I had wanted to go on a Men's Retreat to explore my relationship with my (now dead) dad. Much of my wariness with other men relates to uncertainties with him. I tell myself I did not doubt his love, but he never expressed it in words. He did lash out however with savage put-downs when upset. The explicitness of his furies seriously undermined what I was trying to read into his actions, as implicit signs of love.
In the carefully constructed processes of the Men's Rite of Passage I was able to sit with what I have long known but never properly comprehended. In teenage I had got to know a little my dad's pa, a twinkling white haired old man, benign and harmless surely. Yet when he was seven my dad's mum died and his pa sent him away to the country to be looked after by his grandmother and his maiden aunt. Dad's pa, my grandpa absented himself from my dad's upbringing. I asked why grandpa was missing from my parents' wedding photo - he was simply not invited.
My dad had little on which to model his fathering for me. Should I blame dad or grandpa? Or is this the crack in the family pattern that lets the light in for me to see how it works and what I might do to make things better for the future?
Richard Rohr upon whose work the Men's Retreat was based, was for a time a prison chaplain. Many of the men inside had issues with either absent or abusive fathers. Fathering should be a sacred trust – but it is too little honoured in western society. There is line in the very funny and 'true' Steve Martin movie Parenthood when a mildly dysfunctional young man explains his upbringing, "You need to get a licence to keep a dog but they'll let any a**hole be a father."
Curious isn't it that many of us subscribe to a faith that makes much use of images of father and son – but we fail to work them through in real life. The key image of unconditional love – God's son Jesus dying on the cross – is not much respected in our relationships. These days amidst the challenges and paradoxes of modern life, individuals seem more likely to assert their right to personal fulfilment, as to recognise the exquisite beauty of unconditional love one for another.
A well run retreat provides the opportunity for reflection and re-integration. Am I dependent on having things in black and white or can I accommodate the messiness of life? One of the dimensions I have to work on is the matrix of judging parent/nurturing parent, stroppy child/playful child. Somehow I keep backing myself into the judgemental parent corner and need to pull those other characters back into a better balance. Where does that come from? Now I comprehend the pattern. Grandpa sends dad out of the way. My dad is heavy handed in his put downs to me, so much so that if I am not careful, I go on telling myself I'm not good enough and should be ashamed of my efforts!
Dealing with wounds is a necessary part of life's hard work. The dominant judging parent ensnares me with delusions of perfection, as so many are trapped. We slave away trying to achieve the successful career, the dream home, the idyllic Meeting community. But we cannot control everything, we are mere mortals. As Leonard Cohen sings in Anthem
"Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's where the light gets in."
(First published in The Friend on 5 September 2008, and republished with permission)