Fatherhood and Play

“Play is the language of paternal love and kindness.”

I was listening to an audiobook this spring as I zoomed downed the highway. These words brought one of those epiphany moments– in which the veil is briefly lifted, time seems to hold still, and – as long as the moment lasts – I feel embraced by deeper Truth. For me, those are moments in which the hosts of heaven beckon (in the words of C.S. Lewis): “Come further up! Come deeper in!”

In case you are curious, the words were from Kelly McDaniel’s 2021 book entitled Mother Hunger. She writes from the perspective of a secular therapist, and in the process affirms several core biological, emotional, and relational truths about motherhood – all of which are strongly reinforced by the latest findings of neuroscience and attachment theory. My May blog posts benefitted from a few of her insights. She is writing to adult daughters, inviting them to consider what they needed and didn’t entirely receive from their own mothers. And then she casually drops in her comment regarding fatherhood, kindness, and the language of play.

In that timeless moment of hearing her quote, I was immediately transported back one year in time to Tallahassee, where I was assisting as chaplain for the priest retreat at the John Paul II Healing Center. As is common, the 18 priest participants showed up with fears, resistance, and defenses. It was amazing to watch those melt away in unexpected ways. Play played a huge part!

I already shared with you last June about the “human sculpting” exercises we engaged in each day. Bob Schuchts invited me, three days in a row, to play the part of God the Father. Another played God the Son, another the Holy Spirit, along with several human and angelic (and demonic) characters. We were invited to follow our intuitions and interact with each other in a visual scene. I felt fear and constriction at first – the familiar perfectionistic pressure to perform well – or else. I turned to Bob and whispered, “I’ve never done these before – what am I supposed to do?” He smiled and shrugged. I felt the familiar dread in my gut. But I reconnected with my body and was able to tap into my deeper desire and intuition. Each sculpt was a surprise. Many participants received insight or healing. For me, it was a oneness with the heart of the Father that shifted my connection with him. I felt his poverty of heart – the way he willingly honors our freedom amidst his ache for our flourishing.

Each day, play opened us in receptivity and a rediscovered joy of fatherhood. The team there ever so simply invited us into play each evening – a cornhole tournament with Sister Miriam as a DJ taking song requests, a Pictionary competition with three teams, a trip to the cinema to watch Father Stu, a group hanging around the campfire each night and laughing together. Everyone felt more authentically human – which is so important to being a healthy priest, much less to being true spiritual fathers! Then Bob shared (without naming names) about the retreat for bishops they have started doing. He described busy bishops, buried beneath impossible pressures and ugly problems, laughing and playing together like little children. How healing! Obviously, deep prayer is the foundation.  But without a playful heart, fathers cannot be fathers!

I can only imagine the plight of bishops. It’s hard enough to be a parish priest these days. I am at my worst when I am in a scarcity mentality. In those moments I feel a drivenness that screams loudly “I don’t have time for that!” – no time to slow down and delight, or savor, or play, or connect, or rest. It is then only a matter of time before I wind up in a place of resentment, and then entitlement – seizing small pleasures that bring no true joy.

At times, I still have the hoarding heart of an orphan – a heart that is terrified of needing and depending on the Father or others. In those moments, fueled by shame and fear, I stockpile and self-protect; I hide my truer and deeper self. At my core, I am highly sensitive, highly creative, eager to connect, and totally playful. But I frequently feel inhibition around play – or at least around being seen in play. It’s so much easier around children, or when I am unaware of anyone watching. It is in those moments when I am the most childlike in my faith, and when I am willing to engage in play with others, that God most powerfully shows up. It is then that I receive the most, and then that others receive the Father’s love through me.

On the retreat, Jake Khym left us with profound words on the Father’s love, encouraging us to anticipate his affection day after day: “Over and over, I will be good to you, my son.” He invited us to notice and receive those frequent moments of affection, to allow the Father to be playful with us and delight in us.

If I pause in the afternoon or evening to reflect on the day in a General Examen, it is a marvelous request I can make to God the Father: Show me how you were affectionate to me today. If I allow myself the time and space for that meditation, it is remarkable how quickly he shows me moments small or large in which he was playfully affectionate to me. He is always a good Father, tending to me in my poverty, and inviting me to become playful as he is playful. I just struggle to believe that it can be so simple and so effective. I struggle to trust amidst that poverty that he will keep showing up and keep being affectionate. Yet he always does!

I believe all men are called to be one or another kind of father – not in the toxic masculinity of the last few hundred years, but in our uniqueness and individuality. Whatever fatherhood may look like for each of us, playful affection will be the language the Father speaks to us, and playful affection will be the language he teaches us to speak to our children.

Fatherhood and Subsidiarity

God is our Father. Jesus presents himself as God’s own Son. He speaks of God as his Father who desires to become our Father. All fatherhood derives from God the Father and has its meaning from him (cf. Ephesians 3:14-21).

And what do we see in God’s Fatherhood? He is radically different from the counterfeit versions of fatherhood that are far too common today! In the Trinity, all three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are equal in dignity. Jesus is from the Father (not the other way around), yet they are coequal in dignity and majesty. There is no “greater than” or “less than.” God shows us that fatherhood is not meant to be about power or privilege. Fatherhood is about pouring blessing into others and lifting them up to be secure in their own identity.

Children look to their fathers to discover their identity, to discover and know securely who they are. In the Old Testament (even amidst the dysfunction!) the concept of fatherly blessing is a recurring theme. Adam is given authority by God over the whole cosmos and gives names to all of the animals. Had he exercised his stewardship well, the entire cosmos would have flourished under God’s Fatherly blessing. In Genesis 27, Isaac bestows his blessing upon Jacob, and not upon Esau. Flooded with envy, Esau desperately aches for that fatherly blessing. In the next generation, Jacob names and blesses his sons in highly descriptive and specific ways (see Genesis 49).

In the New Testament, after calling many disciples to himself, Jesus inaugurates his public preaching with the Sermon on the Mount – beginning with the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-10). Each one promises Fatherly blessing – not because we strive for it or earn it, but because we allow ourselves to be open and receptive to a Father who is eager to bless us.

Ultimately, only God is fully a Father. Any earthly fathers (whether in our families or in our churches) are called to be icons of God’s Fatherhood. But too often we are distorted caricatures, in which his true Fatherhood is barely recognizable.

Perhaps that is why Jesus cautions us against calling anyone on earth our “father” (Matthew 23:9). There are even some evangelicals who have used that verse as a stick to bash Catholics for calling priests “Father” – while simultaneously protecting patriarchal structures that allow white males to be leaders in their families and churches who somehow have more power and privileges than the rest. The fact is, all Christian traditions (including Catholicism) are prone to an abuse of fatherly authority. Any time fatherhood claims power or privileges for its own sake, it becomes oppressive and harms those who are meant to be served.

In our Catholic Tradition, we have an important (and little practiced) teaching called “subsidiarity.” Authority of any kind is called to assist, support, and empower those it serves, rather than to replace them. Typically, this teaching is applied to governmental structures – and rightly so. Those in office have a duty to be solicitous for the common good and to intervene where others are struggling (whether than be parents, local governments, or state governments). But in intervening they are called to support and empower rather than to usurp or replace.

Sadly, we don’t seem to apply subsidiarity to fatherly authority! Whether we are fathers in a marriage and family or father figures in a church family, our fatherly authority is never meant to be about power or privilege! Remember – in the Trinity, Jesus and the Father are totally equal. There is no “greater than” or “less than.” Jesus is absolutely secure in his identity precisely because of his relationship with his Father. Any human form of fatherhood is meant to be a true icon of God’s Fatherhood – helping those who are fathered to become secure in God’s Fatherly blessing.

Fatherhood has been under fire for a long time. Some Christians see this trend as a liberal secular threat that needs to be fought and suppressed. But in their reactivity, they are not listening well to the grievances! We need to name the many ways in which fatherhood has harmed rather than blessed. We need to empathize with the grief and anger of those who have been abused or oppressed. We need to examine our structures and how they operate – asking humbly and honestly whether the authority there is ever exploited for power and privilege rather than lifting others up into secure identity and delegating to them their own proper authority. We need to toil tirelessly to arrive at the day in which women and children don’t have to fear being used or harmed by the men in their families, communities, and churches!

Many males in authority have been resistant and reluctant to needed reform. Is it any surprise that many others rebel against any and all forms of patriarchy? Rather than seeking to reclaim authentic fatherhood, many today want to name it as evil.

As often happens with rebellion, this rejection of fatherly authority will only lead to greater problems. A void of authentic fatherhood is worse! As harmful as it is when fathers use or oppress, it is even more harmful when fathers abdicate their fatherly authority. Those under their care remain unblessed and insecure in their identity. They go unprotected. They live in chaos and disorder.  There will only be more self-indulgence, exploiting of others, and aggression against others. All the while God’s Fatherhood, his fierce and tender embrace, remains a distant and forgotten dream. Is this not the story of Simba’s fatherhood in The Lion King? In his fear, shame, and woundedness, he flees his true calling and true authority, and many suffer disorder and oppression until he reclaims it.

As we approach another Father’s Day, we can remember that God has truly revealed himself as our Father, and that fatherhood is a gift from him. The greater the gift, the greater the devil’s envy and attacks as he attempts to distract or distort. We can reject all distortions of fatherhood while challenging ourselves to bring blessing to others in a way that truly allows all God’s children to be secure in their identity.