Some dear friends have been going through a difficult time at home with a couple of their teenaged children. When I talked to the dad a few days ago, it seemed he was near his wits’ end. I felt like I had nothing of value to say, no words of wisdom to comfort him in his distress. I wasn’t about to drop some platitude on him, such as, “It’s always better than it seems,” or, “When life closes a door, God opens a window.” I think he would have come through the phone if I did something so foolishly lazy and insensitive.
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I have about as much expertise in the subject of “parenting through pain” as I do in performing brain surgery. That would be none: zilch. (Disclaimer: I can’t even look at a paper cut without getting woozy. Don’t even get wounded near me; I won’t be any help, unless you find a clammy-skinned guy passed out on the floor helpful when you’ve injured yourself.) So I suppose I am writing this as a therapeutic exercise as much as anything else. Maybe it will make me feel better. Because when I got off the phone, my heart was so heavy: Lord, my friends need you. Where are you?
Those of us who have raised or are in the process of raising children know it is no picnic to form children to be exemplary adults, especially in a world that is adept at providing countless distractions and obstacles to the pursuit of virtue.
Raising good Catholic kids seems even harder. I really want my children to be Catholic when they are adults. I unapologetically want them to be active, consciously engaged Catholics till their last breath. If I didn’t, that wouldn’t say much about my own Catholic identity, or about my desires for my children’s ultimate happiness. But in today’s world it simply isn’t anything near a given that they will grow up to be practicing, happily engaged Catholics.
But I want to focus, in this post, on the in-between time, between birth and departure from the home. The actual years of raising children, before their shelf life is up (like milk) and the little sweeties start to spoil and need to move it along, lil’ doggy, move along, are hard.
Raising children is hard. I know that seems like a truism, but ultimately, when all is said and done, that four word sentence may be all a weary parent can articulate, just as my friend said it on the phone the other day, his voice flat and lifeless. He was worn out.
My friends are good parents. They are humble and admit that they are works in progress (aren’t we all?), but they are good and decent parents. Their children are blessed to have them. The parenting journey, as their children have moved into the teen years, has been difficult and discouraging at times. My friend’s exhaustion following the most recent dramatic event left him terribly discouraged, and he wondered aloud if he isn’t the worst father who ever lived. Surely, he surmised, we have done a terrible job in raising our children.
How does one find peace amid the conflict that seems inherent to family life?
I wish I knew the Five Easy Steps Toward Calm and Tranquil Parenting, or the Ten Secrets to Conflict Management in the Home. I don’t. Truth be told, after five children (so far) I am astounded at how little I know yet.
But one thing I do know. And that is that there is only one place I have ever managed to find peace in my life.
And that is in my relationship with Jesus Christ.
If that is in a good place, everything else seems to be different somehow. Circumstances have less control over my moods and my disposition. When my perspective (how I see reality) is rightly focused, my attitude (how I interact with reality) is rightly directed.
Years ago, when we were going through some of our own teenaged drama at home, I went into the Blessed Sacrament chapel for what seemed the umpteenth time, discouraged, frustrated, and feeling lost. I cried out to the Lord, pleading for an answer: How do I reach this child!? How do I make the connection? I feel like we are losing her! Where are you, Lord!?
And something convicted me on the spot: You haven’t given her to the Lord. You have been coming into this chapel, demanding (disguised as pious pleading) for Him to “fix” your child, but you haven’t truly handed her over to His care, unconditionally.
I knew, with great clarity (finally), that I had to consciously give her to Him. Unconditionally. Total abandonment. Surrender.
I realized that in making my relationship with my child my all-consuming need, I was making of it an idol. In making her security my absolute condition for my own happiness, I was making her security a god. I was placing my desires--- good as they might be--- a condition for my happiness and peace. I was basically saying to God, “If you do this for me, I will be content. If not, I will be miserable and unhappy.”
I had to say, in the chapel, to the white Host in the Monstrance, out loud, “I love you, Lord, more than life itself, more than my family, more than my daughter, even more than my desire to be a perfect father--- more than anything.”
I had to be willing to find peace where I was at, and I could, because where I was at, Christ was there with me. What else does a crucifix say to us, after all, but “I am with you in the thick of it, in the darkness and the terror of life”?
That is the astounding claim of Christianity that we seem to forget time and again: Christianity is all about Emanuel: God with us.
Even in the brokenness of our families, even in the crosses and the frustrations, He can be found. "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5, RSV).
It is easy, I admit, to say all of this. Much harder is to live it, as I find time and again.
But the difficulty in living it makes it no less true. We just have to believe it so strongly that we won’t let go of it.
Lord, Redeemer, heal and save our families. Amen.