I went to evening Mass with a heavy heart, having spent the greater part of Saturday at a memorial service for an old friend. He was a fourth grade teacher who had taught two of our four children, but more than that, he was one of my husband’s dearest friends, and practically a part of our family while our daughters were growing up. After he retired, we saw him less, in the way that people who no longer travel in the same circles meet less often in the course of a day. When his son called to tell us that he had died – finally succumbing to the skin cancer we thought he’d successfully battled – we realized guiltily that we hadn’t seen him in quite a while. He was one of those low-maintenance friends, the kind you pick up with right where you left off the last time you’d been together. Only now, there would be no next time to get together.

Our friend was not a religious man. His memorial actually took place at the community theater, where he had appeared in many local productions. He had been a wonderful father, a delighted grandfather, a reliable friend, a beloved teacher, an involved citizen, a good neighbor, a dedicated soccer referee, as well as a gardener, a hiker, a spelling bee judge, an actor, a music lover, a crossword puzzle aficionado, a history buff, and all that only scratched the surface of a rather private man. He said that he did not believe in God, but I’m pretty sure he believed in what I think of as God; he just didn’t call God by name. Or else he was the kindest, most selfless, most loving and peaceful atheist I’ve ever known.  As a woman at the service mentioned, he lived the second of the two great commandments Jesus gave us better than anyone we knew. He would never have said that he loved God, but he truly loved his neighbor as himself.  

His loss has made the world a poorer place. As I sat in church and inwardly mourned, the responsorial psalm washed over me: “Praise the Lord who heals the brokenhearted.” It was sweetly sung by a children’s choir. It fell on my heart like a gentle rain. Because God never leaves us alone in our pain. God is as present in our suffering as in our joy.

“He heals the brokenhearted/and binds up their wounds/He tells the number of the stars;/he calls each by name,” sang the children. I believe that our dear friend now lives in God, although he had no such expectation. And I trust that, in God’s hands and in God’s time, our broken hearts will heal.

Valerie Schultz

 

Comments

C Walter Mattingly | 2/8/2012 - 9:05am
Thank you, Ms Schultz.
Karl Rahner had a term for such as your friend, those who for whatever reason-historical/geographic remoteness, inability to accept God's presence in the world-one of the loveliest concepts and terms in our recent theology: the anonymous Christian. One who though ignorant of or disbelieving God, nonetheless lives a life of testament to the values of Christ, recognizing something larger than himself and responding to that recognition with a life of love for his fellow man. Surely, such a person is more the "Christian" than one who outwardly affirms Christ but inwardly, and in his life actions, does not. 
Sunil Korah | 2/7/2012 - 11:26am
I know there are many who do not believe in God and yet are among the kindest, loving people (several of my friends in that group). What I don't understand is what makes them so.

On the other hand, we say God is Love, God is Truth etc. So those who are loving,  love truth etc are, I suppose, loving God without saying so in so many words.
JIM MCCREA | 2/6/2012 - 5:34pm
" - he was the kindest, most selfless, most loving and peaceful atheist I’ve ever known."

Is that so hard to accept?  There are many who do not believe in a Higher Power and still find it within themselves to be selfless, kind, loving and peaceful.

We should not try to make people into what they themselves declared themselve not to be.
david power | 2/6/2012 - 8:52am
Yes ,beautiful piece. The loving little details make it a worthwhile read.
I have never been dissapointed in anything I have read on America with Valerie Schultz name next to it. Food for thought always and often as not a question more than an exclamation mark.  
NORMA NUNAG | 2/6/2012 - 12:56am
Beautiful piece.  Your comments reminded me of what Fr. Robert Barron said of Christopher Hitchens, the famous self proclaimed aethiest....(see youtube Fr. Robert Barron  commented on Christopher Hitchen's passing).  Your friend's life affirmed God's existence and love for him.  He just didn't know how to articulate it.