February 22, 2019

Reflection / John Shaughnessy

Living life as a prayer of strength, grace and love

John ShaughnessyThe strongest influence in my life turned 94 on Valentine’s Day.

Broad-shouldered with a chiseled chin and wavy black hair in his youth, he was a star athlete and a lifeguard then, leading him to save at least one person’s life.

His desire to make a difference in the lives of others also led him to serve his country in World War II and the Korean War.

Yet I’ve known his strength of commitment and character best from watching him closely as a husband and a father.

Through 66 years of marriage, he has stayed true to his wife, a union so complete that on a recent Valentine’s Day they looked lovingly into each other’s eyes and sang the love ballad “Always” to each other across a kitchen table.

For much of their married life, he left early for work, kissing his wife goodbye and passing the bedrooms of his five children, who still slept soundly. And when he returned home, he played with his children and cheered for them. There were also the times when he challenged them to work harder, dig deeper, be better—even when it meant he had to push against their resistance.

His strength as a husband and a father shined through in those times, and it was the best and purest kind of strength—a strength forged in love. His wife and children knew he was there for them, knew they could count on him.

That love of family added another dimension when the grandchildren arrived. It’s an added dimension best represented in the time that the father who never “let” his older son win a game suddenly became the grandfather who played a game of checkers against his then-5-year-old granddaughter—a game that ended 10 minutes later with the granddaughter announcing, “I won! I won! I beat Grandpop!”

Now, the physical strength and vitality that marked most of his life—including body-surfing in the ocean at 80—have declined. The man who once carried children on his shoulders and grandchildren in his arms now relies on a walker, a wheelchair and the help of his wife, children, grandchildren and sons-in-law to get him to the kitchen table to eat and lift him into bed at night to sleep.

Still, there is strength in these moments, too. It’s a strength that comes from the grace of allowing others to help. It’s also a strength of patience, goodness and love that is built up in touching, constant ways by those who rise to the occasion to help.

That strength of love is only matched by his strength of faith. As he has dealt with cancer, diabetes and other physical threats in recent years, he has kept the faith that has guided him through his entire life—that God is with him, giving him love, strength and faith for each new day.

In return, my father ends each day by praying aloud the Act of Contrition:

“O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend thee, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.”

It’s the prayer of someone who knows the source of our strength—the strength that comes from acknowledging our weakness.

It’s also a prayer of grace and love, two qualities that forever connect my father and our Father.

(John Shaughnessy is assistant editor of The Criterion.)

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