Fatherhood and the Prodigal Son

Adapted from a talk by Michael O’Brien given in Vancouver, British Columbia, November, 1999, at a national conference on the family sponsored by the archdiocese of Vancouver.

Fatherhood and the Prodigal Son


Michael D. O’Brien

All of us are to some degree afflicted with a tragically stunted image of who we are. This tendency in human nature has never been so pronounced as in our times, when we are continually bombarded with false messages about the meaning of human life, the value of the human person and his ultimate destiny. Indeed, at every turn we are saturated in anti-words, false words. In Jesus we have been given the true Word made flesh, who shows us what we really are and points the way to what we are to become. He does this not only through his teachings, but also by the witness of his life. In Christ, God lays bare his heart in the total vulnerability of being fully human, to the point of permitting himself to be crucified.

He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, as the prophet Isaiah says. He knew joy, but he accepted the suffering of our state in life. He accepted it because he knew that in the passage through the eye of the needle, a great secret is to be found. The priceless “secret” is that on the other side of the needle’s eye is a vast and beautiful kingdom—an infinite kingdom in which the beauty of God the Father is ever creating more and more beauty, more and more love. And even in this world we, created in the image and likeness of God, can reflect this. Like him, we must go through the eye of the needle and, following his example, through the Cross. For most of us this is a lifelong journey, with many trials and errors, and even some false trails. Yet, because Christ is who he says he is, because he is Love, he is always leading us back on the path that will bring us to the Father.

Parables of the Father

Throughout the Gospels, there are a number of parables, as well as less metaphorical teachings, where Jesus tells us about the Father’s love. We are most familiar with the parable of the prodigal son. We understand that it is about forgiveness and about being restored again, given a new start. But there are depths of meaning in it that are often unexplored. Of course Jesus wants us to consider the most obvious meaning of the story, but he also wants us to go deeper, in order to better know our heavenly Father.

A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the estate that is coming to me.” So the father divided up the property. Days later, this younger son collected all his belongings and went off to a distant land where he squandered his money on dissolute living. After he had spent everything, a great famine broke out in that country and he was in dire need. So he attached himself to one of the propertied class of the place, who sent him to his farm to take care of the pigs. He longed to fill his belly with husks that were the fodder for the pigs, but no one made a move to give him anything. Coming to his senses at last, he said, “How many hired hands at my father’s place have more than enough to eat while here I am starving. I will get up and return to my father and say to him, ‘Father I have sinned against God and against you, I no longer deserve to be called your son. Treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” With that he set off for his father’s house.

While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him and was deeply moved. He ran out to meet him, threw his arms around his son and kissed him. The son said to him, “Father I have sinned against God and against you and I no longer deserve to be called your son.” The father said to his servants, “Quickly bring out the finest robe and put it on him, put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. Take the fatted calf and kill it. Let us eat and celebrate because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life, he was lost and is found.” And then the celebration began.

Meanwhile the elder son was out on the land and, as he neared the house on his way home, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked him the reason for the dancing and the music. The servant answered, “Your brother is home and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has him back in good health.” The son grew angry and would not go in. But his father came out and began to plead with him. He said to his father in reply, “For years now I have slaved for you. I never disobeyed one of your orders, yet you never gave me so much as kid to celebrate with my friends. Then when this son of yours returns after having gone through your property with loose women, you kill the fatted calf for him.”

“My son,” replied the father, “you are with me always and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice. This brother of yours was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and is found.”  (Luke 15: 11-32)

Numerous insights could be extracted from this story, though it is deceptively simple. We are looking here at three different characters, a father and his two sons. Obviously, the elder son is a righteous young man, good, responsible, and loyal. He has done everything correctly. What is Jesus telling us here? He is showing us among other things that the elder son in his own hidden way, hidden from his own eyes, is himself a prodigal son. Listen to the words which the Lord uses in constructing the tale. The elder son reproaches his father, saying, “this son of yours,” and the father corrects him, saying, “this brother of yours.” The elder son has in some way rejected his brother. He despises him; he doesn’t just despise his sin, he holds his whole being in contempt. The father is gently reminding him that he and his brother are connected by more than blood, by more than a social contract, or by a formal membership in a clan or a family. He is asking the elder son to see that in some indefinable but real way their souls are bound together, they belong to each other.

Pride, our root sin, is strongly at work in the elder brother, though he does not recognize it in himself. He believes that the universe is constructed on Justice alone, a kind of rigid framework in which if you obey all the laws you should reap all the rewards. He believes that this principle (for which he has labored and sacrificed much) has been betrayed by his father’s mercy. It is interesting that the prodigal son makes no such appeal to justice. He simply throws himself into his father’s arms knowing full well that he deserves nothing. In contrast, the elder son makes a case that he deserves everything.

Elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus teaches with great firmness about the necessity of obedience to the law and about the deadly nature of sin and error. However, in such parables as the prodigal son and the good shepherd, he points out that Mercy is a necessary component of Justice, just as Justice is necessary to Mercy. Neither can function well without the other. Without mercy, it is difficult, if not impossible, for men to be restored to living a just life. Without justice, human mercy all too easily dissolves into sentimentalism and false compassion, leading to an increase of sin and error.

Revelation in a foreign land

When I was traveling in Russia a few years ago, I visited the city of St. Petersburg, and there I  spent an afternoon in the former winter palace of the Czars, which is now a museum called the Hermitage. It contains more than three million works of art. As an artist, I was soon overwhelmed by fabulously beautiful works of art of all ages, and began to stagger around the Hermitage in a kind of a trance-like state, mentally and emotionally overloaded. Without knowing where I was going, I wandered up a magnificent marble staircase to another wing of the museum.

There I entered a large gallery, only vaguely conscious that it contained Dutch and Flemish art of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As I walked through the door and looked up, I suddenly found myself face to face with Rembrandt’s famous painting The Return of the Prodigal Son.

Let me describe it for those who haven’t seen reproductions of it: It is a huge work, the figures in it life-size. The artist has depicted the three main characters of the parable. The father is the central image. He is a little old wizened man portrayed at the very moment when the son has thrown himself into his father’s arms. The son is kneeling, dressed in rags, covered with filth, diseased, his shoes torn and falling off his feet. He is a total disaster, a ne’er-do-well of the worst sort. He has lost everything, he has no claim to anything, he has been reduced to the absolute poverty of our human condition. He is a sinner. He is not only a sinner, he is a stupid sinner. The only thing he has left are these old arms around him. The son’s face is turned away in shame. His eyes are closed, for he cannot bear to look at his father’s face. The father is bending over the son, gazing down at him, with his two hands on the son’s back, enfolding him, drawing him in with very great tenderness. And on that old face one can see not only pity (after all, pity is not so hard to find in our hearts), but something deeper than pity. A kind of mystical and holy mercy.

We must distinguish between mercy and pity. It is as if the father is gazing through dimensions of time, and seeing the infant he once held in his arms not so many years before. He sees also the healthy young man who strode off into the world with all his hopes, all his resources, all this strength, and has now returned shattered and humiliated. The artist is trying to evoke in us an understanding of the great heart of this human father, and through him to offer a glimpse of the great heart of our Father in Heaven. The father of the prodigal son is gazing deeply through the layers of the son’s mistakes, deep into the core of who this child really is in the eyes of God. He also sees the man the Father intended him to be from the beginning, the identity he lost through his wrong choices. But the true father does not forget, and God does not forget. He sees who his son is called to be. He believes in the image of God within the degraded image of the son, even though the son does not yet believe in it, does not yet know himself.

It is interesting to note that just preceding the prodigal son parable in the Gospel is to be found the parables of the lost sheep and the lost talent. In this context we can see that Jesus is emphasizing again and again the love of the Father. In all three stories the Father seeks the lost. In the parable of the prodigal son there is a variation, for the father does not go out seeking, but waits until the son makes the move to return home. We must remember that the father has been seeking him constantly in his heart, which is revealed in the way he instantly runs out to greet him before his arrival, welcoming him wholeheartedly. This seeking on the father’s part is also revealed in the more mysterious spiritual welcome, in the way the father seeks the image of God in his son, and finds it long before the son becomes capable of knowing himself.

Wasting our inheritance

How can the son believe that he is anything other than worthless? The father must believe for him. He shows him the truth by offering his unqualified mercy, thus giving to him the faith and hope that is necessary if he would grow beyond his errors. The prodigal son has wasted his inheritance. How easy it is to think ill of him, to say to ourselves, Well, thank God we are not like that! But do we not all waste our inheritance? We all of us waste our inheritance of grace, not because we willfully choose to go out and plunge into corruption like the prodigal son (though some of us do). Much of our habit of wasting grace comes from not knowing who we are in the eyes of God. We do not really believe what he tells us about who we are and who he is. Of course, we accept the theological abstractions, we acknowledge on some level the truth of what Jesus tell us, but it does not burn in our hearts. It remains semi-dormant in our heads, and whenever it comes to mind we perhaps think to ourselves, yes, that’s a wonderful truth and isn’t it great to have a good God like this. But it rarely if ever brings us to the point of throwing ourselves into the arms of God. We work hard to prevent ourselves becoming that weak—as weak as a child in desperate need of his father’s mercy. We become that weak whenever life brings us to moments of encounter with physical, emotional, or material failure in the ordinary and extraordinary trials of existence.

The trials of life are never more intense than when raising children in a time of history such as ours. John Paul II frequently reminded us that we live in what he called “the culture of death.” And it is exactly that: it is a culture which rewards deadly activities and punishes life practically at every turn. I would like to tell you two stories which pertain to this culture, and which may shed a little light on how mercy and weakness have much to teach us about building a civilization of love.

No place to go but up!

When my wife and I were first married, it was at a time when we had both discerned that God was asking me to be a Christian artist, a rather daunting task in these times. We had no real resources, we weren’t wealthy, our families didn’t have money. We knew it would demand a great deal of sacrifice, with a strong likelihood of failure. The decision was the result of much prayer and discussion, and we had come to a peace about it, a mutual agreement that we would risk our lives responding totally to God’s call. As a result, for the next twenty-five years we lived in a style to which we would rather not have grown accustomed. I hesitate to use the word poverty in a world where so many people suffer acute poverty, where their basic necessities are not met. But in our society, my wife and I have lived pretty much at the bottom level. There was no place to go but up! We still shop at second hand stores, drive old wrecks, and are often blessed with help from friends and neighbors, without which we could not keep going. I am not here to complain about it, but to speak about what it has taught me, to say that I now value this poverty as the greatest treasure of my life, after faith, and my wife, and my children.

Poverty is something that terrorizes modern man unnecessarily. We are a security-obsessed society, and this I think is a rather strange obsession when you consider that ultimately all attempts at security are going to fail—for everyone. All human comforts and securities are temporary delays in the confrontation with the radial poverty of human existence. We are all poor. I am not saying that mortgages are evil, or that we should all go out and sell our cars and live on the streets. But my point is, in one way or another God permits that we will experience our poverty on some level.

I remember especially the years after our first two children were born, our two oldest boys. Those were very hard years. I was selling a painting now and then, but not often enough it seemed. I worked long days, usually six days a week, but during those years there was no response (in terms of sales) from the secular community and little response from the Christian community, which for close to two hundred years had fallen into the habit of neglecting the sacred arts. Even so, there was always just enough income to live at a simple level, to feed ourselves, pay the rent on our little apartment, buy bus tickets, and to purchase things the children needed at the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Please do not misunderstand me—I mention this neither to complain nor to brag. Although poverty can sometimes be heroic, it is, as often as not, a degrading experience for many people. The real heroism of poverty is not in the external details but in the inner disposition of the heart—a heart that trusts God and loves in the midst of physical deprivation. The truth is, I was no hero. My faith was often tested, I was frequently tempted to discouragement, I was angry at what the secular culture had done to the life of our Catholic people, angry at the state of constant insufficiency and weakness in which I found myself, and which my family suffered because of me. And yet, as hard as it was, over the years this poverty began to teach me some very difficult, very precious lessons.

About a year after our second son was born, an uncle gave me an old broken down car; it was our first vehicle and a great treasure to us. But we were very tired from raising two young children through their first years. Both had suffered from infant colic, which meant that for months at a time we did not get much sleep as the baby screamed for hours on end, and usually at the very hours of the night when we desperately needed some rest. Those who have experienced this will know what it can do to your emotions and your thinking. This was in the midst of not only material poverty but also serious health problems that my wife and I were suffering. We had great faith, head faith and even sometimes heart faith. We prayed, we were faithful Catholics. But at the core of the heart there was an unacknowledged protest against these burdens. Why was it happening to us? Where had all our joy gone? Why were we so weak?

Weakness was forcing us to see our root fear, the root fear of abandonment, the root fear of insufficiency, and the most horrifying fear of all—that maybe God wasn’t really looking after us, maybe he wasn’t what he said he was—a Father. I make bold to say that at the core of every heart this fear is present. Until we faced that fundamental doubt, the light of Christ could not heal it. Human nature builds a wall of protection around the dark little corners of fear inside us. We have all kinds of devices for this, money being the most obvious one. We can pad and buffer our life, distract and entertain ourselves very successfully in this society, filling an entire lifetime with it. We can even reach the point of eliminating children from our lives, because, after all, the demands of raising children in an anti-child culture, added to all their messiness and need and noise, have a tendency to undermine the walls of protection. But all such defenses are only delaying mechanisms.

Now my wife and I had remained totally open to life, had not succumbed to the contraceptive temptation. But we were feeling crushed to the point of near-despair. One day I was in an exhausted, sick, weakened state, haunted by unpaid bills, many doubts, and the specter of having proved myself to be an utter failure. In order to escape from myself, I went for a ride in the old rusty car my uncle had given me, taking along our little one-year-old son, Joseph. I put him in the car seat beside me, and drove off through the city streets in no particular direction, wrestling in my mind all the way. Once again we had run out of resources on every level. Only faith remained, and even that seemed sorely tested. God had looked after us so far, but what if he didn’t look after us tomorrow.

It did not strike me at the time that this was the very question asked by the Israelites in the desert, when they crossed from the land of bondage to the Promised Land. There in the desert God had given them only enough manna for one day at a time. But they wanted more. Why? Because it is much easier not to have to trust every step of the way, far more difficult to face the test of radical dependence on God every day. I wanted to get to the Promised Land fast, or (in my lower moments) to go back to Egypt where, if things were not quite as free, at least they were certain—and isn’t certainty a kind of security? Groaning and weeping silently so as not to scandalize my baby boy, I became really quite angry at our lot in life. Driving along I talked to God in my mind, crying out to him, “Why is it so hard? I love my wife, she loves me, and we have a wonderful marriage. But everything else is just getting harder and harder and harder, year after year, and where will it all end? I’m trying to serve you. I held nothing back. So why aren’t things going well? Did I not hear you right? Did I make a mistake? Maybe I fooled myself. Maybe I’m crazy!”

Anguish was pouring out of this cracked-open wound, this deeply buried disbelief in the Fatherhood of God. In that distracted state I drove straight through a stop sign. Worse than that, I had to slam hard on the brakes, because sitting right there at the intersection was a police car and inside it was a policeman staring at me. My bumper stopped just a foot from smashing into his door.

“Oh, wonderful!” I groaned. “A perfect end to a perfect day—and a perfect life.” Full of self-pity, through my mind there raced at top speed all those familiar questions: “How come this doesn’t happen to people who break all the rules? How come this happens to people like me who are trying to do things right? Why do bad things happen to good people?”

Do you hear the assumption beneath these questions? Do you hear what I was saying to myself: I’m a good person. I’m keeping all the rules. I don’t deserve this!

The policeman got out of his car, sauntered over and just looked at me with raised eyebrows, shaking his head in amazement.

“Officer—” I murmured, “Officer,  I . . . I . . . I . . .”

He said nothing. He looked at my despairing face, he looked at my little son who was covered with hideous rashes, he looked at the shape of the car, and I suppose he was overcome with basic human pity.

“I d-didn’t see the stop sign,” I stammered.

“Did you see my car?” he asked.

“I’m sorry I didn’t,” I shook my head glumly.

Then with an odd little smile he said, “I think you’d better go home, sir, and have a cup of coffee.”

Miraculously, he let me go without a ticket. God Bless him. We could not have paid that ticket. But I remember driving home, not even grateful that we had been given a reprieve. No, I just added this near-disaster to the enormous indictment I had amassed against God. “Here I am serving you and it just keeps getting worse and worse and harder and harder!” I accused.

I drove down our street, parked in front of our apartment, and sat there staring through the windshield, fuming to myself. Then a strange thing happened. And I know that what happened is beyond anything my mind could have produced in that mood. I suddenly felt a bolt of light and sweetness so powerful, so tangible, that I wondered what had hit me. It totally startled me. It had hit me on my right cheek, coming from the passenger side of the car. I looked over at my little son, who I thought was asleep, only to see that he had turned in his car seat and was looking at me with wide open eyes and the most beautiful smile. How can I describe this? These are hopelessly inadequate terms for something indescribable, but I can only say that he was sending a beam or a river of love at me. That little fellow had no idea what was going on in our lives. He was just sitting there being himself. He was simply loving his father. This was for me a revelation of the powers of the human soul—the reality of the power of love. Not talk-about-love, not the words “I love you.” But love as a raw spiritual force. Children are very, very good at this. (Of course, five minutes later they will throw up on you!).

The boy in a cage

My second story is connected to the first. Before I was married I worked as a volunteer in a large hospital for the mentally handicapped. This institution was enormous—so vast that it contained literally miles of wards. There were over 5000 residents—patients or inmates, I’m not sure which term is more appropriate. Among the staff there were dedicated people, but many others worked there just to earn a dollar, and did not love the patients; indeed some were routinely harsh with them. The institution was a huge dumping bin for children and adults whom society had no place for. Of course some of them were people who could not be raised in a family because their physical and mental problems were so severe. Broken hearted parents had no other choice than to turn them over to this institution and others like it throughout the country. In those days, thirty-five years ago, there was not much creative thinking about how the handicapped can be integrated into the family and society. Jean Vanier’s L’Arche homes were only beginning to spread at the time, and the situation was still very much dominated by the old system of creating huge boxes in which to put those who did not fit into normal categories.

Because most of the patients never received visitors, volunteers were highly prized. I was a volunteer on one of the wards of moderately handicapped young people. Again and again, every time I went there I was bowled over by the powers of the heart. These were people in whom the intellectual powers were greatly reduced, and yet they were fully human. The image and likeness of God was totally intact in them. The mentally handicapped have a great gift for, and need for, love. This gift and need is not locked inside the many ways we more “advanced” forms of human life  protect ourselves. They are without guile. Their hearts are exposed; they are poor. They are not, and never can be, successful, powerful human beings. They are little. The world goes so far as to say that they are useless. While it is true that they are only minimally productive in a commercial sense, they are among the greatest gifts God gives us. We have much to learn from them, for they live daily what Our Lord calls us to. And how do they do it? How do they get there? They get there through poverty, weakness, powerlessness. I am not romanticizing them. There are mentally handicapped people in my extended family and circle of friends, and thus I know that their conditions demand effort and great patience at times. But there is a priceless freedom in them that we normal people rarely find in ourselves.

One day, there was a surplus of volunteers on the ward where I worked, and one of the regular staff asked me if I would be willing to visit a ward where no one ever wanted to go. Would I come and talk to some of the patients there? I agreed, and as we walked through the labyrinth of the hospital, I asked him, “What kind of people are in that ward?” He would only say, “I’ll let you see for yourself.” Arriving at a remote wing of the institution, we entered a small room containing twelve stainless steel cribs. The ward, like all the others in the building, was drab and lifeless-looking. There were no decorations or toys, no visitors talking into the cribs, no playing, no singing. It seemed a very sterile place. After the staff member left, leaving me by myself, I looked into the nearest crib. When I saw what was inside, my heart skipped a beat and then began to hammer.

It was my first experience of a severely deformed human being. The ward was for “hydrocephalic” children—a term for the condition in which water builds up on the surface of the brain and expands the cranium until it is grossly oversized. Modern medical technology has pretty much eliminated this condition with new procedures, but in the old days the method of draining excess water from the inside of the skull had not yet been perfected. Consequently there were children who suffered from what was called “water on the brain.” As the cranium of the skull continued to expand, trying to cope with water pressure, their heads would grow to two or three times normal human proportions. And because they could not run or exercise their limbs physically like normal children, their bodies were usually undeveloped as well.

Inside the crib was a little boy lying with his arms outstretched, his eyes wide open. His body was under three feet long and his head was about twice the size of a normal head. Yet when I focused on the face, I saw that it was a very beautiful face, just looking back at me with eyes full of soul. Here was a person existing in a state of pure being. At the time I did not know if hydrocephalic children were mentally handicapped as well. And indeed, some of them were and some were not. I reached my hand into the crib in an attempt to make human contact. As I did so, a little smile flickered on the child’s face. Later I was to learn that he was, in fact, twenty-three years old and had spent his entire life in that stainless steel cage. Yet he had the face of a child, and the spirit of a child. Not expecting an answer, I said, “Hello there.”

There I was, well-intentioned but full of preconceptions, trying to communicate with what I then considered to be the only means of communication—words—trying to build a bridge with verbiage. I had not yet learned silence. I still have not learned it very well, but in those days I had not even begun to guess the value of silence. I started talking to him, and he just smiled, gazing at me in a state of perfect composure until eventually my words died on my lips. And then our communication became simply a mutual looking, just two souls contemplating each other. It was perhaps a moment of pure contemplation of being. I am sure the philosophers would have a word for it. For me it was a moment of radical illumination, of awakening to the mysterious beauty of being. The inexpressible beauty of a human soul—all human souls, no matter how physically deformed they may be. St. Thomas Aquinas says that the value of one human soul exceeds the entire value of the material universe. One human soul. How often do we look at life with that awareness?

After some time, the boy in the cage wrapped his tiny fingers around my index finger and just held on. He held me mostly with his eyes, though it was not in any way a possessing, demanding look. It was so perfectly free that I felt myself completely free. Because it was so perfectly a giving of his soul, he was teaching me to respond in kind. From his eyes came that same beam of love which years later I would feel from my own son—the power of love, the power of the eternal within our mortal fragility.

I want to repeat this, at the risk of overusing it: Love is a holy power of the soul. Love never possesses, love never forces, manipulates, or controls, because for love to grow there must be between two souls a mutual gift of the self. This mystery is sacramentalized in marriage but it is as true for all forms of genuine love. As the beam of love literally penetrated my heart I was not instantaneously transformed, though a long process of transformation was begun at that moment. I who considered myself so rich in human qualities saw that he, who was so poor, was a richer man than me. I was stunned to speechlessness by this realization, because it turned topsy-turvy the false values of our world and my indoctrination in those values.

Then something more happened. He smiled at me again and then he spoke. He said simply, “I love you.”

Fatherhood and love

Love is communicated in many different ways, in many different “languages,” not all of them spoken. When such love is lived within the divine order of the Father’s original intention (written in natural law and consecrated in Christian life), nothing can destroy it. The Scriptures say that love is more powerful than death. There is, however, in our society, a no more overused word than “love.” By love I do not mean sentimentality, nor do I mean rushes of sweet emotion. I’m referring to the deepest current of love beneath the surface waves of emotion, there at the core of our personhood where we make a choice. There we choose to give our lives, to lay down our lives, for others. This always asks of us a willingness to carry crosses, to endure radical human weakness, bumping into our insufficiency as human beings day after day. If we do not flee from this, if we do not search for escape hatches, quick-fixes, buffers, or drugs that kill the pain, if we allow Christ to do in us what he intends to do, then we will come to know him in ways that the mind alone cannot know him. Our hearts will be broken open, so that the deeper heart may emerge.

We are mysteries to ourselves. We come to know who we truly are only through the eyes of God. He knows who we are from the beginning. He knows who we are intended to be. I have assisted at the birth of each of our six children, and as each one emerged from the womb, there was a spontaneous exaltation of the heart and the soul, with tears and laughter. It was a moment of extraordinary joy and profound reverence before a great mystery. Who is this child? Who is this being coming into our lives? My wife and I have made him and he is part of us, yet he is not us, he is also from God.

Each child is a mystery, never before seen, never to be repeated. But God knows who this child is. Each has his mission, his missio, as the Church calls it. And how am I to nurture him in such a way that he will find it and fulfill his role in the world. Will we parent our children perfectly? No. Our task is to be willing to learn. The discipleship of true fatherhood is a long apprenticeship, based on all that Jesus shows us about the Fatherhood of God. The purpose of fatherhood is not to get everything fixed and ship-shape so that we won’t have to think about it any more. No, fatherhood is to live like the Israelites passing from the land of bondage into the land of freedom—the promised land of the heart—trusting that there will be enough manna for one day at a time.

In confronting my own human limitations as a father, my faults, sins, insufficiency, and weakness, I have learned that God does not want me to drug the pain of my poverty with an overdose of pleasures and distractions. He does not want me to escape it. He wants me to penetrate through it with love, transforming everything as I go, by his power. Therefore, the very weakness which I find so hard to accept is one of his great gifts to me, because I must run to him every day, sometimes hourly, asking for wisdom, for peace, for mercy, for forgiveness. In practical terms, I have found it very helpful to develop a habit of going before the Blessed Sacrament often, attending daily Mass as much as possible, going to Confession regularly. At Communion especially I pray to become a father like him, for at that moment his great Heart is within me physically, in his humanity and divinity—perfect love is totally present. During those few moments our God rests within us as we rest within him. Who can explain this astounding reality! Certainly not the scientists. But it is real. It is the most real thing in the universe.

To expose your heart to his eternally exposed and poured-out Heart opens the flood gates of grace. We fathers are taught from birth to keep our hearts well-guarded, to bear our burdens, to be tough, to be strong in a stoic manner. It is true that we must take responsibility for life, if we are going to be good fathers and husbands. But if we are good fathers and husbands, we will sooner or later come to the end of our resources, and it is precisely at this point that we can grow to a new level of understanding. This is the genuine “weakness” in Christ, which is the ultimate strength. Yet we cannot do it on our own. Each day I go to the Blessed Sacrament and say, “Father, I need your grace to love.” And then I mention the specific things our family is struggling with at the time. At this stage of our life it often involves the adolescents in our family—and, of course, the ongoing material insufficiency of our family’s way of life. “Today, Lord, grant me wisdom and patience, grant me the grace to resist temptation, help me deal with my anger, my confusion, my desires for a life without suffering. Dear Jesus, I open my heart to you; see this root of fear in me. Touch this fear. Fill this dark little corner with your light and with your love.”

There is nothing quite like fear for shutting down the avenues of love. Sin does that too, but so does anxiety. We are living in a fear-saturated and fear-haunted age. But how in such an environment do we learn to trust? We do it by recognizing and confronting our fear for what it is. Is this not the definition of courage? How do we grow in courage except by truly facing our fear? The good news is that we need not face our fear alone. Our Father is helping us to face it with him.

The heart of a child

Jesus told us, “Unless you become like little children, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 18: 3) But what did he mean by this? Was he speaking to all of us? Even to we men? But what about our maturity, our dignity, our authority? Where will these go if we become “as little children”? And even if we do want this, how do we do it?

Doing it! Yes, here we are again facing our male natures, our primary mode of interacting with the world: Always doing, fixing, making, defending, providing, building—the world of exterior action. None of the foregoing activities are wrong in themselves. Indeed they are our responsibility, and can be ennobling acts of love. But if it is only exterior action, then we are not living the fullness of our humanity in Christ.

How then to bring our inner life to this condition of childlikeness? If we look carefully at the passage in Matthew’s Gospel, the context in which Jesus is speaking, we find that he is responding to a question from the apostles about who is the greatest in the Kingdom. Jesus cuts through their curiosity and perhaps through their mixed motives to the core of the problem. He is saying that the Kingdom of God is not about doing great things for God, or being recognized as “successful” apostles or about any other of the usual ways we evaluate the worth of our actions. “The Kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21). The kingdom is to be found within the heart of the soul; it is a state of temporal being connected to an eternal state of being. The “eye of the needle” or the “narrow gate” is widened between the temporal and the eternal dimensions of the Kingdom when we live as a child looking upward in an open and trusting spirit to the Father, our small “hand” clasped firmly in his, regardless of the exterior trials.

How do we reach this interior condition? Moreover, how do we remain in it and allow it to grow within us? In a word, through practice. And where do we best practice it if not in the midst of trials? Trials assault us uncannily at times, take us by surprise or overload us with too many at once, or leave us paralyzed by unsolvable dilemmas, some of our own making, others thrust at us by the complexity and killing pace of modern life. It is precisely at these times that we must make a pause and go inward for a moment (or for many moments if possible). There in the interior we can learn to quiet ourselves, to be still and know that He is God; there also we invoke graces for the situations we face, asking our Father for the “bread” we need at the moment. In this way we can learn to rely on Him more and more, and less on our own poor will.

During these brief—sometimes all too brief—inner rest periods, I find it helpful to see myself as a very small child, a toddler climbing onto his father’s lap and resting there, my ear to his heart. Then it expands and becomes the heart of Christ gently booming in my ear. At other times I see myself climbing onto Our Lady’s lap and resting in her motherly embrace. At other times it’s St. Joseph. It only takes a few seconds—just enough to take a deep breath, exhale, feel the tension subside, “hear” the thump-thump-thump of the great Hearts. I try to rest there as long as I can before I’m called back into the world of exterior action, must jump from their laps and go about my adult responsibilities. But after such rests I find that they come with me in a sense, enfolding me, holding my hand even when my hands are busy-busy-busy about many things. It’s not a one-time event. It has to be renewed often—daily—and in my case hourly whenever the going gets rough.

When I’m resting on Our Lady’s lap in this way, I sometimes cry, sometimes laugh, but most often I just sigh and sink into that place of total protection and consolation. Please don’t get me wrong. I’m no saint, and certainly no visionary. I can climb into her lap (or let her lift me onto her lap) not because I am a saint but because I have accepted the hard and awful truth that I am a sinner. And because I am so greatly in need of mercy, I do not fool myself into thinking that I can present myself to the heavenly court in my best suit and tie, showered, deodorized, and irresistibly charming. No, I am the prodigal son. And in this too we can find what it is to be a child in the heart of the soul. If I am small, weak in temptations, often confused, often powerless over the troubles that beset me, I can discover that our Father is the father of the prodigal son, and our Mother is the mother of the prodigal son. When I accept that I need mercy, then I can receive it. Then joy fills me and I can go out again to play like a child in the fields of the Lord, his beautiful created world, among all those whom he has given me to love.

What is this mysterious thing that happens whenever we bring ourselves, exactly as we are, before God and his saints? It’s not a tangible experience, though the effects of it can be tangible. More often than not, it doesn’t even register on the emotions but is experienced in the spirit. It’s a heart and soul thing, not necessarily “felt” in the usual ways we feel things. Unexplainable but real. The fruits of it are real, so over time I have gradually come to depend on it as real. Let’s call it a grace. Moreover let’s ask ourselves if such graces are not only a lovely blessing but are in fact an absolute necessity.

We only have to ask for these graces and they will be given. They may come in other forms, with other images, or with no images whatsoever. But they will be given. Rely on it. Moreover, these graces work hand in hand with other graces, received through the myriad “languages” of prayer. I find it easiest to “climb up on their laps” when praying before the exposed Blessed Sacrament. But one can do it anywhere at any time. I pray the Rosary every evening with my family. I sometimes pray a second Rosary alone when I’m feeling afraid and overcome with too many burdens. I often pray another with my wife as we fall asleep at night. I have learned that Our Lady is a great teacher of fatherhood. She is the Mother of the “domestic church,” which is the family. Another title given to her by John Paul II during the Year of the Family is “Queen of the Family”—a title which reveals one of her roles. If she is indeed the mother of my family and your family,  need we ever hesitate to approach her? Surely we should run to her with full confidence.

Run to her, fathers, and let her pick you up in her arms. Do not be afraid to be a very little child. And the greater your responsibilities are, even more must you become this small. It is a priceless gift to be so little that you will let yourself be picked up in the arms of this Lady—yes, us—we great big grown men, capable of killing bears, fighting off lions, and filling out income tax forms. The most courageous and manly thing we can do is to allow ourselves to become a child in the arms of the Woman whom our heavenly Father has given to us. We should not be afraid to be this weak, because then we are truly strong with the strength of Christ, who once rested in these very arms.

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