KEY ATTRIBUTE OF A GREAT FATHER | Father of Mercy: Part 1
The Destiny Toward Which We Fathers Lead
As FOSJ we believe that society goes by way of the family and the family goes by way of the father; if we want to change the world, we fathers must change. The truth is that the destiny of the world is intrinsically connected to the destiny of the family and the family’s destiny is interwoven with the human father’s identity. Your family, my family, your children, my children have a destiny that we call heaven. But what is heaven?
The Ultimate Goal
Imagine that while your were developing in utero it was possible for someone to explain to you the meaning and purpose of your fingers. They would explain to you the incredible dexterity, versatility, and varying capabilities of your fingers. You would learn that one day those little digits could touch something called a piano and by touching this piano in just the right way something called music could be created. You, however, living in the context of the womb, would have no reference point by which to understand the capability of fingers, what a piano is, and what music is—the concepts would be completely foreign, completely other. But, at the end of a nine-month gestational period, your little body would be squeezed through a dark tunnel into a new world of bright light, wherein you will begin to live a life of discovery, achievement, and doing things never imagined—perhaps even playing the piano. At the end of our lives, we will be drawn through the dark tunnel of death and into an eternal world of never-ending light. Just as the baby who was in utero is the same person who grows up to play the piano, so also we will enter eternity as the same person we are today, yet at a divinized, unimaginable level—doing far more than one could even dream or imagine. As St. John says in his first epistle: “We will see Him as He is and become like Him.” God is the eternal Creator, and we being made in his image will continue to create for all eternity. We will not simply produce, but create. Today we paint with oil, in heaven we paint with light. Today we surf on the waves of water, in heaven we surf on the waves of sound. In this world we crawl, walk, and run, in heaven we fly, soar, translocate.
Heaven is more than this. Heaven is the very fulfillment of our heart’s authentic desires, the answer to our ache, the remedy for our soul’s wounds. Heaven is a Person—or Persons—three Persons who are so self-giving that they are eternally and essentially one; and this eternal exchange of divine Persons is a union, a communion that explodes, spills over, streams with divine life, love, ecstasy, bliss, and rapture that is greater than any musical score, any wave or any sexual climax. In heaven we will be drawn into the very heart of the trinitarian exchange of Persons. We will be allowed to exchange our person with God, and God will give himself to us. God will gaze into us and we into God. We will enter the peace of the divine gaze and for the first time in our wounded history we will be able to give ourselves away freely without any hint of shame, fear, or selfishness. This is why we fathers father—for the purpose of launching our wives and children into this destiny.
The Ultimate Enemy
We fathers, however, have an enemy who understands that if we become who we are created to be—fathers who image God the Father—our families, our Church, and our world will be set ablaze with God’s fiery love. The evil one hates this proposal, he hates you, he hates me, he hates our children, and he desires to lead us and our children away from heaven to the bitter, deranged, torturous pit of hell. But what is hell? Hell is simply the inversion of heaven. If heaven is the pure, vulnerable state that leads to self-giving love, which affords the communion of persons that produces life, love, joy, and peace, then hell is a series of personal invasions, interior violations, a type of eternally repetitive cosmic rapes, wherein the evil one, his minions and hellish souls, systematically and repeatedly invade the person and take what is not theirs to take. After an authentic sexual encounter, spouses experience the warmth of the intimate “afterglow,” a time of remaining safe within the embrace of the other. After rape the victim turns in on himself in torment and bitter isolation. Hell is a series of invasions, violations that end in ultimate isolation. In heaven there is no fear. In hell there is no hope and nothing but fear. In heaven there is only the warmth of eternal self-giving love. In hell there is only bitter loneliness and isolation. Isn’t that an uplifting thought? Actually, these thoughts should lift us up and remind us that our children have a destiny—either heaven or hell—and that their destiny, to a significant degree, is dependent upon us embracing and engaging our God-given identity.
The Key Attribute of the Father
So what is our identity? We fathers are called to be living, breathing icons, efficacious, grace-transmitting signs of God the Father to our children. So if we are symbols of God the Father, then it is imperative that we know God the Father and imitate him. If we simmer down God the Father’s characteristics and attributes into one word, what would that word be? Mercy. The Father is mercy itself. The word mercy is derived from the Latin world misericordia—or meserum cor. Meserum means compassion, and cor means heart. In other words, when one is merciful, one has a compassionate heart. Furthermore, the root word for mercy in Latin is merces, which means to have paid a price, a ransom. In other words, mercy is the act of one who has a compassionate heart—of one who pays the price in order to liberate another from their miseries. St. Thomas Aquinas said that of all the virtues applied to our neighbor, mercy is the greatest above all. For example, in 2001 a twenty-two-year-old man, Christopher, was smoking marijuana with his roommate and best friend, Donald. Christopher was goofing around with a loaded gun and shot his best friend. Christopher’s call to 911 is haunting. He sobbed uncontrollably, attempting to admit the horrible act that had just taken his best friend’s life. Several years after he was imprisoned, the victim’s parents pleaded for their son’s murderer to be paroled early. Donald’s parents were the first to embrace Christopher upon his release. Not only did they embrace him, but they also gave him a job and a place to stay. Donald’s dad was quoted as saying, “We could not stand losing two sons.” That is true mercy.
Mercy Liberates One from Misery
An essential aspect of mercy is using our compassionate hearts to pay the price for another’s failures, sins, and misfires, with the purpose of liberating the other from their miseries. Donald’s father, as an image of the heavenly Father, did this for Christopher. But what about us? How can we be like God the Father, exercising mercy in our daily lives, in our fatherly vocation? Let’s go to St. Joseph. The first time we encounter Joseph in Sacred Scripture he has discovered Mary, his wife, pregnant without his cooperation. The situation proves to be a scandal, perhaps even inducing the Nazarene villagers to grow suspicious of the source of Mary’s pregnancy. Joseph initially withdraws from the situation by choosing to divorce Mary quietly. Yet, after being prompted by the Lord, he remains faithful to his vocation, his call to fatherly greatness, particularly by being merciful to Mary. Joseph sacrificed his good reputation by taking Mary into his home. He allowed the slander, suspicions, and accusations directed toward Mary to fall upon him. In addition to this, Joseph vowed himself to celibacy for the purpose of upholding Mary’s dignity. Joseph became her protector rather than her predator. His compassionate heart bore the pains of Mary and paid the price in order to deliver her from potential misery.
The First Step to Becoming a Father of Mercy
The first step to becoming a father of mercy is to become a husband of mercy. This indicates that we remain yoked to our wives. A yoke is a mechanism that is placed over the neck of a beast of burden. The yoke, connected to chords that are connected to a load, enable a beast to pull that load. When two oxen are yoked together, the synergy between them enables the two animals to pull more than the combined weight of what they could pull individually. When a husband yokes himself to his wife, together they bear the burden of family life far better than they could individually. Marriage is difficult; it has its challenges and implosions. Yet it is during those times that we must remain yoked to our wives. We must remember that our wives are not the burden, nor are they the motherlode—they are our partners. It is imperative that we bear our wives’ burdens and never give up on them. Christ the Bridegroom has remained yoked to us, his bride. This is like an oxen being yoked to a chipmunk. If Christ remains yoked to his bride, should not we also bear our wives’ burdens and remain yoked to them?
A little qualification: Some of us may be divorced and it may be impossible for us to return to our wives. If we desire to truly be fathers of mercy, we must forgive our wives, stop resenting them, and pray daily for them. This will heal our children. I recently encountered a friend who has been divorced for over a year. He said that he was doing well and experiencing a tremendous amount of healing. (During their marriage, his wife had five affairs with five different men.) When asked what was the secret to overcoming the pain, grief, and bitterness, he responded, “I stopped resenting her, started forgiving her, and pray for her daily.” His children asked their mother, “Mom, why do you run dad down all the time? He never talks bad about you.” He is a true father of mercy.
Bearing Another’s Wounds
Sometimes I like to imagine myself as the leper who was healed by Christ. I am certainly grateful that Christ has healed me, but I quickly go my merry way, carry on with life, and open a little shop in downtown Jerusalem. Then one day I hear tumult, chaos, and anarchy in the streets. I step outside my shop to investigate the matter, whereupon I see a wild throng, a dense crowd of rioting bystanders. I ask the person standing next to me the meaning of the intense situation and he responds, “They are taking Jesus of Nazareth to Calvary to crucify him.” I instantaneously become determined to achieve a single goal: I must get to Jesus one last time to thank him properly for healing me. I press into the crowd, pushing, pulling, snaking my way through the multitude, wondering if I will be able get to him. Finally, after great effort, I arrive at the foot of Calvary, just at the moment when the Roman soldiers strip Jesus’ body bare—and then I see it. I see it for the first time: his body is covered with lacerations, puss-infected wounds, gaping sores. And then I understand: in order to heal me of my leprosy, Jesus took my festering wounds upon himself, bearing them in his own flesh. To heal me, he bore my wounds.
Like Christ, who bears the wounds of his bride, if we are to become fathers of mercy it is imperative that we also bear the wounds and burdens of our brides. Our Lord said that, “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground, it remains alone” (John 12:24). This indicates that if we do not die to our selfish desires and mercifully bear the wounds of those around us, our lives will end in bitter isolation. Our Lord also said, “When the Son of Man is lifted up, he will draw all men to himself.” This indicates that if we become vulnerable, like Jesus, offering ourselves in sacrifice for our family, we will most likely live in harmonious communion with them.