Last Wednesday, one of the volunteer babysitters asked a startling question, “Does all this time you spend taking care of the babies make you want to be a parent?” I had just come in from cutting weeds outside in the 95 degree heat, trying to get the front 5 acres fit to receive the guests coming to my niece and nephew’s first birthday party in two days. My mind, focused on the barest necessities–food, water, removing the grass from my nose and ears and mouth–took a while to switch gears. I guess it always takes me by surprise when my inner world gets in a head-on collision with the world out there, their world, the world of people who have no idea what it is to live with your body in waist-high weeds and your heart in the tabernacle.
I had never even thought of this whole experience as a baby-sitter/uncle as having any relation to my future as a parent or spouse. I crossed that bridge long ago when it became clear to me in my discernment that even if I am never blessed with the opportunity of stepping into the religious priesthood, I am just not called to marriage. As I said in one of my first interviews with Fr. Brian, one of the Carmelite Vocation Directors, I realized that although my heart is capable of much love, it just isn’t wired in its natural state to love in that way.
For me, this whole experience, actually all my experiences, contribute to my ability to be a friar in community and a priest to the people of God. So I guess the best answer I could give to the volunteer’s question is that as I continue to care for my niece and nephew I find that it does indeed make me want to be a parent. Each time I can sacrifice my time and energy and step into a wall of crying at 3AM and make it quiet and calm again, I am perfecting my ability to be a father–just not the father she is referring to.
I never fully respected the awesome sacrifice of the marriage vocation until I could see it through the eyes of the religious vocation. My love for community and my desire to sacrifice myself to lift up my brothers and the Order I love helped me to see more clearly the selfless giving that spouses must struggle to maintain to lift each other up and stay connected. In the same way, when I see the enormous sacrifices that parents shoulder each day and each hour of each day to meet the needs of their children I begin to understand the enormity of priesthood as a spiritual fatherhood to family that always has at least one child crying somewhere, sometime.
Now that I have experienced the calm stillness of a baby that finally gives in to sleep after an hour of crying, I feel that my ministry as a priest will always be imbued with the odd paradox of parenthood: a kind of mental toughness to stay tender when every nerve in your body cringes with stress and a sense of gentle compassion that comes from knowing that to someone in the midst of suffering it seems like the the night will never end, but the dawn does come at last, and it comes much more quickly when we walk through the darkness with a friend.
Soon I was back at it. Cutting spent foxglove out of a ditch and down a steep embankment. It was still hot but I was smiling this time, grateful that a random question from someone who assumed I was a late thirty-something single guy getting up his nerve to become a father actually steered me toward the realization that I am exactly that: a late thirty-something guy getting up his nerve to become a father.