Fatherhood, Beauty, and Discipline

This is a speech I gave at IHM School’s recent graduation.

Besides being the auspicious occasion of Juliana’s graduation from IHM School, today is also Father’s Day. This is a secular observance that, here in the United States, began in the early twentieth century. But if we consult that vast database of online information, Wikipedia, we learn, this: “In Catholic Europe, it [Father’s Day] has been celebrated on March 19 (St. Joseph’s Day) since the Middle Ages. This celebration was brought by the Spanish and Portuguese to Latin America, where March 19 is often still used for it… .” Given the absence of Saint Joseph from their lives, when American Protestants wanted a day to honor Fatherhood, they chose a random Sunday in June for its observance. But for all its secular character, we Catholics should still honor the day because we honor the institution that it commemorates.

Given modern trends and movements, which enshrine the aberrant and exult the abnormal, it is no surprise that occasional articles and other journalistic diatribes against the celebration come out this time of year. Way back in 1974, before she was a Supreme Court Justice, then Columbia University Law School professor Ruth Bader Ginsburg co-authored a report which claimed: “Replacing ‘Mother’s Day’ and ‘Father’s Day’ with a ‘Parent’s Day’ should be considered, as an observance more consistent with a policy of minimizing traditional sex-based differences in parental roles.” There is also at least one offering on YouTube explaining how we might celebrate Father’s Day as part of June’s other observance: “Pride Month.” (And you probably thought it was the Month of the Sacred Heart!)

We honor earthly fathers as images of the Eternal Father: Saint Paul writes to the Ephesians, “I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named…” (Eph. 3:14-15).

In a happy concurrence with the observance of Father’s Day, today’s short Epistle reading from Romans 8 speaks of our divine adoption as God’s children no less than three times: “For the expectation of the creature waiteth for the revelation of the sons of God.” He speaks of creation itself being “delivered from the servitude of corruption, into the liberty of the glory of the children of God,” and that we ourselves wait for the “for the adoption of the sons of God.”

This is what the Catholic life is all about: our supernatural adoption in Christ and by the Holy Spirit as God’s sons and daughters, as partakers of the very divine nature itself — being made, as we are, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, by which we have title to a heavenly inheritance in the Kingdom of our Father.

This is the great truth of our lives; this is our summum bonum (our “highest good”); this is the greatest beauty that is, for it unites us to that “beauty ever ancient and ever new” that is God, in the words of Saint Augustine.

But we too often forget the supernatural purpose of our lives as children of the Eternal Father. So, for the rest of this little talk, I’d like to try to impress on our lovely graduate how she might remember what she is and what is her destiny.

I begin that by citing Saint Paul, from Hebrews 12:1-3:

And therefore we also having so great a cloud of witnesses over our head, laying aside every weight and sin which surrounds us, let us run by patience to the fight proposed to us: Looking on Jesus, the author and finisher of faith, who having joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and now sitteth on the right hand of the throne of God. For think diligently upon him that endured such opposition from sinners against himself; that you be not wearied, fainting in your minds.

Saint Paul tells us to look upon Jesus, whom he calls elsewhere “The image (ikon) of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Our Lord Himself tells Saint Philip, “he that seeth me seeth the Father also” (John 14:9).

“Looking on Jesus” does at least two things for us: First, it makes us to see the Father because Our Lord is the perfect and living Image of the Father. Second, it also makes us to see what we are supposed to be: the children of that same Father, because that it what Jesus is — the Eternal Child in the Trinity.

Every virtue and perfection that Our Lord displays in all the joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries of His life reflects some eternal perfection that He received from His Father. Therefore, Jesus is kind as the Father is kind, loving as the Father is loving, merciful as the Father is merciful, tender as the Father is tender, and so forth. In considering these virtues and perfections of Christ in the mysteries of the Rosary, we are seeing the Father, at the same time we see how it is that a Child of God is supposed to live.

So, Juliana, pray and meditate your daily Rosary as one way of keeping vital contact with the Father in Christ and through the Holy Ghost. And take that advice of the great spiritual writer, Father Mary Eugene Boylan, who said, “Every soul who wishes to advance should try to look God in the face, in all reverence, at least once every day.”

And why would we not want to contemplate that Face — that beautiful Holy Face!

I know that Juliana understands what I’m saying, because I know she can appreciate good art. She doesn’t just like to see a pretty picture and move on, but to relish a work of art, to read it and try to get into the mind of the artist. When, just over a week ago, the Upper School went on a field trip to the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts, Juliana was one of the elite few who were not bored out of their minds by the experience. I could see that she actually relished it. At one point, she became positively ebullient while explaining to some of us the meaning behind one painting we saw. Mind you, it was not an icon, but a painting by a modern Russian painter. After staring at it for some time, she breathlessly narrated to us a meaning that I would never have seen in it. And she was probably right.

The appreciation of good art is itself a contemplative experience; Juliana well knows this because she read a book I lent her on the subject by the German Catholic Philosopher, Dr. Josef Pieper.

A minute ago, I referred to God in Saint Augustine’s famous words as the “beauty ever ancient and ever new.” Given the disparate temperaments, talents, and aptitudes that make us all so different, people have varying approaches to God — and I don’t mean the different religions, I mean the different ways to the one true God that may be traversed by the orthodox faithful. Some approach Him primarily as Truth; others, as Goodness, and others as Beauty — all of which He is.

Those who appreciate good art are lovers of beauty, because beauty is the good to be pursued in art. For such people, the words of the great Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, have great meaning: “beauty will save the world.” (These words are from Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot, where they are put on the lips of the main character, Prince Myshkin, who is an epileptic, and who, like Dostoevsky himself, experiences brief ecstatic bursts of contemplative insight into reality just before the onset of an epileptic seizure. For Dostoevsky, all the pain and terror of the seizure was amply compensated by this experience of less than a second.)

Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2009 “Meeting with Artists” in the Sistine Chapel, quoted Dostoevsky in another passage on beauty, this one from his novel, Demons. The Holy Father said:

Dostoevsky’s words that I am about to quote are bold and paradoxical, but they invite reflection. He says this: “Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live, because there would no longer be anything to do to the world. The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here.”

Pope Francis, in his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, also cites Dostoevsky:

In Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Prince Myshkin sees a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger depicting Christ dead in the tomb and says: “Looking at that painting might cause one to lose his faith.” The painting is a gruesome portrayal of the destructive effects of death on Christ’s body. Yet it is precisely in contemplating Jesus’ death that faith grows stronger and receives a dazzling light; then it is revealed as faith in Christ’s steadfast love for us, a love capable of embracing death to bring us salvation. This love, which did not recoil before death in order to show its depth, is something I can believe in; Christ’s total self-gift overcomes every suspicion and enables me to entrust myself to him completely (§16).

Here we see that the contemplation of beauty is the contemplation of truth, and also of goodness, because the Triune God is all three.

Let me conclude by returning to the theme of Father’s Day. If they are good fathers, it is their job to lay down the law, and to enforce it in the home. This is usually not their favorite thing to do. But it must be remembered that, in this, they are called to resemble God the Father, of whom King David says in Psalm 24, “The Lord is sweet and righteous: therefore he will give a law to sinners in the way.” That law that the Father gives us is good, and He give it because He loves us. The indulgent father, who gives no law, no discipline to his child, shows no love. It is no wonder that we call such a child “spoiled” — the same word we use for things when they have been harmed or gone bad.

If our pursuit of beauty is to lead us to the right place, and not to mere worldly astheticism, we need to regulate it by this law of God that our Good Father has given us. And that is why the Church, our good Mother, teaches us this law, that we might find ourselves safely at home in Our Father’s House, and contemplate Beauty Himself in the Face.