As we progress through the month of June, I have encountered numerous articles in which someone is trying to make sense of what it means to be a man or a woman, and how to define gender. I am struck by the narrowness of the perception of manhood and womanhood in our modern culture. What does our faith tell us about this?
What makes a woman a woman is ultimately her capacity for motherhood. Although the physicality of women points to that capacity (i.e. a woman literally has a place in her body that is intended to nurture and bring forth life), her ability to mother goes beyond her physical motherhood – all women are called to spiritual maternity, that is, creating a space where the lives and vocations of others may be safely nurtured and allowed to grow.
What then, can be said of men? Does he possess capacity for spiritual paternity?
The Fatherhood of God
My spiritual director – who is very much a spiritual father to me – often reminds me that all fatherhood comes from God and is meant to point back to him. Unfortunately, in an era of sperm donors, surrogacy, one-night stands, etc., the role of a father is often downplayed. But a father (or a spiritual father/father figure) is essential to the thriving of sons and daughters.
To have a healthy, loving father is to have a glimpse at the goodness of God the Father.
So, who is God the Father? What kind of father is he?
The first reading for the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart describes the fatherhood of God well. The prophet Hosea writes,
“When Israel was a child I loved him,
out of Egypt I called my son.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
who took them in my arms;
I drew them with human cords,
with bands of love;
I fostered them like one
who raises an infant to his cheeks;
Yet, though I stooped to feed my child,
they did not know that I was their healer.
My heart is overwhelmed,
my pity is stirred.”
In this passage from Scripture, we see that God is loving – he treats his children with the kind of affectionate tenderness that one sees when a father holds a baby to his cheek. One of my favorite things is seeing a dad (or a spiritual dad) holding a baby. To see strength tempered by gentleness towards a child is a powerful thing to behold. God the Father possesses a strength far great than the average dad, and so his gentleness is even more astounding.
But also, in this passage, we see a Father who actively cares for his child. One heretical line of thought that has periodically popped up is that God is the Creator of all, but that once he created the world, he took a “hands-off” approach. Nothing could be farther from the truth! The world continues to exist only because God continues to will it to. God is still active and at work in the world, every second of every day.
And yet, God is the kind of Father who tirelessly cares for his children without demanding recognition or recompense. He does it for the sake of love. This passage describes God bending down in order to feed his sons and daughters – and continuing to do so despite the fact that they fail to recognize that he is the one doing so.
I have witnessed this in my husband’s biological fatherhood. Our middle child rebuffed him for years (she only wanted Mommy), but he never tired of patiently loving her, caring for her, and accepting that she would come to him in her own time. His patience has finally been rewarded, and she now loves her Daddy and wants to be with him as much as she can. But her dad didn’t love her so that she would reciprocate – he loves her simply because she is his little daughter.
And so, God is. His “heart is overwhelmed” with love for us.
To truly be a man is to reflect the love of God the Father to the world. To be a man is to seek to protect, defend, and receive those who need care. To be a man is to direct the ardor of the heart towards the good of others (and bringing that good to fruition). To be a man is to channel strength into gentleness, sacrificing for the sake of love. To be a man is to be actively at work in the lives of children and spiritual children.
I love the detail above about God being the one who “taught Ephraim to walk”. Have you ever seen someone teach a baby how to walk? It is a process that involves literally getting down to the baby’s level – whether sitting on the floor with open arms or bending over to let the little one cling to her father’s fingertips as she toddles along. Walking is a hard thing to learn, but this verse points to another truth about fatherhood – fathers help their children face the hard things in life. So, too, does God the Father.
The Fatherhood of God and Earthly Fathers
We can all conjure up images of fathers who fit this description, but many of us may have not experienced that kind of fatherhood. And many men may not be able to be biological fathers, and experience fatherhood from that perspective.
This is why spiritual paternity is such an important vocation for all men to live out. A father figure/spiritual father can change a person’s life. Society is not unfamiliar with this concept – the teacher, the coach, the uncle, the grandfather, etc. We likely have all had at least one father figure in our lives, in place of or in addition to our other dads.
What makes a father figure a spiritual father, then, and how is this a unique call to all Catholic men? A man is a spiritual father insomuch as he points to the reality of the love and care of God the Father.
Priests are some of the best examples of this. I hope and pray that (especially if you did not receive healthy fathering from your own dad) that you have experienced this kind of fatherhood from priests in your life. It is because of priests acting as spiritual fathers that I have a deeper understanding of the gentleness and patience of God the Father. This is part of the call of the priesthood (and why we especially need to pray for our priests!).
But even men who are not ordained are called to spiritual paternity of some sort. They are called to orient their desires towards the protection of others. They are called to be witnesses to patient, faithful, gentle love. They are called to help others face the hard parts of life, the parts that cannot be avoided but must simply be faced. They are called to use their strength to demonstrate gentleness.
In all of this, men are called to witness to the one who is the source of all fatherhood – God.