In Albert’s Footsteps

There’s a quote from Thomas Merton’s autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain, which I really like because I feel it describes so many people I know:

“They were saints in that most effective and telling way: sanctified by leading ordinary lives in a completely supernatural manner, sanctified by obscurity, by usual skills, by common tasks, by routine, but skills, tasks, routine which received a supernatural form from grace within, and from the habitual union of their souls with God in deep faith and charity.”

I think that my maternal grandfather, Albert Friesen, fits comfortably with this group of people. He was a simple soul; he knew what he believed & lived his life accordingly. He lived it through his work, his parenting, his gardening, his grandparenting; all the tasks he carried out, all the relationships he was a part of. He was not perfect, but he tried to be as good a person as he could.

Grandpa Friesen died a few weeks ago. It was a bit unexpected—a heart attack just before a surgery to relieve acute pain in his hip. It has been hard for me to process this event from so far away. It doesn’t feel totally real to me, to which I’m sure others living abroad can relate. And then there are the inevitable if-i-had-just-one-more-time-with-him feelings.

In the first days after his passing, I reflected on my memories with my grandfather. I realized that I had a lot of great memories to be thankful for, which I am; many great moments together. The way he prayed, the way he showed his love for his wife—she was often referred to as “my special girl” or “my beloved”; their last words to each other were “I love you”—the way he showed his love for his whole family showed his faith much better than words ever could.

This has gotten me thinking: Grandpa Friesen was always someone I looked up to, someone I wanted to model my life after.

But how?

Though my grandfather took a few trips abroad, he spent most of his life in the small village of Kleefeld & his later years in Steinbach, my hometown of about 12,000. His faith makes sense in this context. At least it makes sense to me in this context. But how do I translate it into the context in which I find myself today, namely South Sudan?

I know the words that make up the answer are simple, though the task may not be: Love God, love others, love yourself. The difficulty for me is in tapping into the love that loves in spite of, not because of. I have a laundry list of reasons not to love the people I come into contact with (in general, it should be said; I have come to realize that I struggle with cultural stereotyping more than I’d like to admit). I struggle with double standards: I want to be loved regardless of my imperfections, while I withhold love from others because of them.

In an email to one of my brothers I said that this post would likely contain more questions than answers. Perhaps this post will open up a dialogue on what it means to live out one’s faith in uncomfortable contexts. Who knows? What I do know is that I have a lot of work to do in my own life—& especially in my interactions with others—if I want to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps.

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One comment on “In Albert’s Footsteps

  1. Corinne Friesen Loewen says:

    Joel, I love what you wrote. You captured much of who Grandpa/Dad was. It’s true he wasn’t perfect, but he knew love, and we always knew we were loved. It’s wonderful you looked up to him, but he was perhaps more like you than you might think–he too struggled occasionally with ‘cultural stereotypes’ or with loving the “unlovely”. At the same time, you said it right–his beliefs were straightforward, held firmly from a Biblical basis, and he knew the path he was to follow. I miss him every day.

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