This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue Columbia Magazine, page 25. Kevin DiCamillo is a freelance writer and editor in northern New Jersey, and is a member of the Don Bosco Knights of Columbus Council 4960 in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Seeking to adopt a child following medical difficulties, a Knights of Columbus couple received an unexpected gift.
After my wife, Alicia, and I were married, we were looking forward to welcoming the children that God would send to our family. Yet we never expected the challenges that we confronted when I was diagnosed with cancer. Following surgery and months of radiation, doctors told us that we would not be able to conceive. Amid the heartbreak, we began to explore adoption.
We checked out private agencies for domestic and foreign adoption, but chose a more affordable option close to home: the New Jersey state adoption agency. After spending thousands of dollars on my cancer treatments, this seemed like the most sensible path. As with most things in life, there were good and bad aspects, and in the end, we received a surprise that only God could have arranged.
Much of parenting, then, comes down to the example we set. But there is a deeper lesson to be learned from children, and that is the way of our own spiritual advancement.
Many times, we overcomplicate the spiritual life. We want a sophisticated program, involving perhaps copious study of theology and philosophy. We want to pray many prayers and read many books. But while these things are well and good in their place, they are not the essence of spiritual growth. In reality, the program of spiritual progress is very simple: It is carefully imitating God our Father with childlike simplicity.
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children,” teaches St. Paul, for indeed, that is what we are—children of God. In a very real sense, we can call God, “Abba, Daddy.” By the grace of the Holy Spirit, we share his nature, the fullness of his life lives in our souls. And as his beloved sons and daughters, we should aspire to say, “I’m just like you, Daddy.”
The proud in heart reject this simple way of childlike imitation. They see the spiritual life as involving many complex and difficult requirements, as a way for only the strong, mature, and knowledgeable. They have nothing but scorn for those who follow Christ in simplicity. They forget the words of Christ, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
When my little boy looks up with me and says, “I’m just like you, Daddy,” my heart is filled with love and joy. I want him to be like me. What father doesn’t? So to it is with the family of God. God our Father longs for us to be just like him, to radiate his image fully and completely. His fatherly heart greatly desires us to look up at him with love and say, “I’m just like you, Daddy.”
In sum, the Christian life, the Catholic life, is striving after conformity to Jesus Christ, our elder brother in the Divine family. We want to exchange our lives for his, to the point that he lives perfectly in and through us. We must imitate him in every thought, word, and deed, until we can say like St. Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”
I don’t like being interrupted during “me time.” Unfortunately, sacrificing “me time” is part of the covenant when I said, “I do.” By the grace of the Holy Spirit, I find myself being happy instead of frustrated. Please witness:
I’m engrossed in a short biography of Larry Page from the Business Insider. I’m sitting in our oversized, super-cushioned rocking chair and the lighting is soft and relaxing. The house is quiet. I thought my wife and daughters were asleep and it was only 8:30pm. I was going to enjoy a lot of “me time” tonight!
Then my wife storms out of our bedroom. She throws down the Ergo Baby carrier like a gauntlet and Hana slides down her leg and onto the floor. My wife isn’t mad at me, but she’s frustrated that Hana isn’t falling asleep. It’s my turn.
Hana runs to me with a squeal of joy. Her big, round eyes hide behind wispy long black hair. Hana’s pink jammies are all bunched up on her chunky baby legs. I chuckle and smile at her, put away the article, and pick her up just as she hugs my leg.
If I was a man without the Holy Spirit, I would not find joy in this interruption. I would have been slightly irritated that my wife was unsuccessful in putting Hana to sleep. I would have resented the need to put both our daughters to sleep for the past few evenings. I suffered a screaming shower session and would just like a little time to unwind.
Thanks to the Holy Spirit, those thoughts didn’t even cross my mind. Actually, I had to force myself to think that way just now in order to draw a contrast. I’m a changed man because of continual conversion into Christ. The fruit of my faith can be seen in the joy, patience and charity I experience instead of the anger, impatience and “counting the cost” that the old me would have done.
Hana snuggles the side of her face against my chest as I carry her. When I change her into a fresh diaper, I have to tell her to not laugh or talk because big sister is sleeping. I pick her up and kiss her for the hundredth time that day and then strap her onto my chest with the Ergo Baby. I can see the anticipation of my baby daughter’s eyes as the plastic “click, click” of the buckles lock around my waste and shoulders. After turning off the lights around the house, we walk to the kitchen. I turn on the stove-oven ventilator to create the magical white noise. Hana clonks her head against my chest, like she was hypnotized. I pace back and forth as she starts to relax. Hana stretches out her small hands and absent-mindedly caresses the stubble on my chin. From the broken pale light streaming in across from our neighbor’s porch, I could see that Hana’s eyes were drooping. I kiss her forehead and stroke the bridge of her nose with my thumb. Hana can resist no longer: her hand goes limp against my stubbly chin.
I often wondered why the Gospel writers left so much of Jesus’ childhood and teenage years to the imagination. Folks called this the “hidden life” of Jesus. Being a father, I questioned why God didn’t give more guidance on how to imitate the Holy Family. How did Joseph and Mary deal with a whining toddler? How did they counsel other parents who had rebellious teenagers, even if the teenage Jesus was obedient?
These moments I have with Maya and Hana give me such profound joy. It is a kind of joy that escapes description. It’s fleeting and easy to miss if I worshipped money, fame, power or beauty instead of God. As it is, I’m blessed. Dozens of moments like these happen in the course of a full day with my children. I can’t remember them all, but I trust that Heaven is recording them even if I don’t have the camera on my smartphone ready. I may forget these small moments, but they all add up to this emotion, this absolute certainty of love. What I feel towards my children is merely a shadow of what God feels for me. I cannot touch, see, hear or measure this love I have for my daughters, but I’m experiencing it. So, it’s true. I cannot touch, see, hear or measure the love that God has for me, but with eyes of faith, I see. So, it’s true.
My love is only a shadow of God’s love. This fact compels me to love even more. It is the only natural response to someone who loves you this much. It’s not easy to go from loving just your daughters to loving even the people who persecute you. Yet, if the Holy Spirit can convert me from a man who loves his “me time” to a father who can give it up without even a second thought, then I trust He can convert me as I grow into Christ even more. As I live out the hidden life of Jesus in my own family, grow in my belief of the Eucharist and progress in my prayer life, I am drawn deeper into Christ.
My eldest daughter, Maya, is the guinea pig for our different parenting styles. Our bedtime routine for her is a good example of that difference. I would classify my wife’s style as “obedience out of fear.” I generously call mine “obedience out of love;” whether it’s truly love or just plain spoiling the child is something my wife contends.
For many months, I’ve been responsible for putting Maya to bed. The routine after dinner is simple: take a bath, drink 8-oz of milk, read 2 to 3 books, brush teeth, read 2 to 3 more books, pray and then get tucked-in by 8:30pm or so. Maya also has two 8-oz bottles of water on her nightstand that she would ask me to refill before she even finishes with one of them.
Not surprisingly, Maya needs to potty three to five times before finally falling to sleep. This means she’s not sleeping until 9:30 or 10pm on some nights. Often, around 2am or 4am, she would wet her pull-up diapers completely, cry, and ask me to change her into a new one.
I do all of this without complaining. I admit it’s a bit inconvenient for me. Occasionally I put my foot down (i.e. refusing to tuck her in three times in one night), but I usually do everything she asks because it’s our idiosyncratic bedtime routine. I know that this behavior will eventually pass and all of it would make a great story when she’s older. Also, quite simply, love means self-sacrifice — giving up my preferences for the benefit of another.
When I went on a week-long business trip several weeks ago, my wife had to put Maya to sleep. She was surprised by how spoiled Maya was. Since she also had to take care of Hana, our youngest, at the same time, my wife changed the routine to accommodate the extra burden. No water refills. Change your own pull-up diaper. Go potty only once or twice. And, no tucking in. Maya, of course, threw a tantrum, and my wife would threaten to close her bedroom door completely — an act that Maya sees as heavy punishment.
Coming home, my wife still wanted to put Maya to sleep because she had to “re-train” her. So, every night was a scream-fest with Maya and mommy. While I agreed with my wife that we should ween Maya off from her peculiar bedtime requests, I disagreed with her use of tactics that we usually employed only as a last resort. I also threaten to close her bedroom door for time-out, but only for major infractions (i.e. repeated rudeness, throwing a hysterical tantrum, etc.) Most of all, I disagree with my wife’s tone when reprimanding Maya.
Don’t get me wrong, my wife is a sweet woman. So, even her deeply disapproving reprimands are like lovely feminine frowns. She’s exhausted and needs to tap me in, like a wrestler in a tag-team match. Yet my wife insists on staying in the ring. Her willpower to resist Maya’s demands only gets stronger the louder our daughter screams. I love my wife for devising punishments Maya fears that doesn’t involve spanking. They’re effective and I use them, too. But, a parent’s threats to induce fear will need to get more severe as the child grows older. Sure, right now, Maya fears time-out with her door closed. She’s only two, now. What happens when she’s nine? Or fourteen-years old? We need to use the heavy punishments sparingly.
I take a different approach, normally. I want Maya to love me so much that it is my absence that she fears. She usually complies with what I want her to do if I threaten to walk away. My nuclear option is mommy, as in, “Okay, mommy will [feed you/give you a bath/brush your teeth, etc.]” Yes, I realize it’s unfair to leverage my own wife this way. It’s ironic, though: throughout history mothers would threaten their children with “Wait until your father gets home.” Maya would probably shout, “Yay!”
When my wife and I are calmly talking about our different parenting styles, I point out how her “obedience out of fear” is like how the Church gets people to behave and my “obedience out of love” is like how our Heavenly Father gets us to behave. This is the Father that Jesus reveals, of course. The God in the Old Testament is pretty scary at times. It’s from the Father that Jesus reveals that I take my parenting cues. I don’t spoil my children; I am merciful as Our Heavenly Father is merciful. Doing God’s will out of fear leads to resentment, like the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In my spiritual life, I seek to love God so much that I want to do His will as a loving response. So, my Father is to me, I am to my children.
I observe that this “obedience out of love” is incredibly inconvenient for me. I need more patience compared to the fear method. Sometimes it doesn’t work and Maya still disobeys. This is no different than God’s experience. Torture and death on the Cross is pretty inconvenient. We still disobey quite often despite God’s infinite love for us.
I’ve come to conclude that both obedience out of fear and out of love have a place in parenting, just like we need the Church’s doctrine and God’s mercy in our spiritual life. My wife may be harsh at times, but just like how the Church’s moral prescriptions may be harsh, they’re good for us. She may be too strict, but they will always find mercy from me. The Church’s doctrine may be too strict, but God’s mercy is greater. Our children’s first experience of God will be through us. Mommy’s discipline and Daddy’s forgiveness will build their character. The Church’s discipline and God’s mercy will build their spirit.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the writing style and narrative choices Richard Rohr makes in his book, “From Wild Man to Wise Man,” can easily cause us to miss the main message of his book. I hope to draw out the main points in this summary for the first nine chapters:
Just as both man and woman are images of God, the human spiritual journey can be described as both male and female. In general, women are more in touch with their spiritual side, a spirituality that can be described as “feminine.” Men, in general, have not developed a “male” spirituality that would help them on their unique journey.
Part of the reason why men have not developed their own spirituality is because we live in a broken world. In general, this broken world is an addictive system created by men, initially, to keep men in worldly power. However, as power democratized, the very measures of success that keep men prisoners of the system are also keeping “successful” women and minorities prisoners.
A unique quality of male spirituality is initiation: “Male initiation always has to do with hardness, limit situations, difficulty, struggle and usually a respectful confrontation with the non-rational, the unconscious or, if you will, the wild. It prepares the young man to deal with life in other ways than logic, managing, controlling and problem solving. Frankly, it prepares him for the confrontation with the Spirit.” This has a biblical tie to Gen 32:24-26 where Jacob wrestles with the Angel and gets a wounded hip.
The male spiritual journey “feels too much like dying in its early stages, and most people are not well trained in dying. Initiation is always training in dying.” In the male spiritual journey, the young man goes from simple to complex consciousness and then through a door to enlightenment. “That door is usually some form of suffering — physical, relational, emotional, intellectual, structural… Initiation always taught the young men to die before he died, and then he would begin to live.” Once there, enlightenment deceptively appears a lot like simple consciousness. “If you have once faced the great death, the second death can do you no harm.” — Saint Francis of Assisi
A man typically needs an elder man who can lead him through his journey. The male initiator “was never your biological father because that relationship was both too complex and had to be maintained as nurturing.” John the Baptist, for example, was the initiator for Christ’s public ministry. Saint Paul is a good example of how to be a master teacher, male initiator. He shows young men how to face the great death. We need more elder men to help initiate young men through their spiritual journey.