Frank McCourt (1930-2009)
(…continued) Frank McCourt was a man skilled in the writing and speaking of words. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his best-selling book Angela’s Ashes, in which he tells hilarious stories of his miserable childhood growing up in Limerick, Ireland. It is not all hilarious, of course, as McCourt describes his life as a child in that desperately poor family, and how that life was made even more desperate by the father’s alcoholism. Any money the father would get his hands on would go for Guinness beer, and the family was constantly hungry, shabby, and in the winter, cold. As a direct result of these conditions, three of the seven children died in childhood. The book is the story of how the others survived by charity, by their wits, and by a bit of thievery; and then overcome all sorts of obstacles to get to America. In America they all do very well. Frank McCourt also wrote a second book, ’Tis, about his life as a young immigrant in America, and then a third book, Teacherman.
Along with this story of survival, there is the story of the family’s faith, or I should say, loss of faith. In the three books one can follow the faith of four generations. As time goes on, one can see the slow, but sure, eroding away of faith until there is nothing left.
Frank McCourt’s life story begins with the family deeply involved in the traditions of the faith. There are prayers at home and prayers in church; when someone does something wrong the first thing that comes to mind is confession; and the church school education teaches about all of life from the standpoint of faith. In the first generation we see the old grandmother, the mother of Frank’s mother, Angela. She is a stern and crabby old lady, but she always goes to church, and encourages her daughter and her grandchildren to remember their religious duties– going to mass, getting their first communion, getting confirmed, and so on. There are many problems, as always in the church. The schoolmasters at the parochial school are often too harsh, the people at the church charity are smug and self-righteous, and there is in the slums much ridiculing of the church and faith in God. And grandma, the primary religious influence in the family, is harsh and crabby and not a very attractive witness to the Christian faith. But there are also good schoolmasters, kind and understanding priests, and a life saving generosity in the church charities. Without those charities there would have been more dead McCourt children. The good and bad are mixed in that Catholic church in Limerick, as always in all of life; but the family, in the beginning, is at least concerned about ‘being in a state of grace,’ God is on their minds, the church is important, and Jesus is there to talk to anytime. It is obvious that Frank’s parents were brought up in the church. They know all about it, they know all the religious duties, they know what their children should do. But then, they leave it at that– as something for the children. They insist that their children go to church, but they hardly ever go.
Therefore, the kids learn from their parents’ behavior that church is for children, not adults, and when they grow up and go to America, none of them ever go to any church. And their mother, unlike her own mother, does not encourage it. What can she say? She herself has not gone to church for years. Frank knows about Jesus and about sin and guilt and confession and forgiveness and salvation and all of that. He knows it all from his childhood, and these things often enter his thoughts. But he doesn’t very much believe in any of it any more, and doesn’t consider it worth teaching to his daughter. So, by the fourth generation, the loss of faith is complete. Frank’s daughter, Maggie, has never gone to church, and she knows nothing about what it means to believe in Jesus. Relatives and friends don’t even get married or buried at the church. There is absolutely no religious connection or any opportunity for even a tiny seed of faith to be planted.
In 1981 Frank’s mother died. There is no funeral, just a gathering, and that is not in a church, but at the funeral home. There is no priest and no mention God’s Word, just the family telling stories and singing the old songs of Ireland. Frank’s 10 year old daughter Maggie is there, and here is what Frank McCourt writes about that in ‘Tis. Paraphrasing a bit, I quote:
Maggie kneels by me, looking at her grandmother, the first dead body she has seen in her ten years. She has no vocabulary for this, no religion, no prayer. And that’s another sadness. She can only look at her grandmother and say, ‘Where is she now, dad?’ And all I can say is, ‘If there is a heaven, Maggie, she’s there, and she’s the Queen of it.’ And Maggie asks, ‘Is there a heaven, dad?’
Frank McCourt says of his grieving daughter, ‘she has no vocabulary for this, no religion, no prayer, and that’s another sadness.’ It is indeed very sad to lose your dear mother and grandmother; that’s one sadness, and that’s bad enough. But there is another sadness, says Frank, the sadness of not having anything at all to say about it. Two days ago they could talk to grandma, but now she was dead and couldn’t talk, and the next day she would be cremated. That would be the end of grandma, and there was nothing else he could say. There is no hope, no one who can help, and no one to pray to. Nothing. And that is indeed, another sadness.
In I Thessalonians 4:13 Paul wrote: “We do not want you to be ignorant about those who have died, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.” Go ahead and grieve for those you love who have died, Paul implies. That’s only natural. But we need not grieve like those who have no hope. We have a great hope, as he goes on to say in the next verse: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” There is the vocabulary, the hope, the prayer for this, but Maggie doesn’t have that. She has never heard it. So she has another sadness. But Christians have one sadness, not two. The pain of separation at death is sad enough, but we do not see it as a permanent separation.
“Where is grandma now, dad?,” asked Maggie.
Her father answered, “If there is a heaven, she is there now, and she is the Queen of it.” That was a cheerful and hopeful answer, but it has one too many words in it. “IF” he said, ‘If there is a heaven.’ And that was a big ‘if’ coming from a man whose daughter never saw him paying any attention at all to God or faith or heaven or anything of the sort. His reply was cheerful enough, but it lacked conviction and certainty, it lacked assurance, and it lacked hope. The ‘if’ was too big for Maggie, so she searched for a more certain reply from her father. “IS there a heaven, dad,?” she asked. And he had not much more to say, not any more comfort to give. Faith was gone.
They had ‘no vocabulary, no religion, and no prayer,’ to deal with the death of a loved one. But those who believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior have all of that, and so we have much to draw on at a time like that. To begin with, we have the story of Jesus who had been killed, but on the third day came out of the tomb, risen, alive, victorious over death and the promise that we too can live again. Frank McCourt could only say ‘if there is a heaven,’ and Laura Nyro could say only ‘if there it’s peace you find in dying;’ but the New Testament is filled with eyewitness accounts of those who saw Jesus dead and then alive again. There was no lack of conviction and no uncertainty in their words. Most of them would willingly lose their lives proclaiming that message to all the world.
The verses below are just a few of the words left to us by those eyewitnesses of the resurrection. This is the vocabulary of faith that Maggie McCourt did not have when grieving the loss of her dear grandmother. These are the words and the promises that speaks to Laura Nyro’s big IF— “If it’s peace you find in dying, well then let the time be near,” she said.
Jesus said, “Yes, if you believe in me, it is peace that you find. Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in me.”
John 16:33 — (Jesus said), “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
John 14:1-3 — (Jesus said), “Let not your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me. For in my father’s house there are many rooms, and I am going there to prepare a place for you… and I will come back and take you to be with me, so that you also may be where I am.”
John 11:25 — Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whosoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live again.”
Romans chapter 14:8-9 — Whether we live or die we belong to the Lord, for to this end Christ died and rose from the dead, that he might be Lord of the living and the dead.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me… Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell your house, O Lord, forever. –From the 23rd Psalm