Drawing projects normally kept my five-year-old son busy through elongated, adult sermons. On this particular Sunday, a slice of crust-free sandwich bread, normally designed to absorb peanut butter and jelly, was absorbing my boy’s attention. Throughout the course of the Homily, John Harry’s mission was to destroy the hard work the yeast molecules had accomplished in the leavening process. His miniature hands, hardened by years of labor in a Play Dough Factory, pinched and squished until all of the “Wonderbread” fluff was thoroughly flattened.
Having achieved a small, topographically correct map of Nebraska, the work shifted in the direction of sculpting and shaping. I watched in rapt attention as the bread sculptor trimmed, patted and peeled to release the form only he saw trapped within the layers of wheat gluten. By the end of the sermon, a round, flat, bread disk rested in my little Michelangelo’s hands.
Later in the Mass, when the priest raised the newly transubstantiated body of Christ, some activity showed up in my parental side mirror. Looking over, I observed my son elevating his unleavened creation with a look of priestly reverence. The disk reappeared during Communion. As I took the Real Presence into my lips I heard my response of, “Amen,” echoing from somewhere around my waist area. I looked down in just enough time to see my son consuming his glutinous air hockey disk.
After Mass, I quizzed John Harry enough to learn that he recognized the difference between his invention and what he would one day experience at his First Communion. “It’s just that I really wanted to receive Jesus like you and mommy do!” Immediately, a gauzy dream sequence spirited me away to a fantasy of my son’s Ordination, and First Mass. If it were possible to set up a tent and camp out in that blessed developmental moment, I would have pitched it immediately.
Alas, tempus is always fugit-ing, and my boy became a toothless eight years old. Whatever I had done as a boy to add gray to Sister Mary Leonard’s hair all those years ago, was now returning through my eight-year-old son to frost my own locks. Right around the time that he turned eight, it seemed that John Harry’s endocrine system had sprouted some new gland that was responsible for turning, what had been a reverent five-year old, into a fidgety, distractible sprite. The eight-year-old version of John Harry came with a sound track to his life. At that time, he frequently broke out into a thing that he and his second grade friends called, “beat boxing” (which involved the mouth sounds and rhythms often found in-Argh!-rap music).
During those days at Mass, his spirit was willing, but his fidgety flesh was weak. Like a hummingbird attracted to caffeine rather than nectar, my son was in constant motion. Like me at his age, it wasn’t as if he meant to disregard parental orders, he just forgot that those orders were issued ninety seconds ago. If there were such a thing as “Our Lady of Perpetual Motion,” during this time of his life, she would have been his personal patron saint.
This Sunday’s Gospel told the famous Lenten story of a father and his two sons (Luke 15: 1-3; 11-32). That familiar narrative showcased the love of a dad whose parental motto presaged Tom Bodett’s “Motel Six” ads by about two thousand years. The dad of Jesus’ parable, always “left the light on” for his boys. In one instance, that dad’s light welcomed a boy as he stepped in from a prolonged stay in the darkness. In another instance, it was the dad who stepped out to bring light to a boy who chose to stand pouting in the darkness.
John Harry’s odometer has flipped into the double digits, consequently, a measure of calm has returned. During his sojourn through those squirmy years, I had to hold fast to the belief that the reverent five-year-old still abided within my squibbly son. During those years, I learned that my job as a parent/catechist is to be the water that constantly drips onto the rock. Over time, firm, but affectionate dripping eventually penetrates.
We seem to have made it to the other side of a bumpy developmental phase. Still, I know that my son’s pathway has many more unpredictable twists and turns as he winds his way toward adulthood. As a Christian dad, I am aware that my kids belong primarily to God. In a very real way, I am merely a fellow wayfarer alongside them. What I have to offer is my fidelity to them as they take their steps along a path that is, for the most part, beyond my control.
As a parent, I know that despite my best efforts, my son and daughters could take a “u” turn in a direction where I would rather they not go. What gives me great comfort is that we have a God who will always leave the light on for them, even if they wander out into the darkest part of the night.