LETTERS FROM MY FATHER:

AN IRISH CATHOLIC DISCOVERS THE SCRIPTURES

 

Dermott J. Mullan, 404 Park Circle, Elkton MD 21921: mullan@bartol.udel.edu;

 

 

 

1. Introduction

 

“Bible reading is not for Catholics” summarizes the prejudice I imbibed during the years when I grew up as a Catholic in Northern Ireland. I knew that Bible reading was something that Protestants did. But in my mind, the primary expression of Catholic life was devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. I regarded Bible reading as a secondary practice that merely occurred near the start of Mass.

 

As a result of my prejudice against Bible reading, I was really taken aback when I came across a certain sentence in a document of Vatican II (Dei Verbum: the last sentence). "Just as the life of the Church is strengthened through more frequent celebration of the Eucharistic mystery, similarly we may hope for a new stimulus for the spiritual life from a growing reverence for the word of God, which lasts forever".

 

These words of Vatican II opened up new vistas to me. They suggested that "visiting" the word of God in scripture might be as worthwhile in a Catholic life as visiting the Word of God in the Blessed Sacrament. I already felt very welcome when I went into a Catholic Church to visit the Blessed Sacrament. (I have written about this in the Liguorian magazine, December 2001.) But I must say I was very skeptical about an analogous result as regards the Scriptures. Sad to say, my anti-Protestant prejudices died hard.

 

However, I eventually left Northern Ireland and moved to USA. And one summer, my job took me to an out-of-the-way part of New Mexico. There, it turned out to be impossible for me to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament on weekdays. That was when I decided to give the Vatican II teaching a try.  After all, what did I have to lose? By the end of the summer, my skepticism about the Vatican II teaching was on the wane. I found myself enjoying the new world of the Scriptures, a world that I had previously regarded as in some sense the property of Protestants only.

 

 

            2. Letters from my father

 

At about the same time that I was starting to read Scripture, I began to receive letters from my father who still lived in Ireland. After my mother died, my father took up the task of writing regularly to each of his four children. As a result, I could count on the fact that every couple of weeks, a letter would arrive with news from home.

 

To my amazement, I have recently discovered that the Church describes the Scriptures as "letters from our heavenly Father". I do not believe that it was a coincidence that, at the time in my life when I was beginning to receive regular letters from my father in Ireland, I began to read the “letters” from my (heavenly) Father in scripture.

 

I would like to compare the letters I received from my earthly father with the letters from my heavenly Father in scripture. 

 

 

3. The last letter from my (earthly) father

 

Strange as it may sound, I actually received a letter from my father after he died. There was no miracle involved in this: it was the normal delay of a week or so in transporting the letter from Ireland to the USA.

 

I have the letter in front of me as I write. I treasure it now. The letter is in the characteristic hand-writing that all of his four children knew so well. Even at the best of times, my father's hand was not easy to decipher. As he became older, the writing became worse, and towards the end of his last letter, he went so far as to include the phrase "I hope you can make out this scrawl".

 

And of course, for his last letter in particular, I worked hard to "make out the scrawl". Every last word of it. And why not? Here was news from home written from a viewpoint that no one else in the world could describe to me.

 

In the letter, my father brought me up to date on the state of his health: "at my age [he was 84 years old], the old frame is starting to crack". He told me about the death of his last surviving brother. He directed specific remarks to each of my children, especially the five oldest whom he remembered best from his visits to America. He had a warm comment for my wife: "Let me give her my best love and regards for her good health". The parting greeting in the letter was: "Good luck and love from Daddy".

 

This last letter was typical of the sort of letter that I had received from him for more than a dozen years after my mother died. My father knew well what news items would be of interest to me, now that I was far from my home country. He would write about marriages and deaths of mutual acquaintances, about IRA terrorism (two large bombs damaged the home where I grew up), and about what was happening to the various businesses which lined the main street where we lived in the center of town.

 

My father wrote not only to me but to my siblings also. He kept a list of when he wrote to each of us, so he was sure not to let too long a time elapse between writing a letter to any one of us. In writing to me, he would shade the news in a somewhat different way when he wrote to my brothers or sister. There were no copiers or computers in my father's life, and as a result, every letter had to be written by hand. When he wrote a letter to me, he was consciously communicating with me personally.

 

As a result of my father's efforts, each letter would bring to my mind a vivid image of life at home. And I knew that while he was writing that letter, his attention was focussed on me and the news he thought I would like most to hear.

 

 

4. Letters from my (heavenly) Father

 

About a dozen years before my (earthly) father was born, the Pope of the day (Leo XIII) issued the first modern encyclical concerning the study of holy scripture. I read it for the first time shortly after my father died.

 

Some of the words in Pope Leo’s writing strike me as particularly remarkable. He wrote: “God...composed the Scriptures...these are His own oracles and words, a LETTER WRITTEN BY OUR HEAVENLY FATHER, and transmitted by the sacred writers to the human race in its pilgrimage SO FAR FROM ITS HEAVENLY COUNTRY" (emphasis added). 

 

            These words have made a deep impression on me. They provide me with a new way of thinking about scripture that ties in directly with my experience of receiving letters from my (earthly) father after I moved far away from my home country.

 

There is even a reference to some difficulties that arise in reading my (heavenly) Father’s letters! St Peter remarks that some things in Scripture are obscure (2 Peter 3, 16). This comment about obscurity reminds me of my (earthly) father's remark in his last letter to me: "I hope you can read this scrawl".

 

In cases where the "scrawl" in scripture is hard to read, I have learned that my Father has set up the teaching Church. However, from what I have read so far, I think that such “obscure” parts of scripture are actually few and far between. The vast majority of scripture is not a scrawl at all, but is a joy to read, and it speaks directly to me on a variety of interesting topics, just as my (earthly) father’s letters did.

 

And just as my father would emphasize different news items in his letters to my siblings, so I am learning that my Father’s letters have something special to say to everyone who opens them up to read them. We are all siblings in this Father’s family.

 

Now that I no longer have an earthly father to write to me, I have a greater appreciation of the letters that my heavenly Father has written. These letters are teaching me how to live as a member of God’s family. They are also opening my eyes and heart to the wonders of a faraway country that sounds even better than the place in Ireland where I spent my happy childhood. About that faraway country, my Father writes: “Eye has not see, ear has not heard, nor has it so much as dawned on man what things God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor. 2, 9).

 

My (heavenly) Father’s letters encourage me to hope that, if I can learn to love Him, I will one day meet my (earthly) father and mother again in that faraway country. Then there will no longer be any need for letters between us. The spoken word will once again come into play.

 

And there is one Word that He is teaching me to look forward to meeting in particular, a Word that is spoken from all eternity by my Father: Jesus Christ. Thanks to the Catholic faith which my father and mother passed on to me, I first came to know that Word in the Blessed Sacrament. But in recent years, my Father is also teaching me about Jesus Christ in the Scriptures. Truly, this is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.