“The Great Adventurers of the modern world”: with these words Charles Péguy, the great French Catholic poet of the early twentieth century, honored the fathers of families. Péguy was killed in the first of the modern world’s global wars, but if he were alive today, he would probably feel the need to underscore his statement.
What soldier of fortune faces a greater challenge than that confronted by the father, in partnership with his wife, navigating the ship of the family through the currents of modern life?
Erupting from the depths of life’s sea, raging storms — seen only as warnings on the barometer in Péguy’s day—now crash full against the seams of the family ark, tearing at its white sails of holiness, pounding against its bulwarks that are the unity and indissolubility of marriage. If at any given time the parents underestimate the danger or fail to respond adequately to the challenge, the ship may founder.
“The Great Adventurers of the modern world,” indeed. And called to an adventure of no little importance: the pitting of ourselves against all the enemies of fatherhood; the warding off of all the daily advances of a multibillion-dollar advertising industry devoted to making us and our children avaricious, lustful, and proud — all of this, yes, but more. Ours is not only a defensive action; we must at the same time take the offensive. We fight against storms, but for the sake of arriving at our destination. The enemy without must be held off while each day sees new attacks of the enemy within.
And yet, for all this, the call to sanctity remains and is one conditioned to each person’s state in life: for fathers of families, it is in and through our fatherhood that we are to achieve our fullest holiness. Not in spite of marriage and our family will we become holy, but because of them. Our parental work, when performed in Christ, is our holy work, as holy a work as that of any celibate religious who works full-time in a parish ministry, cares for the poor, houses the homeless, or prays unceasingly in a cloister.
There is particular relevance for us, as fathers, in that incident which occurs in the Gospel of Mark: “And He sat down and called the Twelve; and He said to them, ‘If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.’ ”
It is in and through the experiences of marriage, and in the labors of rearing a family, of welcoming God in the children we are given, that we are to advance in the spiritual life. We were called to the vocation of Christian marriage. We are laypeople, and our care for our families, our domestic churches, is at the very heart of the life of the Church as a whole. Our daily work, whatever it may be, our bill-paying and our bedtime reading, is holy already; there is no need for us to think up ways to make it holy. It remains for us only to remember the holiness of all that we are about, to recognize and appreciate this fact and celebrate it in ways natural to family life.
This is the glorious adventure upon which we are embarked. Yet, how often we fail! Our resolutions seem so quickly shattered under one or another of the day’s poundings. We are human beings, not angels; we are the sons and daughters of the fallen Adam and Eve, and we ache with the bruises of all our own falls. “Out of the depths I cry to Thee, O Lord . . .” and cry we must, but we must not become discouraged, for our major conquest is intended to be ourselves.
All of the pounding to which we are submitted on the anvil of our daily lives is intended to form us in the image of Christ. Like iron that, to be shaped, must be heated and pounded, heated and pounded, so we are heated with the flames of daily life and shaped by the life of God in us.
“It is for discipline that you have to endure,” the letter to the Hebrews says. “God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? . . . He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; yet it yields peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
In Christ, even our failures become a source of grace when we accept them in imitation of His humility and courage; even our anxieties become a path to holiness when we ally them with His sufferings. All that we do and say, if it is done and said in Christ, is done and said well, for true wellness is life in Christ.
In light of this, the father’s recognition of the way in which his family impinges upon him, far from being the source of any malice toward those who are a drain upon his resources and time, is seen as the way in which he is being transformed in Christ. Such a man takes joy in receiving the living souls entrusted to him with patience and kindness, remembering the words of Jesus: “I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Our homes become schools of love for all who live there, a love that of its nature radiates outward, first to the receiving of all guests as Christ and then to the meeting with equal love those who lack sympathy with our beliefs and our way of life. We can will the good of all our enemies. All those who are dedicated to ideals destructive of all we hold dear have a call upon our prayers.
Perhaps through the love we hold for such people, the example we set for them in Christ, we will one day be privileged to hear the words that St. Augustine addressed to St. Ambrose: “I was not convinced by your arguments, but by the great love you showed me.”
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in The Father of the Family, available from Sophia Institute Press.
image: Dan Blocker, playing with his children/Wikimedia Commons