One November day when I was 16, my father sat me down at our dining room table and told me he was breaking up our household. God was calling him elsewhere, he said, and he would follow. To cut back, he would sell our house in Bethesda. We would move into an apartment. He would probably sell or give away a lot of our furniture and books. He likely would move again once I left for college. Maybe he would stay in Washington, but he had doubts. Things were liable to change, and radically.
As I listened with an impassive expression, my mind seemed simultaneously to speed up and slow down. Given the way his life had headed in the three years since he retired and the eight since my mother died, I was not completely surprised. Yet I was stunned to hear the official end of my family declared so casually. A rush of conflicting emotions welled up inside me: I wanted him to be happy, but I wanted him to be unhappy, too. I wanted him to remain there for me, but I wanted to leave. I wanted to be selfish and I wanted to be generous. I did not want him to think that anything he did was in any way going to affect my life.
He loved me, he continued. He intended to ensure that I was settled at college before he made any drastic moves. He wanted to stay in my life. But he just couldn't see himself sitting around an empty house for the rest of his life waiting for his grandchildren to visit. He was happy. He was peaceful. He didn't even feel that he was making the decisions in his life anymore. God was.
Did I have any questions?
What could I ask? I did not know if I wanted him to change his mind and did not think I could change it anyway. I could not begin to understand what religious impulse he felt, but I knew it must be strong. I just did not want to sit there and feign interest while he went on about his devotion to Christ.
So I shrugged. I told him I had nothing to ask. I mumbled some thanks to him for talking to me about it. Then I quickly rose and walked away from the table, relieved that this conversation was over.
But with every step I took, one thought ran through my head like an electric current: Either God Himself has stormed into my father's life for reasons I can't fathom, or my father has finally gone crazy.
I was inclined to believe the latter. Just over three years earlier, my father had been living a perfectly ordinary life. At 52 years old, James Murray was a high-ranking and well-regarded government bureaucrat, a moderately successful playwright, the owner of a tidy, two-story house in Bethesda and a still-handsome man who went on two or three dates a week. He was also a profoundly unhappy man.
His job at the time, with the federal government, did not have the power and prestige of his former post, as head of personnel for the Washington police force back in the late '60s and early '70s, when he had recruited hundreds of blacks and women onto a force that had been largely white and male. He still missed my mother, Michele, who had been his wife and best friend. Together they had presided over a bustling house filled with children and pets, books and music, and shared from the first days of their marriage a love of writing and literature.
Those days were now a fading memory. Old newspaper articles about my father sat crumbling in forgotten scrapbooks that were buried in the bottom of bureau drawers. The family photo albums my mother had meticulously kept sat unopened in the bookcase. No one had added to them since she had died, of cancer, in 1974.
The family over which he presided, meanwhile, had flown apart; my brother David had joined the merchant marine, while Jonathan and Sarah were in college. Four years after my mother's death, my family of six had, for the most part, dwindled to a family of two: my father and me.
Dad had gone from being a contented man with a small measure of fame to a frustrated bureaucrat looking for his moorings. Approaching adolescence, I found him an increasing embarrassment, a man who, for all his good intentions, seemed unsure of how to raise us, or even how to handle himself. He started wearing leisure suits; he bought a new car; he took up jogging. All these efforts to reinvent himself seemed to be signs of trying too hard.
When, in the fall of 1978, he was unexpectedly offered early retirement with partial benefits, it seemed to be a chance to remake himself. We considered moving elsewhere, even took a long trip to New England, but we lacked the will or energy to organize a move. When my father's first day of retirement arrived the following spring, we were still in Bethesda. To me it seemed like we would be stuck in our stasis forever.
Then on the first day of his retirement, my father woke up and did something unexpected: He went to Mass, at a church called Holy Cross. It was about a 10-minute drive from our house, and apparently was the local Catholic parish. I don't think anyone in my family had ever heard of it. While Dad had been raised a Catholic, and at times had regularly attended church with my mother, he hadn't been since before she died. I had been inside a traditional Catholic church only a handful of times in my life. Now my father started going every day.
At first, it seemed like just another phase in his tiresome, tortuous struggle to fill up his life. But the seriousness of his new interest soon became apparent. Reluctantly, I took notice of the prayer manuals that began appearing on the coffee tables around the house, next to stacks of saints' lives and thick books on Roman Catholic doctrine and theology. Dad would sit for hours balancing these volumes in his lap, using a pencil to scribble notes in the margins or on note cards in his squat, illegible handwriting. Sometimes I noticed him carrying rosary beads from room to room.
Every few days, I came home from school to find one of his prayer groups meeting in our living room. Five or six of my father's fellow worshipers would be seated in a little circle of chairs. All were housewives from the neighborhood, women in their late thirties or forties whose husbands were at work. The room would be laid out as if for a seance: the curtains drawn, candles burning, the group holding hands. Until that year, I had never known that people prayed outside of church.
Most disturbing were his tears. During the early days of his new religious life, during occasional spells of virtue, I would accompany him to Mass. As soon as we walked in, found a pew and sat down, my father would shut his eyes. He would act as if I weren't even there. After a few minutes, little canals of salty tears would begin running down his cheeks, dribbling around his chin and into the creases in his neck. By the end of Mass, he would be thoroughly lost, his frame bent, his face wet and red. Mortified, I could only take it a few times before I quit altogether.
Unlike the jogging, this phase did not pass; it only deepened. More than three years after his return to the church, in late 1982, Dad made good on his vow to sell our house and move us into an apartment. By then, he was living the life of a suburban mendicant. He had quit dating. He had stopped going to the movies and reading any but religious books. He had given up writing and burned his plays. He spent hours at the church each morning. He prayed for hours a day. His demeanor had changed: He was humbler, worn-looking, quieter. He gave up desserts, restricted his diet to simple foods and some nights even skipped dinner. He seemed to have deliberately reduced his horizons to the chapel at Holy Cross and our own four walls.
After I left for college in Chicago in the fall of 1983, Dad gave up the apartment, too. He kept only a few religious books, some clothing and his toiletries. These possessions were not quite enough to fill two suitcases. He carefully placed his bags in the back seat of the car and launched himself into the world. Living almost by instinct now, he tried to go where his prayer life seemed to be leading him. He was more than four years into his journey, and it still did not make full sense to him.
It made little sense to me, either. At 17, I had only a vague understanding of the church or his role in it. The strong, instinctive faith I'd had as a child more or less dissipated as I hit my teens. When I looked at him, what I saw was not a man of God, but a father who couldn't wait to shove me out of the house.
Over the years I was in college, the threads that bound our family grew as thin as the silvery strands of a spider's web. I was wrapped up in studies, making new friends and inventing a new life for myself. I had decided to become a writer, and to nurture for myself an image as a rootless and independent outsider. Part of the formula was to keep my father at arm's length, to demonstrate that, unlike my peers, I didn't rely on a family anymore. Secretly, of course, I wanted to have one, wanted to have a house and a room out there somewhere, a place to go back to for holidays and weekends.
But I didn't. My father was a pilgrim in search of a new life, staying with friends and spending weeks on the road God knew where. Weeks passed without a phone call between us. The first Christmas I spent on my own, during my sophomore year, I stayed in the apartment of friends who needed someone to tend to their parakeet while they were away. With its owners absent, the bird immediately became hysterical, scrunching into a ball, squeezing through its bars and flying wildly around the apartment, banging into walls and perching in remote corners to squawk. For days it refused to eat.
That bitter-cold Christmas Eve, I worked all day fixing sandwiches at my restaurant job, then carried a sandwich and soda home for a weirdly subdued Christmas meal while the bird dive-bombed my scalp. I slept in the next morning, watched a little TV, then went to a friend's house for dinner. No one in my family called me, and I didn't call any of them. I wasn't sad, exactly, because it was partly by my choice. But it felt strange to be without my family. It was a little mystifying that none of us seemed to want to be together. What had led us here? I wondered that all Christmas Day. I came home to an empty apartment to find the parakeet dead on the floor. I guessed it was spent from all the flapping and mental anguish. I knew how it felt.
When Dad and I did talk, I found my feelings wavering. Sometimes I resented him for breaking up our lives. Occasionally I couldn't help but admire his determination to find his way. Mostly, I tried not to think about it too much.
By the time I graduated, he had found a new home for himself: St. Bede Abbey, a Benedectine monastery in central Illinois. He planned to become a monk, and, he hoped, a priest. After the two years we had spent a thousand miles apart, he was now only 100 miles away from me. But it didn't feel much closer.
About six months after he moved to St. Bede's, I finally accepted an invitation to drive down one Saturday. Dad met me at the abbey's front door, wearing a black robe and sandals with black socks. He gave me a quick tour of the building the way a college student eagerly shows his folks around campus on parents' weekend. We snagged some cookies from the baking trays and poured cups of coffee from an urn that was refreshed every few hours. Out back was a small apple orchard, where he worked during the afternoons, and beyond that were several hundred acres of woods, whose paths he roamed as often as possible.
Not without some pique, I was struck by how much he seemed at home, at least far more in his element than the thinning pilgrim I had watched getting worn down in our old house. He was bubbling with plans -- he was to go away to college, he was to learn Latin, he felt certain he was to become a priest. But I stayed only a few hours, and didn't stick around for dinner. I told him I had to get back.
Over the next few years, as I bounced from job to job, he became progressively immersed in his new life. He taught high school at the monastery and started making new friends. After two years, the monastery sent him to a seminary in Indiana to study for the priesthood. On New Year's Day 1992, he took his final vows as a member of St. Bede, swearing poverty, chastity and obedience as a member of the community for life, as surely as if he had married into a new family. Eighteen months later, he knelt before a bishop and was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. He was in his mid-sixties. With that, he became "Father Jim" to scores of people.
Each ceremony brought our family to St. Bede, and brought me back from the places where I was striving to build my own life. Each time, I watched my father in his new family, saw the tranquillity and purpose in his eyes, and began to wonder about the old one. I knew that whatever had happened to him, my father had an almost bottomless conviction. Despite what some people thought, despite my own occasional doubts, he had not chosen an easy life. He was working harder than he ever had, often with people who were dying and despairing, and he was spending more time alone. Yet he was invigorated.
I envied him, in a way. In my late twenties, I was trying to reconcile life as it is lived with life as I had imagined it would be. I had held a series of short-term, low-paying newspaper jobs filled with drudgery. I was losing touch with old friends, spending too much time in front of the TV, piling up debts. In 15 years, it seemed, my father and I had traded places. He had once been lost in a quicksand of crisis while I raced ahead with a plan and a destination. Now he was settled and happy, and I was sputtering. I was full of questions; he had found an answer.
As I grappled with my unhappiness, I came around to questions of belief. Figuring out what I believed had always been complicated by my father's faith. Even when I was sure there was no God, I could never quite discount my father's faith entirely. Deep down, moreover, I felt a love for him that I could not shake. It was a love I was often loath to admit or address, but one that refused to be forgotten, no matter how hard I tried.
And so at some point I began to think more consciously about his life and try to unravel what had happened to him. I started to ask him questions about his childhood and his beliefs. I asked him how he filled his days at the monastery, and whether he had always believed in God. I asked him what he thought happens when we die, and what had changed in his life back in 1979. At some point, I started writing down his answers. I tracked down some of his old letters. I leafed through my mother's journal for her thoughts about him. I pulled out the old newspaper clippings and read them closely, looking for clues. I called up some of my dad's old friends and asked them what he used to be like. Eventually, the bits and pieces I was accumulating slowly began to form a larger mosaic.
Two years ago, my father and I found ourselves sitting in one of the frigid guest rooms of St. Bede. I told him I wanted to know what had happened to his life back when everything changed. He answered every question I asked in a clear, calm voice, narrating what he considered to be his "conversion experience." It amounted to the disclosure of his secret life.
In 1979, he explained simply, he had fallen in love again. With God. Early that year, he said, while contemplating whether to retire, he had fulfilled a long-standing desire to attend a weekend religious retreat. After that weekend, he decided to return to church. On his first Sunday, he said, "I received the bread and wine, went back to my pew and knelt down. And this tremendous gush of tears flowed. That was the beginning of my gift of tears. And I kept saying over and over again, `Thank you, God, for restoring my feelings,' but I didn't know what I was saying. I just kept saying it and kept saying it and kept saying it. The tears kept coming and coming and coming. And then that was the beginning of it."
He retired that June 30 and began attending daily Mass on July 1. "I had a certain desire and fervor to do it," he said. "It had been building up over that spring, ever since I'd been on the retreat. It just felt right." Soon the tears were coming almost every day.
"This was a humiliating experience for a man to have this happen," he said. "When the tears started coming every day, people reacted in strange ways. This one Sunday, this woman I'd never seen before came up after Mass and sat down and said, `What is wrong with you?' She said, `Are you sick? What's going on here?' "
As the tears intensified, he began letting himself go in prayer. That seemed to make him more peaceful. "At some point, I wasn't in command. I abandoned myself to God. From 1979 on, I really have made no decisions. I've been led every step of the way in prayer." Hadn't it been hard to give up control? I asked. He nodded. "In my jobs, I had the ability to be given a task, a challenge, and I would be able to get the big picture. I knew what it took, and I had the expertise to get there. When I converted, I no longer had control over myself or where I was going. Each day I would wake up and take one step after another and be led."
But didn't he fear he was cracking up? Didn't he consider seeing a psychiatrist or some kind of counselor? He shook his head. Early on, he said, he was convinced through his prayer, reading and talking with people that the tears were a sign of spiritual turmoil, but not psychological problems. "I never had a fear I was having a breakdown. I was peaceful about the whole experience. I just abandoned myself to God."
He eventually concluded that his tears were a cleansing gift of joy, not sorrow, and that all he could do was accept them. It all sounded very simple.
Years of quiet drama followed, acted out behind closed doors or down in our basement, out of sight. He kept much of what was happening from his children. He didn't remember sitting down to talk to me, though he says it makes sense that he would have. "At the heart of conversion experiences you're shutting out all the things you see in your life that are less important than God, and you're focusing on God," he said. In a sense, this meant not thinking about the family. Instead of making decisions about us, he was trying to cede them, too, to God. It was part of his larger struggle to give up control.
"I was aware that you children did not understand what was happening, but I really feel I gave myself to all of you during those years. I did try to be involved. As you recall, at the time, none of you children were religious. There was no way I could have explained these experiences to you so you would have understood them. The only thing I could do was be a witness to you."
After we had all left and our house was gone, he had stayed with friends and waited for a sign. For him, too, it was a difficult time. The same Christmas I spent alone with the deranged parakeet, he was staying in the house of some friends who had gone away to their vacation home. He was entirely alone. "I got no phone call, no card, no gift from the children or anybody. I knew I had caused this myself, because of the fact that I was moving around, I didn't have a permanent address, didn't have a phone number. But I also suspected there was more to it than that. There was some kind of feelings on the part of the children, and they were mixed."
It wasn't until he traveled to St. Bede for a visit that he received the sign he was seeking; as he entered his guest room, he saw, yes, a flash of light. It was blinding, but comforting, too. At that point, he felt he knew where he was going to end up.
Despite the sacrifices, he believed it had been a price worth paying. He repeated that he did not see himself as a fading parent waiting around for his grandchildren to visit. "While I felt bad about the family, I was not really concerned with the lack of understanding of me from you kids," he said. "That was not my concern. That was the Lord's to take care of."
His words struck me as slightly cold. Yet I was comforted, too, to know that what I had seen as mystifying, at times disturbing, behavior was in fact my father's attempt to answer the same questions I was starting to ask in those years. It stunned me to know how much he had kept hidden from me, not out of his own embarrassment but out of a desire not to embarrass me.
But there was no getting around the questions that went beyond our parochial family concerns and right to my heart, and about those I didn't quite know what to say. I still don't. In my daily job, I deal in a world of facts and known quantities. I work and socialize in circles where most people doubt the existence of God, to say the least. Many are suspicious of religion, seeing it as something that only their parents cared about, a plot to curb personal freedom, or an outdated series of superstitions that is the province of fools and charlatans. There have been days when I might be willing to subscribe to any of those notions.
And yet. From time to time, something insistently whispers to me: God exists. Beyond logic, perhaps, that voice, after receding for years, has slowly gotten louder as I have gotten older and other ways of living have proved unsatisfying. Like most people I've met, I want there to be something more than the everyday world. Maybe I want to believe everything my father says so I don't have to consider the alternative. But unlike him, I haven't been granted the gift of tears, or given visions of Christ. My voice refuses to speak with anything approaching the boldness or certainty of the one my father says he heard. It doesn't bother to answer various theological objections or manifest itself in any other form. It doesn't speak loudly enough to persuade me to live the life of a good Christian. It's just there, like a radio beacon -- steady, insistent, but faint.
I rarely do much about it. But it is there. It stands as a challenge to me. What does it mean if I say that, deep down, I believe? Do I believe in a God that can do anything? And if I do, why does the story my father told me seem, well, deeply weird? Wouldn't all he told me be not only possible, but reasonable?
When I see him now, I look at the man across from me. He is happy, sane, peaceful, fulfilled. People flock to him; a palpable spirituality emanates from him. I not only love him; I like him, too. There is no doubt that he is at peace with himself and the world.
Isn't that some sort of evidence?
Matt Murray is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. This article is adapted from The Father and the Son: My Father's Journey Into the Monastic Life. Copyright 1999 by Matt Murray. To be published in November by HarperCollins. All rights reserved.