Word Magazine June 1998 Page 3-4
By Nicholas P. Papas
Many of the fathering models referred to and highlighted in current conversations about fathering have a mass appeal. Why is this so? These models seem to be answering all the right questions in all the right ways. The questions and answers seem to be past-looking to a place where things were clearly wrong or right. Questions such as, “Why didn’t my dad teach me to play ball?” or “Why did my dad yell at me so much?” or “Why didn’t he discipline me more?” or “Why was my father not around more when I was growing up?” are now given the simple and seemingly right-on answer that he was “bread winning”. Sure seems to ring true. But this or that alleged shortcoming simply may have been flavor-of-the-month. Maybe the absenteeism of our fathers’ generation was its own peculiar manifestation of something that each generation manifests in its own way. The reaction to this revelation has the logical corollary that a conscientious, Christian man will not do as one’s father did. Or another corollary: I will do as was done in the golden age of fathering … by the great-grampa method or as it was done in the
quasi-middle-high zoot suit era or like the neo-constructivist oompa age. The problem with this reactionary behavior is that it instantly and ferociously springs a trap, a trap that will probably not lead a man into victorious fathering. In fact, it will most probably ensnare him in some other human excess, which often proves to be a mere mirror of one’s father’s excesses.
I am reminded of a cartoon from an ancient Mad magazine. In it, clean-cut parents are seen
~ yelling at their hippie kids; in the next frame the same, now grown-up hippie kids are yelling at their conservatively dressed children. So it would seem that one generation’s pitfall lays the foundation for the next generation’s. How to break the cycle? By no longer putting one’s hope in man, i.e., our earthly fathers and ourselves! This struggling to correct our earthly fathers’ seemingly never-before-seen errors leads to the discovery of that very old trap which is in fact the ONLY trap: not placing hope in God. Old as this trap is, the liberation is even older. The liberation is in finding the One True Father who is in heaven. And the gift of faith makes this freedom real, not abstract. God our Father manifests Himself in many concrete and touchable ways: Holy Scriptures, writings of the Saints, the Church, the Sacraments, all of His creation, etc.
The realization that our fathers have shortcomings can be a painful one. The pain of this truth in fact can be so strong as to keep many from wishing to consider its possibility. Maybe this is an even more accurate reason for the success of some current models. They seem to give satisfactory answers to nagging, uncomfortable questions, allowing the ultimate questions to remain unresolved. Maybe this is why a certain nagging still remains. Maybe the nagging is God manifesting His mercy. This discomfort may be God saying to us that something is not quite right yet. This Godly nudging is, I think, a “something” that guides us into placing our hope and faith in God, not in a man. This can be a life-defining moment: deciding to place faith in invisible God, not in a visible man. Scary! Brings to mind Moses at the Bush. No wonder we do not want to touch this one. We might get burned. Alas … “fear not, for “the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed!”
So what models does scripture give to parents?
Models of holy abandonment and faithfulness. Moses’ and Isaac’s upbringing come to mind from the Old Covenant and Mary’s from the New. In these cases the children were all relinquished into God’s care in dramatic, even scary ways. Mary was offered to the Temple with faith in God’s care for her. Moses was launched into the bulrushes and Isaac offered for sacrifice in a most gruesome way. These, which at first glance seem to be crazy, foolish acts on the part of their parents, are examples of complete trust in God’s care. These are models of faithfulness. These are acts of faith. This is true parenting. It is parenting which allows God to be parent to our children. This is the message of scripture.
Does this mean that our holy abandonment must take on the dramatic form of these Bible stories? In most cases … no. It does, however, give a new perspective and focus. The focus becomes one of personal faith. When Abraham’s personal focus was on his trust in God, the outcome was that his personal faith saved his son. This is a more difficult path than meddling into our children’s relationship with God. Meddling comes easily to us. We want to make sure the kids are getting it right. Meddling is also easier because it keeps us from having to look too hard at ourselves. Ultimately, this meddling is a manifestation of a disbelief that God will provide. He provided for Abraham, however, so He can provide for us.
Finally, the model par excellence of holy abandonment and faith is shown by God the Father. In faith He offered His Son. He abandoned His Son to the will of man, who would crucify him. It does not get much scarier. God shows us something here, that as fearful as it is to abandon our own sons and daughters … He provides. He even turned the Cross into a victory. So the struggles and crosses that our children must endure certainly can, with God, be made into a victory. The Cross for a moment brought death, but is now and forever an image of victory. Victorious fathering is possible … when the father is God in heaven.
As an iconographer I was recently asked to submit an image proposal for the upcoming conference theme, “Train up a child in the way that he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” Proverbs 22:6. I submitted a drawing of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. It did not make the cut. (I am sure this was a good decision, with it being so esoteric.) Nonetheless, once past the obtuse connection to the conference theme, what is seen is something almost as glorious and victorious as the Cross. Once explained it is, I think, rather didactic as well.
Saint Matthew’s account of Jesus telling the disciples not to hinder the children from coming to Him gives another insight into this topic. As a father who, perhaps, meddles too much in his kid’s affairs, I can easily see how this passage could be interpreted as another strong message in favor of holy abandonment. Holy abandonment requires a paradox and faith. Plain abandonment is the kind we all know. We know it and fear it for ourselves and for our children. Because we know the plain kind so intimately and fear it so powerfully, it becomes such a difficult, seemingly unnatural, thing to do. In this light, Jesus’ words, “do not hinder them,” become an encouragement. He is trying to bolster us into trusting him. The abandonment which Jesus speaks of becomes for us an abandonment of our children into His own loving, more capable arms. This is the paradoxical type of abandonment. Our children get the greatest care possible when we give up that care to God.
The Gospel account reveals that the disciples were required to give up the notion that they were in charge, needed to keep order, keep things neat and under control. This desire to be in control certainly sounds like a symptom found in many earthly fathers. Earthly fathers, therefore, might want to consider the medicine of Jesus’ exhortation if they want to treat such symptoms. In this story, the disciples’ heeding the Master resulted in a healing action where everyone won. The children won. Jesus laid his hands on them and blessed them. The disciples won. They received the liberating peace of unloading the burden of needing to be in control and learned the simplicity of doing so. The main point of this Gospel lesson may well be a loud message to fathers. Get out of the way and let Jesus care for the children!
Ironically, the results of holy abandonment come full circle. The control that has been freely and truly relinquished to God usually puts fathers back into a position of visibility and importance. When fathers practice holy abandonment they may find that God will put them in that awesome place of being a ROLE MODEL. On the one hand, the whole process seems like a catch-22; on the other hand, it places fathers in the very comforting, fear-destroying and peaceful position of knowing God will do the work. He will “provide the ram” as He did for Abraham. It sure can take a load off the shoulders. It even gives fathers permission to be weak. It is O.K.; He is strong.
Nicholas Papas, an iconographer from Greensburg, PA, is the father of Noah, Philothei, and Irene.