The word ‘father’ has always carried a double meaning for me. At church, many people call me Father Jack. At home, my children call me Daddy. I was ordained a priest only two years before our first child was born, so learning how to be a priest and a father to my children converged around the same time. Both callings humble me to my core, requiring continual prayer. Both callings call me to lifelong learning, apprenticing myself to older fathers who have guided their children in wisdom and love.
Some of my favorite stories begin at a location that writers call in media res-in the middle of the thing. Before you know the characters background, you’re plunged into the middle of the story from the beginning. I’ve only been a father for 5 years, so my story begins in media res. Mine is an unfinished story. I cannot write from experience about what it means to be a father of adult children, college students, or-Lord, have mercy-teenagers. I’m the father of a toddler and a preschooler, so I’m no authority on the subject of fatherhood. I’m a young father committed to learning how to be a better father. And that is a lifelong calling. That means I’m well-advised to consider the counsel of fathers much older than myself. Like 2,000 years old.
Learning Fatherhood from the Church Fathers
When I need good counsel in my vocation as a priest and spiritual father, I often consult the wisdom of ancient fathers in the Christian tradition-the church fathers and the desert fathers. Numerous times in my ministry, a quote, an anecdote, or a passage from an ancient Christian father has given me direction through a difficult or complex situation. Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule is desk reference material in my life as a priest.
Recently I’ve begun thinking about reading the church fathers and the desert fathers from a different perspective. What guidance do the ancient fathers offer me as a father of my children? Ancient Christian wisdom has been invaluable in my ministry as a priest, but why have I separated these good and holy words as a father in my home?
The biblical word for father is ‘abba’ and while this name is mostly associated when Jesus speaks of his heavenly Father, the name ‘abba’ is not a title exclusive to God the Father. ‘Abba’ persisted in early Christian history as a name and a calling for spiritual fathers. Abbas Joseph, Isaac, John, and Daniel are but a few desert fathers who gave guidance and wisdom to their spiritual children in the Conferences of John Cassian. St. Benedict of Nursia, the father of western monasticism, devotes great attention to the role of the abbot (latinized ‘abba’) in his Rule because the spiritual health of the father shapes an entire household.
Fatherhood-Not Generic ‘Parenting’
The wisdom of the spiritual fathers is a source of inspiration and counsel for me, but it isn’t the only place where guidance for fathers may be found. In this Fatherhood Fridays series, I’ll draw on contemporary writers, too, who give me good direction and insight as I’m learning how to be a better father.
But first a disclaimer: I confess that I don’t read parenting books. Perhaps I should. I know some parenting books have made a significant difference for both men and women. Parenting books which address pragmatic solutions for difficult situations are useful and helpful.
What interests me most are not practical solutions for a single problem. I’m most interested in the inner lifeof a man who wants to be a better father. Parenting solutions without the renewal of the father’s heart will not last. What I need most is to engage inner questions and struggles as I seek to love my children.
Men and women have much in common in their life as parents. But there are certainly differences, too. ‘Parenting’ is often a generic term that doesn’t address the distinctions and differences of gender. The questions and struggles of a father are different than a mother. I’m not suggesting archaic gender roles in family life. Fatherhood has a great deal to do with loving and serving your wife as Christ loved and served his disciples. Yet I believe there needs to be more discussion about the soul of a man and his calling as a father. I’m writing as a novice father, seeking a deeper conversion of my own heart so that I may love my wife and children just as Christ loved his Church and all her saints. In that high and holy calling, I embrace the good counsel and comfort of St. Benedict: ‘always I began again.’