Matt Murray


(Illustration by Goro Sasaki)

Life's Lessons
Alumnus learns about himself by coming to understand his father better.

by Matt Murray

Four years ago, I set out to write a book about my father. In a way, though, I was really writing about myself.

For years, I'd known I would someday want to write about the sudden turn Dad took in midlife. A suburban homeowner, father of four, widower and government bureaucrat, he'd retired at 52 and, to our family's surprise, plunged into a return to the Catholic Church. Within a short time, he was attending daily Mass, fasting, even crying when the Eucharist was lifted every day.

Soon after I left home for Northwestern in 1983, Dad had shed most of the family's belongings, given up our home and turned into a religious nomad for several months, staying with friends and visiting religious communities while trying to figure out where he belonged. He finally settled at St. Bede Abbey in Peru, Ill., about 100 miles from Chicago, where he has been living as a Benedictine monk ever since.

I always knew it was a great story. But for a long time, I also knew it wasn't one I was ready to write.

When I was in college, I was torn between feelings of resentment toward Dad for breaking up our home and admiration for the conviction with which he had pursued his faith. But, like a lot of college students, I was not particularly religious myself. I saw his actions through a purely personal prism: how they affected me.

It wasn't until a few years out of Northwestern that I began to gain a different perspective. I had assumed that life after college would bring me instant satisfaction and success. As an undergraduate at the Medill School of Journalism, I foresaw a future of writing great works and unleashing my creative potential.

Instead, I struggled, moving from place to place and job to job in search of money and professional satisfaction. I was a copy editor at a mid-sized newspaper far away in Virginia, a police reporter in Chicago making only $14,000 a year, then a reporter at a different, smaller paper in Virginia. I moved so often I made almost no friends and kept losing touch with most of those I had. I piled up debts and began to feel I had completely missed out on some exciting experience of youth that I was supposed to be having.

I began to learn, in other words, the common lesson that the dreams of a college kid and the reality of the world are often separated by a vast gulf.

It was then, as an increasingly frustrated and unhappy young adult, that I began to understand my father better. Gradually, I came to view him not just as Dad but as an adult in his own right, with his own frustrations and ambitions. I began to empathize with him as a fellow human being. And I began to want to better understand what had happened to him, to find out whether the change in his life might provide a clue to my own unhappiness and a way to escape it.

As I probed Dad's life, I learned how much we'd had in common. He, too, had wanted to be a writer as young man. He had moved to New York to write a novel in the 1950s and failed. He, too, had worried about money and had hard times making personal connections when he was young.

Even after his marriage, he had been a bit of a loner. It wasn't until he returned to the church that he began to find his true happiness.

This was valuable to me. Not the church part, exactly — though I did begin to ponder religion more seriously than I had in years. What was most important was to know that the difficulties I'd experienced were far from unique, that the post-college years are a crashing comedown to earth for many people.

Since I started my exploration, I've begun to relate to Dad in a new way. Lingering old feelings of resentment have faded. Now I'm happy for him and the joy he seems to have found. We talk on the phone every week, see each other once or twice a year, share a love of music and politics.

I can't foresee ever having the religious commitment he has. I still grope for answers in my life that he has already found in his. But my father's story provided a framework for my own, gave me a measuring stick for my life. It shed a new light on who I was and how I had come to be where I am. It helped me, when I was ready, to begin to figure out some things about myself.

In a time when historical memory seems so short and things change so fast, it's hard to overestimate the value of a legacy like that.

Matt Murray (J87, GJ88) is a New York–based reporter for the Wall Street Journal. His book, The Father and the Son: My Father's Journey into the Monastic Life, was published by HarperCollins last fall.