The Battle Within
During the three-plus years of the Fathers of St. Joseph’s existence, men have repeatedly confided that they feel as though they don’t measure up to the “other guys,” who appear to have it all together. Several men have confessed that they have felt intimidated, inadequate, and tempted to stop attending the FOSJ gatherings because they see themselves as not being holy enough. The truth is that we know ourselves better than anyone else knows us. We sense the internal sting of our personal failures and our tendency to succumb repeatedly to the same temptations; we know the pain we have inflicted upon our families because of our selfish behaviors, and even our neglect of what truly matters. Frankly, I sense my inadequacy, my sinfulness, and my unworthiness to proclaim the spirituality of St. Joseph to each of you. Who am I to share this content when I struggle so feebly myself? But, as one confessor shared with me: If God waited until we became perfect before allowing us to enter the mission, there would be no missionaries. We know the truth about ourselves, and subconsciously we build walls when meeting with other men, to protect us from the vulnerability we feel, our fear that we may be discovered for who we really are—a failure, or worse, a fake, or a religious fraud. This fundamental disquiet discourages us; it tempts us to flee from communion with our brothers, afraid that we may be “found out,” or to avoid communion with God, believing that He will remind us of our broken, wounded, miserable, sinful humanity. But before proceeding, a question must be asked: Is there anyone in this room who believes that he has it all together, that his soul has no need of Christ’s redemptive grace, that his person is not in desperate need of healing? The truth is that we are all broken and wounded, and we all struggle in the battle to overcome temptation, to cease sinning, and to stop being selfish. And that, my fellow fathers, is why we are here. We attend these gatherings not because we are “do-gooders,” holy rollers who desire to be part of a club of clean guys who have it all together, but rather because we are not, and as a band of brothers we can work together, encouraging one another to open ourselves to God’s redemptive grace. As St. Paul said, “All men have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). And as the psalmist said, “There is not a good man left, no, not even one” ( Ps 53) St. John, too, related in his first epistle, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). We all sin. The good news is that John goes on to say, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful, just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). This is one of the reasons I love the Church and Christ’s gift to priests to forgive sins. The sacrament of confession is Christ’s way not only to forgive us our sins, to offer redemptive grace to heal the rift between our souls and body, our being and God, but also to give us the gift of absolution, of knowing absolutely that our sins are washed away in His blood. It is imperative that we fathers acknowledge that there exists within us a real, tumultuous, raging battle in which we experience the tension of being pulled between the two poles of the Old Adam and the New Adam—the first fallen father and the perfect faithful father of our race.
Joseph or Herod
Within every father exists the tremendous potential to become a manifestation of God’s fatherhood; to become a transmitter of God the Father’s glory; to be like St. Joseph, a living representation of God the Father on earth. However, within us also exists the self-centered narcissist, the pouting boy, the monster, the selfish ruler, who can be likened to Herod the Great. Today I would like to discuss the “tale of two fathers,” the dynamic of living in the tension between being a father like St. Joseph or being an antifather like Herod. Who was Herod? He was known as Herod the Great, the king of Judea who ruled on behalf of the Romans for thirty-three years; his reign ended shortly after Christ’s birth. According to the Dictionary of the Bible, “Herod was a man of unusual powers; he had tremendous physical vigor and was extremely astute. A master of political maneuvering, he was endowed with boundless energy and ambition. His passions were wild, ungoverned, especially in his later years, when they degenerated into tyranny and brutality.” “He was a consummate politician and among other things [including some of the most grandiose building projects ever witnessed in his time and country] he rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem on a lavish scale. Herod the Great had a persecution complex; everywhere he saw rivals to his throne” (Navarre Biblical Commentary: St. Matthew). The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus documented that Herod killed over half of his ten wives, three of his sons, many relatives, and even at his death had three thousand upper-class Jews murdered to ensure that someone would mourn on the day of this death, since no tears would be shed for him. As “King of the Jews,” Herod expanded his territory to include Judea, Idumea, Samaria, Galilee, Perea, and Bashan. Considering this, it is understandable why Herod was so alarmed to hear the Magi ask, “Where is He who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him” (Matt. 2:1).
The Herod Inside
Now, if you’re anything like me, when reflecting upon the person of Herod the Great and his notorious life of maliciousness, you might think, “Well, at least I’m nothing like that.” Upon further meditation on Herod and praying to God about the biblical narratives of his diabolical life, I discovered that, unfortunately, I may be more like him than I initially thought. When I look under my hood, I discover that my engine is in need of much repair. It is safe to say that most of us struggle with things like vain ambition, controlling our passions, being suspicious of others—sometimes even those closest to us. We often perform exterior religious deeds; we “build the temple,” sometimes on a grand scale by participating in a wide variety of Church endeavors, with the hidden motive of making ourselves noticed as good, holy men. Yes, perhaps we have not murdered our wives—let alone five of them—or killed our children, but perhaps at times our selfishness and neglect of our vocation has participated in robbing them of a piece of their souls.
This last Sunday, I was given the grace to understand how deeply this drive to build the temple, to appear holy, runs within my soul. Typically, getting everyone ready for Mass and to the church on time is a major chore. It seems to me that on Sunday mornings Satan unleashes all hell on families as they are trying to get to Mass in peace. The archdemon attempts either to keep families from attending Holy Mass, or to have them kill each other on the way. This past Sunday, I felt rather satisfied that we were actually leaving the house for Mass twenty-five minutes ahead of schedule. The family was happy and at peace. Besides the 10-degree below windchill, it was a fantastic morning. My oldest daughter, after being asked to start the engine of our diesel mega bus, told us that the engine wasn’t turning over. We are a family of seven, with a special needs daughter who has a wheelchair, so we discussed whether we could get everyone to Mass in my smaller vehicle. Everyone agreed that we could squeeze ourselves and Anna Marie’s wheelchair into the SUV. I packed up Anna’s wheelchair and took it outside to the SUV to load it in the hatch area, only to discover that the latch wasn’t operating properly—I couldn’t open it. My only other option was to pack her oversized stroller in the far backseat, and have five members of the family, including my wife, pack into the middle section of seats, which they did. Meanwhile, I placed Anna Marie in the front seat. An interesting fact about my SUV is that the rear passenger door lock is dysfunctional. Often, if the door is open, it will not close, because the locking mechanism becomes jammed. It usually takes a couple of screwdrivers, a lot of patience, thirty minutes, and a novena to St. Joseph to fix. All of my family members understand this and because of this they only enter the back seat through the driver’s side rear door. Being in a rush, my wife neglected to remember this useful fact and used the door with the broken lock. Sure enough, it wouldn’t shut. I panicked. It was mayhem. My family looked like a bunch of hillbillies on a hayride, smashed like sardines in an SUV with a door that wouldn’t shut on a freezing winter day. I dashed inside, grabbed the screwdrivers, prayed to St. Joseph, and began working on the jammed mechanism. Mass would begin in ten minutes. Even though it was freezing, I began to sweat. All sorts of thoughts raced through my mind. How late will we be? Could we drive to Mass simply holding the door shut? Would any of my children fall out of the car—and if so, would they survive? How could my wife be so . . . (I stopped that thought in its tracks!) How foolish will we look when we stroll into Mass during Father’s homily? I began to become internally frustrated. Why? What was I worried about? Was I worried about disappointing God? He was fully aware of the madness that was occurring. He allowed it to happen! Would He be upset that I would be late for Mass? No. Deep down, I was worried about not appearing to be the family who has it all together—the family who arrives at Mass on time. The craving for human respect runs deeper in me than I would like to admit.
Confronting the Little Devil
Early in the second chapter of Matthew, the worlds of Joseph and Herod, the true father and the antifather—without ever meeting face to face—collide. “Herod, in a furious rage, sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men” (Matt. 2:16). “But behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child to destroy Him.’ And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod” (Matt. 2”13-15). One lesson that can be derived from this account is this: the antifather, who is symbolized by Herod, is willing to sacrifice his child for his own kingdom, whereas the noble father, symbolized by Joseph, is willing to sacrifice himself for his child and God’s kingdom. Herod sacrificed not only his marriage(s), children, and other children to ensure that nothing stood in the way of his ambitions. Often, without realizing it, we sacrifice our children, neglecting to spend time with them, avoiding meaningful conversations, or living vicariously through them, burdening them with our disordered passions because of our selfish ambitions. Though it may be difficult for us to admit, there may exist a little Herod within each of us. To truly experience the freedom and power to become the men and fathers that God has destined us to be, we must admit that the little devil lives in each of us. As C. S. Lewis said, “A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity. Christ takes it for granted that men are bad. Until we feel his assumption to be true, though we are part of the world he came to save, we are not part of the audience to whom his words were addressed.” Lewis’s thought harmonizes with Christ’s words to the Pharisees, the upper-class, religious separatists who viewed themselves as righteous: “I did not come for the righteous but for sinners.” This is great news! That is, unless you view yourself as righteous. Christ is emphatic that He came to save everyone, because all are sinners, but he cannot save those who are unwilling to admit that they are sinners.
Embracing the Dark Night of Fatherhood
So how do we fathers, we men, overcome the little devilish Herod living inside of us? We follow the example of St. Joseph, who saved Mary and Jesus by night. This is an allegory for fatherhood. Herod is a symbol of Satan; Joseph a symbol of the true, good, and noble father who is called by God to protect the family, the domestic Church. How? By fleeing in the night, that is, by embracing the dark night of fatherhood. Fatherhood is hidden, glorious, but secret. You’ll never read in the papers or see in the news: “Man changes diaper of two-year-old daughter without ever complaining.” Or, “Father of four sons plunges into a wrestling match and busts his lip, and ends the match by hugging them—more at ten . . .” “Husband sits on couch for thirty minutes, making eye contact with wife and nodding sympathetically while she shares her health issues.” Fatherhood doesn’t get noticed. And that is the dilemma, the plight and the battle. We want to be noticed, lauded, affirmed, and often sacrifice our vocation to obtain such false ambitions. St. Joseph was willing to sacrifice himself for the Child, as opposed to Herod, who sacrificed the child for himself. Which dad do you want to become? *
The Father: Bishop and Priest
Scott Hahn, in his article “The Paternal Order of Priests,” refers to a famous homily of St. Augustine in which Bishop Augustine refers to the fathers in his audience as “My fellow bishops.” Augustine commands them, “Fulfill my office in your homes.” The word “bishop” means supervisor, and since “a man is called bishop because he supervises and takes care of others, every man who heads a household also holds the office of bishop, supervising the way his people believe, and seeing that none of them fall into heresy, not his wife, or son, or daughter, or even his servant.” Augustine connects the priesthood to fatherhood. As Hahn says, “God’s plan is that He has given fathers a priesthood and priests a fatherhood. Within the family, the father stands before God as priest and mediator.” But what does a priest do? He offers sacrifice, the sacrifice of himself in union with the perpetual, once-for-all sacrifice of Christ, who, in Hahn words, “is the New Adam, the father of a new family in the Church. He thereby became the perfect image of the heavenly Father on earth.” We also are bishops, priests of our family, and therefore—like Jesus Christ, and like St. Joseph—we are to sacrifice ourselves for our wives and children, our domestic churches.
Enduring the Struggle
Today, take some time to reflect on the tension, the battle within you that pulls you to either be like Herod, full of selfish ambition, or like Joseph, the sacrificial father who saves his child by embracing the dark, hidden night of the vocation of fatherhood. As St. John Chrysostom, speaking of St. Joseph, said, “[The difficulties] do not hold him back: on the contrary, he obeys, believes and endures all the trails with joy” (homily on St. Matthew, 8). And as the Navarre Bible Commentary: St. Matthew states: “It is worthy noting also how God’s way of dealing with his chosen ones contains light and shade; they have to put up with intense sufferings side by side with great joy.” It is a great challenge to surrender the false ambitions, the selfish narcissism, and focus primarily on our vocation, which appears to be regular, mundane, and normal. But we must, because if we don’t embrace them we could be sacrificing them. This is the battle and it is worthy of each of us. As Blessed Julian of Norwich said, “Jesus said not: Thou shalt not be troubled—thou shalt not be tempted—thou shalt not be distressed. But he said: Thou shalt not be overcome!”