I was born and raised in Connecticut, so allow me to confess a certain yankee reticence in speaking of a subject my background tells me is usually left unspoken. If I am going to tell you why I pray, as opposed to why anyone does or might, it ought to come from my life, and a large part of that has been Spent as a teacher of english. So I have a story for you.
It’s not my own, but from a wonderful Irish writer named John McGahern, who died in 2006. Even if nothing else I have to say is of interest, you might be moved to read the story for yourself and maybe look up some other things McGahern has written. And if that happens, I will be satisfied.
It’s called “The Country Funeral,” 1 and it’s the story of three brothers from Dublin named Ryan: Philly works in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, returning home once every 18 months; Fonsie, who has lost his legs, lives with their widowed mother; John, a schoolteacher, is the only one to have married. The story begins three weeks into one of Philly’s visits, when he is beginning to grow bored:
...Philly had come home in a fever of excitement from the oil fields. He always came home in that high state of fever and it lasted for a few days in the distribution of the presents he always brought home, especially to his mother;...the meetings with old school friends, the meetings with neighbours, the buying of rounds and rounds of drinks; his own fever for company after the months at the oil wells and delight in the rounds of celebration...and now all that fever had subsided to leave him alone and companionless in just another morning as he left the house... with nothing better to do than walk to Mulligan’s [the corner pub]. Once there, he comes to a decision:
The waiting silence of the bar be- came too close an echo of the emptiness he felt all around his life.... He’d go back to the house and tell his mother he was returning early to the oil fields. There were other places he could kill time in.
He comes home, however, to momentous news: the mother’s brother has died at the family farm in the midlands of Ireland, and the three nephews are to go down for the funeral (their mother pleads her dubious frailty). When they were boys, their mother took them to Uncle Peter’s farm every summer—for “the plain, good food” and to get out of the city, she claimed, but really to escape their father. Peter, a bachelor, was a solitary man and put up with them only out of family duty:
He showed them no welcome when they came, spent as little time in the house as possible, the days working in the fields, visiting other houses at night where, as soon as he had eaten, he complained to everybody about the burden he had to put up with. He never troubled to hide his relief when the day finally came at the end of the summer for them to leave. In the quick way of children, the three boys picked up his resentment and suffered its constraint ...Out of loneliness there were times when he tried to talk to them but the constraint had so solidified that all they were ever able to give back were childish echoes of his own awkward questions.
Now, 20 years later, Philly seizes on the funeral as a diversion from his boredom and eagerly starts making plans. Fonsie, on the other hand, goes only after an angry protest, while John immediately agrees, but without a word of his feelings or motivations. The three are about as different from one another as possible, and each brother’s response to a given memory or event illuminates his personality. Philly, as we’ve seen, is something of a hail-fellow-well-met, jovial, at least on the surface, and hungry to be liked. He makes good money and spends it freely when he comes home. Projecting an air of good will, he glosses over pain when he sees it at all; his answer to most problems is to buy the world another round of drinks.
Unless you’re a saint, you wouldn’t want to spend more than three minutes with Fonsie. A more conventional writer might have given him at least one sympathetic trait but, confined to his wheelchair, he embodies the sad truth that suffering does not necessarily ennoble. He responds to everything around him with unrelenting sarcasm and bitterness, as in his description of the funeral procession:
Several times I thought you were going to drop the coffin. It was more like a crowd of apes staggering up a hill with something they had just looted. The whole lot of you could have come right out of the Dark Ages, without even a dab of make-up.
John is another sort entirely, less talkative than his brothers and more sober (in every sense of the word). Cautious and reserved, the few things he says are uttered “vaguely” and “carefully”: you don’t get much from John. At first he seems to be the peacemaker of the family, but it becomes clear that his primary wish in life is to be left alone (“He got on better with strangers than with either of his brothers”). Though he seems to detest his job, he buries himself in teaching and the school routine; he has even refused an offer to become headmaster just so no one will bother him. As he says during the umpteenth wrangle between Philly and Fonsie: “I’m out of this ... What people do is their own business. All I ask is to be let go about my own life.”
In this passage, the brothers reveal themselves in their divergent responses to their late uncle:
I know that without prayer I will be left with my shadows; I pray so that I might see my life and others’ lives less through those shadows and distortions, and more and more with the eyes of love with which Jesus looked on the world.
[Philly said,] “He wasn’t all bad. Once I helped him drive cattle into the fair of Boyle...After we sold the cattle...he took me to the Rockingham Arms. He bought me lemonade and ginger snaps and lifted me up on the counter and said I was a great gossoon [boy] to the whole bar even if I had the misfortune to be from Dublin.”
“You make me sick,” Fonsie said angrily. “The man wasn’t civilized. I always felt if he got a chance he’d have put me in a bag with a stone and thrown me in a bog hole like that [dog].”
“That’s exaggerating now. He never did and we’re almost there,” John said as the car passed the church ...
Indeed, their characters are far more important than the prosaic events of the story: they attend the wake and funeral, reminisce about Uncle Peter, and settle his estate. The only surprise is Philly’s rash announcement that he intends to return to the farm and live there—his stubborn testimony that the long-ago summers were actually idyllic, though everyone else remembers them as painful and tedious. This leads to one final drunken fight before the brothers head home to report to their mother. Fonsie repeats his bitter jibe—“They were like a crowd of apes carrying the coffin up the hill”— while the last word belongs to Philly: “‘Anyhow, we buried poor Peter,’ [he] said, as if it was at last a fact.”
So what does all this have to do with prayer? As I said at the outset, this ought to have some connection to my life, and believe me, I know these guys. In fact, I might say I’ve been each of them at one time or another. Like Philly, I have too often lived out of a baseless, cockeyed optimism, and an inordinate need to be liked and accepted. I have stewed resentfully in my own hurts and disappointments like Fonsie, and have gone on to speak words of sarcasm and condescension. And like John, I have longed for what I imagined was safety, losing myself in the daily routine and asking that the world do no more than leave me alone. All of these, of course, are illusions. At one point McGahern says that Philly’s false sense of well-being is “blinding him to the poor fact that it is not generally light but shadow that we cast.” I know that without prayer I will be left with my shadows; I pray so that I might see my life and others’ lives less through those shadows and distortions, and more and more with the eyes of love with which Jesus looked on the world, through the eyes of the one who said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). As the late Pedro Arrupe, S.J., asked the Lord:
Teach me your way of looking at people: as you glanced at Peter after his denial, as you penetrated the heart of the rich young man and the hearts of your disciples. I would like to meet you as you really are, since your image changes those with whom you come into contact.