FRIEND, FOE, OR FATHER | Humility Part 5
How Will You Be Remembered?
How do you want to be remembered? What type of legacy do you hope to impart to your family, your wife, your children? Would you be satisfied with an obituary title or an epitaph that reads, “He was a really nice guy”? Steven Spielberg’s riveting Saving Private Ryan contained a most haunting scene, in which an American soldier and a German soldier are scrapping for their lives in the upstairs of a blown-out German outpost. The wrestling match between the two soldiers seems to endure for an eternity, while Corporal Upham, an American GI linguist who is a pacifist, sits outside, adorned with an automatic rifle and several bullet belts—enough ammo to take out a host of German soldiers. However, Upham just sits on the stairs listening to the two soldiers fight for their lives, deliberating whether he should enter into the scene and kill the German to save his comrade’s life. He begins weeping as his pacifist convictions overwhelm him and he listens to his comrade being stabbed to death by the German soldier. The German soldier leaves the horrific scene, walking past the weak, pusillanimous Upman, considering him as less than a threat. The scene of Upham’s weakness is embedded vividly in my mind as the ultimate typification of a man who has, at his fingertips, the power to save another’s life and yet neglects to use that power and chooses to be a pacifist—a really nice guy. Corporal Upham is a symbol of the many fallen fathers, who have an been divinely endowed with an inestimable amount of authoritative power for the purpose of leading their family to God and salvation, and yet fail to use that power due to the fear of not being liked by the world, their wives, or their children.
Friend or Foe?
Humility is not being a nice guy. The nice guy is interested in saving his own life, while not risking his life to save another. He makes it a point to get along with everyone and yet will fight for no one. He appears happy and confident exteriorly, but is unfulfilled interiorly. He is a sideline pacifist, rather than a man who courageously enters the battle and fights for peace. During our last FOSJ session we discussed that to give God to our children we must have God, and to have God we must be humble, and to be humble we must be remove all inordinate attachments. Sometimes, we fathers can become inordinately attached to many things. One of the most severely disordered attachments is maintaining friendship with our children—playing the nice guy—instead of sharing with them the Gospel and the truths that will grant them salvation. When a father worries about losing his children’s friendship, he falls into the temptation to “buy off” his children with comforts, pleasures, and indulgences in order to avoid disciplining them. He is the Barney of dads: “I love you, you love me, together we’re one happy family.” He makes very few real demands on his children. When we father in this manner, we are attempting to be a friend rather than a father. Such a father lacks humility, because he is too attached to being liked by his kids. On the other hand, we can fall into the trap of becoming the domineering dad who places inordinate expectations upon his children. The domineering dad is attached to his child’s excellence in sports or academics, his child’s ability to fulfill chores, comply with rules, and be an outstanding religious model. Rather than being a father, he becomes the enemy, the foe. Such a father lacks humility, because he is too attached to his children’s performance—what they can do—rather than loving them for who they are.
Not What You Can Get—But What You Can Give
As St. Teresa of Avila said, “humilitas est veritas”—humility is truth, and the humble father lives in truth. As Pope John Paul II said, “Where there is no truth there is no love, and where there is no love there is no truth. A true father teaches truth—but always with love. To neglect sharing the truths of our faith with our children is to neglect loving them. As Pope Benedict said, “Love without truth is sentimentality, and truth without love is cold and insensitive.”
Now, before we proceed, a qualifier is necessary: detachment from our wives and children should never be expressed by neglecting them. That is not holy detachment—that is selfishness. Holy detachment is detaching ourselves from what we can get from our children in the pursuit of giving them God. The true father detaches himself from what he can get from his children—whether it is friendship, or what they can produce—and loves his children for their own sake and for God’s sake alone. A father’s goal is to help his children experience communion and union with God. That’s it. It is that simple. This is his only real goal. But so often we become fixated on the gifts of our children, rather than the Giver. God gives us our children on loan with the purpose of us returning them to him with interest. However, after receiving the gift of our children, we can often fall into the temptation of keeping them for ourselves. St. Thomas Aquinas’s father was intensely bent on having him become a Benedictine, though Thomas desired to be a Dominican. His father locked Thomas in his room, hoping that he would change his mind. When Thomas did not change his decision, his father sent a prostitute in order to blackmail him. Thomas yelled at her and used the fire poker to chase her away and then to burn a cross in the door as a sign that he was dedicated solely to God. My father-in-law was so bent on having his daughter be under his control that he vowed to offer me his business and build a house for us to deter me from my career choice. If I had taken that path, I most likely would never have given my life to Christ. A key question that a father should continually ask himself is: Does this action lead my children to me, or to God through me?
Giving Up the Idols
A prime example of a man who learned and exemplified fatherly detachment was the Old Testament patriarch Jacob, son of Isaac. Jacob, pretending to be his elder brother Esau, stole the blessing from his blind father. Afterward, in order to escape the murderous vengeance of Esau, Jacob fled to his uncle Laban’s house, where he worked seven years in exchange for Rachel, Laban’s daughter. However, after feasting and drinking, on the wedding night Laban switched Rachel with Leah, Laban’s eldest daughter. After awakening in the morning, Jacob realized that he had been duped, and yet agreed to work another seven years in exchange for Rachel. After working, another six years— a total of twenty years for Laban, God finally commanded Jacob to leave Laban and establish his own home. Jacob found some land in Shechem, built a house, for his two wives, their maidservants and his children and made an altar to the Lord. He was doing everything right—at least it seemed that way.
“Yet, after Jacob had completed these noble acts, God called Jacob to ‘go to Bethel and dwell there; and make there an altar to the God Who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau (Gen. 35:1).’ Why would God summon Jacob and his family to return to Bethel? What difference is there between an altar built in Shechem and an altar built in Bethel? It seems that God expected more from Jacob and more from Jacob’s family. Peering ahead into the Sacred Scriptures, we discover that Jacob’s family was not entirely the Lord’s, for they were attached to the idols of foreign gods and Jacob was aware of this. So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, ‘Put away the foreign gods that are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your garments; then let us arise and go up to Bethel, that I may make there an altar to the God Who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone’” (Joseph’s Way, p. 318).
God expected more from Jacob and he expects more from us. Jacob knew that his family was not entirely the Lord’s, that they had idols and he was fully aware of this. God called Jacob, as father and leader of his family, to command that his family be detached from their idols. “Jacob sacrificed to build a house, but God commanded him to build a home for sacrifice” (Joseph’s Way, p. 319). God the Father desires us fathers to build a house for God, which means that we also will be called to demand that our families surrender their idols.
Wrestling with God Against Self
However, Jacob could not in good conscience have demanded that his family detach themselves from their idols unless he had already been reconciled with God himself. When God called Jacob to flee from his uncle Laban’s house, God directed him to return to his place of birth, which meant that Jacob would eventually face his past and meet Esau his brother, who desired to murder him. Jacob, following the Lord’s command, trekked back to his homeland. The night before he was to encounter his vengeful brother, Jacob and his family set camp. While his family was sleeping, Jacob slipped away to consider the situation, to face his fears and his fate. Jacob was fearful that his life and the lives of his wives and children would be taken by Esau. It was during this retreat into the darkness of night that a mystical figure began wrestling with Jacob. During the wrestling match, the mysterious man commanded Jacob to release him. However, Jacob, perceiving that it was the Lord, said, “I will not release you until you bless me.” But Jacob was not satisfied with a stolen blessing that he received from his father Isaac. He had to know with absolute certainty that he had the divine blessing. The mysterious man then asked Jacob, “What is your name?” This was no ordinary question. The name of Jacob is saturated with significance and meaning. The name Jacob means “one who usurps, supplants, grasps.” By Jacob confessing his name to the mysterious man, he was making a confession: “I am a usurper, an underminer, a grasper; I have lied, I have stolen, I have usurped. My name is Jacob.” Nevertheless, Jacob admitted his sinful identity. The mysterious man responded, “No longer will you be called Jacob, but from now on you will be called Israel—one who has wrestled with God and men and overcome.” Jacob’s confession is a pinnacle act of humility. He humbles himself and God exalts him. So much is the exaltation that an entire nation—Israel—is named after him in perpetuity. Indeed, God will bless the humble man with favor.
Severe to Self—Kind to Our Children
What is the point? If we fathers are to command our children in good conscience to detach themselves from idols—whether it is television, video games, pornography, illicit relationships, smartphone apps, drugs—it is imperative that we first confess our past to God, and wrestle with God against ourselves daily, allowing God to assist us in detaching ourselves from our idols. If I am addicted to gossiping, complaining, grumbling, and backbiting, can I expect my children to behave differently? Do I pray daily? How can I expect my children to pray if I do not? Do I love Jesus? Do I surrender my selfish ambitions to the Lord? If not, how can I expect my children not to be selfish? Do I uphold the dignity of my wife, or do I demean her? How can I expect my children to uphold her dignity and respect her if I do not? Am I chaste? If not, how can I expect my children to be sexually pure? Do I respect my children? If not, how can I expect them to respect me? James Denton, a Hollywood movie star, said, “I have only one chance to be a good dad.” He moved his family out of L.A. to rural Montana. It is good that he moved his home out of Hollywood, but better if he continues to remove Hollywood from his home—meaning shut off primetime TV. The most effective form of leadership is not being a nice guy. It is setting the pace of self-giving love, setting the example. As St. John Chsysostom said, “It is better to err by excess of mercy than by excess of severity . . . Wilt though become a saint? Be severe to thyself but kind to others.” Like Jacob, let us humble ourselves before the mighty hand of God and in due time he will exalt us. Let us be severe with ourselves in order that our children will learn what it means to live in truth and love.
How do we wrestle with God against ourselves? First, like Jacob, we must recognize that God expects more from us and from our families. He expects us to be more than nice guys. He expects us to be radically different from this selfish, fallen world; he expects us to be initiators of self-giving love. Second, we must admit that our families are not entirely the Lord’s and demand that they put away their idols. This demands that we identify the areas in which God is not first. Do we make Sunday Mass a priority? A friend of mine, when asked the question “What is the secret to getting your kids to go to Mass?” said, “Well, it’s kind of a secret. I take them to Mass.” Do we take our children to monthly confession? Do we lead family prayer daily? Do we consecrate our families to our Lady? Do we talk with them about the truth and beauty of and the divine plan for our sexuality? In other words, do we express with our fatherhood that God is number one? But before we do these things, we must face our past, surrender it to God, perhaps by making a general confession, and begin begging God for his blessing on our fatherly vocation—which is so very vital.
What Our Children Really Want
The other day, I asked my children a loaded question: What things do kids want the most from their parents? And what are the things that parents do that cause their children pain? My children were slow to respond. Finally, after a short period of silence they began sharing the things that parents do that hurt them—meaning what my wife and I do to hurt them. Like a drip from a faucet that eventually becomes a waterfall, the thoughts came pouring out. “Bickering—when parents fight,” said one. Another said, “When parents neglect being affectionate.” Then another said, “When parents complain, grumble, gossip.” And again, “When parents lose their patience, yell, become angry, become anxious and worried.” Not once did any of them say, “When you don’t give me money,” “When you don’t spoil me,” “When you don’t buy me toys.” Then they told me what they believe children want from parents: “To be respected as a real person, as the adult I will become rather than the kid they think I am.” Another said, “To be believed in and trusted.” And another, “To be congratulated in my accomplishments.” “To be supported in my ideas and plans.” And then my eldest daughter gave the ultimate answer: “I want my parents to help me realize my purpose. To tell me that my life has a purpose, that is has meaning, that I can do something great.” I was amazed. Not once did they say, “I want my dad to be a nice guy.” They simply want what every human heart wants: the gaze of the Father. They want to be loved, cherished, believed in, chosen, desired—to be given divine purpose and meaning. We fathers are the transmitter of the Father’s love.
Children don’t respect a nice guy, they respect a father who has conviction in his beliefs, who is determined to follow them, and is resolute in giving his life to the Lord. Children will faithfully follow such a man. This can only be achieved by receiving the redemptive grace of Jesus Christ, which is offered and obtained by frequent reception of Our Lord’s body and blood; by frequent confession; and by a consistent prayer life. This is the way of the humble father who is able to properly detach himself from his children in order to attach them to God. You and I are loaded with the divine power and potential to change our families, the Church. and this world. Let’s use that power.