“I myself can’t remember a word of what he said.”
(Dutch writer Jan de Hartog recalling the most important sermon that his father, a pastor, ever preached.)
Over the past year, I’ve occasionally dipped into an old manila folder of sermons my father preached as a Methodist pastor, when I was a boy of 10.
(That’s my father in the Navy during World War II in a photo that I dug out for today’s story, because one of the two books I’m going to urge you to read today is the final memoir by Jan de Hartog — one of the world’s most famous sailor-authors. In fact, one of the most famous photos of de Hartog as a young man shows him looking a lot like my father — right down to the way they parted their hair and clutched a “smoke” for their portraits in that era.)
So, what about those sermons?
When I was 10, my father served a blue-collar congregation in Bay City, Michigan. In fact, many families in our neighborhood were so poor that my classmates at school often wore hand-me-down clothes with raggedy edges long before tattered clothes were cool. Once, when I pointed out the frayed cuffs worn by a tough kid who sat next to me in 5th Grade –- he punched my chest so hard that I had a bruise for a week.
In such a parish, I am amazed to find in this folder of yellowed sermons that my father regularly referenced theologians like Paul Tillich, existential theology and French novelists like Sartre and Camus. Once he even preached a sermon on the relationship between art, heaven and the spiritual imagination of Marcel Proust. It was something about the power of faith to transcend small rooms and constricting frames, I gather, reading his cryptic sermon notes more than four decades later.
Like de Hartog, I certainly don’t recall a word of the message from my childhood.
But studying the sermon notes today, I’m sure a passage from Proust that my father read in the sermon — and, later in the message, a story he shared from a visit he had made to a museum gallery in Manhattan — flew over all heads in Bay City that Sunday morning.
The moment I began reading the late Jan de Hartog’s newly published family memoir, “A View of the Ocean,” I flashed back to that period in my own childhood. Both of de Hartog and I grew up as sons of often-larger-than-life pastors. Both of those pastors possessed strong social consciences and yet both mystifyied to us in their modes of speaking about faith. In his memoir, de Hartog can barely find words to describe the abstract scholarly themes that sometimes dominated his father’s sermons.
De Hartog’s book, really, is about both of his parents — and the most heart-wrenching chapters are about his mother, who long outlived his father. (You can click on titles and book covers in our stories to jump to our bookstore pages where you can read more about the books.)
But the opening section of “A View of the Sea” explores de Hartog’s long search to understand his father’s life, his father’s witness to faith — and, through it all, the mysteries of the origins of de Hartog’s faith in his parents’ lives.
Again and again, de Hartog references things his father did and imagery that he recalls related to his father’s life. The shape, as much as the substance, of his father’s life had an impact in de Hartog’s own spiritual journey.
Just like de Hartog, I love my father dearly and credit the origins of my own deep faith to my parents’ examples. And, like de Hartog, I simply can’t remember a word of what my father preached in those hundreds of sermons I heard in the years before I turned 18. What I remember, like de Hartog, are gestures and images, the cadence of voices -– and the vast library that he steadfastly carried with him from one parsonage to another.
De Hartog and I both grew up surrounded by books. I still can close my eyes and see one particular “History of Britain,” bound in stark black with white lettering on the binding. What was so remarkable about this volume was that, for years, it was the thickest book I had ever seen –- well over 1,500 pages and so thick that my child’s hand could not grasp the spine.
Mysterious objects like my father’s fat book on Britain figure prominently in a second small blue book that arrived on my desk recently, this one from Candlewick Press.
Unlike de Hartog’s book by Pantheon, this second book, “The Mozart Question,” is not a memoir. It’s a novel for young readers about a family living in Venice coming to terms with secrets involving the Holocaust. And, without giving away this book’s suspenseful plot, I can say that the mysterious objects are 2 violins.
I’ve shared connections between de Hartog’s life and my own. Well, there also are multiple connections here between the 2 books I’m recommending today. And, connections always fascinates me as a reader –- and I know they fascinate our readers, as well.
Among these connections: De Hartog’s book is small and blue, like Michael Morpurgo’s “The Mozart Question.” Both books show the ocean on the cover. Both are memoirs springing from horrors of World War II. Both books involve sons coming to terms with the mysteries of parents’ complex lives.
Now that my own children are college age -– and my daughter is pursuing seminary herself -– I puzzle over these questions about my own father in new ways. When my daughter and son come home for holidays or vacations, I can tell in the way they look at my wife and I -– and the nods and comments I sometimes catch them sharing between themselves –- that they are coming to terms with the mysteries of their parents’ lives, just as we all do as we become adults.
This is a timeless process, of course, as ancient as the children of biblical patriarchs and matriarchs –- and as ancient as the prince Siddhartha Gautama wandering into the streets around his home for the first time and suddenly having questions about his parents’ world.
In a sense, this story is your story, isn’t it? It’s our universal story as spiritual people.
What’s so compelling about de Hartog’s and Morpurgo’s books is that they explore this turf in the heart of the deadly years that lie in the center of the 20th Century. They tell tough stories –- de Hartog for adults with all the honesty of biography and Morpurgo for youth with all the softened edges of historical fiction. But, they’re both trying to connect one generation to the next — carrying what light they can from that 20th Century heart of darkness.
Want to “read more”? Both books are great for group discussion. As always, click on any book title or book cover. You’ll jump to our reviews and can buy copies, if you wish.
In any case, TELL US WHAT YOU THINK about these books, these authors –- or any others you enjoy. Readers tell us they always like to hear from other readers. So, click on the “Comment” link at the end of the online version of this story. Or, you always can email me, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm.
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