Now I get it. Or at least part of it. The prospect of not raising children was not a big deal for me when I entered the Jesuits. It wasn’t a deal at all, really. And, over time, while I calculated (almost daily) the difficulty of going through life without one special person to stand by my side, I rarely thought about forgoing the blessings of children in my life. Not that I didn’t like children, à la W. C. Fields. Rather, never having spent much time around them as an adult, I liked them more in the abstract.
But with my sister and brother-in-law now the parents of two small childrenone 7 years old and one 13 months - I am beginning to see something of what I gave up, and what it is that parents may experience.
For one thing, I am amazed at how much I love my nephews. When my father died a few years ago, I remember thinking, I never knew that one could be so sad. When I am around my nephews I think, I never knew that one could love so much.
Last summer I spent a Saturday with my sister’s family and her oldest son, Charles, a person whom I had already told he was my favorite person in the world. After passing a sunny afternoon with my nephew doing his favorite things - battling each other with his plastic Star Wars light sabers, reading surprisingly detailed books about dinosaurs and playing with anything remotely connected with water (water pistols, water guns, water balloons), I poured myself onto a local commuter train for the ride home.
Suddenly a wave of emotions swept over me: a deep love for my nephew, for my sister and brother-in-law; gratitude for God’s creative love; and then - oddly - fear. I felt how much I cared for Charles and how ardently I hoped that nothing terrible would ever befall him.
Then, with a start, I realized that this must be one one-hundredth of what parents must feel every day about their children.
But fear only rarely raises its head. After all, my primary job as an uncle is to have fun with my nephews (and to make sure the sacraments are taken care of). Most of the time I spend with Charles and Matthew, his baby brother, is a lark. That’s another significant benefit of being a priest: no dirty diapers, no late-night feedings and no dealing with tantrums. At 7, my nephew has grown into a bright, funny and kind little boy, who sometimes amazes me with his comments and asides. On Easter Sunday this year we all watched the movie Jesus of Nazareth. (He endured this only because I told him we couldn’t play with his stuffed animals before Jesus rose from the dead.)
When Charles saw the image of Jesus on the cross, silhouetted against the overcast sky in Zeffirelli’s film, he said, "That’s beautiful." I asked what he meant and he said, "Well, I know it’s sad, but it’s sort of beautiful, too."
Spending time with my nephew also has heightened my appreciation for childhood non sequiturs, especially when it comes to organized religion. One of my sister’s friends, for example, who is married to a Jewish man, recently took their young son to Mass.
During the exceedingly boring homily, the child wailed, "Can we go home now?"
The mother said, "No, the Mass is only half over."
The son answered, "Well, I’m only half Catholic. Let’s go home."
Seeing things through a child’s perspective is a healthy spiritual practice, especially if we ever hope to enter the reign of God. So I never miss an opportunity to find out how Charles sees the world. Last year, I asked how his infant brother passed his time. "He eats and he sleeps and he cries and he poops," he said. I took this as a reasonable summary of Matthew’s life and started to move to another topic, when Charles said excitedly: "Uncle Jim, I almost forgot! He throws up, too!"
My nephew really is my favorite person in the world. (Recently, though, I have realized that now that he has a younger brother, I’m either going to have to do some quick thinking or hope that Charles won’t mind my having two favorite people.) Of course, even his parents and grandmother would admit that Charles is not a perfect child. But he is a beautiful soul. And seven years ago he did not even exist.
My little nephew’s presence in the world makes me grateful to be alive, astonished at the goodness of the Creator, conscious of what I have forgone as a Jesuit and, as an added benefit, more able to laugh at life.
And I’m getting pretty good with those light sabers, too.