Turns out Lead Me, Guide Me: The Life and Example of Father Dan Begin will probably appear ahead of schedule. In the next few weeks, in fact. Because there’s no chance for a launch party or public readings in the near future anyway, it might as well come out now. So this is good news, especially since Father Dan’s voice can provide solace and wisdom in this hard time. As I’m editing the final draft, I’ve come to a chapter that seems especially relevant. It’s about Father Dan’s oft-repeated advice to give up our illusion of control.
Possibly you grasp the relevance of this advice to our current situation.
There’s plenty we can and should control, of course. We can wash our hands. We can stay inside. We can wear face masks. But we can’t control so much else. We can’t control what the federal government does. We can’t control our employers. And we can’t control those sneaky little viruses. They’re worse than disobedient teenagers!
This excerpt is based on a conversation we had during the time we were confronting the probable closure of Father Dan’s churches, Epiphany and St. Cecilia, one of the most painful experiences in his life. After we talked about that looming threat, I posed another question.
It turned out the question I came with was not so far removed. I
intended to ask about death, the greatest change of all. I asked what
Father Dan would advise people pondering or facing that great mystery.
“We’re all facing the unknown all the time. We just don’t know it,”
he said. Always, he said, we don’t know what’s going to happen. Our
future is a shadow. We can worry about it. We can try to control what
happens, but at some point we realize, or we should realize, that we’re
not in control of our future. Father Dan realized this increasingly as
he turned sixty.
“My fifties were the best years of my life. They were
my healthiest—physically, mentally. My sixties already are a nuisance.
I don’t like them so far. It’s a control thing. I can’t do everything I
could do before. I can’t run as fast. I can’t lift as much.”
He explained that he might have to think about asking others for
more help. “There are people who will do things for me,” he said. “I
just don’t want them to.”
Losing control is a painful adjustment. But if we weren’t forced to adjust, he said, we would avoid all changes and maintain our routines and do things the way we always have.
He went on to describe the process of letting go, which everyone
who ever attended a Father Dan funeral heard some version of. He
wrote it once again, in fact, for his own funeral, and his brother Father Bob
read it to the hundreds of people attending.
He said, “When we finally do die, it’s just like birth. It’s one
labor that everybody goes through. You can’t make it start and you
can’t make it stop. But then there’s this moment, this ultimate real
letting go, which we can really never do in this life. It happens more
easily for people who have been doing it all of their lives. So, the
more letting go you do as you live, the less difficult it is when you die.
When you look back you think: why did I even worry?”
I had this conversation with Father Dan in 2009, taped and transcribed
it, little knowing I’d be revising it after his death. Father Dan spent his last
few days in the care of his loving sisters. He lay in a bright downstairs
room where he could look out at the house next door where he grew up.
Like all of us, he never wanted to relinquish control. He didn’t
want to be helpless. But when it came time to do so, he chose it
instead of resisting it. It makes sense, doesn’t it, that the day before
he died he said, “I hope everyone is learning about dying from me.
Don’t be afraid! It’s beautiful!”