Friday, April 19, 2013

No Life without Father

Colin O'Brien (right) at age 21.

As a father, I never thought I was doing anything special.

Our son Colin was born 21 years ago - April 20, 1992.  It was a day that changed my life entirely for the better.  I never thought I could love another human being the way I loved him - from the very moment he appeared.

Colin O'Brien at something less than 21.
But, dads, we all know that there's not a lot we can do - especially in those first few months.  The mother is so much The Mother that we all, I suspect, have a sense of our inadequacy.  We just kind of stand around and scratch ourselves, and change a diaper or two, clumsily at first.  It seemed to me as if my contribution to fatherhood passed in a fleeting moment of abandon nine months prior, and that there was really nothing left for me to do from that point forward.

Of course, later in life, fathers become very important - but I don't think we dads ever quite realize how.


Last Sunday, the great Anthony Esolen spoke at the Credo Dinner in St. Louis.  His theme was fatherhood as indispensable to culture and civilization.  He mentioned Hofni and Phineas, Eli's sons, priests in the temple (see 1 Samuel), who "know not the LORD", but instead are "sons of Belial" - which is to say, sons of no-father.  The lack of the presence of the father in their family (Eli is their biological father, but he is ineffectual as a father figure) as well as in their cosmology (they are, practically speaking, rank atheists) turns them into nihilistic materialists - into brutes.  And when even priests abandon the Father and His Faith, disaster results.  Their infidelity results in the loss of the very presence of God the Father among the Israelites - the Arc of God is captured during their priestly reign.

Anthony Esolen at something more than 21.
Esolen drew comparisons with literature (Telemachus' fatherless plight in The Odyssey) as well as in current events (our entire culture - see Detroit).  And of course when fatherless anarchy spawns "sons of Belial" who threaten our very existence, the State steps in, becoming the totalitarian father, controlling us and enslaving us more and more to "protect" us from the nihilism that a culture without fathers produces.


Another father - Father Mitch Pacwa - spoke to me about this very theme at EWTN this week, where I spent several days filming two specials hosted by Joseph Pearce, in which I portray J. R. R. Tolkien, the first of which is scheduled to air this December.  Fr. Mitch quoted some appalling statistics on the effects of a civilization without fathers - which is ultimately no civilization at all.  He managed to make me quite convinced that the Dark Ages are in fact upon us and that the Church has more of a challenge than even we pessimists realize.

In other words, before long the whole world will be Detroit.

Fr. Mitch, whose cowboy hat is older than Colin.

But forget Detroit.

Civilization is alive and well in Trussville, Alabama.  Of all places!  We Yankees find that hard to believe, but I experienced it first hand, as, on Wednesday night, Joseph Pearce and I attended the ACTA Community Theater production of - get this - Life with Father.

Life with Father is a delightful comedy, based on the book by Clarence Day.  It holds the record as the longest running non-musical in Broadway history.

Poster from the movie starring William Powell.  The play is even older than I am.
The play tells the true story of the Day family, living in New York in 1893.  And while it's a light comedy, it deals with two very important themes - how does a son find his independence, particularly from a father who is a bit overbearing; and how does the self-made man get saved?

The first question is dealt with very cleverly in the script, as the young Clarence struggles to earn $15 to buy himself a suit, for in wearing his father's hand-me-downs, he finds himself unable to do anything his father wouldn't do.  This marvelous and simple symbolism of clothing as identity finds its fulfillment in the final moment of the play, when Clarence, finally in his own outfit, self-bought and self-paid-for, becomes his own person.

But actually the suit is not bought and paid for by Clarence.  In a bit of funny numbers-juggling, the resources for Clarence's independence - the money for the new clothes - in a round-about way comes from his father.

This is simply a way of showing how we are all dependent on grace.  We can never earn our own salvation, or work our way up to our own identity.  We cooperate with the gift, but the gift is always, ultimately, from the Father.

And thus the second major theme of the play - can Father, the self-made man, the typical American, the pragmatist - can Father be saved?  He seems certain of it, but his certainty is based upon his self-confidence; heaven will not be denied him, for he has earned his way in, and if he hasn't, he certainly has enough pull to work the system and land his rightful place.

This becomes the main element of the plot, as the family discovers that Father - whose parents were 19th Century "free thinkers" - was never baptized.  Of course the play remains a light comedy and does not deal with theology in a heavy handed way, but the themes remain, and even the question, "Can baptism be effective without repentance?" is dealt with very subtlely and effectively.  For although Father never literally kneels (not even at church), he does so figuratively more than once during the course of the action.

The play was directed by Theater of the Word actress Emily Lunsford (who is profiled here), and was very well staged.  Perfectly cast, the performances of Howard Green as Father, and David Gregson as the Anglican priest were especially noteworthy.  Matt Mitchell as Clarence is also quite charming.

Emily's entire family is in show business - at least at the Community Theater level.  Her little brother Joseph and her little sister Lucy are stand outs in Life with Father - Lucy in particular steals the opening scene as the much maligned maid.

And it is always a joy for me to go to Alabama and to see two wonderful families - the family of workers-in-the-vineyard at EWTN, and the Amazing Performing Lunsfords.


And so, today, as I ponder my 21-years of fatherhood, I realize more than ever that without the family there is no civilization, and without the father, there is no family.

So look up, fellow fathers.  We dads are more important than we suspect.


Anonymous said...

Well pointed out Kevin, I wish my dad would read this.

God bless you always for all the love you've given to your kids, for recognising the value of fatherhood, and for never taking it for granted. I can think of a few in my mind who need that good, cold splash of reality to hit them in the face, by God's grace and mercy.


P.S. Please pray for a guy friend of mine who has been made (spiritually) vulnerable throughout his life due to experiences in link to this similar subject. Everyone looks down on him as good-for-nothing among other 'colourful' adjectives, but i have high hopes for him, that God will wake him to what manhood truly means. At least i would know i'm not alone praying for him.

Julie said...

In Life with Father, I also see a theme of the all-consuming drive to make money being, well, somewhat poisonous compared to the drive to know God. I can say that, because my son Alden plays the cute second son John in the Trussville ACTA version of Life with Father -- John is the young "businessman" who poisons his mother with the patent medicine he's selling. If I do say so myself, Alden does a great job... not of poisoning his mother, but as becoming John Day. ;)