This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue Columbia Magazine, page 25. Kevin DiCamillo is a freelance writer and editor in northern New Jersey, and is a member of the Don Bosco Knights of Columbus Council 4960 in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Seeking to adopt a child following medical difficulties, a Knights of Columbus couple received an unexpected gift.
After my wife, Alicia, and I were married, we were looking forward to welcoming the children that God would send to our family. Yet we never expected the challenges that we confronted when I was diagnosed with cancer. Following surgery and months of radiation, doctors told us that we would not be able to conceive. Amid the heartbreak, we began to explore adoption.
We checked out private agencies for domestic and foreign adoption, but chose a more affordable option close to home: the New Jersey state adoption agency. After spending thousands of dollars on my cancer treatments, this seemed like the most sensible path. As with most things in life, there were good and bad aspects, and in the end, we received a surprise that only God could have arranged.
Much of parenting, then, comes down to the example we set. But there is a deeper lesson to be learned from children, and that is the way of our own spiritual advancement.
Many times, we overcomplicate the spiritual life. We want a sophisticated program, involving perhaps copious study of theology and philosophy. We want to pray many prayers and read many books. But while these things are well and good in their place, they are not the essence of spiritual growth. In reality, the program of spiritual progress is very simple: It is carefully imitating God our Father with childlike simplicity.
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children,” teaches St. Paul, for indeed, that is what we are—children of God. In a very real sense, we can call God, “Abba, Daddy.” By the grace of the Holy Spirit, we share his nature, the fullness of his life lives in our souls. And as his beloved sons and daughters, we should aspire to say, “I’m just like you, Daddy.”
The proud in heart reject this simple way of childlike imitation. They see the spiritual life as involving many complex and difficult requirements, as a way for only the strong, mature, and knowledgeable. They have nothing but scorn for those who follow Christ in simplicity. They forget the words of Christ, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
When my little boy looks up with me and says, “I’m just like you, Daddy,” my heart is filled with love and joy. I want him to be like me. What father doesn’t? So to it is with the family of God. God our Father longs for us to be just like him, to radiate his image fully and completely. His fatherly heart greatly desires us to look up at him with love and say, “I’m just like you, Daddy.”
In sum, the Christian life, the Catholic life, is striving after conformity to Jesus Christ, our elder brother in the Divine family. We want to exchange our lives for his, to the point that he lives perfectly in and through us. We must imitate him in every thought, word, and deed, until we can say like St. Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”
I don’t like being interrupted during “me time.” Unfortunately, sacrificing “me time” is part of the covenant when I said, “I do.” By the grace of the Holy Spirit, I find myself being happy instead of frustrated. Please witness:
I’m engrossed in a short biography of Larry Page from the Business Insider. I’m sitting in our oversized, super-cushioned rocking chair and the lighting is soft and relaxing. The house is quiet. I thought my wife and daughters were asleep and it was only 8:30pm. I was going to enjoy a lot of “me time” tonight!
Then my wife storms out of our bedroom. She throws down the Ergo Baby carrier like a gauntlet and Hana slides down her leg and onto the floor. My wife isn’t mad at me, but she’s frustrated that Hana isn’t falling asleep. It’s my turn.
Hana runs to me with a squeal of joy. Her big, round eyes hide behind wispy long black hair. Hana’s pink jammies are all bunched up on her chunky baby legs. I chuckle and smile at her, put away the article, and pick her up just as she hugs my leg.
If I was a man without the Holy Spirit, I would not find joy in this interruption. I would have been slightly irritated that my wife was unsuccessful in putting Hana to sleep. I would have resented the need to put both our daughters to sleep for the past few evenings. I suffered a screaming shower session and would just like a little time to unwind.
Thanks to the Holy Spirit, those thoughts didn’t even cross my mind. Actually, I had to force myself to think that way just now in order to draw a contrast. I’m a changed man because of continual conversion into Christ. The fruit of my faith can be seen in the joy, patience and charity I experience instead of the anger, impatience and “counting the cost” that the old me would have done.
Hana snuggles the side of her face against my chest as I carry her. When I change her into a fresh diaper, I have to tell her to not laugh or talk because big sister is sleeping. I pick her up and kiss her for the hundredth time that day and then strap her onto my chest with the Ergo Baby. I can see the anticipation of my baby daughter’s eyes as the plastic “click, click” of the buckles lock around my waste and shoulders. After turning off the lights around the house, we walk to the kitchen. I turn on the stove-oven ventilator to create the magical white noise. Hana clonks her head against my chest, like she was hypnotized. I pace back and forth as she starts to relax. Hana stretches out her small hands and absent-mindedly caresses the stubble on my chin. From the broken pale light streaming in across from our neighbor’s porch, I could see that Hana’s eyes were drooping. I kiss her forehead and stroke the bridge of her nose with my thumb. Hana can resist no longer: her hand goes limp against my stubbly chin.
I often wondered why the Gospel writers left so much of Jesus’ childhood and teenage years to the imagination. Folks called this the “hidden life” of Jesus. Being a father, I questioned why God didn’t give more guidance on how to imitate the Holy Family. How did Joseph and Mary deal with a whining toddler? How did they counsel other parents who had rebellious teenagers, even if the teenage Jesus was obedient?
These moments I have with Maya and Hana give me such profound joy. It is a kind of joy that escapes description. It’s fleeting and easy to miss if I worshipped money, fame, power or beauty instead of God. As it is, I’m blessed. Dozens of moments like these happen in the course of a full day with my children. I can’t remember them all, but I trust that Heaven is recording them even if I don’t have the camera on my smartphone ready. I may forget these small moments, but they all add up to this emotion, this absolute certainty of love. What I feel towards my children is merely a shadow of what God feels for me. I cannot touch, see, hear or measure this love I have for my daughters, but I’m experiencing it. So, it’s true. I cannot touch, see, hear or measure the love that God has for me, but with eyes of faith, I see. So, it’s true.
My love is only a shadow of God’s love. This fact compels me to love even more. It is the only natural response to someone who loves you this much. It’s not easy to go from loving just your daughters to loving even the people who persecute you. Yet, if the Holy Spirit can convert me from a man who loves his “me time” to a father who can give it up without even a second thought, then I trust He can convert me as I grow into Christ even more. As I live out the hidden life of Jesus in my own family, grow in my belief of the Eucharist and progress in my prayer life, I am drawn deeper into Christ.
My eldest daughter, Maya, is the guinea pig for our different parenting styles. Our bedtime routine for her is a good example of that difference. I would classify my wife’s style as “obedience out of fear.” I generously call mine “obedience out of love;” whether it’s truly love or just plain spoiling the child is something my wife contends.
For many months, I’ve been responsible for putting Maya to bed. The routine after dinner is simple: take a bath, drink 8-oz of milk, read 2 to 3 books, brush teeth, read 2 to 3 more books, pray and then get tucked-in by 8:30pm or so. Maya also has two 8-oz bottles of water on her nightstand that she would ask me to refill before she even finishes with one of them.
Not surprisingly, Maya needs to potty three to five times before finally falling to sleep. This means she’s not sleeping until 9:30 or 10pm on some nights. Often, around 2am or 4am, she would wet her pull-up diapers completely, cry, and ask me to change her into a new one.
I do all of this without complaining. I admit it’s a bit inconvenient for me. Occasionally I put my foot down (i.e. refusing to tuck her in three times in one night), but I usually do everything she asks because it’s our idiosyncratic bedtime routine. I know that this behavior will eventually pass and all of it would make a great story when she’s older. Also, quite simply, love means self-sacrifice — giving up my preferences for the benefit of another.
When I went on a week-long business trip several weeks ago, my wife had to put Maya to sleep. She was surprised by how spoiled Maya was. Since she also had to take care of Hana, our youngest, at the same time, my wife changed the routine to accommodate the extra burden. No water refills. Change your own pull-up diaper. Go potty only once or twice. And, no tucking in. Maya, of course, threw a tantrum, and my wife would threaten to close her bedroom door completely — an act that Maya sees as heavy punishment.
Coming home, my wife still wanted to put Maya to sleep because she had to “re-train” her. So, every night was a scream-fest with Maya and mommy. While I agreed with my wife that we should ween Maya off from her peculiar bedtime requests, I disagreed with her use of tactics that we usually employed only as a last resort. I also threaten to close her bedroom door for time-out, but only for major infractions (i.e. repeated rudeness, throwing a hysterical tantrum, etc.) Most of all, I disagree with my wife’s tone when reprimanding Maya.
Don’t get me wrong, my wife is a sweet woman. So, even her deeply disapproving reprimands are like lovely feminine frowns. She’s exhausted and needs to tap me in, like a wrestler in a tag-team match. Yet my wife insists on staying in the ring. Her willpower to resist Maya’s demands only gets stronger the louder our daughter screams. I love my wife for devising punishments Maya fears that doesn’t involve spanking. They’re effective and I use them, too. But, a parent’s threats to induce fear will need to get more severe as the child grows older. Sure, right now, Maya fears time-out with her door closed. She’s only two, now. What happens when she’s nine? Or fourteen-years old? We need to use the heavy punishments sparingly.
I take a different approach, normally. I want Maya to love me so much that it is my absence that she fears. She usually complies with what I want her to do if I threaten to walk away. My nuclear option is mommy, as in, “Okay, mommy will [feed you/give you a bath/brush your teeth, etc.]” Yes, I realize it’s unfair to leverage my own wife this way. It’s ironic, though: throughout history mothers would threaten their children with “Wait until your father gets home.” Maya would probably shout, “Yay!”
When my wife and I are calmly talking about our different parenting styles, I point out how her “obedience out of fear” is like how the Church gets people to behave and my “obedience out of love” is like how our Heavenly Father gets us to behave. This is the Father that Jesus reveals, of course. The God in the Old Testament is pretty scary at times. It’s from the Father that Jesus reveals that I take my parenting cues. I don’t spoil my children; I am merciful as Our Heavenly Father is merciful. Doing God’s will out of fear leads to resentment, like the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In my spiritual life, I seek to love God so much that I want to do His will as a loving response. So, my Father is to me, I am to my children.
I observe that this “obedience out of love” is incredibly inconvenient for me. I need more patience compared to the fear method. Sometimes it doesn’t work and Maya still disobeys. This is no different than God’s experience. Torture and death on the Cross is pretty inconvenient. We still disobey quite often despite God’s infinite love for us.
I’ve come to conclude that both obedience out of fear and out of love have a place in parenting, just like we need the Church’s doctrine and God’s mercy in our spiritual life. My wife may be harsh at times, but just like how the Church’s moral prescriptions may be harsh, they’re good for us. She may be too strict, but they will always find mercy from me. The Church’s doctrine may be too strict, but God’s mercy is greater. Our children’s first experience of God will be through us. Mommy’s discipline and Daddy’s forgiveness will build their character. The Church’s discipline and God’s mercy will build their spirit.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the writing style and narrative choices Richard Rohr makes in his book, “From Wild Man to Wise Man,” can easily cause us to miss the main message of his book. I hope to draw out the main points in this summary for the first nine chapters:
Just as both man and woman are images of God, the human spiritual journey can be described as both male and female. In general, women are more in touch with their spiritual side, a spirituality that can be described as “feminine.” Men, in general, have not developed a “male” spirituality that would help them on their unique journey.
Part of the reason why men have not developed their own spirituality is because we live in a broken world. In general, this broken world is an addictive system created by men, initially, to keep men in worldly power. However, as power democratized, the very measures of success that keep men prisoners of the system are also keeping “successful” women and minorities prisoners.
A unique quality of male spirituality is initiation: “Male initiation always has to do with hardness, limit situations, difficulty, struggle and usually a respectful confrontation with the non-rational, the unconscious or, if you will, the wild. It prepares the young man to deal with life in other ways than logic, managing, controlling and problem solving. Frankly, it prepares him for the confrontation with the Spirit.” This has a biblical tie to Gen 32:24-26 where Jacob wrestles with the Angel and gets a wounded hip.
The male spiritual journey “feels too much like dying in its early stages, and most people are not well trained in dying. Initiation is always training in dying.” In the male spiritual journey, the young man goes from simple to complex consciousness and then through a door to enlightenment. “That door is usually some form of suffering — physical, relational, emotional, intellectual, structural… Initiation always taught the young men to die before he died, and then he would begin to live.” Once there, enlightenment deceptively appears a lot like simple consciousness. “If you have once faced the great death, the second death can do you no harm.” — Saint Francis of Assisi
A man typically needs an elder man who can lead him through his journey. The male initiator “was never your biological father because that relationship was both too complex and had to be maintained as nurturing.” John the Baptist, for example, was the initiator for Christ’s public ministry. Saint Paul is a good example of how to be a master teacher, male initiator. He shows young men how to face the great death. We need more elder men to help initiate young men through their spiritual journey.
The men’s prayer group that I’m a part of finished “Prodigal God,” by Tim Keller and is now reading “From Wild Man to Wise Man,” by Richard Rohr. The switch from a Protestant theological book to a Catholic pastoral book has its challenges, but I think the Holy Spirit is with us. My discernment could be wrong, but I see an emerging “picture” of what the Holy Spirit is trying to teach us.
From “Prodigal God,” we were shaken from our comfort zones. It made us see that we were the “elder brothers” in the parable, comfortable in our faith, secure in our own righteousness. We realized that “if [we] have not grasped the gospel fully and deeply, [we] will return to being condescending, condemning, anxious, insecure, joyless, and angry all the time” (Chapter 4, page 70). We learned from Tim Keller that the parable of the prodigal son was not primarily to assure “younger brothers” of God’s unconditional love. It was a warning to moral insiders: “we must also repent of the reasons we ever did anything right” (Chapter 5, page 78). The true elder brother is Christ. We need to go through our own crucifixion, die to our self so that Christ can work through us. Then, we can answer the question, “Well, who should have gone out and searched for the lost son?” (page 80); the answer would be “Christ through me.”
Keller’s book left us asking for more. How can we become more like Christ? How can we die to our self and let Him live through us? The Holy Spirit helped us vote for Richard Rohr’s book.
While nearly everyone in the men’s group only has negative things to say about Rohr’s book, we all agree that the conversation is very enlightening. Again, I could be wrong, but I think that’s a sign that the Holy Spirit is with us. How can so much disagreement be productive? How can so many men’s egos be kept in check if not for the Holy Spirit giving us the grace to be humble? It’s Emmanuel, “God is with us.”
Putting aside the poor writing style and weak Scriptural references, “From Wild Man to Wise Man” is already leading us on the male spiritual journey it purports to do. Just this past Saturday, I woke up at 4:30 in the morning with a personal revelation about my journey. Another man in the group is currently a lot closer to God because the Holy Spirit is making him face a mental anguish that he would rather avoid. The first ten chapters of the book led our rag-tag group of men to a precipice. Whether we decide to jump and experience the frightening fall to self-awareness is our choice. But it’s certainly exciting to see the Holy Spirit working among us!
The following advice has been blogged about by various people. I haven’t been able to find the original source. So, if you happen to know, please comment and let me know.
The story allegedly comes from Muhammad Ali‘s daughter, Hana, a name that also happens to belong to my youngest daughter as well. Ali’s daughter visited him one day, but was dressed indecently. The story continues:
When we finally arrived, the chauffeur escorted my younger sister, Laila, and me up to my father’s suite. As usual, he was hiding behind the door waiting to scare us. We exchanged many hugs and kisses as we could possibly give in one day.
My father took a good look at us. Then he sat me down on his lap and said something that I will never forget. He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Hana, everything that God made valuable in the world is covered and hard to get to. Where do you find diamonds? Deep down in the ground, covered and protected. Where do you find pearls? Deep down at the bottom of the ocean, covered up and protected in a beautiful shell. Where do you find gold? Way down in the mine, covered over with layers and layers of rock. You’ve got to work hard to get to them.”
He looked at me with serious eyes. “Your body is sacred. You’re far more precious than diamonds and pearls, and you should be covered too.”
My wife found this hilarious YouTube video that took the classical symphonic piece Carmina Burana and changed the lyrics. There was a contest for the new lyrics and a father, Matthew Hodge, won with his entry. Being parents ourselves, my wife and I really appreciated this:
An old friend found my reflection about gay marriage and Satan ridiculous and challenged me to consider what I would do if I found out my children were gay. My eldest daughter is now two years old and the other is just four months. I have about six years or so before their sexual awareness. So, I have time.
Nevertheless, it’s a very good question to explore, now.
Same-sex attraction is as natural as concupiscence. It doesn’t make them bad people just as my tendency towards sexual immorality doesn’t make me a bad person. We’re just broken in different ways. What will bother me the most is the vitriol thrown at homosexuals by self-righteous people.
Moral insiders often do not treat homosexuals with human dignity; I’d be even more sensitive to that if my girls were gay. I think it is an injustice, the way we moral insiders treat moral outsiders. I’ve been reflecting on the Parable of the Prodigal Son. As the elder brothers, we should be going out to find our wayward younger brothers who are squandering our Father’s inheritance. We should not be brooding in our Father’s house, objecting to His mercy.
My girls, if they are imperfect, need to be confident of my love for them – just as I am confident of Our Heavenly Father’s love for me, as imperfect as I am. They need to understand the true meaning of free will, and the reality of God’s prodigal mercy. Our goal in life is to become the best-version-of-ourselves. If my girls discover that they are gay, then my job as their father is to help them become the best version of themselves, despite the heaviness of that Cross. I am to be like Simon of Cyrene and help them carry their burden, not like the Pharisees who are ready to cast the first stone.
Maya drinks a bottle of milk and then a bottle of water or two before bed. So, she needs to go to the bathroom three to five times before falling asleep. My wife finds going potty that many times is excessive and that Maya is merely trying to avoid sleep. When Maya sneaks out of her room and finds mommy, she cries while being told “it’s the last time.” When she finds daddy, she gives a sheepish grin, takes his hand and skips to the bathroom.
Maya learns discipline from mommy, forgiveness from daddy (what Anne Marie terms “spoiling.”) In matters of the Spirit, our Mother Church teaches me what is right and wrong, and our Heavenly Father teaches me about His abundant mercy. Our home is our daughters’ first experience of the Trinity; if they cannot be accepted in our family for being gay, then we would have failed as parents to live out the Gospel message of love.
My love as a parent, though, doesn’t give me the right to define what is moral. If my daughters choose to live a sinful life, then I will continue to love and bless them as God even now continues to love and bless me in my broken, sinful state. How is their father any better as a Christian, any less of a sinner? How is their sexual sin any worse than mine? The sun will continue to shine on them as it does on me.
If they insist on gay marriage and children from that marriage, I will tell them that this is not what God wants. There will be consequences, but I will be there for them. I will continue to love, pray, fast and sacrifice myself for their sake. I will care for their spouse, when she is sick. I will babysit and cook for them so that they can have a break. I will love them and the new community they’ll bring into my life, even though they are living a life of sin because God loves me even though I myself live a life of sin. How can I do any less than my own Father? Christ surrounded himself with moral outcasts and gave them hope. Perhaps I am called to do the same with the help of my daughters?
Being a Christ-like example of love and mercy may not be enough to inspire my children to a life of conversion. They may harden their hearts against any religious message because it contradicts the life they’ve chosen. If that’s the case, then I will offer up my own life in exchange for their immortal souls. There will be consequences to their actions, but I will pay those consequences myself if, in the end, they do not repent. For God so loved the world that He gave up His only son for the expiation of their sins. For I so love my daughters, I will give up my life for them. What will my Passion be? That’s for God to decide. In the meantime, fatherhood is a training ground for that ultimate sacrifice.
So, to answer my friend’s challenge, while I cannot change God’s definition of marriage, I am willing to pay the price for His forgiveness of their sins.
Hana Therese Chiang was born on a rainy evening, November 29th, 2012. We barely made it to the Methodist Hospital in time; my wife already felt the need to push as we went down the elevator to Labor & Delivery. All told, we were in the hospital less than 30 minutes when our second child came into the world.
We didn’t intend to cut it so close. We wanted to put our two-year old, Maya Elise, to sleep at my parents’ home before going to the hospital. Maya wouldn’t fall asleep even after an hour. We could hear her voice faintly in the cool and calm evening, screaming abandonment at our sudden departure. I wiped the sad raindrops from our windshield as we left Maya with my parents.
We should’ve gone immediately to the hospital after Maya’s dinner and bath. The contractions were getting closer, but still manageable at that point. Had we done so, the hospital staff would have had time to get my wife a proper bed, prepared her with an IV solution in her arm, filled out the standard intake forms and Dr. Morrison would not have already gone home for the evening.
As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. There was no sense in beating ourselves up. The contractions were doing a fine job of that already. Our immediate task was to divert attention away from the pain with breathing and visualizations. Think happy thoughts.
It’s not exactly hypnosis, but I don’t know how else to describe it. I didn’t use a gold watch and ask my wife to follow it with her eyes as I swung it back and forth. I did use my most calm and soothing voice and insist that she look at me and breathe with me. “Take a deep breath and moan when you exhale,” I’d say. The contractions were hitting her hard while we were on the road. My wife was getting nervous. “We’re almost there, sweetheart — breathe with me!” Her sweaty hands clenched mine tightly as I drove the wet roads with my other hand. “Don’t worry, my love, we’re still an hour away from active labor.” That, of course, turned out not to be true.
The nurses were scrambling for a bed and equipment while I tried to keep her from pushing. My wife dropped to her knees in pain. She held onto my hands, but gave me a look of fear. “I want to push!”
One of the nurses stopped what she was doing, “Don’t push, dear, the doctor’s not here, yet!”
“Deep breath… Moan! Uhhhhhhh!” I moaned right alongside her. “Relax… Deep breath… don’t push, relax the muscles — moan, uhhhhhhh!”
The water broke. The nurses came into the room with a delivery bed and my wife immodestly ripped off her clothes and slipped into the hospital gown.
“There’s myconium,” a nurse said as she checked my wife’s labor. I looked between my wife’s legs: yes, that looks like baby poo to me, too. This means fetal distress and usually calls for a C-section. Fortunately, we were too far along active labor for that. There was a real emergency, though, because Hana could end up breathing the myconium into her lungs. The nurse will stick a tube down Hana’s throat, suck out the afterbirth, and check to see if there’s any signs of myconium in the lungs.
“Where’s Dr. Morrison?” My wife a asked.
“He’s on his a way,” replied a nurse.
“Should we get the epidural?” she asked me. Her brow was already covered with huge drops of sweat.
“Dr. Morrison is almost here,” I replied. “Only a few more minutes. The epidural will delay for an hour or more.” My wife nodded in agreement. The need to push came again.
My wife is literally a hero. Courage, endurance and patience against an onslaught of pain. Between each contraction, I tried to focus her on breathing, relaxing and preparing for the next wave. I described visuals of Guam, Hawaii, and Moganshan. I reassured her that Hana was okay.
Her eyes would bulge as she stared into mine. I smiled, “You’re doing great! I’m so proud of you. You’re amazing! Breathe with me — deep breath, uhhhhh!” We kept that up for over 20 minutes.
When the doctor finally arrived, my wife only needed a few pushes and Hana was out. We didn’t need to push with Maya. The doctor we had then, Dr. Fong, insisted that we not push and let the uterus do the pushing. Perhaps there was more of an urgency this time because of signs of fetal distress. The pushing caused a bit of tearing. Hana was also bigger than Maya at birth: 7lbs, 6oz compared to 5lbs, 3oz.
Hana latched on quickly. I was back at my parents’ home before midnight to put Maya to sleep.