Old Earl’s Christmas
I had known Earl for as long as I can remember, though he was my senior by thirty-seven years. He was a hard-working, reliable man, an excellent provider for his family, always responsible and deeply trustworthy. Born in 1911, he had already lived through the Great Depression and two world wars before he came into my life. He and his wife had three children before I met him, and with that plus his doctorate in chemical engineering, he was kept hard at work through the 1940’s rather than becoming a soldier.
Earl seemed to have the personality of an engineer, too. He was strong on detail and precision, with a habit of making notes, tables, and graphs for everything from his hobbies to his financial management. Like many engineers, he was a fairly solitary man, who didn’t seem to have a great need for the company of friends. His wife’s social instincts sufficed for them both. Also like many engineers, I don’t think he had great imagination. His sense of humor was fairly mild; and although he saw the value of Christianity for the social order, he didn’t have a lick of personal faith.
Earl’s wife was Catholic, and they had agreed as a condition of marriage that their children would be raised Catholic. Whenever his wife was away, Earl dutifully took his kids to church. Otherwise, he seldom went—only if pressed on special occasions. He did not seem in any way hostile to religion. It was simply like water off a duck’s back. Since I saw Earl very frequently while I was growing up, and less frequently for years afterwards, I learned early on that he was well familiar with Catholic religious practice. Under the direction of his wife, he even read St. Luke’s infancy narrative each Christmas Eve while his youngest child placed the baby in the manger. Eventually I began to wonder why, in his case, Catholicism didn’t “take”.
I cared for Earl very deeply. He was the kind of guy who, without a lot of fuss, was there when you needed him. If I needed my bike fixed, I could rely on Earl. If I was desperate for guidance on a school project, he’d always offer help. But as my own Catholic faith grew, I became increasingly concerned about him. If memory serves, I began seriously praying for his conversion off and on while still in high school. By the time I was out of college, I was praying for him every day. I know from conversations with some others that they were doing the same. But it never seemed to make any difference. Earl was a discouraging case.
For some reason that I didn’t fully understand, Earl also took an interest in everything I did, even if he wasn’t otherwise attracted to it. When I started writing for the Catholic press in my freshman year of college, Earl was interested. Nine years later I started a Catholic academic journal, and later still I wrote and contributed to a couple of books on salvation history and apologetics. As far as I could tell, Earl read every word of everything I wrote. On very rare occasions, he would offer a constructive comment. He seemed pleased that I could express myself. But he was never convinced by any of it. Nothing I said or wrote moved him in any direction whatsoever.
A few times over the years I worked up the courage to ask Earl why he apparently didn’t believe in God and certainly didn’t embrace the Christian faith. He couldn’t offer a particular explanation, though he revealed in a letter that he thought his mother, originally a Catholic, had been driven out of her parish church when she divorced and remarried. Almost without question, this was a confused and filtered memory, and I urged him to think more deeply about God, Christ and the Church. On one occasion, when he calmly stated he had spent more years thinking about such things than I had yet lived, I somewhat hotly countered that in reality he had spent most of his life not thinking about them. To my surprise, he agreed that this was so. But he refused, as always, to consider entering the Church.
As I learned more Catholic theology, I concluded that if ever there was a case of invincible ignorance, Earl was it. As far as I could tell, he wouldn’t have had to change his moral code in any way to accept the Faith, unlike so many more fashionable atheists and agnostics, and I don’t think he was unusually vain or proud. The problem really did seem to be that, for some mysterious psychological reason, Christianity didn’t and couldn’t stick to Earl. In this diagnosis, I might have been aided by my own pride. After all, if even my arguments couldn’t convince him, then how was he to be convinced? Nonetheless, as I grew older, I kept praying, and sometimes I’d even offer small sacrifices for good old Earl.
About the time I turned forty, Earl’s mental powers began to fade, particularly his memory. He was in his late seventies when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. His children were all grown, and his wife had a very hard job taking care of him. Over the next ten years, Earl underwent a long slow decline. It troubled me more than I can say to see a man stripped of his mental faculties, apparently unable even to benefit from his sufferings. It also occasionally bothered me that all my chances were used up: I could never press Earl on the question of faith again. Faced with a sad and inscrutable mystery, I redoubled my prayers. I am confident that other Catholics who knew him did the same.
Sometimes when my grown brother and sisters and I would visit my mother for Easter, and Earl happened to be on hand, we’d invite him to join us in our family Rosary. He never objected to this, but he also never participated. As he grew older, he would even occasionally sit silently in the same room with us while we prayed. This silence was not unusual, for by the time he was eighty-five, he could no longer converse coherently, and he seldom spoke at all. Physically he was remarkably sound, but sometimes he looked confused and scared. I didn’t see Earl more than a few times a year at that time, since I lived 500 miles away, but I was painfully aware of his decline.
In his eighty-seventh year, when he was present for one of our family rosaries and we were saying the Hail Mary, we suddenly heard a new voice: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” Earl had joined in. He did this repeatedly during the final period of decline leading to his inevitable entry into a nursing home. Shortly before he was totally incapacitated, Earl tried to learn to make the sign of the cross. Once when he seemed alert but very still, he was asked what he was doing and answered, "Praying"—a clear statement from a man who could barely speak at all.
“Unless you become like a little child....” Somehow it seemed that God had stripped away every human obstacle between Himself and Earl, including Earl’s own memories, along with whatever barriers they contained. Our Lord had taken a different route to reach him, one I couldn’t follow, a road on which even invincible ignorance doesn’t stand a chance. Earl could not formally declare his intentions, but his mumbled Hail Marys and the faltering movements of an arm raised in benediction were enough to convince the local parish priest that Old Earl had changed his mind at last. We knew that he had been a Presbyterian as a boy, but we had no idea whether he had ever been validly baptized, so the priest baptized him in the nursing home some weeks before his death. I wasn’t present, but my mother was.
At the dawn of the new millennium, old Earl died. Since life is full of uncertainties, I still pray daily for the repose of his soul. I pray especially hard at Christmas, for I believe it was Christmas that ultimately won his heart, Christmas seen through the eyes of a little child or, more likely, the little child. “Hail Mary, full of grace,” said the angel Gabriel. “Holy Mary, Mother of God,” Earl replied.
To my knowledge, these were the only words of Catholic prayer Earl ever spoke. They seemed to be enough for him, and they have provided me with nearly eight years of meditation since his death, including the hope that he is now praying for me in turn. I had long since learned through my own children why Earl was always so interested in everything about me, even if he did often turn a duck's back to my endless supply of water. I can see clearly now that he was far more interested in me than I was in him, just as God was far more interested in Earl than Earl was in God. Therefore, in a manner completely impossible while he lived, I intend to honor the season by wishing, not my own gifts, but the best of God’s gifts to old Earl: Merry Christmas, Dad.
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