Thursday, March 31, 2011

My Father Sings to Me

My father had good common sense. A member of the “greatest generation,” he fought bravely in World War II and returned home to father a family of six, of which I am proudly the eldest. He went to the office every day, first in Minneapolis of the 1950s, then in New York of the 1960s and 1970s. He was the straightest of straight arrows, a bracingly sane man in a world of Mad Ones. No booze, no broads—just business, beer, and baseball, plus ample time for his children.

I have thought often of my father this week while reading the final pages of chapter 1 of The Religious Sense. In a sense probably not intended by the writers of the beautiful CL ballad “My Father Sings to Me,” I hear Dad’s clean, straight baritone in the words of Father Giussani.

You don’t know the ballad? Let’s start there. The artists are the Bay Ridge Band, six members of the Movement based in New York City.

The question in this week’s reading is what it means to judge our experience. This is why I have placed the quote from Father Giussani in the right sidebar of this blog: “Let us begin to judge. This is the beginning of liberation. . . . It is work, and it does not come naturally.”

CL, I have discovered, and perhaps you have too, has a language of its own. Judgment. Correspondence. Reduction. These and other terms can seem oddly impenetrable, and I have already posted once on wrestling with judging. But my father has sung me a new perspective.

In the penultimate section of chapter 1, “Man, the Ultimate Judge,” Father Giussani first says that we have the criterion for judging our experience without having to look for it. “The criterion,” he writes, “ . . . is totally immanent, inherent within our original structure.” The answer is right under our noses, or inside our hearts. Dad, with his clear sense of values, and his desire never to complicate things, would have understood this.

After a long but necessary digression on anarchy, Father Giussani throws us back on our own experience:

We must recognize that man truly affirms himself only by accepting reality, so much so that, in fact, he begins to accept himself by accepting his existence, that is, a reality he has not given himself.

My father would have totally understood this sentence, as well. In a memoir he wrote with my daughter near the end of his life, he constantly expressed his gratitude at all he had been given—at his privileged life as a gift, firstly from his parents, but I know he thought God too.

It is in the next paragraph that I hear my father singing to me:

. . . tbe fundamental criterion for facing [judging] things is an objective one, with which nature thrusts man into a universal comparison, endowing him with that nucleus of original needs, with that elementary experience which mothers in the same way provide to their children. . . . The need for goodness, justice, truth, and happiness constitutes man’s ultimate identity, the profound energy with which men in all ages and of all races approach everything, enabling them to an exchange, of not only things, but also ideas, and transmit riches to each other over the distance of centuries. We are stirred as we read passages written thousands of years ago by ancient poets, and we sense that their works apply to the present in a way that our day-to-day relations do not. If there is an experience of human maturity, it is precisely this possibility of placing ourselves in the past, of approaching the past as if it were near, a part of ourselves. Why is this possible? Because this elementary experience, as we stated, is substantially the same in everyone, even if it will then be determined, translated, and realized in very different ways—so different, in fact, that they may seem opposed.

My father, though still present to me three years after his death, inhabits the past. Yet he had (has) the same “ultimate identity” as I do, a “nucleus of original needs [for goodness, justice, truth, and happiness],” a “profound energy with which men in all ages and of all races approach everything.”

The sentence that I underlined and copied to my notebook was the one that begins, “If there is an experience of human maturity, . . . ” I did so while thinking of my father. I do not have to look back as far as Homer or Shakespeare to find stirring passages by old-time poets. My father did not write stirring poetry, but he lived his life, as I witnessed it, declaiming simple stanzas of “goodness, justice, truth, and happiness.”

Dad did not fall for fads, although he did try the Hula Hoop once to humor us kids. He was not swayed by cultural crosscurrents from certain fundamental loyalties learned in childhood and annealed in wartime. He stood two-footed on the rocks of faith and family while the stream rushed by. I know I am idealizing my father by writing this, but so be it. This is my judgment.

At last I understand what Mark Twain meant when he wrote: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

It took me getting closer to fifty-one before I was mature enough to reflect on my own father this way. When I was twenty-one, “I could hardly stand to have the old man around.” Now, I’d do anything.

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