Twenty years ago today my father died, late on a December night. As clearly as I remember his death, I remember the bitter cold. Within a day the temperature dipped to 40 below centigrade.
I was still young; too young (I thought, at the time) to lose a father. Later I would realize I was wrong. Nobody, after the instant of conception, is too young to lose a father, although, this loss ,before certain things can be given and received, does leave its scars.
We, the family of this father, were lucky enough. We had plenty of preparation for his death (he died after a yearlong battle with cancer); he died with his faith, care, and humour intact; and he had given us his blessing. And he died without bitterness, grateful, blessing life. There are worse ways to die and there are worse ways to lose one’s father. For all the years I could remember, in our family prayers, he had always led us in prayers for a happy death. Some months and years later, after some warmer weather, I realized he had died happy in the way that he had prayed for.
But this little reminiscence, twenty years after that bitterly cold day, is not meant as a eulogy (something he would be uncomfortable with), nor even as a homily on what constitutes a happy death. It’s intended as a reflection upon what constitutes a father, a dad, and how we are connected, formed, and sometimes deformed by such a figure.
What is a father? What is a dad? What does your father do for you simply by fathering you and, then, do to you by his love and his absence, by his care and his neglect, and by his virtues and his weaknesses?
If the Neo-Freudian are right, then your father and your mother have very different roles in the formation of your person. It is the mother who is your symbiotic link to life and it’s from her, much more so than from your father, that you get your body, your link to the earth, and, to the extent that you have this, your sense of being loved, wanted, cradled, and cherished. Among all mammals, it is the mother who must lick the newborn and thus free it from whatever constricts it at birth. The mother, after birth, opens the body to life. It’s she who gestates, carries, and then licks, cradles, and nourishes the child. No child or adult ultimately ever forgets this and the constrictions or freedoms in our hearts are very linked to our mothers.
But it is the father who mediates authority and who must give the child both the permission to enjoy life and the challenge to discipline. It’s the father who must, especially by the way he himself lives, model for the child the correct combination of pleasure and renunciation. It’s from him, more so than from the mother, that the child learns the combination of release and control, submission to authority and the freedom to walk one’s own path.
If the major figures in the new movement in masculine spirituality (e.g., Robert Bly, Michael Meade, Robert Moore) are correct, than a father’s task is also key in initiating you into adulthood, in helping to lead you beyond being the little boy or the little girl towards the adult, the man or the woman. A father does this to you by, first of all, showing you in his own life how erotic energy and warrior energy (your energy for love and your energy to fight) should flow into an each other and form some harmony so that all the boundless and chaotic forces within you can be contained, focused, and then creatively opened and spent for the service of God and community. The father must show his child the purpose of both sexual and warrior energy, namely, how enjoyment and creativity blend with courageous self-renunciation and how erotic and warrior energy merge in the fight to protect community (especially its weakest members). Your father must teach you how to be both a lover and a warrior.
My own father, imperfect as are all human fathers, didn’t always find, nor radiate, the perfect balance between enjoyment and discipline, lover and warrior, sexual enjoyment and self-abnegation. As one of his sons, I then too do not always know how to walk the tightrope and there is sloppiness between laziness and overwork, love and anger, self-indulgence and masochism. Sometimes I can protect community and sometimes I cannot even protect myself. But I have steadiness too, sometimes, beyond the slopping around. I had a good dad. He both loved and fought, and he was sometimes too hard on himself but sometimes he thoroughly enjoyed his life.
I am twenty years after that minus 40 degrees centigrade day and sometimes my spirit is still that cold and I am still the little boy, the pre-adult, alone, waiting for my father to protect me and lead me to adulthood, unsure of how to integrate loving and fighting, enjoyment and discipline. But, when I look for his person, his spirit, not among the bones of ancestors, but among the communion of Christ’s saints, I find him walking a delicate tightrope and his hand reaches back to help steady my struggle with loving and fighting and with enjoyment and renunciation and then I feel a little more like an adult.