Abraham believed, hoping agains hope, that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “Thus shall your descendants be. That is why it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Romans 4:18, 22.
When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.
The Church seems to find itself at a loss as it celebrates the Feast of St. Joseph. The reason, of course, is that we know almost nothing about Joseph. We know the line from which he springs, and we hear from Matthew his agency in protecting first Mary in her pregnancy and then Jesus in his infancy. He is then mentioned by Mary when she finds Jesus at the age of 12 in the Temple. But other than these brief cameos, Joseph’s life is a mystery to us.
Back in the 1980’s the local paper in my home town of Beverly, Massachusetts, published an old photo from, I assume, the 50’s or so. It was a photo of employees of the paper from that time at a celebration. The picture was captioned with the names of each person, except for one who was designated as “an unknown pressman.” That unknown pressman was my father. This picture with its designation of my father’s anonymity made a deep impression on me.
After first being angry that they could find the identity of the others but not his, I began to reflect on how in many ways this anonymity suited my father at two levels. The first level was of how, in the larger scheme of things, we are all, with very limited exceptions, all basically unknowns in the world. As with St. Joseph, our identity and significance is pretty much totally unrecognized and totally unknown to most of the world. Today’s feast day points to the great significance of one individual, whose name endures through the ages but whose actual life is a mystery to us. To see in print my dad identified, or not identified, as an unknown was a striking reminder to me of the difference between my personal history and the history of even a small seacoast town in Massachusetts.
The “second level” of my awareness of the truth of my father’s anonymity, however, was by far the more powerful. It was of how unknown he was even to me. At the time of the publication of the picture, my father had been dead for just a very few years. So, I was very much still at a point of coming to grips with my relationship to him in his physical absence. I was coming to realize that other than what I would learn of his life indirectly through stories he would tell or how he would frame the life lessons he would try, very subtly and often cryptically, to teach me, I knew very little of who he was. I knew what he valued, but I really didn’t know what it was like for him to be alive, what was most important to him, and especially what he suffered in his life.
Much as we do with St. Joseph, I drew lessons for life from my father’s life, but I knew very little of what living was like for him, of the desires and questions that animated his being in the world.
What led my father to do what he did in life, and what kept him from doing what he would most want to have done? I know when he was younger he spoke often of “someday” having a farm. His idea would have been to have a quiet and simple life working and living off of the soil. But I never asked him why he would like to live that way someday. What did that desire and fantasy say about his life call, about who he really was? What the context of today’s readings and the brief description from Matthew of Joseph’s role in the birth of Jesus tell us is that at the heart of Joseph’s identity was his faith in God. It was his desire and his willingness to do “as the angel of the Lord had commanded him” that was the driving force of his decisions and actions.
Far too often for us, faith is adherence to a certain cognitive, doctrinal or dogmatic content. But creedal adherence and recitation does not, for the most part, have much influence in the form we give to our lives. Where our real faith lies, however, is perhaps the greatest influence on our life direction and everyday actions. It is the motivation of the shape we give our lives and our days.
At a fairly young age, I recognized through my experience of my father that life is difficult. He had a wonderful sense of humor and a capacity for play, which taught me much about a kind of abiding faith in life. Yet, he also clearly struggled in life with a persistent sense of disappointment, not so much in others, I think, but in himself. The downside for him of his gifts of listening and receptivity to others was a certain passivity or even at times “willessness” that was probably related to his addictive personality. In contrast to my mother who by disposition seemed very able to make happen what she wanted, he always seemed not quite able to do so. Yet, for all of that, he had, up until the night he died, a capacity, in an ultimate sense, to abandon himself in trust to life and to God. It was only much later in my life that I learned that despite not being a part of any developed “faith tradition,” my father exemplified for me and, thus, taught me the deeper meaning of faith.
The playwright Samuel Beckett once spoke of the need to express ourselves as human beings as fundamental to life, while also impossible. “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” Faith is the trust in the truth that, however we would explicate it, we all are, so I am, a word of God, and that despite all the struggle and difficulty I have in expressing this, nonetheless, it is true. Joseph tends to Mary and to Jesus because his life is given to do so. These relationships, this taking care of them, is what he is for. Perhaps we know so little of his life because there appeared, for the most part, nothing worth noting about it in any way the world measures.
Perhaps my dad fantasized about some day living simply and quietly on a farm because such a life would have afforded him the place to listen more deeply to the call of his life. Perhaps what he saw as the simplicity of that life would have provided him the safe space to express himself in ways he had difficulty doing in his current day to day life. And yet, for it all, perhaps his greatest gift to me was a sense of faith that endures through the difficulties and failures of our lives. He never got to that farm. And he and I never really expressed ourselves to each other. And yet, even as he was dying, he was working to reach me. To keep reaching, when we cannot seem ever to touch, requires faith. To keep trying to express when there seems to be “nothing to express, no desire to express,” yet, “the obligation to express” is living in faith.
Perhaps the greatest temptation to faith is the temptation to cease working at what is to be done because of lack of results. It may be to choose death, to cease trying to fulfill the obligation to express ourselves, because we are never really able to do so. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote that to really live our lives is to “live the questions.” In faith, we believe that what we are for is for being, for living. Our integrity and even our nobility lies not in what we accomplish or in the degree to which we are recognized but in our “fidelity” to living the question of who we are and what we are for. It may not even be that important how “successfully” we do this. Faith is the source of an endurance that never ceases trying to express the word that we are, through all the seemingly unending struggles to do so.
Contemplation is also the response to a call, a call from One who has no voice, and yet who speaks in everything that is, and who, most of all, speaks in the depths of our own being,: for we ourselves are words of God’s. But we are words that are meant to respond to God, to answer to God, to echo God, and even in some way to contain God and signify God. Contemplation is this echo. It is a deep resonance in the inmost center of our spirit in which our very life loses its separate voice and re-sounds with the majesty and the mercy of the Hidden and Living One. God answers God’s self in us and this answer is divine life, divine creativity, making all things new. We ourselves become God’s echo and God’s answer. It is as if in creating us God asked a question, and in awakening us in contemplation God answered the question, so that the contemplative is at the same time, question and answer.
The life of contemplation implies two levels of awareness: first, awareness of the question, and second, awareness of the answer. Though these are two distinct and enormously different levels, yet they are in fact an awareness of the same thing. The question is, itself, the answer. And we ourselves are both. But we cannot know this until we have moved into the second kind of awareness. We awaken, not to find an answer absolutely distinct from the question, but to realize that the question is its own answer. And all is summed up in one awareness—not a proposition, but an experience: “I am.”
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, quoted in Bernard McGinn, ed., The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, pp. 547-8