US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Offers unexpected gifts

By Wendy M.Wright | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

I had never thought about it in quite that way. Never thought about parenting as a "charism." A calling perhaps. An undertaking of immense spiritual significance, certainly. But not a charism-a spirit-filled gift given for the enhancement of the wholec hurch. Not until I was asked to address the topic publicly. Then my instinctive response was, "If parenting is a charism, I'm pretty sure I don't possess it. Three children I have, a gift for parenting, I don't."

What could it really mean, I asked myself, to speak of parenting as a charism?

Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, chapters 12 through 14, describes the marvelously diverse gifts of the Holy Spirit that are poured out on all within the Body of Christ. Powerful, transformative energies, the gifts are given not for individual enhancement or prestige but for the building up of the whole Body of Christ. They come irrespective of life circumstances, occupation, institutional role, gender, class, or ethnicity. And their power, if it is not to be divisive, must be exercised under the aegis of the greatest gift of all: love.

In common parlance we speak of notable leaders as "charismatic." We recognize religious orders bytheir specific "charisms," their special spirit or the work thatd efines them. We say the Franciscans are called to the charism of poverty or the School Sisters of Notre Dame to the charism of teaching.

And we acknowledge the individual charisms-the gifts-that each one of us brings to the wider community.

But what of parenting?

I have come to see the spiritual gift of parenting as a distinctive form of love, which is itself the greatest of the charisms poured out by the Spirit. I see it as a generative form of love: sent for the nurturance and raising up of the new generation; sent for the spring-greening of the community, for the unfolding of new life. Sent for the judicious preservation of past wisdom, the conservation of the soil out of which new life grows. It is a charism exercised by the mature, the mothers and the fathers, so that the fullness of God's promises might continue to germinate in the Body of Christ.

I judge that the gratuitous charism of parenting may be bestowed on anyone within the Christian community who is called to do this essential nurturing work. It might be discovered among religious educators, high- school or grade-school teachers, among bishops or members of sodalities, among spiritual directors or parish-council presidents, among laity who attend weekly Bible study or clergy who work among the poor, among grandmothers or youth who parent those younger than themselves. The charisms are poured out lavishly, coming through diverse members, given to the church to nurture and raise up the next generation, through the wisdom of the Spirit, when and where needed and to whomever the Spirit chooses.

At the same time, I contend that the distilled experience of parental love is to be found and cultivated most explicitly among those who raise children. We must look to the actual experience of parents to truly understand the charism. The Spirit's varied expressions are never generic, but concrete, embodied, and particular. The charism of parenting is not an abstract ideal to aspire to but a lived reality, an encounter with the animating life of God.


To have and to hold

Not all people who parent, however, would seem to "have" the charism in its fullness. Instead, the charism might be said to be given as potential gift to those who actually raise children. Seen in this way, parenting is a Spirit-filled experience that invites growth. The experience of being a parent, as lived day to day, can provide opportunities for the heart to stretch and contour to the shape of this mature, generative love.

The capacity for such alove cannot be seen as the exclusive possession of the two-parenthousehold. Single parents, stepparents, extended-family members, or others who parent may exercise the charism as authentically as a biological or adoptive mother-and-father couple.

I would also describe parentallove as a powerful love that involves a certain intense mutuality between parent and child yet is not characterized by equality.Parents and their children are bound together in intimate ties that span a lifetime and connect them at depths of which they are often only dimly aware. And they love one another differently. Deeply, yes,but differently. A parent "holds" a child in a way that a child does not a parent. In the womb, in arms, in the heart, in memory, in hope,a parent holds the story of the child's earliest beginnings, all the steps along the way, all the promise of the future.

This is a unique way to love.As we cultivate in our hearts the capacity for such a love, we live into the great dignity and hope for which we were created. We live into our identity as creatures created in the image and likeness of the God of Love.

Parenting as a form of love-the greatest charism of them all-has specific characteristics.While I certainly do not pretend that I can name them all, I canattempt here to name a few of the most salient. I do this by drawing upon my own experience as a parent as well as upon the experience that many other parents have shared with me. The characteristics I explore are these: the capacity to welcome and let go, the capacity for flexibility, for discernment, for empowerment, and for reconciliation.

1. The welcoming way

These parental experiences are not simply a matter of theory, they are matters of the heart. They are experiences evoked most keenly through the medium of story.

Boston, 1985. I sit on the edge of my son's bed. His face is smooth with sleep. The glow of the night-light stands vigil against the "monsters" that he worries lurk beneath his changing table. In the warm dark of the room, the two rhythms of our breathing punctuate the silence. As I stand up tol eave, I feel my heart, utterly self-contained a moment before, pulled out of my breast, stretched to span the widening distance between us. A presence, palpable in its intensity, connects us. Before he was born, I did not know how I could ever let him in. Now that I have, I don't know how I will ever let him go.

Any parent knows what it means to welcome a child. The entry of new life does not call for a polite if celebrative ritual and then a return to business as usual. Nor does it mean that you just schedule this person into your established routine like an appointment or meeting. You don't make a little space in your day or share a little concern and then wish an infant good speed. To welcome a child is to accept responsibility for another person 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for a good many years. Ultimately, it is to welcome the unfolding mystery of an entire lifetime's joys and pains as your own.

To welcome a child is to give priority to the unpredictability of another life, to tend it in sickness, no matter what you had otherwise planned, to allow your plans and dreams to be altered, even set aside, because of another's need. To welcome a child is to learn to think and speak in response to a different and constantly changing world view, to be outside of your own frame of reference. It is to learn patience and judgment and be confronted with your own very real and here to fore untested limitations. To welcome a child is to recognize the surprising expansiveness of your own capacity to love and to confront the shattering truth of your own violence and self-centeredness.

To welcome a child is to havey our heart stretched, made capable of loving in a new and unrepeatable way. To love in this way is quite different from the love elicited by a beloved, a spouse, or a friend. Each of thesel oves too has its heart-stretching capacity, but they tend more to equality and mutuality, to the alignment of interest and point of view. They involve companionship, partnership, and the convergence of experiences.

A parent's love is different.It opens places in the heart that have never been exposed before. It awakens inexpressible tenderness, an awareness of the extraordinary beauty and terrifying fragility of human life. It calls forth hope,an almost giddy consciousness of the promise of what might be.

To watch each child unfold the mysterious uniqueness of his or her life is to have your deepest longings called forth. One need only be in a room full of parents as they witness their children's First Communion or sing at the Christmas pageant with the kindergarten class to sense how deeply, how poignantly, the hope flows. Yet to see how little by little the wonder of each life is stunted, crippled, or wounded by bitter encounters with the harshness of social realities, by illness and accident, by inborn limitations, is to risk the loss of hope. To welcome a child is to have the doors of the heart flung wide open to embrace the fullness of life, both at its sweetest and at its most bitter. To love with the welcoming embrace of a parent stretches to the furthest extent the contours of the heart.

2. Let go and let God

The twin capacity ofa parent's wide-opened,welcoming heart is the capacity to let go. Letting go does not consist of ceasing to love or detaching oneself from the affection one feels, but in loving more. Letting go involves radical faith. It means entrusting what you most love to the expansive care and protection of God. By this I do not mean that if you pray hard enough God will keep all the awful things that could happen from happening to your child. Nor that every evil, even evil perpetrated on theinnocent, is somehow "all in God's plan." I mean that somehow God'spresence is available to us even in the mysteries of human suffering and death.

Our trust is in a God whose presence accompanies us in every facet of human experience, a God who celebrates, laughs, plays, weeps, wonders, and is seared with painjust as we are. This kind of radical trust in an accompanying God is what allows us to let go. We let go not only so that our children can become independent adults guiding their own lives, but also so that God may parent them-and so that we all may know ourselves as children of God. Sometimes the letting go is so profound that it creates in our hearts a hollow only God can fill.

Omaha, Nebraska, 1996.Catholic Omaha, where I live at present, has the feel of a big small town. One senses the reverberations from various quarters, no matter how directly connected you are to the people involved. And in the last two months, the hearts of Omaha's parents have been sorely exercised in the heart-discipline of letting go. Two funerals, both untimely, have stretched hearts so that they might dare to trust in a God whose mercy must be greater than our capacity to comprehend,whose providential view must be more expansive than our present vision. The first funeral was for a 16-year-old computer whiz with a quirky sense of humor and a future that should have had him following his big brother to Cal Tech on a science scholarship. He died of complications from the treatments for seemingly treatable colon cancer. The second funeral was for an 18-year-old,soon-to-be-graduate of Omaha's Catholic boys' prep school who was killed in an alcohol-related car accident on the eve of Mother's Day.

Not all parental letting go requires the heart to stretch so far, love so generously, continue to trust so uncompromisingly as did these two untimely deaths. Most of it is more mundane: children growing up, not being the students orthe athletes one expected, leaving home, following a career you never would have dreamed, marrying who they will, choosing lives you never would have chosen. But by all of this the heart can be made pliant, wide, capable of bearing paradox and ambiguity, capable of a trust that transcends life's ability to provide trustworthy results.

3. A bent for flexibility

Another related quality of the parental heart I might name is flexibility. This might also be called developmental sensitivity. Parenting over the course of a lifetime is not one monochrome experience. Different moments in the developmental cycle call forth different responses. An infant requires different love from a parent than does a toddler, a grade-school child, an adolescent, a young adult, or an adult offspring.

Anyone who teaches knows that certain teachers have a knack and a liking for certain ages-that, for instance, a superb kindergarten teacher might really flounder in a junior-high classroom, or that a gifted professor of graduate students might be totally in ept with a class of fifth graders. Yet parents are called upon to develop a love that is capable of growing and changing in response to the different developmental phases of their child-ren's lives. The kind of 24-hour-a-day physical proximity and labor-intensive nurturance appropriate for a four-week-old infant would smother an adult child of 40 years. Yet the same person who was the parent to thef our-week-old is also, years later, the parent of the 40-year-old.

Parental love also requires oneto love and nurture a variety of differing personalities. Any parento f more than one child will tell you how unique each of their children is, how you could never interact with each of them in the same way. A timid, retiring child calls forth a different response than does a boisterous, self-assertive child. To love a child is to take her best interests to heart, to concern yourself with his special problems. Parental love is manifold, changing, boldly adaptable in response to the individuality of each child. I suggest that there is an art-liken it to a delicate dance if you will-of staying flexible and adventurous enough to exercise love in its myriad parental forms.

4. Concerning discerning

To be flexible, theheart also needs to be discerning. It has to attend constantly to the emergence of the new moment, respond to the changing demands of parenthood at each phase. Discernment-in the classical sense of the term-involves paying attention to the Spirit of God moving in and among us and distinguishing that Spirit from the vast array of other outer and inner movements that vie for our attention.

To discern adequately we must be aware on many levels: consult scripture, seek the advice of trusted advisors, heed the teaching of the church as it emerges in many quarters, read widely and deeply the best of ancient and contemporary thinking, pray, attend to the prick of conscience andt he yearnings of our hearts. Watch, wait, and listen.

Discernment is about discriminating: sifting through and evaluating the evidence of ourfocused attention. It is not simply a question of problem-solving. Nor is it an attempt to find, once and for all, the one, correcta nswer.

Discernment is about feeling textures, assessing weight, watching the plumb line, listening for overtones, searching for shards, feeling the quickening, surrendering to love. It means being grasped in the Spirit's arms and led in the rhythms of a new dance. Parenting teaches these lessons of discernment in concrete ways.

One a.m., winter. Omaha,Nebraska, 1995. I lie awake in the darkened bedroom, my husband'sbreathing accompanied on and off by the onrush of sound from the forced- air heating ducts. I hear the click of the key in the downstairs lock that signals the curfewed arrival home of my teenaged daughter. I read her step-cautious or self-assured, fatigued or energized? I note the tone of her response to my verbal welcome-hearty or irritated, ringing with contentment or tense and preoccupied?

It has been a roller-coaster year. Not a typical, others keep assuring me. But painful none the less: pressing all the buttons and boundaries that have been in place for some time. Her bedroom door snaps smartly shut behind her. An audible symbol of the unique emergent psychic space she is structuring for herself. I stare into the dark void above the bed, aware now of my own breath, a light cadence like a descant above my sleeping spouse's airway melody and the furnace's punctuating bass.

There are so many decisions tothink about in response to the vigorous stretching of adolescent wings. Tough love or unconditional acceptance? Stand firm or make space? "How to" and "What's best?" Endless problem solving.

But the level of greatest challenge is the level of spiritual discernment. By this I do not mean "What would God want the perfect family to look like?" Spiritual discernment at this time is akin to the groping, confused reorientation experienced as a first-time mother or father when one is called to recast oneself as a parent, to learn, by painful trialand error, not only a new psychological identity but the new spiritual challenges that identity presents.

The plumb-line question that emerged in this recent process was "Where does love lie?" The hundreds of half answers to the question emerged only in the groping,only in the process of feeling texture, assessing weight, listening for overtones, feeling the quickening, surrendering to love.

5. Empower trip

If the discerning heart is truly parental, so too is the heart that seeks the empowerment of the child. A parent exercises power, holds authority. So it should be. But parental power, I believe, should not be exercised simply for its own sake, not simply to continue its dominance.

Parental power seeks the empowerment of those over whom authority is exercised. A mother carries an infant, closely held, across a busy street because the infant cannot walk. A father clasps a toddler firmly by the hand as they cross because the toddler does not yet have the judgment or the motor control to cross safely by herself. A mother verbally instructs her 6-year-old in the procedures for safe conduct as they stand side by side and prepare together to cross the street. A father cautions his 10-year-old son to observe pedestrian safety as the child prepares to walk by himself to school.

A parent exercises power and authority-with appropriate firmness-not to retain power but so that the child might become empowered. Parents pass on their fund of wisdom not for the sake of preserving the wisdom itself, but to help the child flourish. Above all, parental empowerment consists of providing a child with a history, a story, an identity.

Most parents I know want their children to "be believers," to "have faith," to "live by a set of values," or to "know who they are." In part this "knowing who you are" comes from knowing one's unique family history-where your people come from, what they did, what they stood for.

Whether your ancestors were Irish immigrants who worked as laborers when they came to the New World or they were from the literati of Latin America, whether your grandmother had a deep devotion to the rosary or worked so that women might have the vote, whether your uncle was a Jesuit priest or your nephew was healed of cancer through charismatic prayer-all of this is part of your story, part of knowing who you are.

Parents also pass on a deeper identity, a knowledge of themselves as beloved children of God. This they do by immersion in a community of faith that continues to tell the great, primal stories of our creation and redemption by God. They impart this identity by living faithfully themselves, witnessing to the depth of the faith they embrace, unleashing its truths in their lives.

This sort of empowerment-this giving children roots, a place to stand, astory-is essential. It is characteristic of parental love. The storyis told not to freeze it but so that it might continue to unfold, have new chapters, more character development, and live on in the next generation. It requires a heart that can straddle the line between past and future-gathering up the fund of sustaining wisdom, yet willing to let wisdom emerge in new forms. It's the heart of aparent, abundant with expansive, generative love. 

February 1985. My husband shows up with a letter our daughter has given him to address and send. This is during a time when, as part of our faith witness to social justice, we are observing a boycott of Campbell's Soup becauseo f a strike levied by workers in the tomato fields. The letter reads:

Dear Presidentof Campbell's Soup,

I like your soup, but my daddy refuses to buy me it because you do not pay your workers enough to eat. Please pay your workers enough so I can eat it. And so they can eat too.


Emily Frances

P.S. In the long run you will be paying yourself.

It was not the particulars ofthe letter or the cause alone that touches me but the fact that somewhere in my daughter's vision of what the world can be was a sense that there are alternatives to the way things are done. She stands in a lineage of people whose identity is shaped by principals of justice as well as by the status quo. In some way she knew thather world embraces the marginalized and the forgotten, that her actions, in fact the actions of us all, are intertwined in mysterious ways. That is most essentially who she is. This we have given her.

6. The right of reconciliation

Finally, parental love calls forth a quality of reconciliation. The deeply painful yet redemptive work of forgiving, healing, reconciling, spanning differences, coming halfway, finding common ground: this is at the core of parental love. Itis also, if I am not mistaken, at the core of the Christian understanding of the God who is Love.

The work of reconciliation is not one-sided, of course. It generally requires that estranged parties both agree to seek reconciliation. But there is, in a mature understanding of the nature of love, some initiative that must be generated, some first step that must be taken, some far sighted choice to seek the healing of breaches. The heart of a parent, I believe is capable of such initiative.

This is an especially delicateart, for the exercise of parental love also calls for boundary-setting, guidance, and discipline that might appear to the child as unloving or divisive of relationship.

As parents and children negotiate the changing terrain of their relationships over the years,they encounter many obstacles to realizing their shared love.Generational gaps, personality differences, cultural conflicts, clashes of values, divisive economic realities-misunderstandings of a thousand sorts-emerge to divide us. Yet struggle toward reconciliation we must. A parent's heart holds tight to the hope that the love of parent and child will gradually achieve its full potential. One of my favorite images of the reconciling heart of aparent is found in the final scenes of the film adaptation of a novel by Jewish author Chaim Potok.

The Chosen tells the story of an Hasidic rabbi inNew York during World War II whose eldest son forsakes the spiritual inheritance to which he is heir. The brilliant young man, destined totake over the role of rebbe, or spiritual mentor, to his father's community, finds himself more and more drawn to the developing secular field of psychology. Eventually, the father allows his brilliant son to choose his own path. With anguish he gives his paternal blessing to his son's entry into the secular university though it means the abandonment of many of the sectarian practices ofthe Hasidic community. At the end of the film version of. The Chosen, the son, shorn of his distinctive ear locks and without his Hasidic dress, is shown departing for his new life. A voice over narrates these words:

"There is a story in theTalmud about a king who had a son who had gone astray from his father. The son was told, 'Return to your father.' The son said, 'I cannot.' Then the father sent a messenger to say, 'Return as far as you can, and I will come to you the rest of the way.'"

Flung wide open in welcome, stretched to the point of breaking in its willingness to let go, generous in its flexibility, plumbed to the depths by its discernment, seeking empowerment and reconciliation even amid painful paradox and ambiguity-such is the parent's heart when formed by thein dwelling Spirit.

Women and men who raise children are cracked open to learn the arts of parental love. The gift of a child can indeed confer the charism of parenting. It is to them we must look for wisdom. They offer the entire church community insight into the nature of Love itself, into the very nature of God.

But the charism of parental love is not restricted to the family. The gift might well be discovered, the Spirit willing, in all those who function as mothers and fathers within the church. When it is given it is recognized by the qualities I have suggested above.

We are asked to welcome then ext generation, love them with hearts flung so wide that we arewilling to let go. We must never forget that we are not God. It doesnot all depend on us. We must exercise discernment, ask ourselves "Where does love lie?" We must be flexible enough to parent the next generation, to know that the church is composed of adult children a swell as teenagers and toddlers. We need to know that sometimes we must carry, sometimes verbally instruct, and sometimes simply listen-listen to the stories, listen to the experience, listen to the newly unfolding wisdom of those whom we nurture.

We must not simply teach the younger generation to say their prayers. We must empower them to become mature practitioners of deep, Spirit-responsive prayer. We must not conceive of our role as supplying the "right" answers. We must dare to enable them to live into the questions. We must dare tolive into these with them. And always, we must be willing to say "Return as far as you can, and I will come to you the rest of the way."