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The Mystery of Parenthood

I have always enjoyed watching mystery television shows or movies.  I believe most people have the same attraction.  One of the main reasons is that in good mysteries all viewers have access to the same clues that the detective has access to.  As such, I’ve always enjoyed trying to figure out who done it before the end of show.  It drives my wife crazy.

In a mystery, the physical clues point us to what actually happened – to the truth.  Fingerprints tell us who actually handled the gun.  DNA tells us who was in the stolen car.  In piecing all the clues together we discover who committed the crime.  That is, the visible points the viewer and the detective to the truth of what happened – the truth that is not visible to us.

That is effectively what a Sacrament is.  It is a mystery.  In fact, the Latin word sacramentum is translated into Greek as mysterion – the word from which we get mystery.  As such, it should not be surprising that part of the Catholic Church’s definition of a Sacrament is “a visible sign of an invisible reality”.   In other words, Sacraments give us clues to uncovering the mystery behind it – the truth behind the clue.  In a sense, as participants in a Sacrament, parents are called to be detectives so to speak, using those clues to discover the truth.

One difference is that we know who left the clues – Christ.  Another is that we even know why the clues were left– to confer grace.  After all, the definition of a Sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible reality instituted by Christ to confer grace.  If that is the case, then what is the mystery all about?  What is there to discover?  In marriage and in parenthood, it is about discovering the mystery of God and it is about discovering the mystery of ourselves in and through these clues – the invisible realities behind the clues.

The first experience I had of this mystery involved my oldest son when he was about two years old.  Today, he is fourteen.  I was holding his hand as we walked down the stairs from the balcony at our Church – St. Mary’s Catholic Church in College Station, Texas.  He continuously was pulling his hand away from me, but I wouldn’t let go because he would have a long and painful fall down the stairs.  Yet, he kept pulling away.  Finally, I let go.  He took one more step and began to fall down the stairs.  I caught him by the collar and kept him from the painful fall.  Once I got him standing on the stair step, with an “I told you so” in my look, I offered my hand to him, certain that he would now see why he needed to hold my hand.  Yet, he again snubbed his nose at me and proceeded to head down the stairs without my help not seeming to care that I had protected him or even caring that my watchful eye and hand would continue to be at the ready should he fall again.

At that moment, I thought to myself – “How ungrateful!  Doesn’t he know with my help he would get where he wants to go more quickly and more safely?”  About that time, I stood convicted.  I had, for many years, handled and, unfortunately today, still handle God in much the same way.  I want to do what I want to do without his help and rarely, if ever, do I recognize the times that he has saved me from myself.  At that instant, I could, for the first time, sense the disappointment and sadness of God seeing a child turn away from a Father.  I also sensed the continued faithfulness of a Father who would continue to look out for His child even after he had pulled away.  That situation became a clue for me in the Mystery of Parenthood.  I discovered something about the invisible God and something about myself that I did not know before.   Herein lies the value of the Mystery of Parenthood.  You discover God Himself and you discover yourself.

While discovering God and yourself might be enough for some to dive more deeply into the mystery of Parenthood, that is not the only benefit.   In fact, there are practical, concrete applications of this mystery to the raising of children.   Those applications will give you techniques to handle discipline of your children and will give you an end towards which you and your spouse can work with each child.

However, the key is to have the end in mind – not to just have an obedient well behaved child.  If God is our model parent, then we have to know that, while obedience is certainly desired, disobedience can be used to move the child towards conversion and towards his or her end.  How many of God’s children have been perfectly obedient?  Yet, how many of his initially disobedient children have ended up in Heaven? In the Old Testament, His children consistently disobeyed his rules and his guidance.  Yet, He never gave up.  After Christ’s coming, just look at St. Peter and St. Augustine. Why should we expect better results than God?  The process of forming a child and moving one towards conversion and towards an end are more important than just learning tricks to get a child to behave the way you want them to in a given situation.

Of course, we need to have as many techniques as possible to help them behave.  However, if they don’t behave, don’t lose heart.  Even God had disobedient children.  You are in good Company.  Additionally, if we look at what God is most concerned about, it’s not primarily outward behavior.  Instead, it is the heart of the child.  Oh, He cares about outward behavior.  It does matter.  However, if the heart is not there, it bothers him.  Just think about Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees.  How frequently did Jesus chastise them for being more concerned about the outward behavior than the heart.  God wants all of His child – all of his mind, all of his heart, all of his strength.  As parents, using God as our example, we too need to be concerned about the child’s heart at least as much as his outward behavior.  If you dive into this Mystery of Parenthood, you will learn how to reach the child’s heart using God’s example.

Still, the value of discovering the Mystery of Parenthood has not been exhausted in terms of its ability to help shape your parenting.  Yes, there is more.  Ironically, instead of seeing ourselves only as the sleuth in this mystery – as the one who uncovers the clues, pieces them together, and finds the truth, we also need to see ourselves as clues in this mystery.  That is, we are called to be signs – signs of the mystery of the invisible God and the mystery of the union of Christ and the Church to our children and to those who see our parenting.  So, as mentioned previously, what we discover about the truth needs to be applied to the Mystery of our Parenthood.

We are called to be signs in this world of the invisible Trinitarian God.  We are meant to make the divine visible to those with whom we come into contact.  This requires a “full, conscious, and active participation” in the Mystery of Parenthood.  There is something for parents to do.  First, we must study the truth about God.  Then we must attempt, with all our being, to apply that truth concretely in our parenting so that we can make visible the invisible reality.  We must become clues, signs – sacraments in a certain sense.  What is amazing is that when we live this way, those things that seem to be mundane, cumbersome or meaningless – driving kids to school or baseball practice, cooking dinner, washing the clothes – will become meaningful.

Additionally, through our Sacramental Marriage, we are to make the truth about humanity visible. As a married couple, through our concrete day-to-day actions, we are to make the truth about humanity visible to our children, to one another, and to the world.  Again, this takes “full, conscious, and active participation“ of the spouses.  There are lots of lies out there regarding what humanity is, what humans are made for, and what they are called to.  We have to be clues to the truth of humanity and the human predicament – the truth about sin, about forgiveness, about love, about sacrifice, about life.  This also requires studying and applying practically these truths as we live our lives as spouses and parents.

Still, the Mystery of Parenthood has not been exhausted.  In the end, “full, conscious, and active” participation in this mystery of parenting – in the act of being clues to this world of the invisible truth about God and about humanity – will lead us to happiness in this life and in the life to come because it will lead us to our high calling – holiness, union with God.

Pope John Paul II put it this way:

The body, in fact, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the

spiritual and the divine.  It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the

world the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus be a sign of

it.  It is holiness to live this out. (Theology of the Body, 2/20/1980)

This mystery of parenthood – using our bodies to make the visible invisible – is our means to holiness, our means to happiness, our means to meaningful lives and wonderful marriages.  Spouses who spend their parenting years embracing, discovering, and practically applying the mystery of parenthood in their parenting will become fully alive.  They will not just go through the motions.  Oh, they will be tired and worn out, maybe even beat up a little bit.  But, it will all mean something.  It will mean becoming who they were created to be.  It will mean living full, beautiful, and meaningful lives – glorious lives, fully human lives.  It will mean fulfilling the mission entrusted to human beings – bringing glory to God by living life to its fullest measure.  The 2nd century doctor of the Church – St. Irenaeus – put it this way, “the glory of God is man fully alive”.  Ultimately, the Mystery of Parenthood is becoming the person you were created to be.

This program will provide parents with practical ways of being full, conscious and active participants in marriage and in parenthood..