Disaster, Rage and Repentance

We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as from the beginning he had created us to live it.  Ephesians 2:10

Like many well-intentioned parents of our generation, my wife and I believed that child-rearing was largely a matter of finding the right method. Oh, we believed in prayer and grace well enough, and we knew there were variations in temperament that made some children a little more difficult to raise than others. But we were convinced that no child could resist the high-octane mixture of our faith, our affection, and our parenting skills.

Then the Lord gave us Ben. I will not belabor you with a long list of his crimes and misdemeanors. Only let me say that from the moment of his birth he was an utterly delightful, exhausting, exasperating, and fascinating phenomenon whom Heaven had decided to drop into our laps for the good of our souls. He was strong-willed, imaginative, utterly charming, very energetic and . . . and . . .
Well, perhaps I could sum it up by saying that an elderly woman once came up to me in a doctor’s waiting room and patted my arm—an arm that was busy wrestling with a wildly thrashing two-year old Ben. She gave me the sweetest smile, one that hinted at some secret joke.

“I know just how you feel,” she said. “I had a child like this. And I want you to know that they grow up to be the most wonderful people.”

That was some reassurance, because at the time we were only just coping from moment to moment. I spent a lot of time repairing broken objects and rescuing Ben from life-threatening predicaments. We were wracking our brains to figure out where we had gone wrong in the parenting recipe, and were suffering that peculiar pain felt by those who have been secretly (oh-so-humbly) superior and are now living in the wreckage of their demolished theories. I badly needed a word of reassurance that day. I went home and told Sheila about it, and a light came back into her eyes. We repeated the lady’s words to each other often. Very often.

Just an Ordinary Day
I recall one day especially. It was a Saturday. It started out as ordinary. That morning Ben’s brothers and sisters had built him a large castle of wooden blocks. It had taken them half an hour to erect this fabulous creation, and it took Ben five seconds to demolish it. The older children rebuilt it for him only to see it destroyed once again. Over and over they repeated this game. We couldn’t help laughing at Ben’s delight as each time the walls came tumbling down. Perhaps we guessed that great things were being learned that day. The older ones were learning patience, of course. And Ben was learning something else at a very deep level—maybe the notion that even when we destroy things, they can be rebuilt again with a little help from our friends.

After lunch Sheila went off grocery shopping with the older children, leaving me with Ben and seven-year old Elizabeth. Now I have a confession to make. I am one of those time-harassed fathers who tend to bring work home—usually a big mistake. Because I am an artist and a writer, my work is at home, which further complicates the matter. I also tend to get distracted. And so, I try to keep the door to my studio firmly shut when the work day is over. But on this particular afternoon I was feeling unusually time-haunted and I was rushing. We hadn’t been sleeping too well either, because one of Ben’s recurrent ear infections had flared up during the past few days. In addition, I was desperately trying to complete a painting commission in order to pay the bills. This desperation (“quiet desperation” Thoreau called it) lurks at the edges of so many fathers’ lives. Our world gets us galloping before we know it. We rush through our lives, trying to cram it all in, though no one has yet explained to me why we have to have it “all.” And in order to have it all a large number of people, including many Catholics, are simply eliminating children from their lives in one way or another.

Now my wife and I have not eliminated children—we have six living and have lost two through miscarriage—but we were suffering the rushing syndrome on another level and weren’t coping with it too well. One of my coping devices was to cram in some work on family time, whenever an opportunity presented itself. And so on this deceptively quiet Saturday afternoon, while Ben and Elizabeth seemed occupied in the toy box, I ran upstairs to the studio and spread my painting boards onto the floor. It took me fifteen minutes to sand down the surfaces and to prepare the gesso, which is the liquid base layer that must be applied before the colors go on. I was concentrating on all this, and had just begun to roll the first coat of white gesso onto several boards, when Elizabeth appeared at the doorway.

“Dad, can we have a fire?” she said.

“What do you mean a fire, Lizzie?” I mumbled distractedly.

“I’m making a play house in the old stone fence that fell down, and I want to have a little fireplace in it.”

“Okay,” I said, barely listening.

“Can I get some matches?” she added as she trotted away down the hall.

“Sure, okay,” I said without thinking.

When the meaning of her last question penetrated, I called after her, “No, Lizzie. No matches!”

I heard a little voice pipe up in reply, and assumed that she had heard me. I turned back to my work. Twenty minutes later I was busily applying the second coat when Elizabeth burst in wild-eyed and cried, “Dad, the field’s on fire!”

“Oh no! Where’s Ben?”

“He’s in the house. He’s okay. He didn’t get burned.”

I stumbled down the stairs, crashed into a wall, careened out the kitchen door, and plunged into a nightmare. The field was overgrown with thick dead hay that was tinder-dry. A small inferno was racing off down the field from the direction of the stone fence.

Perhaps I should mention that, first of all, burning fields at this time of year was illegal; secondly, the field was not ours; and thirdly, it was bordered by a stretch of very dry evergreen trees belonging to our neighbor.

I ran through the house, found a blanket and hurriedly soaked it with water in the kitchen sink. Then I bolted for the field, praying hard. Mercifully, the wind suddenly changed and began to blow the fire back towards its burnt-out core. That gave me a few precious minutes in which to race along the fire-line dragging the wet blanket. In the meantime Elizabeth had the good sense to uncoil the garden hose and turn it on. Working together we eventually got the fire out.

I heartily thanked God for that wind change. Panting for breath, covered with soot, aching from a few minor burns, soaked with black water, and suffering a few blown fuses in my nervous system, I lay down on the front lawn. At that moment my wife drove in with the groceries.

“What happened?” she said.

“We had a little accident,” I explained from the horizontal position.

“Oh, no! Was it Ben?”

“No,” I said somberly, “It was daddy.”

We laughed.

After the explanations and excuses and forgiveness and sympathy were concluded, Sheila said, “Where’s Ben?”

We both looked at each other and galloped for the house. I knew there was a problem when I saw the little white foot prints going up and down the stairs and along the hallway. I met him at the door of my studio. He was grinning at me in a mood of great delight.

“Pappa-guldy-guldy-paint-googly-ga! Paint!” he said.

“Oh, Ben,” I sighed, “What does guldy-guldy-googly-ga mean?”

But I already knew.

Sure enough, while I was fighting the fire he had broken into the studio and had run barefoot back and forth across my partly dried boards. The foot prints were embedded in the gesso, which was now thoroughly dry. It would all have to be sanded again and repainted. A half day’s work lost! I controlled my irritation, and gently led him to the bathroom. I looked at Sheila and forced out a laugh.

Disaster and Rage
She went downstairs to the kitchen to clean that mess, while I plunked Ben into the bathtub and washed him down with the hose which is attached to our bathtub tap, and which functions as our shower (the house is very old, the plumbing is antique). I started to clean myself up as best I could. Then the telephone rang, and I ran to answer it, leaving Ben splashing around with his toy boats in a shallow tub. If I were detained on the phone, I thought, Sheila would soon be back upstairs to oversee the drying off.

It was a long, long call. When I returned to the bathroom I found Ben standing in the middle of the room, holding the hose, staring at it as if mesmerized, and directing a steady blast of water onto the floor. In fact, the floor was covered with an inch of water. The water was draining away down vents, joints and cracks to the room below.

It suddenly hit me—the room below! The room below was the dining room, and only three hours before I had sealed off that room. Within it I had left a large painting, its colors drying. It was too big to fit into any other room in the house and it had to dry flat on its back. I had spread a plastic sheet on the floor, its edges curled up to form a kind of huge basin. Into this trough I had laid my painting.

I ran downstairs and unlocked the dining room. Inside I found the mural laying in an inch of water. Ben’s deluge had poured through the ceiling and created the pool in which the image now lay, completely saturated. The subject of the painting, appropriately, was the Baptism of the Lord.

This time I did not laugh. The kind of board on which I paint must never be subjected to water, because the fibers separate and the paint peels off. This piece of art had taken me six weeks to complete and Ben had wiped it out in one stroke. Not only was the painting destroyed, but my vocation as a Christian artist was drowned forever, I thought. Trying to survive as an artist with a large family, during a period which does not value art, let alone religious art, makes for a certain kind of tension. Financially we are always living on the edge. When you teeter constantly on the brink of disaster, it can feel like abandonment at times.

As I looked down at the black waters of my ruined career, I felt a wave of utter frustration and rage. For the first time in my life I was tempted to strike a child in anger. I didn’t. Instead, I roared very angry, very ugly words at him. Fortunately, he did not understand the words. He was totally dumbfounded by my reaction; after all, what’s a little water between friends? But I saw his joyful eyes grow dark with fear and confusion under the storm of my anger. He hid from me in his mother’s arms and cried deep sobs out of the bottom of his soul.

A Hard Grace
As I looked down into the black waters of my own soul I had to do some reflection about myself. This quiet little Saturday afternoon had offered me a moment of revelation—a quick glance into an unflattering mirror.

“What is the source of this rage?” I asked myself. “Where on earth did it come from?”

In a moment of grace, I saw that right there at the bottom of my soul there is a radical lack of trust in God. No doubt it is a remnant of the Fall of Man, and yes, no doubt most people bear the same scar in a variety of forms, but I had always assumed that it had no real power over me. I could never understand child-abusers, wife-abusers or husband-abusers. Oh, I knew that everyone has their bad days, their moments of temptation. But violence! Never! Even emotional violence is repugnant to me.

A good friend of ours once confessed with some shock in his voice that when his newborn child came home from the hospital, and he and his wife were suffering their first experience of baby colic and the sleepless nights which accompany it, he had to fight back a mad impulse to throw the baby down a stairwell. The feeling came and went in a flash, but it shook him. I must hasten to assure the reader that this admission came from a sane, loving man, easily the most devoted father and husband I have ever met. Another outstanding parent, a woman so wise and kind that she deserves to be an icon of Catholic motherhood, once told me (in a tone of pained bewilderment), after a series of sleepless nights and a torrent of other trials, that she has at times been stricken with a sudden impulse to throw her squalling infant through the picture window. These are ugly emotions, not the sort of thing one likes to admit, although they seem to be fairly common.

So now, here I was faced with the same nasty little impulse within me. I did not like it. I did not like what it was telling me about myself, and to compound the problem, I did not like that I did not like it, because this was a sure indication that pride was entwined with the original wound. Yes, I had prided myself on being a good father, imperfect of course, but devoted. And people had told me so often that I’m a rather gentle fellow. So what was going on here! Now, for the first time it hit me with a kind of unprecedented totality that I am, like all my brothers and sisters, a member of that species known as Fallen Man. And I was seeing that, given the wrong set of circumstances, I could become capable of practically anything. This was not a pleasant discovery. This was not, as the pop-psychologists say, self affirming.

No, I did not feel too good about myself at that moment. As a matter of fact I did not like myself at that moment, and with good reason. Such incidents, if we will accept them, are a great grace. They are a testing. They offer a priceless moment of choice—the choice between growth or escape into deeper blindness, denial, hardness of heart, and the blaming of everyone under the sun except oneself.

I stood there staring at Benjamin. He stared back, wondering what I would do next. The pool of lava within me was waiting to erupt, boiling with anger, pain, the suspicion that maybe nothing ultimately matters. The fear that all our efforts and sacrifices to create are eventually brought to nothing, destroyed by a whim in a meaningless universe. The fear that neither forgiveness nor hatred makes any difference. Was that the source of it? Or was it a feeling of being parachuted into a hostile century, heaped down with exhausting burdens in a landscape that is growing darker by the day. So many men reject the call to family life because of this semi-conscious sense of doom that afflicts the modern world. Add to the equation the fact that the support system of the extended family has all but died, and in so many places the institutions that should reinforce the family are confused and weakened by flawed theories which undermine the family, and by shallow projects that try to solve “the crisis of the family” without touching its core. All of this and more. Men especially are afflicted to the depth of our beings with a sense of unacknowledged aloneness and fear. In this state we cannot bear to look into the gaping core of that wound. We dread to go down into the very centre of our selves because we are afraid we might find there at the bottom—nothing. A trap-door falling open into Nothingness. If that were to happen, our aloneness would be not just personal but cosmic. We would suffer a total terror of abandonment in a dark place from which there is no escape. Is that the source? Is it because we think we are alone at the bottom of this deep, deep pit? And that pit is my very self?

Meeting the Christ of the Poor Men
Is it any wonder that most of us pursue the successful life with a kind of “quiet desperation”? A comfortable life, kept well under control, can delay that moment of hard grace. After all, who wants pain? Moreover, what’s wrong with a nice life? Well, nothing, as long as you don’t pursue it at any cost. Nothing, as long as you don’t try to preserve it by eliminating human beings. Nothing, as long as it remains within the limits of what is simple, reasonable, and appropriate to the dignity of the human person. But be forewarned that a lifetime spent avoiding unpleasantness can deform us badly without our even knowing it. Unsuspecting, we can become incapable of sacrifice, and worse, incapable of hearing the truth.

Jesus says that the truth will set us free. He also says that it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. A hard saying! There are many kinds of riches, and men who are materially poor are not exempt from them. I would maintain that the truth sets us free when we become willing to be poor to the core of our being. When we can look into the darkness, trusting that Jesus dwells there already, believing that there in the very centre of our fears, is not nothingness, but Love himself, waiting for us to meet Him. To meet Him there. There in the absolute poverty of our human state. Until then, until we begin to really learn to trust God, we will either continue to choose various means of escape, or we will slide slowly into a habit of bitterness. Either we begin to accept the innate poverty of the human condition, or we eventually fall victim to a spirit of rage and rebellion. If we refuse to learn this absolutely essential lesson, then quiet desperation can gradually become despair.

Trust is a choice. We cannot always help our feelings. But our will is our own. In exhaustion, desolation, darkness, sickness and doubts, we can choose to flee into the Lord’s own arms. We must pray—and we must make a conscious decision to pray—especially in those times when we least feel like praying. We can make mental acts of trust in divine providence, especially when our surroundings are a disaster zone. When temptation pounds away at our hearts, we can run to the Lord in the Sacraments, hide ourselves in His Sacred Heart, cry out to him from beneath the cross. We will find that he always supplies the grace necessary to bearing our crosses. Step by step, little by little we learn that God is infinitely patient—and generous—with those who sincerely seek Him. The fight against fear may even be a life-long effort, but still we mustn’t be unduly fearful. Where else but in fearful situations will we learn courage. Where else but in disaster zones will we learn to trust absolutely?

All of the above came to me in those few seconds while Ben and I stood staring at each other across the ruins of our life. Then I went down on my knees and held out my arms to him. He ran over and whispered, “Sorry, Papa!” (pronounced Thoo-ee Papa). And I told him through the language of hands and poverty-stricken words just how sorry I was too. He hugged me hard. I hugged him back. Then together we got out rags, mops and towels, and worked side by side to clean up the disaster. I noted Ben’s special eagerness to help. I especially noted an odd little smile on his face. And it made me think.

Every one of our acts sends shock-waves into the world and into the lives of others. Like this naïve two-year-old, we often do not grasp the results of our destructive choices, or our omissions. We think we aren’t hurting anyone. Yet the effects are there, invisible but powerful. Sin is the damage done to “God’s work of art,” as Saint Paul calls us. Each of us is made in the image and likeness of God, and every sin, or failure to choose good, defaces that image, an image that cost a great deal to make and a great deal to ransom. Abortion, for example, destroys a whole human person and severely damages the mother. A contraceptive mentality denies that the Father-Creator made us properly, and exhibits a deep fear and disbelief in divine Providence. “A little white lie,” or a true fact repeated as gossip (even “pious” gossip), can set off lines of falling dominoes, destroying relationships, ruining communities. A father’s rage and resentment, unrepented, can prevent a child from growing into the whole loving person he was intended to become.

At some point the billions of tragic chain reactions must have an end. When Jesus died in our place on the Cross, he made it possible for us to be freed from the tyranny of our destructive impulses. We need no longer be slaves to sin. When we are pushed and pulled by temptation we need only run to the arms of the Cross and draw on its strength. If we do fall, we can simply run to our Father and say we are sorry. The Father’s power is then liberated in our hearts to rebuild things once again. God, in his tender love for humanity, understands us very well. He refuses to spoil us; He is not some cosmic nagging parent who eternally follows His children about, complaining and picking up after them. No, He is a truly loving Father, who respects us so much that he demands that we grow. He desires to heal and to teach us in order that we might become free, capable of love and truth.

The doctrine of making reparation for sin really means that the Father in his great mercy gives us opportunities to help him clean up the disasters we have caused. We are invited to do so by sharing in the suffering of Jesus. Penance, reparation, prayer and sacrifice help to bring us out into the light of day, and to share in the inexpressibly joyous task of restoring all creation to light. Sometimes this bursting of light into our eyes, after long periods in the darkness, can be experienced as pain. If we run from this pain, it will always be waiting there for us and it will always be felt as pain. But if we get our eyes adjusted to the light, so to speak, and follow the directions of those who have been right where we are now, then gradually the pain will turn to joy. So all the saints tell us. Not darkness but a wonderful light! If we walk the way of penance and other forms of reparation, we spread the light to those in darkness, by sending waves of restoration throughout the world, sometimes visibly, but more often in a mysterious hidden way.

A loving Father does not want us to pretend that we didn’t damage his masterpiece. He wants us to learn from the mistake and to grow. Reparation teaches us in a very tangible way the consequences of our wrong choices. A loving Father does not want us to wallow in feelings of guilt, though some of this is natural enough for a time. But feelings of guilt can be really a form of self-centeredness, a kind of self-hatred too, a refusal to love—not real repentance. Instead, God wishes us to look clearly at the objective guilt through His eyes, in the trusting embrace of his love. This is the liberation that forgiveness brings when the heart has truly repented. If we refuse to look, and if we refuse to participate in the restoration, then something within us is not yet free. We have not yet believed completely in God’s forgiveness. We are still afraid that he is not what He says He is.

Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit we can recall our past sins from time to time, but only with gentleness and gratitude for the mercy of God. Anything else is temptation. But we will never properly deal with guilt if we neglect the aspect of reparation. Unrepented sin, unconfessed sin, is merely buried within us, where it continues to burden and wound our lives. But once confessed its power over us is broken. This in itself is not quite enough, however. Part of repentance is a willingness of heart to repair the damage we have caused, and even to go beyond that to help restore the damage caused by others.

Purgatory, I think, is the state where Love purifies us and prepares us for the embrace of total restoration and reunion with the Father. Without it we would be unready to see him as he really is, and we would be unable to accept the eternal joy he longs to give us. Reparation in this world enables us to co-operate in the purification process, here and now. Hell, is the state of permanent refusal, a choice for permanent darkness, for permanent irresponsibility.

In the modern age we struggle against an undercurrent of hopelessness about ourselves and about the world. We tend to fear depression and “negativity” more than we fear sin; we so often mistake “optimism” and “positive thinking” for Christian hope. And many schools of social science encourage us to think that dwelling on our sinfulness is unhealthy. All in all, there is really a thinly-disguised despair behind much of this modern thought. Genuine Christian hope, on the other hand, does not so much dwell on our sinfulness obsessively, as it looks at it squarely and does something about it. Hope sees things as they are, through the eyes of God who is both Truth and Love.

Restoring a Damaged Creation
I was astonished at how cheerfully Benjamin went about mopping up my painting. I was even more surprised at how working together with him restored my own spirits. Later that day we went for a walk in woods, alone together, up the hill across from our place. I put Ben on my shoulders and he chattered happily, holding tight to my forehead. We talked of many things, him and me. Not all of it was intelligible, in fact hardly any of it. But then, not all communication has to be. There are some words that are beyond the need for language, and maybe they are the most important words of all.

That day, I think Ben learned that no matter how much disaster he caused, he was forgiven and loved. He learned that his father would help him restore the creation he had damaged. He learned that his father desired to be with him. The language of my shoulders and hands told him that I was with him. He was safe. At one point I put him up into the branches of a tree that was just budding new leaves. It had been a long, bitter winter, and it was just recently past. The tree was a cottonwood, which around here we call the “balm of Gilead.” Its buds are coated with a sticky resin that smells sweeter than incense. Ben sniffed it and grinned. Then he leapt from the branch and landed in my arms.

“What trust!” I thought, “Maybe some day I’ll learn to do that with God!”

I guess because there was a little boy in my arms I got to thinking about the trust St. Joseph had. And St. Joseph got me thinking about Our Lady. And then the whole mystery of Nazareth opened up for an instant and I saw that  the holy family had to live in complete trust all the time, often surrounded by forces that could easily have destroyed them.

Unlike the rest of us, Our Lady always trusted—trusted totally in the will of God, even when it hurt, even when it didn’t seem to make sense. She did not understand everything that was happening to her and to those whom she loved, but she believed that it was within the plans of divine providence, and that it would all work to the good. She knew that nothing in this life is wasted if we do not lose heart or cease to pray with hope. Where better to learn such trust than in the arms of a women who carried the Savior of the world in her womb, her arms, and forever in her heart? She who raised her child in a time of great peril, uncertainty, and poverty will not abandon us. She continues to carry the children of Jesus through the dangers of our own times.

All of this came to me as I held my laughing son in my arms. I fumbled in my pocket and found my rosary and began to quietly pray. As we walked onward Ben babbled about leaves and squirrels, delighting in everything, dancing on a carpet of brittle dry leaves just for the fun of hearing the sound they make, soaking up the sun, grinning at the singing birds. Creation itself was trusting, performing its tasks, just being. It was an ordinary moment. Nothing spectacular or cosmic. Nothing that Ben would remember on the conscious level, but something so strong that I suspect it penetrated to the hidden places of his soul.

Ben is almost eight years old now. He is the delight of our hearts. He is an irrepressible, joyous, imaginative boy, full of energy, silly jokes, and faith. He makes wood-block castles for his little sister, writes and illustrates home-made books for her (though admittedly they are full of trucks and Indians and swords), longs for his First Communion, reminds us to have daily prayer time whenever we get absent-minded, reads, rides a bicycle, dances, recites poetry, ties his shoelaces, and is struggling with the intricacies of telling time from a clock.

He has taught us that time is a mysterious thing, swiftly passing, often elastic. He has given us unique difficulties which over the years have gradually fallen away, and with them, unique joys that remain. It takes time to learn these things. We have to give life time enough to teach us what we need to know. We have to give God time, and ourselves time. We need to slow down. And we need to hope for miracles along the way.

In the months following our disaster, as I awaited the inevitable deterioration of the painting, I thought a great deal about that smile on Ben’s face. And I wondered if maybe on the hidden face of God there is another smile, hinting at a secret joke. During this time there occurred what in the family we now think of as our miracle. The impossible happened: the painting simply refused to crumble. Not a fiber was out of place. Almost six years later it remains in perfect condition, thanks be to God!

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Having survived early childhood, Benjamin O’Brien lives with his parents and his five brothers and sisters near Combermere, Ontario. As prophesied by the lady at the doctor’s office, he is growing into an exceptionally wonderful person. The painting, “The Baptism of the Lord,” hangs in Saint Peter’s church, Woodbridge, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto.


Post script: The above article appeared originally in a 1994 issue of Nazareth Journal, a Catholic family magazine, which is no longer published. All these years later the mural is still intact. Benjamin is now seventeen years old, is learning to drive the car, is an avid reader of history and the lives of the saints, and is incredibly patient with small rambunctious children. He is endlessly reliable and a delight to our hearts. I call him My Steadfast Man !  — Michael O’Brien