Parenthood is a difficult journey to say the least. As parents, we are in a vocation that has very little formal training, consists of rules that seem to change with the wind, and carries the weight of the future of another human being within it. We try to do the best we can. We set good examples, we lecture, we yell, we love. We pray for ourselves and our children. But we still carry all the pressure of the understanding that what we do, right and wrong, will impact the lives of our children for good and for ill. Parents are no longer responsible for their own life and afterlife; we have a share of responsibility for our children as well.
St. Monica: One Example of Catholic Parenthood
As Catholics, through our understanding of the Communion of Saints, we have a network of saintly parents to pray for us and to serve as examples for us. Obviously, the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph are the primary patrons of parents, and for good reason, but there are numerous other saints. Of them, St. Monica serves as a special example of the ultimate Catholic parent.
For those who do not know the story, the short version is that St. Monica married into a pagan family. She had three children. Her husband and mother-in-law finally converted within a year of her husband’s death. Of her three children, two went into the religious life. The third one, the oldest, did just the opposite. St. Monica sent her oldest son off to continue his education, only to learn that he joined a different religion. Her son became known for both his brilliant intellect and his wild lifestyle. He was a lover of learning and of those sins that delighted the flesh. His lifestyle caused a disagreement that ended with her banishing him from her home. Some time later, she felt drawn to make amends. St. Monica started to pray for her son and to follow him. St. Monica prayed. She prayed day and night. She had masses offered. She followed her son to Rome and then to Milan. In Milan, the bishop helped convert her son after a 17 year period of the wild life. That bishop is known to us as St. Ambrose and her son is celebrated as St. Augustine, Father of the Church. For almost two decades, St. Monica prayed without ceasing for the conversion of her son. In the end, she saw him baptized, ordained, and named a bishop.
The Swans: A Story about Normal Parents
Here in Birmingham, Alabama, we have a Catholic Television station known as EWTN. Around the corner from the EWTN headquarters, there is a small retreat center that is home to the Sister Servants of the Eternal Word. When they built the retreat center, many local Catholic families helped through the donations of time, talents, and treasures. My father, a general contractor, helped and formed a bond with one of the Sisters, one who had been a contractor herself before she joined the order. The Sisters have a small lake on the property, and in that lake is an island. That island was home to a mated pair of swans. If you are unfamiliar with swans, they are beautiful, elegant white birds who are exceptionally territorial and can be quite aggressive, especially when defending their young. This pair did have a clutch of eggs that hatched.
And at that time, all hell broke loose.
Daddy Swan went after anyone and everyone who was too close to the water. He chased priests, sisters, lay people, donkeys, dogs, and even the wind itself. What we did not know is that cygnets, baby swans, leave the nest almost immediately. Daddy Swan knew, and he chased them, guarding them, and yelling at the world to leave his kids alone.
My own father watched all this. Later, he told my mom that he understands Daddy Swan. Sometimes, he feels like all he can do is chase us, fuss at us, and threaten the world to leave his kids alone. And he knows, much like Mr. Swan, that he will not always be able to protect his kids, but it is all that he can do.
The Parenthood Continuum
This is the good parent continuum. As Catholics, we know that we can be an example, like Monica. We should pray at all times and let God protect and lead our families. Often, though, we fall into a pattern more like the swans. We chase, shout, and guard our kids, trying to shield them from any harm and forcing them to “be good.” The extreme of this, of course, is the helicopter parent. Personally, I have trouble just trusting God. As much as I know that I should pray and let God do the hard part, I feel better shouting at the world.
What is the answer? Well, maybe St. Monica’s son actually has that answer. St. Augustine is attributed as saying “Pray as if everything depended on God. Work as if everything depends on you.” The way we should approach parenthood is to pray like Monica for our children and for guidance in the best times and places to chase the world away. In future posts, we will look at how we do just that, together.