To explain how my experience as a parent has been a spiritual path, I have to begin seven years before my first child was born. At age 22, I was feeling more lost in my life than I’ve ever been before or since. My life was devoid of meaning and more than grim. In my lowest moment I latched onto one bit of Jesus’ teaching that I’d learned in Catholic schools and I clutched it as if it were a life raft in a storm-tossed sea. The teaching: Love one another as I have loved you.
With that as my guiding principle I signed on to work as activities counselor at an orphanage for kids who were wards of the state. I suspect I turned to the work hoping for some kind of escape, but instead I came face to snot-nosed face with life in the form of 16 five- to nine-year-olds. What I found was a life that could have gone either waydrudgery or joy. On any given day the job provided good amounts of both. But over the course of time, I learned that one of the best ways to become a better human being is to find yourself in charge of youngsters who need your love, attention and steady care.
I was blessed with work so relentless and demanding that I had to forget myself, at least for periods at a time, and simply pour out my energy for others. My ennui evaporated in the face of games to be organized, marshmallows to be doled out and scraped shins and tender hearts to be soothed. These kids relied on me. It was abundantly clear I wasn’t perfect at the job, but the boys forgave me my imperfections and went right ahead needing me. Over time I came to know just how much I needed them.
Forgetting myself and willingly caring for the basic bodily and spiritual needs of others reduced life to its essence, and reminded me of what I was so busy trying to forgetmy own human vulnerability and need. And of course when it comes to spiritual growth, accepting one’s vulnerability is where it all begins.
So I was somewhat prepared to find that being a parent would demand a lot from my faith, as well as do a lot for my faith. But I never expected fatherhood to be such a radical experience.
Being a parent begins in awe. And awe, which is akin to fear of the Lord, is a religious experience, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Even the most jaded and cynical new parent, it seems, is not immune to the miraculous nature of birth witnessed up close. Our defenses give way to awe.
Each of my daughters’ births was an invitation to a new consciousness. These events confronted me with a truth I had previously overlooked or forgotten: that we are all miracles, products of life’s incessant desire to bring forth more life. It was God, the Creator, pulling off yet another glorious encore. Standing so close to this miracle irrupting into the world changes everything forever.
It seemed like much more than coincidence that Stevie Wonder’s song Isn’t She Lovely? was playing over the hospital’s Muzak system when I first held my older daughter, moments after her birth on the first day of summer, the longest and brightest day of the year in 1979. Holding her, I knew that my life and identity had changed forever, even unto eternity. She and I were now linked as father and daughter, always and everywhere. This both overwhelmed and redefined me. It called me to a new consciousness and a whole new set of challenges. Holding her in my arms, I realized how totally helpless she was and how dependent she would continue to be for years to come. I kept thinking, When do I get off duty? Shouldn’t there be someone else in charge? Someone who knows what they’re doing? God, help! And so, after awe, my second response to parenthood was prayer.
Awe and prayer: two great ways to energize your faith. They are both invitations to a transformed awareness. Awe lets you know that there are truths in life to reckon with, realities worth paying attention tolike tenderness, commitment, honor and care, plus an aching, fierce love. And I’ve learned that prayer has been a ready companion during every age and stage through which I have accompanied my children. My struggles as a parent give me plenty to pray for, and my children’s lives give me plenty to pray about.
My faith and my work as parent are tightly interwoven. It is hard to tease out where exactly my faith feeds my family life or vice versa. When it comes to family, not much is neat and tidy. As Barbara Coloroso, author of Kids Are Worth It! says, Parenting is an inefficient vocation. It is much more about mystery than mastery. But over time, certain lessons have become clear. Here are a few.
Family life regularly reveals the patterns of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. This cycle is not just a piece of historical data about Jesus, but is the seed of truth at the heart of Jesus’ message. We call it the paschal mystery.
In family life this pattern of dying and rising shows itself early. We see it in the twin parental disciplines of welcoming and letting go, which begin long before the child is even born. When the desire to conceive a new life comes into focus, the couple dies to its old life and becomes willing to disrupt their lives in ways they cannot even yet imagineall in order to take on the holy work of caring for another human being.
My wife and I remember fondly how our first years of childless marriage were relatively carefree, how we’d work long hours all week and meet at a local pizza joint on Friday nights to catch up over drinks and dinner and then enjoy an uninterrupted romantic night at home. To everything there is a season, and the season of being married and childless was a good one. But we had to let that one pass away in order to enter fully into the season of making room for children in our life. Being a parent begins with welcoming, with making room. We create a space in our home or apartment, but also in our lives for them. We give up that den where we were going to write the great American novel, or the home office where we can finally get organized. Instead we buy Winnie-the-Pooh lamps, Bert-and-Ernie bedsheets and a Toy Story mobile. We shift our budget and cut back on our extracurricular activities in order to be present and available. Eventually we realize (and our childless friends do, too) that it will be years before we can complete an adult conversation without interruption.
We welcome our child’s new abilities and independence (the day you can stow the diaper bag permanently stands as a monumental day in most parents’ lives), and yet those new capabilities mean we also loosen our controls. Soon they’re playing down the block, then crossing the busy street, then going on overnights at friends’ homes, off on dates, and the next thing you know you’re dropping them off at college or watching them leave for their full-time work. Navigating these changes takes faith and trust. Parents do a lot of praying the first day their child drives off, new driver’s license in hand, to round up his or her friends to go who-knows-where.
Parental welcoming and letting go extends to our children’s personalities as well. At our best, we welcome who they are rather than who we want them to be. The Ph.D. mom learns to welcome the daughter whose highest aspiration is to follow in the latest pop star’s bootsteps. The sports-loving dad discovers his son has a passion for science and wouldn’t know Sammy Sosa from Knute Rockne. When we can die to our expectations (especially those we didn’t realize we had), we are able to rise to the new and glorious life that awaits us in truth.
And we often need to die to our own traits that get in the way of being the parent we want to be. For some this means nurturing the patience, consistency or stability they never believed they had. For others it might include facing up to a debilitating addiction (to drugs, alcohol, work, worry) they’d rather believe isn’t hurting anyone. Family life is loaded with instances of dying and rising to new life. Practicing my faith helps me look at my life and see not just aggravation but opportunity, not just burden but also grace.
Being a parent means you live in community. A while back I visited a friend who is a Trappistine monk. She lives in a cloistered community with two dozen other religious sisters who all get up before dawn for morning prayer. They spend their day in prayer, meditation and doing their share of mundane chores. I asked her what she found the most spiritually challenging aspect of her life in the monastery. She laughed as she responded, The annoying personality traits of my fellow monks. To which I replied, I hear ya!
Living in a house with four adults and one bathroom means I get up early, and sometimes my day begins by praying mightily that my turn at the facilities will come quickly. We have our chores. We have our chairs at the kitchen table. We have our times of daily prayer and our times of silence, occasionally preceded by a slammed door. And we certainly each have our annoying personality traits that outsiders might find charming but don’t wear so well day after day.
The communal nature of family life is a spiritual opportunity. People used to ask an acquaintance of mine how it turned out her family was so close. She always replied, truthfully, We live in a small house. There was no getting away from one another. That can breed contempt, or it can promote intimacy and care. My faith gives me toolshumility, forgiveness (both given and received), respect for the dignity of each individual, patience and even a sense of humorto navigate the straits of family life with a certain amount of grace. Each member of the family brings gifts to the table. My daughter Judy can get us all acting silly. Patti delivers deliciously wicked one-liners. My wife delights in keeping our lives smoothly organized. And I bring an optimism to the mix. We have friends who regularly fill our house with laughter, compassion, openness, risk-taking and countless other gifts. Through our commitment to being a community of care, we create a safe yet challenging home base from which we can live the Gospel. We feel supported to live lives in which our faith, morals and values guide our days.
As a Catholic, I also know that my family is merely one community within many other larger communities, including our parish, our neighborhood, society and the church around the world. We are even part of the communion of saints, who witness to a way of living and a set of beliefs that give our lives meaning. On our own it would be easier to let these values slide away. Living in a community that lives and worships and plays and prays together, I am strengthened and emboldened to follow Jesus’ way.
Being a parent cuts through your illusions. Having kids guarantees that you will receive regular feedback you’ll get nowhere else. I flinched while watching the hilarious performance by Steve Martin in the film Father of the Bride, especially that moment where his daughter describes her new fiancé as just like Daddy, only brilliant. Ouch! A friend told me her 14-year-old sternly instructed her one afternoon, Now when we get to the mall, just pretend we don’t know each other.
This may be painful, but it’s a great spiritual opportunity. I want my own kids to be impervious to peer pressure, which means to be no slave to others’ fleeting opinions of you. We all have our conceits. We use impressive portions of our imaginations in our need to portray ourselves as the hero of our own narrative. When our kids burst our ego-inflated bubbles, the good news is that, underneath it all, they still love us madly. I can drive them nuts with my crazy theories of the cosmos, but they still love my pancakes. I can make them goofy with my worries about how they’re going to get to their friends’ houses and where they’re going to park, and yet they still love my stories and my jokes. In fact, like television’s Mr. Rogers, they like me just the way I am. And when you come home from a tough day of office politics and dealing with the public, it can be refreshing to find a welcome that sees through the delusions and loves you anyway.
And as a parent, I relish the opportunity to respond in kind, to let them try on their various personalities and styles, and to be the one who can see through it all to the precious and unique person shining through. At its best, family is the original come-as-you-are party.
Being a parent offers opportunities to perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. When Jesus was asked who would qualify for heaven, he tells them those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked and shelter the homeless. These are the stuff of daily family life. Parents do this all the time.
These mundane activities, along with admonitions to visit the imprisoned and bury the dead, have been combined into the seven corporal works of mercy that the church enjoins us to practice as living signs of our faith. I remember the first time I heard this Gospel reading with the ears of a parent. Prior to that time I had always thought I would have to go off to a foreign land and work in some sort of mission in order to live out these teachings. But lo and behold, that very morning I had served my older daughter yogurt and fed a bottle to the baby. My wife and I had struggled to get them into church-appropriate clothes, and off to church we went. During Mass I thought about the work I do to keep a roof over our heads (and to afford enough extra to contribute to our parish’s food pantry and take our turn making meals for the homeless shelter). What a joy it was to realize that my life as a parent offers me the very content Jesus pointed to as the way to eternal life. In church that morning, the readings helped me recognize these mundane activities not as burdens and drudgery but as occasions of grace. Sometimes I rise to the occasion. When I worship on Sunday and the celebrant asks God to accept these gifts, the fruit of the vine and the work of human hands, I have plenty to put on the altarevery mundane chore I’ve accomplished in the previous week, as well as all my hopes and concerns for the week to come.
Parents not only feed the hungry, they also know the hungry child’s favorite kind of pickles. They not only give drink to the thirsty, but they deliver it in a favorite Winnie-the-Pooh cup. We clothe the naked (sometimes we want to follow author Barbara Coloroso’s lead and have our kids wear a pin saying I dressed myself!), shelter them (and sometimes their lost friends), tend to them when they’re sick, help them out of prisons, whether literal or emotional, and we show them what to do and what we believe when it is time to bury the dead. Sometimes, tragically, we have the unspeakably horrible task of burying our own children.
Perhaps more than anywhere else, this is where my faith most informs my work as a parent. This is where I get glimpses of God. When did we see you hungry, Lord, and feed you? We see Christ in the need, in the hunger. And when we respond to it with generosity of heart, we nourish not only our children and ourselves, but we nourish Christ in our midst.
I asked my wife, Kathleen, what element of her faith supports her work as parent, and without a moment’s hesitation she replied, Rom. 8:28. This is her bedrock passage. I remember her reading it with power at her father’s funeral years ago, before we were married. For to those who love God, who are called according to his plan, all things work out for the good. And she has been a mother long enough to realize that practicing the faith does not mean that all things working out for the good will immunize her family from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Bad things happen even to people we love and pray for. But the passage points to faith at a deeper level, the kind of faith that provides the necessary courage to launch our children into life. Practicing our faith in good times and bad has shown us that there is a God who loves us and abides with us even though we may travel through the valley of death.
In the end, I don’t see my role as my kids’ first teacher of the faith to be yet another developmental chore to check offlike seeing they get art lessons and music lessons or braces when they need them. I have hoped to raise my children immersed in a hearty broth of faith because God is our origin and our destiny, and it would be terribly sad for them to go through life unaware that they are, in Thomas Merton’s words, shining like the sun. I saw them shining that way the day they were born. I want them never to forget that.