My grandfather’s death absorbed a December ten years ago and cast a long shadow on Decembers to come. Because of this, “getting into the Christmas spirit” now requires me to reflect on death, and I suspect this is the case for many. It’s a fitting meditation for Advent because the birth and death of Christ, and our own death and sense of being made new, all twine together in Christians’ musings.
The long weeks my grandfather was dying let him communicate meaningfully with each of his children, grandchildren, and many of his friends. I say communicate, but he could no longer speak. He’d had surgery on a tumor in his throat. Watery coughs echoed through his trach tube. My mother bought him a clip board and he wrote messages in wobbly block letters. I still have many of them. When it was my turn, he wrote that I should find his spiritual journal. It would be in the bottom drawer of his office filing cabinet.
He died December 17, 1999. That week, midway through my senior year of high school, I hid in a rough polyester armchair in his office. My grandmother pulled papers out of his office closet and threw them away in grief-fueled frenzy. In the armchair, I paged through his journal. It was detailed and meticulous, like most things my grandfather did. Like masking tape labels he stuck on fans and tape-players to tell when they had been purchased and had batteries changed. Like financial records he kept or the way he arranged every detail of his funeral years earlier.
The journal – a “spiritual travelogue,” he dubbed it – began with a timeline of spiritual highlights, mingled with dates of his retirement, his brother’s cancer diagnosis, and other life markers. From there, it was more memoir than diary, complete with a title (JOURNAL OF MY JOURNEY IN FAITH), byline (George Hodges Soule), epigraph (a prayer of John Henry Cardinal Newman’s), and chapters.
It showed marks of many revisions: dates crossed-out and corrected, words circled with question marks, margin notes to explain connections between people or events. While he recovered from a knee replacement in 1996, he meant to type up a good copy and “use the inactivity… as a gift of uncommitted time to make some real headway,” but that’s where his journal ends.
Unpolished and unfinished, it is still one of the most influential things I’ve read.
To tell you why it’s so influential, I have to tell you something about my own spiritual travels that isn’t easy for me to confess. I come from a boisterous evangelical tradition where my friends and immediate family were always clamoring about “what God had done in our lives” lately. Not only were my grandparents from austere New England upbringing, but their generation had an expansive definition of what should be kept private. Faith was, for many, the most private. Not considering these powerful psychosocial pressures, I took my grandparents at face value when I was growing up. Christians talked about being Christians. All the time.
After college, when I spent a month at Southborough L’Abri, it dawned on me what sort of a Christian my grandfather had been. I had conversations at L’Abri about the value of a small but effective Christian life – one that lived out the command to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.” In Southborough, I attended a small Episcopal church, the same sort my grandparents attended. My last day there, the liturgy had us pray “that we may have grace to glorify Christ in our own day.”
Those two insights sketched my grandfather in front of me. He was a Christian in the public sphere, chugging away at the same Du Pont job for years, serving on a community college board, helping more people than he ever let on. The only time I ever remember him putting this faith into words was a time when I was homesick and he drew on rich reserves of personal, spiritual comfort in order to comfort me.
I’m not meaning to absolve my grandparents, or myself, from the need to lovingly communicate the beliefs that were defining them. Indeed, keeping mum about this reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s story “Greenleaf,” where Mrs. May muses that “the word, Jesus, should be kept inside the church building like other words inside the bedroom.” Mrs. May believes the word “Jesus” should be kept private because she is “a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she does not, of course, believe that any of it was true.” My grandfather was quite far removed from this, but I had no paradigm for his quietness of faith. I value having such a paradigm and now I value the journal he left behind even more.
Sentences like, “God is present in the beauties and wonders of his creation where it is beautiful and wonderful, and in the challenge where it isn’t” come back to me even when the green binder is closed. Events he relates guide my decisions. They are matter-of-fact, yet vulnerable. He describes nourishing, clarifying weeks spent at a Jesuit retreat, and this eventually led me to pick up St. Ignatius’ spiritual exercises. When he records how his psychologist challenged his depressive mid-life crisis, those words shake me: “If you’re so damned religious, what about the sacrament of your marriage?”
His journal is influential as a means of understanding him, but it’s also a way for one generation to understand the spiritual concerns of another. There is much to learn from another generation, even if that lesson is just to listen more closely.
My grandfather’s spiritual journal makes me wish for more conversations about this part of life we share. I know that I have his blood, because there are things I can put in writing that I could never say aloud. I’m certain this is why his journey of finding “the immanence and presence of God, day in and day out” is something he wanted me to discover while the rest of the family was eating cold cuts and wearing black, and to keep reading as his wife channeled her despair into wastebaskets full of shredded paper. He put it in writing and waited for his descendants to grow into it.