The Strong Man Is the Holy Man
COMMENTARY: Good fathers follow the Good Shepherd.
This Father’s Day is the first since my dad’s passing. He died last September, surrounded by his 12 grandchildren, two daughters, two sons-in-law, and his wife of 52 years.
He was a dignified man with a brilliant mind and immense curiosity. I grew up in awe of him and knew that he delighted in me. I think this sums up the experience of being fathered well: to have the assurance that someone whom you greatly revere deeply loves you. It helps you to be both secure and brave, rooted yet ready to take risks. If there is a true privilege in life, it might just be having a good dad.
The months leading to his death underscored the indispensability of all forms of fatherhood: spiritual, biological and potential.
My dear priest friends, spiritual fathers to me and to many, drove inconvenient distances with little notice to bring him the sacraments and encourage him. My husband, brother-in-law, nephews and sons lifted and carried him — sometimes in the middle of the night — when my mom, sister and I could not. Months later, a phone call to my husband brought a happier example of the vitality of fatherhood. Our eldest daughter’s boyfriend called to say wonderful things about her and then asked for his blessing to propose. My usually stoic husband composed himself, conveyed his delight, and welcomed him to our family. Then he paused and said gently, “Can you tell me about your prayer life?” Soon, he will walk her down the aisle and give her away. There is something deeply fatherly about all of this: a potential father asking his future father-in-law for his blessing and then both turning their attention to their shared Father.
Our sophisticated modern minds try to frame such distinctively masculine traditions as mere convention, a clinging to arbitrary social constructs of gender performativity. The wedding website “The Plunge” summarizes our modern ambivalence to the tradition of asking for a father’s blessing: “We’ve changed. We’ve evolved. Western civilization has surged forward: equal pay, women’s suffrage, the polio vaccine, any song at your fingertips on the iPhone. Asking the father, however, is one of those baffling traditions that just won’t die. … But it’s tricky: some brides find it chauvinistic and condemn it; some prefer it, some demand it.”
The endurance of such traditions is only baffling if we concede that there is no deeper meaning to them or to the role of a father. If the former is a mere convention and the latter is simply an outmoded fig leaf for oppression, then, yes, it is baffling that they persist. That these traditions “just won’t die” hints to us that there is a deeper meaning to them and to the nature of fathers as gatekeepers. It speaks to a responsibility a father bears and the reverence he ought to inspire.
Christ repeatedly employs the image of the Good Shepherd in the Gospels. The role of the shepherd is one his listeners would have known well, but which we often sentimentalize in our imaginations now. Yes, a good shepherd leads his flock to green pastures, but that was not a sweet, bucolic endeavor — it was a grisly one. Sheep are vulnerable, easy prey. The shepherd’s role included fighting off beastly predators with little more than his staff and literally laying down his body (and potentially his life) each night at the opening to the sheepfold. He stands between predatory evils that seek to devour the innocence of those in his care. This is who Christ is and who all men are called to be.
At a recent Mass, a priest gave a riveting homily illustrating the inadequacy of that saccharine conception of the Good Shepherd. Paintings depicting the Good Shepherd, the priest suggested, should be of him engaged in a bloody battle for the sake of his flock, rather than serenely petting that flock in a haze of sunlit fields. The sweeter depictions might give us comfort, but they do not induce in us reverence.
Devaluing fatherhood leads to social pathologies that are too obvious to list. Men become excessively soft; women grow excessively hardened. His strength no longer serves the good but serves himself. Her vulnerability becomes less an avenue for relationship and instead a demagogic fetishizing of her feelings.
Children suffer most of all.
But lest we grow cynical, there are men who take seriously the call to fatherhood — biological and spiritual — and do not take seriously the propaganda that they are little more than dolts or despots. They don’t sit passively in the field while technology and its attending addictions ravage their children. Nor do they shrug as their teenage daughters splash sexy selfies online or their sons wile away their time with video games or pornography.
They know that the strong man is the holy man, and that good fatherhood has nothing to do with seeking power and everything to do with perseverance in prayer.
There is real evil — in human hearts as well as prowling about the world looking for someone to devour. If we lose that understanding, then we lose the distinctively protective mission of a father and the conviction that there is such a thing as innocence worth protecting at all.
Cultural revolutionaries target the shepherd because they want access to the sheep. Good fathers know what is at stake in this life and that the green pastures can come in the next.
Prayer for Fathers
God our Father, in your wisdom and love, you made all things. Bless these men, that they may be strengthened as Christian fathers. Let the example of their faith and love shine forth. Grant that we, their sons and daughters, may honor them always with a spirit of profound respect.
Grant this through Christ our Lord.
Source: Book of Blessings