We can see ourselves as the prodigal or elder son at different stages of life, but we ultimately are called to progress to spiritual fatherhood.
When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” So said Mark Twain, and so have felt countless sons. Well past twenty-one, I continue to be astonished at how much my old man has learned.
A memory illustrates. Early last year, I was driving home from Mass with my family on Sunday morning. There the readings had included the Gospel of Luke’s parable of the prodigal son. It’s the tale of the headstrong son who demanded and squandered his inheritance and then begged for forgiveness, his older brother who never rebelled, and the father who loved them both.
I had always identified with the prodigal son, and figured everyone else did, too. This is partly due to my Irish heritage which, according to William Butler Yeats, means I have an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustains me through temporary periods of joy.
I said this to my wife, Devin, as we drove home from church. She said she understood the sentiment, but admitted at times feeling a certain kinship with the dutiful elder son. We clearly had interpreted the lesson differently, which surprised me. I decided to consult my father to break the tie.
I called him from the car, asking which character in the parable he identified with most. “Easy,” he answered. “The father.” Believing God alone had been, well, perpetually cast in that role, I never thought picking the father was an option. It seemed my dad, when faced with multiple-choice options (a) or (b), was puckishly choosing (c) as a write-in answer. Or so I thought.
Weeks later I shared the breezy exchange with Dr. William Muse of Knoxville, Tennessee. Muse, a contemporary of my father, is a dear friend whom I figured could use a smile. We were together in Dallas where he was tending to his daughter, Amanda, who was dying of cancer. Sad of heart but undaunted in his Catholic faith, he somehow found time to counsel me.
“Read this,” he said, pitching me Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen’s spiritual classic “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” It’s a meditation inspired by the author’s response to a reproduction of Rembrandt’s eponymous and hauntingly beautiful painting. How strange the book was there in Amanda’s bookcase, my own poor man’s tolle lege experience. “Your dad is not wrong. None of you are.”
I devoured the book. It taught me that while we tend to be each actor — prodigal son, elder son, even the father — at different stages of life, we ultimately are called to progress to spiritual fatherhood. That is, we’re called to love one another exactly as the compassionate father did, with self-emptying hearts of mercy.
After all, neither the justice the prodigal son demanded nor the justice the elder son expected ultimately satisfies. Knowing this, the father gave his heirs freely and fully not the mere justice they sought but the far greater mercy they needed.
Justice may even the scales, but in mercy, the world is remade anew. As a broken world, so a penitent man. As we need merciful forgiveness, so must we grant it. As we are loved by God, so must we try to love one another. For nothing you have not given away, as C.S. Lewis wrote, will ever really be yours.
In other words, in the parable of the prodigal son we are, in fact, called to identify with the father, just like my old man said.
A Dutch painter inspired a fellow countryman priest centuries later, whose book helped a Tennessee doctor explain the true meaning of fatherhood to a North Carolina lawyer, but make no mistake. I was once again astonished at how much my old man had learned.
The COVID-19 experience helps us decide what is essential and what isn’t
One effect of the lockdown is that we find ourselves with frequent decisions as to what is essential to our survival and happiness and what isn’t. Life gets stripped down to essentials, with all the extras becoming secondary, if that. Here are some ideas along these lines.
The first essential is food. The availability of food for us to buy entails a massive industry. First, there is the source which is the farmers and ranchers who provide our meat, fruit and vegetables. Their activities require thousands of acres of land and huge amounts of water for crops and livestock, which in turn depend on favorable weather. Bad weather can bring both floods and droughts.
Then there is also a vast capital expense required for equipment and labor to plant, cultivate and harvest the crops which feed both people and animals.
Ahead is the immense supply chain which involves the transportation, processing and ultimately delivery to the thousands of stores and restaurants which will make our food supply available to all of us. It is important to remember that this entire industry and all its parts must continue to operate at all times in order for us to survive. Any significant disruption could have disastrous consequences.
Closely related to food is water. Humans can survive longer without food than without water. The availability of water involves another massive industry as well as favorable weather. When we turn on a faucet and water appears, it is well to remember what has gone into that daily miracle.
The moral of these reflections is that 1) we are all radically dependent on the proper functioning of extremely complicated and expensive sources and supply chains for the very fundamentals of our existence, and 2) that the survival of the human race depends on factors which are mostly beyond our control.
Among other things, these essentials remind us that they depend entirely on people working, pandemic or no pandemic.
The subject of “work” brings up another consideration: buildings may not be as universally essential as we thought. Specifically, our housing is essential. If we never thought about that before the “shelter in place” mandate appeared, staying home for three or four months certainly showed us the importance of our house.
For many, however, the experience also demonstrated that “office” is not essential to work. We have been forced to discover that, thanks to all the modern communication technology, much of the work we do can be as easily preformed at home as in an office. So, offices are not really on some lists as essential.
But work really is essential. We have discovered what we always knew – that our work is what keeps us going, defines our place in this society, which, if we are not satisfied with the way things are, provides alternatives for us to test and follow. Work is also critical for society as a whole because it constitutes the means by which all those complex supply chains are sustained. Combined, they are the “economy” which is followed so thoroughly by the news – and Wall Street.
Another essential which has been forced to the front of our attention span by the pandemic is our family. In many cases, parents who work hard in often stressful circumstances have re-discovered the importance and the joys of marriage and parenthood by staying home for extended periods. They have become re-acquainted with their spouse and children, and spouses and children have in turn made their own discoveries.
Fathers especially sometimes become almost mythical figures to children who see them only for short periods, often in a disciplinary circumstance. The rest of the time their father is talked about but not there. Getting to know each other better is beneficial to all.
Hygiene is another subject which has drawn more attention in the last few months than in the last few years. We have been told ad nauseum how to wash our hands and sterilize every surface in sight. Like it or not, cleanliness – of person and environment – has become a new essential.
Shopping, restaurants, sports events and sports teams have fallen to lower placed priorities. All are missed – acutely by some – but there are other ways to get exercise and to prepare and consume food and drinks, other ways which involve much less risk of contracting disease.
Among the essentials most missed, however, are social events and interactions with other people. Some have discovered that the absence of crowds and gatherings is so important that being deprived has led to depression or worse. Others – often a significant number – have decided to seek communal activities, whether parties or protest marches, in spite of advice and even prohibitions to the contrary. To them, a full social life is essential, damn the consequences!
Just some contemplative thoughts (while working at home!).
Every argument supporting gay marriage—‘Love is love,’ ‘we deserve equal protection under the law,’ and ‘we’re not harming anybody’—also supports group marriage.
The Massachusetts town of Somerville has become the first in the nation to legalize polyamorous relationships. It’s evidence of the slippery slope social conservatives warned would follow legalizing gay marriage.
Polygamy was the obvious evolution of redefining marriage. After all, every argumentsupporting gay marriage—“Love is love,” “we deserve equal protection under the law,” and “we’re not harming anybody”—also supports group marriage.
Somerville’s legal recognition of polyamory came about on June 25 while the city council was changing its domestic partnership application to a gender-neutral form. When Somerville council member Lance Davis was challenged over why the form was limited to two applicants, he replied, “I don’t have a good answer.”
Indeed, if we are going to ignore the fundamental, dual-sex form marriage has employed for millennia, there is no good answer to why government-sanctioned adult relationships should be limited to two adults. That is, unless we consider the rights of children to be known and loved by the only two adults to whom they have a natural right—their mother and father.
Yet, according to the prevailing view of marriage, endorsed by the Supreme Court’s ruling mandating gay marriage in 2015, marriage has nothing to do with children. These days, marriage is simply a vehicle for adult fulfillment.
By such reasoning, there is no limiting principle for the sex, number, duration, or exclusivity of a marriage relationship. While the same cannot be said of the children resulting from their unions, plenty of adults feel fulfilled by short term, single-gendered, non-exclusive, or multi-partnered relationships. SCOTUS was indifferent to the needs of the children in their 2015 decision, and Somerville is following suit.
The Republican Party’s founding platform sought to abolish what they referred to as “the twin pillars of barbarisms,” slavery and polygamy. Republicans were successful in legally eradicating both: slavery in 1865, and polygamy in 1890, but pockets of polygamy persisted, especially within the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) church.
A woman who was raised in one such FLDS home until her mother left with her five children— we’ll call her “Cheryl”—noted of the Somerville decision, “I do not think that governments should legalize polygamist homes because they are generally abusive and harmful to children and women within them.”
While she concedes there are “polygamist families who function quite well,” the families she was exposed to were “almost always education deprived, low on resources and food, isolated from mainstream society, abusive, and perpetuated pedophilia.” She added that while the women in the home shared the workload, the children’s emotional needs would often go unmet.
Cheryl isn’t the only child to reject a polygamous life after growing up with parents who had several concurrent partners. Story after story after story of children who have abandoned the polygamous world of their youth has surfaced in the last few years. They often report power imbalances and jealousy among the wives, and inequality among the children.
Leftists proclaim, “But there’s a difference between polygamy and polyamory!” Right. Just like “pure socialism has never been tried.”
Progressives posit polygamy and polyamory are “vastly different.” They decry polygamy, in which typically one man has several wives, as oppressive and patriarchal, while the amorphous “polyamory” is consensual and liberating, even for the kids.
Amy Grappell, one such child of a poly relationship, would disagree. In Amy’s youth, her parents began spouse-swapping with the neighbors. In today’s terms, Amy was subjected to polyamory, or “ethical non-monogamy,” and it was no picnic.
In her documentary detailing her parents’ “Quadrangle,” Amy discloses how more adults in her home did not result in more parental love. Rather, the household dynamics centered on adult sexual desire, and the jealousy and competitiveness between the women was a constant.
Amy felt abandoned by her parents, and describes her feelings as “the enemy of their utopia.” The emotional and psychological fall-out from her parents’ sexual experiment has plagued Amy into her adult life.
James Lopez, who was also raised in a “modern” poly home, rejects the idea that polyamory just means a larger family for kids. “The problem is that children in homes with extended family members do not ever see those members kiss either their mom or dad, as is the case in poly homes. I didn’t like seeing my dad show affection to another woman, especially to a woman who wasn’t my biological mother. Those images still lurk in the back of my mind today. And they don’t bring a sense of ‘family’ to me.”
James believes that, “Instead of promoting poly-ships, our political institutions should revive the ideas that fatherhood matters, that motherhood matters because both are essential for the flourishing of children.”
There are very few reliable studies on outcomes for children raised in poly homes, but we don’t really need them. We already have a mountain of data on family structure that shows the presence of non-biological adults does not improve outcomes for kids, no matter what type of relationship exists between the adults.
Conversely, the data invariably proves that children fare best in the home of their married biological mother and father. Throughout nearly every religion and culture in history, heterosexual marriage has been to be the tool society used to encourage that child-centric union.
The officials in Somerville mistakenly believe embracing this “progressive” policy indicates they are making progress when, in fact, their new statute is a regression that sets society back by 130 years and comes at children’s expense.
As we ponder our suddenly isolated lives, we begin searching for some benefits which may come from it all – besides, of course, the major value if we escape catching a very unpleasant disease. Some things are happening which can easily become a trend. The most obvious is the notable increase in online shopping. This was already a trend, but it may be significantly accelerated by this crisis, as a whole new population tries shopping online for the first time. The same is true of home delivery, which is a major requirement of home shopping. What is happening now, however, is the sudden spread of delivery services for restaurants and grocery stores, which started, to be sure, before this pandemic was even thought of. Nevertheless, we are seeing a major up-tick in food delivery services.
The same can be said of distance education. Never in a hundred years would public schools have participated in the development and internet delivery of K-12 schooling on a voluntary basis. The “shelter-in-place” along with the closing of so many schools has forced their hand. Once they have experience with teacher-assisted home schooling, however, they may take steps in that direction, certainly urged on by parents, especially in rural and inner city areas. It reminds us of the grand ideas of the early pioneers of educational TV who had the same idea. While they had limited success with classroom based television, it was not enough to impact the roles and structure of the school. It will be interesting to see whether this crisis ends up affecting real changes.
Working from home is a similar example. Futurist Alvin Toffler wrote in his 1970 book, Future Shock, that the time would come when electronically-enabled communication would lead to work-from-home employment on such a scale that it would eventually lead to solving the problems of overpopulation in the major cities. People would have the preference of living wherever they wished, which, he predicted, would often be smaller towns, cities, and farms – and that was before the internet! In the fifty years since, the technology has appeared and so has work-from-home, though not to the extent of lessening the population of cities. Perhaps the combination of the “green movement” and the pandemic will move Toffler’s vision along toward fulfillment.
Speaking of overpopulation of cities, what is the major complaint of city-dwellers? In most of urban America, the most frequent complaint is the traffic and the difficulty of getting from place to place. One effect of this concentration of commerce is the continually escalating cost of housing. The costs of housing gradually displace workers from housing altogether and causes the homeless problems that are found in many large cities. Certainly, Toffler’s solution would alleviate the problems as well as decrease CO2 emissions that the climate movement is so worried about. A lot of people are experiencing work-from-home for the first time, as are managers and business owners. There may be some changes made.
Needles to say, the cost of living in many US areas acts as a constant pressure affecting many social trends. For example, the high cost of living necessitates many families’ need to have two wage earners in any family, especially those with children. Parents who might prefer staying home to be firsthand observers of their children’s growing up do not have that choice. Non-farmer fathers had to give up that privilege centuries ago, mothers for the past 50 years or so. An employment situation which radically reduced the need to work in an office or factory would allow employees to choose places to live with substantially lower cost of living and therefore offer more personal choices of lifestyle and how to spend their time.
One impact of a work-from-home economy would involve a wider use of the technologies which already exist, which in turn would spur an even greater round of innovation and discovery. Home productivity might even divert some of our greatest talent away from t=weapons and into education, medicine and other peaceful pursuits. Free time also is a great stimulant to creativity. Wouldn’t it be great to spend our commuter time on something more productive, maybe even fun?
Then there is the whole idea of community. So much of people’s lives today is spent in self-imposed isolation. For example, it is now an American custom for adult children to “leave the nest”, frequently to live alone, some for the rest of their lives. Gone are the times when large families lived under one roof for a large portion of their lives. Traditionally, Americans have viewed separation from parents as a need for personal freedom — from domineering parents, usually. But “it ain’t necessarily so”, as the song says. In other cultures, multi-generational households have survived and thrived. Loneliness, the scourge of modern times, is one problem they didn’t have. How many of the “Lone Killer” headlines have we seen in recent years?
Already, the “shelter-in-place” requirement is opening people to re-discover neighbors. Stories are beginning to surface of new relationships and alliances forming among friends, family and strangers. If, as a matter of course, we had more leisure time, perhaps we could spend some of it closer to home and come to appreciate the opportunities which surround us. In our current lifestyle, what is the most precious thing we have? That we never have enough of? The answer many people give to this question is “time”. We have been taught to work hard and long. “The last one to leave” the office or the shop is looked upon with admiration. Maybe that would and should change as we move more and more into a digital age.
It is true that technology has revolutionized communications. But perhaps the next wave will concentrate more on meaningful technologies for person-to-person interaction. Those technologies already exist – the videophone, Zoom and Skype and others – but to date they have not truly penetrated the consumer market. That may change.
In fact, this current forced quasi-imprisonment may contribute to a lot of changes – some perhaps of major benefit to us all!
I am here today because I believe the public policy status quo in Washington – and in particular, within the Republican Party – must once again be challenged and transformed. The focus of my remarks will be the new tax reform proposal I will soon be introducing in the Senate.
But before I get into the specifics of the legislation, I think it’s important to explain the problem it has been designed to solve.
On this Constitution Day, allow me to begin with thoughts from perhaps the two most important constitutionalists in American history. The first, from James Madison, is that the “object of government,” is “the happiness of the people.” The second, from Abraham Lincoln, is that the role of government is: “…to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.” Continue reading