Letters from Ruth: Unexpected glimmers of an exemplary life

At the 12:10 Mass on Tuesday of Holy Week at Saint Joseph's Church in Boston's West End, a green clad gentleman strode up the left aisle just after the service had begun. As he turned to enter a pew toward the front, I noticed that he was carrying a scuffed leather basketball. Distracted, I looked from time to time to see what he might do with it. Would he start dribbling around the altar? No, he was quiet, and unlike me, suitably attentive. He held the ball like holding an infant, even carrying it with him as he received communion. After Mass was finished, and while a few of us were chatting with the celebrant Father Dan O'Connell, the fellow in question paused on his way out the door and asked for prayers for himself and for the Celtics, who would be playing the Knicks in a first-round postseason game that night.

Weekday Mass at St. Joseph's attracts an intriguing combination of staid business types and remarkably free, sometimes roving congregants with a flair for reverent non-conformity. Regulars have learned to take for granted the unexpected, perhaps due to the nature of the sacrament being celebrated. If bread and wine can be changed into the Divine Lord's body and blood appearances notwithstanding, then surely a basketball-toting Celtics fan receiving communion should not excite any greater surprise. Perhaps God chooses the unexpected to remind us of the miraculous.

A favorite line from literature for a friend of mine, Ruth Pakaluk, was a phrase in Graham Greene's book ''Brighton Rock'' referring to "the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God." I know this because Ruth wrote about this to a friend. She continued: "This has become one of my all-time favorite lines from literature. It is so true. Life is very strange, but too often for mere chance. It seems clear that all works out for the best."

This letter is included with other missives from Ruth in a book just published this spring by another friend of mine, Ruth's husband Michael Pakaluk. Mike chose Ruth's favorite phrase as the book's title, and penned additional biographical background on Ruth along with some penetrating commentary. Ruth is deceased. She died in 1998 at the age of 41 after battling cancer for several years.

I met Ruth and Mike back in the nineteen eighties when I was working as a lobbyist with the state pro-life organization Massachusetts Citizens for Life. During my time there, Ruth and Mike were active members, and Ruth eventually was elected MCFL's president. Mike was studying at Harvard. The Pakaluks were growing their family and lived in a big, book-filled house in Cambridge.

I rarely saw Ruth without a baby in a backpack peering over her shoulder, a toddler grasped with one hand and a projector lugged by the other. The Pakaluks were on a pro-life mission and their mission field was among the toughest of environs in the "Deep North," the jungles of academia. I am sure that their presence among the capped and gowned seemed as strange to the natives as a man carrying a basketball to the altar would appear to the uninitiated 12:10 worshipers at St. Joseph's.

I remember with fondness the dinners hosted by Ruth and Mike where simple fare was followed by reading from Shakespeare and then conversation that ranged far afield. The Pakaluks radiated an energy that drew people in and expanded horizons, the result of the intelligence, faith and vibrancy that God gifted them to share.

I moved in 1988 back to the Midwest and did not stay in touch with Ruth and Mike. Then I returned in 1997 for my second tour of duty, this time to assist the Bishops at the Massachusetts Catholic Conference. The first I saw Ruth was at a Worcester diocesan meeting on end of life issues. She had become the diocese's respect life director and wore a wig. The cancer had come and she did not have long to live.

Ruth invited Elaine, Miriam and me to lunch with her and Mike on a summer day. We caught up on old times and talked politics, life and--for a little bit--death. Elaine and I went home with the impression that the Pakaluks were prepared for the inevitable but not disengaged from the present.

When I downloaded "The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God" to my smart phone this spring and began reading during my commutes, what my reading revealed to me were unexpected glimpses of lives (Ruth's mainly but also Mike's) even more exemplary than I knew from before. Ruth's letters and Mike's commentary record journeys from deep atheism to vigorous Catholicism, from socialist affinities to libertarian sympathies, from radical pro-choice to compassionate pro-life, from self-described selfishness to inspiring generosity.

So many people from so many different walks of life will benefit from the book. People with cancer or other serious illnesses, skeptics, besieged parents, those just curious about what makes pro-life Christians tick and how they got there, and those who see themselves too on journeys filled with disappointment and sorrow, hoping for sun and heaven. The most challenging for me to read were the last letters that Ruth wrote to each of her children which in a way summarize the whole, incongruous experience of life and dying.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy and Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.