Today’s post is another guest post from our good friend, James R. Dennis, O.P. James is a Dominican brother who practices law in San Antonio and is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio.. He frequently teaches and writes on spirituality, church history and Christianity in the world today.
In my home, I grew up believing there were four High Holy Days of the year, consisting of the Sunday of: the Augusta National Invitational (generally known as, the “Masters”), the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA. One of them, the Sunday round of the U.S. Open, always falls on Father’s Day. On Father’s Day, more than most other days, I think of the question that folks sometimes ask me, “If you could have anything in the world that you wanted, what would that be?” My answer is always the same: one more round of golf with my Dad.
My first recollection is of going to the golf course with my father. I couldn’t have been more than two or three years old, but still remember the smell of freshly cut grass. I’m one of the kids who grew up on the back of a golf cart.
At around the same time, my family was building our first house. My father made the carpenters leave a row of nails at around 3 feet high. Every day, when my father got off from work, he would take me to our new house, and I would hammer the nails in, so that I could feel like I had a part in building our house. My father could not have said any more clearly to me: “You matter. You are important, and have a critical role to play here.”
Years later, my father would drop my brother Patrick and me off at the golf course while it was still dark outside. Those may still be my happiest memories. In the half light of a West Texas morning I learned that family mattered, that golf mattered, and that my brother mattered. The latter took a while to sink in….
I also dearly love the conspiratorial bond that my father and I developed. For example, my mother hated guns. On my ninth birthday, after considerable unseemly begging, my father bought a .22 for me. On our way home from the gun shop, my Dad looked at me and told me that “You don’t have to tell your mother everything you know about.” He was a man of considerable wisdom.
Not long after that, my grandfather died. I remember sitting next to my father in that small church in Rotan,Texas. My father wore sunglasses throughout the service, so that no one could see that he was crying. The boy who held his hand throughout the service could see those tears, however. In some sense, that was an honor reserved for those he valued. I was his son and he was my father. He told me once that the process of elimination was no way to live my life. He was right.
When my father died, I gave his eulogy. I was gravitationally compelled to recall Dylan Thomas’ eulogy of his own father:
“And you, my father, on that sad height
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears I pray
Do not go gentle into that good night.”
There is something sacred about our fathers. Scripture recognizes this in so many important ways. When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, he taught them to begin “Our Father….” I don’t think there’s anything accidental about that. John reports that Jesus said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” John 14.6-7. Why did Jesus so often refer to God as “the Father”? I don’t think there’s anything sexist going on here. Rather, I think there’s a sacred recognition of what goes on between fathers and their children.
I have no intention of minimizing the roles of our mothers. In fact, I grew up thinking of the Church as Holy Mother. I do intend, however, to raise up our fathers as people worthy our recollection and of fatherhood as a role worth honoring. I don’t think of our family lives, or of our church lives, as a zero sum game. I think we can honor our fathers without minimizing our mothers. In fact, I think we are morally and scripturally compelled to do so.
It is no coincidence that when he hung on the cross, betrayed by friends and compelled to His humanity in a sacrificial incarnation, Jesus cried out, “Abba, Abba.” The closest translation of that word is “Daddy.” When I am alone, when I am feeling weak, I often ask for my father’s help, as well as my Father’s help. The cry for Daddy comes to us early in our lives, and we ought to remember those who so often answered it.
God has treated me better than I deserved. Just as He gave me my own father, he has given me spiritual fathers who helped teach me about the things that matter.
The first of these, a priest named Joseph Armshaw, served in my parish in Odessa. He helped me learn that we could meet God’s children in ways and places that we never expected, and that God’s love for us could manifest itself in liturgy and in thoughtful discussion. He loved his parish, and more importantly, he loved his parishioners.
Somehow, I forgot those things for several years. A long time later, I was reminded how God could reveal himself to us through spiritual fatherhood. Two bishops named John MacNaughton and Robert Hibbs reminded me that our lives were sacred….particularly, that my life could be sacred, if I were willing. In a devout and caring way, they reminded me that the process of elimination was no way to live my life. As with so many of the men who have shown me what fatherhood means, they lent me some comfort and strength. I hope in some way these remarks will tell these men: “Thanks.”