What is the first calling in a father’s life?
What is the most difficult calling in a father’s life?
I don’t presume a definitive, authoritative answer here, so instead I’ll offer a personal response based on my experience. My answer is the same for both questions– receiving grace. Before I can love my wife after the example of Christ; before I can lead my children as the heavenly Father leads his people, I must first encounter the love of God within my own heart. I cannot give what I have not received.
And the grace of God is not a one-time gift I only receive in conversion. Receiving the grace of God needs to become my daily habit. My soul needs to be reminded and refreshed by the gospel of grace every day. My first calling as a father is to habitually receive the grace of God in the many and varied ways that God reveals that grace. I didn’t need fatherhood to teach me that, but fatherhood has reinforced that truth. There’s more at stake when lives have been entrusted to my care. Receiving grace for my own soul is an urgent matter and directly related to the kind of father I will be for my children.
This may come as a surprise to some of you, but men are not known for having excellent memories. But absentmindedness and poor memory isn’t manifested solely in ordinary conversation. I wonder if a man’s greatest struggle with forgetfulness is remembering the grace of God within his own heart. I know that struggle. I’ve seen how my attention for other good and noble tasks will lead to my inattention and forgetfulness of my own heart.
Grace for the Goal-Oriented Man
Men love a good challenge, achieving goals they have set, and admiring the work they have completed. That’s where men devote most of their mental and physical energy. But I believe the greatest challenge in a man’s inner life is the challenge of remembering the grace of God for himself.
Remembering the love and grace of God is vital for a father’s life, but this awareness cannot be solely mental or intellectual. The love of God must make contact with my heart and soul–my fears and failures, my doubts and weaknesses. Receiving the love of God there is the challenge. This is the farthest thing from spiritual self-indulgence. Receiving grace for my own heart is what my wife and children need from me most of all.
It’s interesting how the inner life of a parent will determine the environment of the entire household. In my life as a father, I can see a direct correlation between receiving the joy of the Lord for my own heart and laughing, playing, and dancing with my kids. Conversely, when I’m going through the motions of spiritual disciplines without engaging my heart, I see that I’m more impatient and difficult around the house. Peace within my household begins with my acceptance of the grace of God.
Receive Me, O Lord
What I’m seeking to learn and practice within my own heart and household is an ancient practice preserved by Benedictine communities for 1500 years. St. Benedict composed his rule
with special attention to show mercy to beginners–novices–for the sake of their spiritual growth. When a novice monk would make their monastic vows, they would recite the words of Psalm
119.116: ‘Receive me, O Lord, as you have promised and I shall live.’ These are the first words of a new monk. I think they are equally fitting first words for fathers.
The Latin word for ‘Receive me’ actually has a fatherly picture. Suscipe me is the ancient refrain, a word picture of love and grace. Esther de Waal describes the beauty of this phrase in her book, Living with Contradiction:
[These] are words that I come back to, time and again, as a prayer for myself. The Latin word [suscipe] comes from the verb sub-capere, to take underneath and so with the idea of supporting, raising, and that in Roman usage it was the word for a father taking up a new-born infant from the ground and thus recognizing it as his own. The implication here then becomes one of acceptance and thus of survival. So when I say suscipe me it conveys the full depth and warmth of that word. Accept me, receive me, support me, raise me up–wonderful singing words that say everything that I want to say as a prayer for myself.
Within Every Father Is a Son
As I meditate on the loving image of this phrase–receive me, O Lord–I recognize that the most important insight of fatherhood is that I am first a son. Sonship defines me more than fatherhood. I am the son who God ‘recognizes as his own.’ When I recognize the profound meaning of this deep acceptance and support, I am prepared to love others with the same love that embraces me. My growth and maturity in fatherhood is directly related to my growth as a son of the great Father.
(Re-)Learning the Songs of Grace
Learning, remembering, and receiving grace happens in expected and unexpected ways. As the Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos wrote, ‘grace is everywhere.’ I’m encountering that grace in the Eucharist, in friendship, in private prayer. And I’ve also been surprised to rediscover that grace rocking my son in his room just before his bedtime.
In our nightly routine, I sing a few songs, choosing a few hymns that work as lullabies. So we often sing Jesus Loves Me and just this week I began teaching him Amazing Grace. As I sing these hymns of grace I know so well, God surprises me and meets me anew in these familiar words. I’m both teaching my son the songs of grace as a father and re-learning the melody of grace as a son myself. Not a few nights have I been gripped by the simple truth ‘Yes, Jesus loves me.’ I sing so that my son will hear the Gospel in his ears; I sing so that I will listen to the Gospel ‘with the ear of my heart.’ We both need the Gospel song of grace every day of our lives. Receiving this grace in our hearts is always the first and greatest calling of fathers and sons, of mothers and daughters, of all children made in the image of God.