and my mom’s faith was also a mystery in its crystalline simplicity. You went to Mass, prayed the rosary, were reminded about confession times, and everything else took care of itself. Throw in some timely novenas and Sunday dinner with our uncle Father John, and you had a recipe that resulted in my parents going 10 for 10 in having children who remained anchored in their Catholic faith.
Then it happens. Parents become fallible, a combination of hubris and hormones invade your frontal lobes, and you learn your parents do not know everything — and it is not long before you believe they know nothing at all. I may have never gone to full Defcon 1 level of adolescent absurdity, but I quietly vowed my faith would be more profound than that of my devout but far too “simple” parents.
Maybe I would have been better off having a crisis of faith. I have not always practiced what I knew to be true, but I never had a dark night of the soul. Still, I had plenty of hubris to believe that I would still take my faith further and deeper than either my mom or my dad.
My visions of grandeur came from feeling that I was grandfathered into my faith, that I really had not earned it. I had plenty of confidence in this endeavor, if not enough brain power to pull it off. I have been trying for decades to deepen my understanding of the Faith, to go beyond some kind of accident of birth inheritance. I read a lot of books from great thinkers. Some of the thinking stuck; most of it slipped through my grasp. All I got from words like “subsidiarity,” “pneumatology” and “concupiscence” were nightmares that would make the AI in my computer call the police for a mandatory wellness check.
The only good thing about time, if we are graced with enough of it, is its ability to even things out. In time, my superciliousness was sandpapered by God’s grace, and the eventual realization that my parents may not have known everything, but I knew even less. The more I tried to intellectualize my faith and go beyond the simplicity of my upbringing, the more I came up short.
We are embarking on Christmas, the simple season, where God’s simple promise incarnated in a humble human baby. It is a story that any child in a Christmas pageant understands.
The shepherds in the hills of Bethlehem, none of whom possessed an advanced degree in theology, did not need to reference the Summa Theologica to understand what they were seeing in that manger. The Church, with more than 2,000 years under her belt and Doctors who have helped light the way, still offers the most profound and sacred sacrament she has to those with only a second-grader’s understanding of the world.
The acronym KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) comes to mind. It is what my parents mastered so well and what I would wish for myself and for anyone who may be looking backward at times gone by this December. It is so simple that all these thoughts and feelings can be summed up in only two words.