Thursday, May 24, 2007

Thoughts on Being A Spiritual Father

Now that I can type again, I have returned to my longstanding habit of sitting in a coffee shop (at the moment the Panera Bread in Monroeville, PA), preferable one with free wifi (yipe!) and a place to plug in my laptop (a Toshiba with a lousy battery thank you very much).

As I write this (and drink my third cup of coffee--I've been up since about 4.30 am) I'm listening to Chris LeDoux (a former Rodeo rider and fine country singer who died too soon). LeDoux sings about his life as a working cowboy and rodeo athlete and as a husband and father. Listening to him it is hard not to think about what it means to be a man and a father. These thoughts are especially poignant for me for a two of reasons in particular.

Recently I learned that a friend from graduate school has left his (Roman Catholic) monastery and the priesthood to marry. I happened upon his website and saw Timothy, his wife and two children. They all look very happy and while I am sad for what my friend has given up (in my Catholic days I thought seriously of joining Timothy's monastery, though God had other plans for me), I am very happy for him and his new life and pray that God grants him every good thing.

Somewhat closer to home, LeDoux's music provides the soundtrack for my thoughts about the various scandals (financial and sexual) currently afflicting the Orthodox Church. I can't help but think that these scandals are part of a broader pattern of misconduct in the Orthodox Church in the US and overseas.

In a recently published book (After Asceticism: Sex, Prayer and Deviant Priests), the author explores the spiritual, psychological and cultural roots of the recent crisis caused by sexually abusive Roman Catholic priests. While the whole book is well worth reading (though it will be a bit of a challenge for those unfamiliar with Thomism and the Thomistic style of analysis), one thing stands out.

The author argues that the role of the father (biological and spiritual) is to see to the well being and safety of his family. In addition to himself being virtuous (specifically courageous, temperent, honest and honorable) he must be committed to being faithful to his wife (or the Church) not only in what he does, but doesn't do, as well as in his imagination and his emotional life. In a word, fathers aren't good fathers unless they are chaste. And chastity is necessary so that the father can both know what the good thing is for his family, but act on the good, even in the face of temptations or opposition.

In the scandals afflicting the Orthodox Church I see little that suggests a true and chaste fatherhood. By that I mean a real commitment to the health and well-being not only of the institution of the Church, but to the People of God (there are some standout examples, like Vladyka JOB in the OCA).

Yes, by all means, let us extend forgiveness and mercy to those clergy and laypeople who have betrayed our trust. But we must also act to protect the whole Body from those who have engaged in misconduct and betrayed the Church's trust.

When we fail to do this we not only betray Christ, we also undermine the faith of the little ones--and I would include here those who have engaged in misconduct and betrayed the Church's trust. The true father--biological or spiritual--is not afraid to protect his wife and children, even at the expense of his own life.

Right now Chris LeDoux is sings his song "Big Love." In it he sings:

You need a man to get lost in with a heart big enough to roam
No more fences for you to look through with your heart caught in a strangle hold
I've got a love full of wide open spaces
I've got a big love wild and free room to grow as big as your dreams
Deep as a river in a raging flood endless as the stars above I've got a big love

When two hearts make a stand together on the solid rock of trust
They could be a million miles from each other and still be side by side in love
I want to love you like that forever
I've got a big love...

You never dreamed you could have all you ever wanted
Darling you can have it with me
I've got a big love...
I got a big love.

Ultimately of course, the Big Love we need, is Christ's love--He's the Big Man. It is only in Him that we can "roam wild and free" with no more fences and with a heart no longer strangled. But we need this also from our bishops and priests and laity as well.

At the risk of being pegged as sentimental, it is only in the Body of Christ that we can hope to find the freedom we need to roam free and to have our "grow as big as our dreams//
Deep as a river in a raging flood endless as the stars above." A real man, a real father, keeps his children safe and secure and provides them with what they need to grow in love and live without free.

I'll give the last word to G.K. Chesterton who (like me) never had biological children, but who has taught me a great deal about being a spiritual father and a priest. He writes in Orthodoxy:
Those countries in Europe which are still influenced by priests, are exactly the countries where there is still singing and dancing and coloured dresses and art in the open-air. Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff's edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.
Chesterton's right, real fathers build playground walls so that their children can experience true and lasting joy in the face of life's terrors.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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