MY FATHER NEVER WENT TO CHURCH
My father never went to church.
Every Sunday morning he would wake up bright and early, before anyone else in the family, and drive the mile downtown to Robert Treat, a German-style bakery and delicatessen. There he would buy all sorts of tasty goods and bring them home for the family to enjoy. It was a Sunday morning ritual.
He bought the Sunday New York Times. He would turn on the kitchen radio, turn up the volume and tune in the news and then the Metropolitan Opera House broadcast. He served everyone breakfast and then drove my sisters and me to Sunday school. My mother taught Sunday school, so she drove down to the church earlier. He often had to pick us up from church if my mother had meetings or activities after the services. My dad joked saying, “She lives in that church.” He never complained. He would dutifully shuttle us to church all those Sunday mornings and sometimes pick us up and other times taxi us on Sunday evenings to choir practice or youth fellowship. He never tried to get out of it. He just did it.
It was explained to me that the reason he didn’t go to church was because his mother had been a Catholic and his father a Lutheran. They could not agree on which denomination for my father. Then his mother had him baptized by a priest secretly. When his father found out all hell broke loose. So my father never went to church while he was growing up and never received any formal religious training. While he was at sea, my dad read the Bible from cover to cover many times. He memorized certain passages and could quote from both the New and Old Testaments.
My father said that he could not deny that God existed. He just didn’t believe in organized religion and said that he wasn’t an atheist, but an agnostic.
I have concluded that my father was a Gnostic because he embraced Christian values, eastern philosophies and had a deeply spiritual mystical knowledge. He was a mathematician and enjoyed figuring odds, and the beauty of numbers impressed him. He liked equations with solutions, algebra, trigonometry, calculus. He taught himself Boolean algebra which is based on two digits, 0 and 1. He worked with numbers. I remember seeing his fountain pen, the careful way in which he made numbers in a fine engineering-style penmanship, slide rules, yellow paper, sheets and sheets of papers with figures. There were long hours at night when he prepared his lectures, corrected papers, wrote down numbers. It held no attraction for me. I had no idea what it was all about, and I cheerfully flunked out of Algebra 2.
One night my father told me a story about coincidences that he had never been able to explain. He shared this story with me several times, usually while we looked at the stars or talked about the universe. I have never forgotten this story and have passed it on to my daughter. Whenever she has told me that she has some doubts about the existence of God or doesn’t believe in Divine Presence, then I tell her the story again. It goes like this:
When I was in college, I asked my father why he believed in God. The subject startled him at first, and then it was put on hold. He needed to do something, someone interrupted our conversation and he couldn’t answer me. He quickly told me that he just knew God existed. Sometimes he didn’t bother to explain things or pursue a complicated deep subject if there wasn’t enough time available for it. He was very aware of learning and that teachable moments were necessary. A few days later, he said he wanted to share a story with me that might answer my question. The time was now right for him. The time was right for me. He had a story to tell. He loved telling stories, and I loved listening to him.
One January night during an ice storm, my father was delayed at his school in New York City. The weather had become so terrible that all the trains and bus lines were delayed. He decided to take care of details with his teaching work rather than leave the building at his usual time and then waste time just sitting around the bus station. He seldom called my mother from work. It was long distance, and most likely she knew his delay was to be expected. I remember becoming anxious. I told my mother I was worried about him, but she said not to worry. She had been hooked up to this sailor for almost thirty years and knew all about storms and delays.
“He was always sending me telegrams about being stuck around Cape Hatterras when he was at sea . . . always getting delayed. I’d just wait," she said. "Eventually he’d show up.” She was a woman who knew how to wait.
Eventually he packed up his briefcase, headed to the Port Authority and just managed to board the last bus for home. It was almost empty. He was one of two or three passengers, so he could select just about any seat he wanted. He found one near a window at the back of the bus. He was weary, as always. He sat down, stretched out and wished he had bought a newspaper to read. The bus moved slowly through the Meadowlands, past Newark Airport, traveling the same route it always traveled. My dad liked bad weather, the excitement it generated. He was an amateur meteorologist. He kept a big thermometer by a window, read it religiously, listened to radio weather forecasts and built a barometer that got goofed up with bubbles in it. There were rain gauges in his tomato patch, wind gauges on his rooftop.
Freezing rain and ice encased everything. My dad wiped a spot clear on the foggy bus window and watched men struggling with downed power lines. The lines were whipping from poles, sparking, snaking around wildly, snapping and crackling in the night. His thoughts wandered as the bus made a small detour and skirted these workers. As he watched them, a memory of an old friend emerged. This friend was a high line worker, someone he had known from childhood and with whom he had shared many good times. He began wondering what had become of his old friend. He hadn’t seen him in thirty years.
My dad settled back into his seat, wishing once again for a newspaper to read.
He began feeling around in between his seat and the window because sometimes people would leave their newspapers jammed in these crevices. Sure enough he felt a newspaper. He freed it and was shocked to see that it was from his old hometown. He hadn’t seen an edition of the Perth Amboy News in ten years or more. In the 20 years my dad had been commuting to New York, he had never before seen an edition of his hometown newspaper on the buses or trains or in a station. These lines never went anywhere near his hometown.
He was pleased to see the paper but remained baffled as to why it was on this bus. The date on the paper was that day’s date, so it hadn’t been left behind on another day. He opened up the paper and, as was my father’s custom, immediately turned to the obituary page. (He had a morbid curiosity about death and dying.) The first obituary he read was that of his old friend, the high line worker.
Chills still go up and down my spine when I remember how he looked at me at this point in his story. He stopped talking and rested for a moment, just staring off into space and then back at me. “I hope you understand the many details in this story and the significance of what I have just told you,” he said. “This can’t be explained away.”
My dad then pointed out the specifics of his tale. He was habitual and scientific about listing things, and he wanted to impress upon me that there were far too many coincidences involved. He wanted me to understand that this great number of coincidences was very important, highly significant and that mathematically no reasonable explanation for computing so very many odds existed.
My dad and I both boggled over these facts and the coincidences that were created. It was too much. No reasonable explanation existed for any of what had taken place. We discussed this event many times afterwards and enjoyed our talks. We would find more interesting facts each time we explored his dark and stormy night story. Something else was going on. The reasons for what took place that evening were far more mystical and inexplicable. Forces were at work which could not be understood, explained or computed. Sometimes we simply cannot understand what is so vast. Our brains are too small to comprehend certain mysterious occurrences.
My dad just wanted me to appreciate his story, to trust, to pay attention and never ignore coincidences. I do. I have noticed many in my own life that have been too odd, too unusual and mysterious. I pay attention to them. I can usually tell when someone is telling a tall tale or telling the truth. I have noticed in my lifetime that truth is often far much stranger and far more interesting than fiction. Coincidences may be a form of truth or, more importantly, proof.
Beth Ellen Warner - Kennebunk, ME
© 2005 Beth Ellen Warner. All Rights Reserved. Used by kind permission.
Beth is a prize-winning photographer and a contributing writer/photographer to several publications. She is the author of three books yet to be published. "My Father Never Went to Church" is an excerpt from one of her books.