Our Fathers

In my home, I grew up believing that there were four High Holy Days of the year, consisting of the Sunday of: the Augusta National Invitational (generally known as “The Masters”), the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the PGA.  One of them, the final round of the U.S. Open, always falls on Father’s Day.  On Father’s Day, more than most other days, I think of the question that folks sometime ask me: “If you could have anything in the world you wanted, what would that be?”  My answer is always the same:  I want one more round of golf with my Dad.

My first recollection is of going to the golf course with my father.  I couldn’t have been more than two or three years old, but still remember the smell of freshly cut grass.  I’m one of the kids who grew up on the back of a golf cart.

At around the same time, my family was building our first house.  My father made the carpenters leave a row of nails at around 3 feet high.  Every day, when my father got off from work, he would take me to our new house, and I would hammer the nails in, so that I could feel like I had a part in building our house.  My father could not have said any more clearly to me:  “You matter.  You are important, and have a critical role to play here.”

Years later, my father would drop my brother Patrick and me off at the golf course while it was still dark outside.  Those may still be my happiest memories.   In the half-light of a West Texas morning I learned that family mattered, that golf mattered, and that my brother mattered.  The latter took a while to sink in….

I also dearly love the conspiratorial bond that my father and I developed.  For example, my mother hated guns.  On my ninth birthday, after considerable unseemly begging, my father bought a .22 for me.  On our way home from the gun shop, my Dad looked at me and told me that “You don’t have to tell your mother everything you know about.”  He was a man of considerable wisdom.

Not long after that, my grandmother died.  I remember sitting next to my father in that small church in Rotan,Texas.  My father wore sunglasses throughout the service, so that no one could see that he was crying.  The boy who held his hand throughout the service could see those tears, however.  In some sense, that was an honor reserved for those he valued.  I was his son and he was my father.  He told me once that the process of elimination was no way to live my life.  He was right. When my father died, I gave his eulogy.  I was gravitationally compelled to recall Dylan Thomas’ eulogy of his own father: “And you, my father, on that sad height Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night.”

There is something sacred about our fathers.  Scripture recognizes this in so many important ways.  When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, he taught them to begin “Our Father….”  I don’t think there’s anything accidental about that.  John reports that Jesus said:  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” John 14.6-7.  Why did Jesus so often refer to God as “the Father”?  I don’t think there’s anything sexist going on here.  Rather, I think there’s a sacred recognition of what goes on between fathers and their children.

I have no intention of minimizing the roles of our mothers.  In fact, I grew up thinking of the Church as Holy Mother.  I do intend, however, to raise up our fathers as people worthy our recollection and of fatherhood as a role worth honoring.  I don’t think of our family lives, or of our church lives, as a zero sum game.  I think we can honor our fathers without minimizing our mothers.  In fact, I think we are morally and scripturally compelled to do so.

It is no coincidence that when he hung on the cross, betrayed by friends and compelled to His humanity in a sacrificial incarnation, Jesus cried out, “Abba, Abba.”  The closest translation of that word is “Daddy.”  When I am alone, when I am feeling weak, I often ask for my father’s help, as well as my Father’s help.  The cry for Daddy comes to us early in our lives, and we ought to remember those who so often answered it.

God has treated me better than I deserved.  Just as He gave me my own father, he has given me spiritual fathers who helped teach me about the things that matter.  The first of these, a priest named Joseph Armshaw, served in my parish in Odessa.  He helped me learn that we could meet God’s children in ways and places that we never expected, and that God’s love for us could manifest itself in liturgy and in thoughtful discussion.  He loved his parish, and more importantly, he loved his parishioners.

Somehow, I forgot those things for several years.  A long time later, I was reminded how God could reveal himself to us through spiritual fatherhood.  Two bishops named John MacNaughton and Robert Hibbs reminded me that our lives were sacred….particularly, that my life could be sacred, if I were willing.  In a devout and caring way, they reminded me that the process of elimination was no way to live my life.  As with so many of the men who have shown me what fatherhood means, they lent me some comfort and strength.  I hope in some way these remarks will tell all these men:  “Thanks.”

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

18 responses to “Our Fathers

  1. Thanks for sharing your fathers with us. Much of your story resonates with me. I am so very grateful for my dad and the men who have been a father to me.

  2. This was a beautiful piece full of tender images…I understand the importance of fathers because of the wound in my heart from not having one. Spiritual fathers have ministered to me in powerful ways, and my Heavenly Father adopted me at a very young age. Being fatherless is an abyss that never is really filled, as Henri Noewen acknowledged. You are truly blessed to have had a natural father who bonded with you in the ways you described. Thanks for writing your story.

    • Olive,

      I know yours was not always an easy path. I also know that you have encountered spiritual fathers, and the Father, in a host of different ways and places. I pray you always feel His presence, and his deep, abiding love.


      Br. James

  3. Thank you for sharing your beautiful story of love. You give as a spiritual father, and I am so grateful, Linda

  4. What a beautiful tribute to both your father and fatherhood. I agree that we need both mothers and fathers to be whole, and we need to appreciate and celebrate both. Thank you and God bless for sharing this with us.

    • Liz,

      I couldn’t agree more re celebrating both our parents, honoring them to put it in Biblical language. Regarding fine tributes, I believe you’re married to the “best guy in the entire universe” (wry grin).

      God watch over you and your house,

      Br. James

  5. What beautiful evidence of the impact of a loving father on his son. Thank you for sharing your love for your father in such a moving way.

    • Dear Carole,

      You are most welcome. It strikes me that there’s something about a raw, genuine love that sustains us, carries us through the darkness, and challenges us to go deeper.


      Br. James

  6. Dennis Alvarado

    Your well written words, James, do indeed bring back memories of my Dad and also of those other special Individuals who did portray a Father’s type image in my own life. I enjoyed reading Your “Our Father’s” article very much indeed! Your Dad is very proud of You from on high, I am sure. For He instilled attributes in Yourself that anyone can take notice of. Attributes of great value from my perspective. God Bless You very much on this Father’s Day Sir…………………..


    • My dear friend,

      I’m glad the piece brought back good memories for you. Thank you, as always, for your kindness, support and encouragement.

      God watch over your going out and your coming home,

      Br. James

  7. Charles Fogarty

    Thank you, Brother. Hey, as I wrote those words I thanked the Father we both share for giving you to His Church, and in particular to us, your cybercongregation.

    Charles Fogarty

  8. barbaraduffield

    For whatever reason this Father’s Day was a hard one for me; I missed my dad even more than I usually do. That being said, I avoided reading this post until now. I’m sorry I waited. You said so beautifully what I needed to hear, and reminded me that I have had not only my earthly and heavenly fathers, but spiritual fathers (and brothers, my friend) that have supported, grown, and healed me over the years. Blessings to you, even belatedly, for the Father’s Day gift you shared here.

    • My dear Barbara,

      I understand, some of them can be quite hard. I think, however, that we can rejoice that the difficulty means that our fathers offered, and are still offering, gifts that matter a great deal. There are far worse things.

      God bless you, today and always,

      Br. James

  9. James, I also avoided reading this post until now for equally complicated reasons. Glad I read it now–very meaningful to Sarah and me. I think we should have lunch and talk about our fathers!

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