As Father’s Day approaches again, we revisit a young father’s moving reflection on how his daughter’s birth broke him open and helped him to glimpse the enormity and primacy of God's love.
It’s hard to know where to begin talking about the experience of being a father. In some sense, from the very beginning it wasn’t something I felt in a profound way. The birth of a child is a period of such emotional extremes that becoming a father happens quietly, slipping under the radar of everything else going on.
It wasn’t like stepping into a new job with a full list of clear responsibilities and someone to train you. It was something existential and as a result takes time to process.
Not only do you witness the emergence of human life in all of its raw intensity, but this precious gift is one that leaves you shattered in the best way possible: your life was one way but now it’s been broken and you need to rebuild with this tiny person at the centre of it.
Not only do you watch as your wife lays down her life and suffers intolerable pain so that this child can be born, but you become more deeply aware of the physical and mental trauma that you’ve been spared by simply being a man. You don’t want your wife to go through that. You wish you could take that pain on yourself so that she doesn’t ever have to experience it again. It’s a devastating and eye-opening confrontation with reality, with the conditions of pain that makes new life possible.
It’s also an experience of deep vulnerability. Just when you thought your heart couldn’t break anymore because of how much you love your wife, it cracks even deeper; it expands almost against your will in order to make room for this defenceless life who needs you to be able to love her; who needs you to be able to have your heart broken again and again by her beauty so that she can know how loved and precious and valuable she is.
All of this, for me, was the original and opening experiences of fatherhood. And I know this is only the beginning. There’s so much more to come – my daughter is only a year old. There’s also so many questions that need wrestling with, questions that get pressed upon me every day. Questions of faith, of how to let this beautiful girl grow up with a healthy faith, a curiosity about the world, a depth of thought and creativity. Questions about how to do that when – I’m told so often – the world is the way that it is. The joke I hear so frequently on television is about how we could even want to bring a child into this “messed up” world.
How do I let my daughter know that being human is a gift, when so many people don’t seem to think that it is? How do I pass on a faith that nourishes her, that lets her know the primal logic of the universe is not one of fear and violence and death, but one of gift and relationship and love?
I don’t know. But there is one thing I have come to realise and it’s the most important thing I want my daughter to know.
The only thing I ever want my daughter to know, and know deeply, is the astonishing revelation of the Gospel that God is love. Without qualification, without explanation, without nuance: God is love. Absolute Love. There is nothing higher than this, Hans Urs von Balthasar said, and there is nothing greater. The work of faith is to believe that Absolute Love exists.
In one sense, the history of institutional religion has been a history of trying to domesticate this wild reality. And I get it: it’s so unbelievable. But the reason I want my daughter to know this more than anything is because I find it so difficult to believe. There’s so much in me that’s afraid of conceding this simple thing: that if we knew how much God loved us, we would break. We would shatter. We would crumble. It’s true that the world is an uncertain and chaotic place; the online world – which is some people’s only world – is filled with so many voices trying to make us afraid. We cling to so many things in order to find security: tradition, moral conviction, religion, politics . . . I only say this because I feel it deep in myself, but all of these things, no matter how right or wrong we are about them, can act as nothing more than a false sense of security; a false identity that prevents us from being broken by the truth at the heart of everything: that we are loved beyond our wildest imaginings and this Love can be trusted.
I used to think that the message of God’s love was the easy path; a sentimentalised faith that wasn’t capable of dealing with the world’s real problems. But I don’t buy that anymore because I know how much within me resists the claim that I am loved. I know how much I am afraid of it. The easiest thing to do is actually to abandon God’s love for something a bit more stable, a bit more secure, a bit more appeasing to our moral vanity.
But there is nothing more trustworthy or more secure than this. If only we knew.
In his letter to the Ephesians, St Paul says that every family takes its name from the Father (3:15). If I see my role as anything, then it is to never let this truth slip away from my family: that the love of God is unfathomable and trustworthy. If my daughter can grow up confidently, allowing this truth to shape her whole existence, then I don’t care what else happens. By the grace of God, I will have done something right.
My daughter did nothing to deserve the love we have for her. The simple fact that she exists is the source of our love and our joy. And this is but a pale reflection of the deeper truth at the heart of her existence: that simply being alive is a source of joy for God and the result of his love. If our love as a family can help her feel and know that truth, then, once again, we’ve done something right.
VMCH11 December 2023
Melbourne Catholic08 December 2023