Fatherly companionable silence: Theological memoirs (1)

Ted Grimsrud—June 24, 2019

It is a kind of truism that we tend to see God in ways that echo how we see our own fathers. For some reason I was thinking about that the other day. I would tend not to think that way, but I was wondering if this truism is at all true in my experience. I would start by saying that in my sense of my own life, my mother played a much larger role than my father in my theological formation.

However, as I thought about it, I actually do think there may be parallels between how I think of my dad and my view of God. Let me suggest a motif. When I think of my dad, one element that comes to mind is what we could call “companionable silence”—the tendency to be in one another’s presence without saying much of anything out loud, but finding it enjoyable to be together. Is that same dynamic part of how I think about God? It seems that maybe it is.

Father’s day reflections

Our recent celebration of Father’s Day kind of snuck up on me this year—I suppose in part because it has been 36 years since I last had to try to remember to offer gratitude to my father, Carl Grimsrud, on the day (he died in 1984). So it was early Monday, the morning after Father’s Day that during a period of wakefulness I spent some time remembering my dad.

I have pleasant memories. In fact, I can’t remember ever having sustained feelings of hurt, resentfulness, anger, fear, or disappointment in relation to him. That’s not to say I never did, just that the negative memories don’t remain. I do have some regrets—mainly that there is so much I wish I could have talked with him about. Also, I feel that I can understand him a lot better now and can actually imagine his inner life a bit, so it’s too bad I can’t engage him in light of that understanding. And I would like to know many things about his life that I never learned about. I never knew his father, but I can now imagine a bit of what my dad’s relationship with his father was like. I would have liked to know more about that, though.

A sports-oriented relationship

One of the things I like most about my dad, in my memory, is his humility, his earthiness, his lack of pretension. He was a high school basketball coach, one of the most successful in Oregon history. But without a drop of arrogance. When I was in college, I took a few friends home with me to watch a big game—my dad’s team was ranked 2nd in the state and their opponent #3. The gym was packed. And in walks my dad with his team, dressed with a bolo tie, low topped work boots, and white socks. I guess it’s a sign of his influence on me that I was proud of his appearance! His team won in a close game, and I took my friends to our house afterwards for supper. It was a great moment.

I played for him for three years. We were good, but each year ended with disappointment. After my senior year, in a very rare conversation, he told me he was happy with my career and with how hard I had worked to improve. Another great moment. He was someone players truly wanted to play well for. After we lost a tough game, he (as he always did) told us that it was his fault we lost. My best friend said to me right afterwards, shaking his head, “when we win he tells us it was because of us; when we lose he tells us it was because of him….”

My friend’s dad happened to be our football coach. I noticed something during those years that I think says something positive about both of the father/son relationships. Both coaches were quite successful, partly because they actually made playing fun, preparing their teams well (it’s always more fun to win than to lose) but also having a light touch and not making the games life or death. But part of the preparation did involve a certain intensity both had as coaches. They were kind and respectful toward their players, but they could get angry with mistakes. And usually the players were a bit intimidated in face of the anger. The only football player that did not ever back down was my friend—and I was the only basketball player that did not back down. It was not that we were disrespectful; it was that we were unafraid. We both knew our fathers’ love. And in both cases, our fathers tolerated our standing up for ourselves.

My dad and I spent uncounted hours watching sports on TV over many years (though in those days before cable and ESPN, we thankfully were limited in our opportunities; who knows if either of us would have gotten much else done with today’s cable options). We also drove to watch numerous games. It’s interesting, though, we rarely talked about what we watched. And I never knew who he was rooting for. This strikes me as a telling image—one that I actually am happy about. An element of intimacy and an element of distance, sharing but not sharing.

Companionable silence

If there was one thing I learned from my dad, it was the art of companionable silence. We would simply be together—no questions asked, no demands made. But we liked it, partly because of what we were doing, partly—I suspect—because we were comfortable and appreciated the companionship.

Carl & Johan Grimsrud

Grandpa Carl and Johan, 1983

 

I think “companionable silence” might be a useful term for me in reflecting on what I think about God. I would say that God has always been silent to me—but that the silence has been companionable. And maybe because of my experience with dad, I never really expected more than that. That has meant that I have never felt let down by God or that God has abandoned me, even if I also never have felt God was telling me anything.

I remember the moment when I first started to believe in God. It was at a friends’ funeral when I was around 15 years old. In some moments of silence at this rather intense memorial service (the friend was a beloved man in his late 20s who had died of cancer; the service was packed with hundreds of people from our small town). That sense of God’s presence in the silence became definitive of my spirituality.

Like with my dad, really, I never doubted God’s love and acceptance and benevolence even when I had no sense of that being stated overtly. It’s been a comforting, even empowering, sensibility in both cases.

I don’t mean to suggest that I think God is like my dad in any particular way (or vice versa). What I am interested in is the feeling I have about God—and it seems that when I think back to how I thought about my dad it’s something similar. Of course, the “silence” part is an important element of the dynamic. I don’t expect God to “talk” with me—and I have long been fine with that.

[The “Theological Memoirs” series of blog posts]

3 thoughts on “Fatherly companionable silence: Theological memoirs (1)

  1. “that sense of God’s presence in the silence became definitive of my spirituality”
    I find your life story very encouraging as it helps me to understand my own in some measure, thank you for sharing this

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