This I Believe:
A Parable for My Father
In 1993, I began reading The Nag Hammadi Library. The Gnostic Gospels were part of a course that spring in existential theology at U.C. Berkeley. I’d gone still thinking I was looking for God. Or looking for an approach to God, through a mix of philosophy and Scripture. I’d been on this path, now pretty well worn, since having finished my studies for the Roman Catholic priesthood thirteen years before.
A priest at St. Patrick’s Seminary had told me I wasn’t looking for God. He’d said I could find God anytime I wanted. “Just turn,” he’d said, “and God’ll be there.”
At Berkeley that semester, I found what I was looking for. I found my father. Found him in the Gospel of Thomas.
Jesus’ disciples question him. How should we pray? Should we fast? What about giving alms? Tell us the steps to piety, the secret to eternal life.
Jesus’ advice never made it into the Christian canon, into the four Gospels we read in The New Testament. I think probably because most of what he says in the Gnostic Gospels sounds like good old common sense, like any common man could figure it out.
Jesus says, “Never tell lies, and do nothing that you hate.”
My father said he didn’t believe in God. Or in Jesus either. Said he didn’t believe in an afterlife, in eternity. In yesterday or tomorrow. “No, I don’t,” he said. “Time gone doesn’t repeat. What isn’t here yet isn’t missing. I’m going to fetch myself a little drink. You want anything?”
My father said a man had to do everything he could to make his life count. “It’s in what you say to yourself. How you talk to yourself. When you go to bed at night, you need to sleep, not wake up thinking of things.”
He meant you had to tell yourself the truth. If you had a score to settle, settle it. He meant no justifying would work. Justifying was the other side of regret. Justifying was a trick. You had talks with yourself, and in these talks you worked yourself around to the truth.
“Best to do this in the early morning. Hopefully, you’re by yourself. Nobody else is up yet. Get a book. One you love. An author who’s really assaulting you, keeping your afraid, alert. Putting you on your best guard. Because probably about half an hour into it, you’ll look up, because the truth will be right in front of you. It’ll have nothing to do with what you’ve been reading. How’s your conflict level?”
My father had been in conflict with himself his whole life. Two years before he died, he wasn’t anymore. He was at peace. He said he’d finally gotten it all talked out. He said he’d started late, but, fortunately, not too late.
If a man consumes a lion, the man is blessed. If a lion consumes a man, the man is cursed.
A parable for my father.