Albert Einstein—universally considered a man of genius—is known for his revolutionary scientific ideas: relativity, an expanding universe, gravitational waves, etc. He is also known for his “God letter,” written in 1954 to a Jewish philosopher, where he writes, “the word God is for me nothing more than … human weakness, the Bible a collection of … legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.” The letter is (in)famous enough that it sold at Christie’s in 2018 for nearly $2.9 million dollars. I’m afraid the price of that letter is a sign of the post-WWII times, when many people had significant doubts in faith.
Even today, Merriam Webster gives its first definition of “Faith” as “allegiance to duty or a person: loyalty.” A completely secular definition, probably a sign of our times. For my understanding, that would be a second or third definition, because my first definition is entirely spiritual: “Belief and trust in and loyalty to God.” I think my understanding and feelings of faith are a gift from my parents, who themselves exhibited faith in God. Because of faith, I sense that our lives are more than here-and-now: our lives are part of a continuous, divine existence. To express it, use whatever word or book you want…faith is a deep-seated sense of belonging to something divine.
I know from his letters during the war (collected in A Philadelphia Family Goes to War) that my father, Jack, gained his faith from and shared it with his father. They openly write about trusting in God—whether it was my father’s facing the dangers of war or his father’s facing “everyday” challenges at home. Often, Jack reassures his father that he attends Mass and receives the sacraments. In May 1944, Jack feels “pretty good” expressing his faith; while aboard the USS Texas rehearsing in the Irish Sea for the D-Day invasion, he writes home:
“Was at Mass and confession today, and feel pretty good, haven’t missed Mass, for 7 weeks now, we don’t have a Catholic Chaplain on the “T” but we always have one visit for Divine Services each Sunday from another ship.”
Similarly, his brother Bill has that same sense of shared faith with his father and his brothers-in-arms. On his first Christmas at basic training in Yuma, Arizona, he writes on December 27, 1942:
“I received your letter … in which you said to go to Communion on Christmas Day. Well, I did. Heard Mass and took Communion in a big field during one of the worst sandstorms this Philly boy ever hopes to see. You can’t imagine the number of Catholic fellows in the 6th Division. All over the desert the priests were saying Masses and every one was crowded beyond hearing.”
The letters make clear a main source of their faith: the faith of their father. “Dad” closes nearly half his letters with, “God bless you.” His expressions of faith range from that closing to offers of prayers, requests for prayers, and trust in the practices of his Catholic Church—often reminding the boys, “Don’t forget your Church & Sacraments.” When his son Bill is at the front lines in New Guinea, Dad takes comfort in Bill’s ability to practice his faith: “He seems to be very good living and mentions church & the sacraments quite often and I am very glad to hear this.”
Dad finds comfort in his faith, while still recognizing dangers and threats…his isn’t blind faith. He regularly invokes his realistic trust in God for his sons’ welfare. “I do have faith in God & never really feel that anything will happen to you both but at the same time I do get scared when I don’t hear from you for so long a spell.” He writes to Jack in December 1944 as the USS Texas heads to the Pacific,
“Joe Dempsey, Kathleen’s brother, killed in action, they received the telegram yesterday. I don’t like to tell you this kind of news but I feel it’s my place to make you & Billie realize you’re on no picnic & to keep yourselves prepared at all times, keep up the Sacraments & God will take care of you.”
Faith takes them beyond the here-and-now and makes them feel part of a continuous, divine existence. Their beliefs include a spiritual presence of their mother, who died before either son entered the service. Bill writes to Dad in January 1943 “Don’t worry, Dad. I pray for Mother every night.” Later that year in August, he writes, “Next week is one year since Mother died. … I just wanted you to know I did not forget, and will go to Mass and Communion in remembrance. I thought you would appreciate knowing.”
Dad similarly remembers and invokes his recently-lost wife. He writes to Jack about Bill, “I really can’t help worrying about him, but I’m sure God & Mother will take care of you both.” Later that same year, he writes again to Jack, “Son, keep the good work up and don’t forget your prayers & confession. Pray for mother & me also.”
While Einstein’s genius may have found the idea of God weak and childish, the Pawley family relied on their faith—their trust in God—to help them meet and overcome the fears and challenges of the war. It was a faith they shared, expressed, and relied on constantly.