Saturday morning my friend and pastor Dan Begin died at the home of his sister Donna. This is very hard for everyone who knew him, but he chose—and I emphasize chose—to ease the way for us all by his attitude of acceptance.
Father Dan was a glass-half-full sort of person. His sister Laura always said that Danny got up every morning looking to see how the Creator of the Universe had rearranged things for his entertainment. She also jokingly complained that he used up her family inheritance of serotonin. He was not, by any stretch, a depressive. So 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!”
And one of the last times I saw him, he asked me to pass on this wisdom: “We complicate life, but it’s really very simple. It’s all about getting our basic needs met and seeing that others’ basic needs are met. Beyond that, all everyone really wants are family, a meal, playing some games, having fun. We complicate everything, we make wars, and we create drama. But it’s really all about finding joy in each other.”
Before you dismiss these attitudes as simplistic and Pollyanna-like, you need to understand how Father Dan spent his time, amidst more darkness and pain than most of us ever encounter. He sat by countless bedsides of people dying and performed hundreds of funerals—averaging three or four a week in recent years. In his large family, he witnessed debilitating illnesses and terrible accidents. Seven years ago, the diocese of Cleveland ripped away his church, his community, and his home of thirty years. He counseled victims of incest, rape, and other abuse. He had a special ministry to people with addiction. He endured his own profound losses of parents, siblings, and friends. He himself suffered various ailments, even before the cancer that took his life. He knew and loved way too many people who died of gunshot wounds, suicide, and overdoses. He saw and confronted injustice everywhere.
No wonder that sometimes the good cheer gave way to dark humor and startling bluntness. I’ve heard more than one homily in which he said, “You know those people Jesus healed? They’re all dead now.” He meant that Jesus didn’t come to take away our problems. In fact, if you choose faith, you often choose a harder way. A few months ago, I heard him preach, “Our stories never end happily. It’s always a sad ending.” Of course, he had profound faith in an ultimate happy ending, but he was talking about the end of our lives on earth. “Life always has a tragic ending,” he said, and I thought then he was preparing us for what came on Saturday.
The astonishing thing about Father Dan is not his sunny optimism. It’s that it was so hard won. It’s true he was blessed with a sanguine temperament, but in order to deal with exhausting pain in his life and ministry he dived deep and prayed. He spent hours alone in nature, alone with Scripture, alone with music. He deliberately worked his way through grief and sadness. When I asked him once why he was so happy, he said, “It’s a decision. It’s conscious, and it’s a habit.” He didn’t avoid the dark tunnel. He chose it. He entered it willingly and suffered his way to the bright light at the end.