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Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Role of Fatherhood in Spiritual Formation

Maybe I shouldn't post this on Father's Day weekend, but I'm going to anyway.

My parents divorced when I was eight, and among their many differences was religion; Mom was Catholic, Dad was Lutheran. Dad's parents HATED that Mom was Catholic, and Dad was not in love with Mass, to say the least. But he agreed to raise us Catholic, and Mom, at least, was faithful to that promise. Thank God for that! Dad gave a pretense, but it was always obvious that his heart wasn't in it.

And yes, children see this. Children are young and innocent; they're not stupid.

We moved to Minnesota, and a couple years later, Dad followed. And so it was that we didn't attend Mass on weekends we had with Dad, although he lied and he encouraged us to lie about going. We didn't care that it was one of the custodial obligations of our being able to go with him on his weekends, which is why he was so insistent on not telling Mom that we weren't going to church.

As I got older, though, this became more and more of a problem for me. My brother never really cared, but I did. And I didn't know how to deal with it. I KNEW we needed to go to Mass, even though I didn't understand why. And I did love God..I did! But I was embarassed at my budding devotion, and put off by my Dad's ridicule of Mom for her devotion and insistence on our attendance every Sunday. I didn't want my Dad's ridicule.

Even though I was growing up and apart from my Dad, I always had a bit of that "Daddy's Girl" in me and so the idea that Dad might laugh at me because I agreed with Mom was absolutely heartbreaking. And so I remained silent.

Dad moved to Minneapolis, and Mom must have been aware at some point (likely because she was wise) that Dad was not taking us to Mass. So a few times we went to the Basilica in Minneapolis. It was a beautiful church, as you'd imagine, but Dad wasn't very particular about when we arrived. We'd enter through a side door or something, find the nearest pew, and be seated. About fifteen minutes later, we'd leave. I think that once we got there in time for Communion.

I felt horrible about being late, I wanted to be there for the whole thing, I hated how people stared at us especially after this happened a few weeks in a row, and I wanted to remain at Mass for the entire time. But I had no control, Dad and my brother were clearly on the same page, Dad was making fun of Mom and saying that "she'd never know" and that we really didn't need to go anyway if it weren't for a court order. And he didn't care about the court order. Again, I was sworn to silence.

It's a silence I've never broken, until now. And now it doesn't really matter...or does it? You decide.

Over time maybe I became a bit numb to all of this, and God drew me to Himself in a different way; through music. I believe that at the time we popped in and out of the Basilica, I was involved in my own parish, and was often at Mass once on Saturday and twice on Sunday, either as a musician or a cantor or in the choir. I didn't really understand what was going on at Mass, but I sensed deeply that it was important. And I WANTED to be there. It was my whole life. I do believe it was the ONLY place where I felt any peace at all in my chaotic life. Maybe it was that peace that drew me, but I felt safe there, and really, I WAS safe there.

But I couldn't have articulated that nor could I have explained it to anyone at the time.

It was as I got older that I stopped going to visit my Dad on weekends. There were many reasons, and in looking back, Mass attendance was one of them. I knew where I needed to be, and unfortunately, it was not with my earthly father. Unfortunately for him, and somewhat for me, but truly, in knowing what was happening in those years, I know without a doubt that I did choose the better part; to sing at the feet of Jesus. And He did call me to do so.

This morning I was musing about all of this and considered our trips with Dad to Michigan to visit his parents. I don't think we ever ONCE attended a Catholic church there. We were taken to the Lutheran church, and Dad's opinion was that we could do so as it was his church, he was taking us to church, and it was pretty much the same, anyway.

But I KNEW it wasn't the same, although I couldn't say why. I knew what was happening was wrong. I knew I was being deprived of something, and I sensed that loss very deeply. And still, I had no control. I do think that once I tried to argue to go to the Catholic church, and maybe even my brother had a twinge of conscience in that regard, but Dad was stubborn and we went into the red-carpeted How-Great-Thou-Art singing Lutheran church. And it wasn't the same. At all. Something HUGE was missing...or should I say...someONE?

What's Happening Now? Do Dads Matter?

Sometimes I try to take a step back and I wonder why my brother's and my paths were always so different. I can see some of the reasons on the surface, but there's so much more to us all than what is so readily apparent.

My brother is not practicing his faith...I don't think he has any faith at all. And knowing what I know now, I have to wonder if his Confirmation was valid, as I don't think he was willingly Confirmed. I think Mom forced him. He used to argue up a STORM about Confirmation, and Mom argued back louder and longer.

I'd go to my room and slam the door, trying to get away. He was older than I by two years, and I didn't understand why he didn't want to be Confirmed, but it didn't seem right that Mom was forcing him. Sometimes after those arguments I'd talk to him and ask him why. He didn't know. He just didn't want to be Confirmed. He didn't see the point. He didn't know what he wanted. And I think that some of this was his passive rebellion; if Mom wanted it, he didn't. He was just as torn between our parents as I was, although somewhat differently.

Now I see that he was adopting Dad's lackluster attitude; in spirituality he was like Dad. I was more like Mom, although even I rebelled against her intense devotion and wanted to be NOTHING like her in any way. This made my own faith that much more difficult for I had no one to emulate.

And my brother...neither did he, because I don't necessarily think he really agreed with Dad, either. And Dad himself was so lost in so many ways.

To this day, I'm the religious one in the family. My brother is the apathetic one, and attends Mass only with Mom or if he's at my house on a Sunday. He no longer complains, and maybe he's coming around. But who's to say? Only God.

A Father's Betrayal

I still remember, every Christmas when I'd be playing something special on my flute for the Christmas program just before the Christmas Eve Vigil Mass, I'd hope and pray that Dad would come. But he never did. And he didn't come at Easter. I always hoped that at least on holidays he'd be willing to drive an hour to be with his family. And he was never there.

In his absence, Dad didn't just send a message to me, but he sent it to my brother as well...loud and clear. And for each of us, the message was different, but just as clear.

I KNOW that my brother's lack of faith stems DIRECTLY from Dad's "intervention" and direct actions to prevent us from receiving the sacraments. His derision towards Mom and towards our beliefs had a profound effect on my brother for sons learn from their fathers. And daughters are crushed by such deep betrayals.

I've never spoken of this until now, maybe because I buried the idea and the pain of remaining quiet out of obedience and fear of ridicule.

Dad never knew how these things affected me, and I don't know what his reaction would have been if he did. So I won't delve into that for he can no longer defend himself or his actions.

I do believe that Dad believed in God and that he had a certain faith. But he wasn't interested in our spiritual formation, just as many Dads today aren't interested in their children's spiritual formation.

Fathers are key in children learning about how to relate to God, who is our Father. Fathers are NECESSARY in teaching their children respect for their mothers, respect for authority, and respect for God.

It's not surprising to me that my brother has no faith; is it surprising to YOU?

Dads, take note; it doesn't matter if you are divorced from your wife and have custody of your children. If you agreed to raise them in a certain faith, you are obligated to that promise. Even if you don't respect the covenant of your marriage, then at least respect the souls of the children you brought into the world and please do your best to see them on the pathway to Heaven. Because ultimately you will be standing before God answering to HIM, not your ex-wife, without whom those children would not exist.

Fathers matter. Everything a father DOES matters! And even what seems like a small lie can disrupt a soul for life and send it spinning off into a darkness it was never meant to experience.

Fathers, if you love your children, practice your faith, set the example, and teach them that it takes a REAL MAN to lead others to God. Be that man.


RJW said...

Your story is so true and thank you so much for sharing it. I am in a reverse sort of situation. My divorce was just final and I have three children. 14, 12 and 7. I am the cradle catholic and my ex-wife is a convert. I have to work hard to keep the faith alive for my kids (I made it part of the settlement.) For their mother, who does believe in her faith to a point, church is important as long as it is not inconvenient. She will re-marry out of the church in August and the difficulty will compound. For now, I just try to pray with them and keep reminding them how much God loves us and how we need to return that love as best we can. Your stories help me so much to remind me I am not the only one who faces the same struggles. God bless you for your willingness to share so much of yourself with all of us.

Kasia said...

Thanks for posting this. Still processing - can't comment much. :-)

Lillian Marie said...

Thank you for sharing! This had to have been difficult - yet hopefully, in some way, freeing.

For me, it was my uncle that created a defensive barrier between me and his family. The obstruction that he caused still haunts me. It took me years to finally forgive him, although to this day, I still do not like to be around him.

Prayers coming your way today for you and your entire family. I will also pray for the conversion of your brother.

Joe of St. Thérèse said...

very very true.

Alli said...

This was lovely - heartbreaking, but lovely. Part of the reason that things ended with my longterm relationship (that we both thought would turn into marriage) was that I realized that he didn't care as much about fulfilling even the barest obligations to his Faith. I'd seen him whine and complain when I dragged him to Mass on non-Sunday Holy Days... and I didn't want him to set a bad example for our potential-future-children.
So, the breakup was painful, but like you, I knew where my heart needed to be. So now I'm waiting for the call to some vocation, no matter what it is, and I'm so much happier now.