Wednesday, I was interviewed on Catholic Radio Northwest by “In Person” host Dina Marie Hale. We covered a lot in the fifty minutes we were on air, and it went by very fast, but one point we touched upon that I’d like to spin out a bit was the vocation of parenting.
We were talking about Holy Matrimony and the marital vows, and I compared them to the life vows taken by monastics. I used the traditional Benedictine vows as an example: stability, obedience, and conversion of life. While these are not the literal vows of matrimony, they parallel the marital vows in a way that demonstrates the similar ground on which these—and all—commitments made before God rest. The marital vows also extend to our relationships with our children, growing into unspoken parenting vows as well.
Stability: The essence of the promise to remain faithful to one another, forsaking all others, until death do us part is a vow of stability. It says “I’m not going anywhere, no matter what. I am committed to this relationship and whenever you need me I will be there.” This is a promise spouses make to one another, but it is also an implied promise to our children. Just as Julia knows that I’m not going anywhere—that I can be counted upon regardless of the circumstances—Anna knows it too. I can’t just pick up and leave when I get fed up with everything. I have to stick it out, because other people are depending on me.
Obedience: This is a tricky one, given the traditional view of marriage as a one-way relationship regarding obedience. Not that I would try, but if I ever suggested to Julia that she “obey” me, she would laugh me out of the room. Our relationship is a partnership: both complimentary, in that we bring different strengths and weaknesses to our marriage; and egalitarian, in that we respect each other and acknowledge our common human dignity. But the root of the word “obedience” is the Latin word obedienta, which in turn is derived from a stronger form of the word audiere: to listen. Obedience in the Benedictine sense is before all else a vow to listen, which is the first word of The Rule of Saint Benedict. I need to listen carefully to my wife, she needs to listen carefully to me, and we both need to listen carefully to our daughter. Only by careful listening will we be able to hear and respond to each other’s needs. In the parent-child relationship, of course, obedience can be understood in its more traditional sense: Anna is the child and we are the adults. She needs to do what we tell her to do, but we need to listen to her and understand her needs instead of barking orders at her.
Conversion of Life: This is the hardest of the vows to translate from Latin and thus hardest to understand , but to me it means continuous life-long growth in Christ. This vow is expressed in our faithfulness to each other as an extension of our faithfulness to God, and in our promise given at Anna’s baptism to raise her in the Christian faith. It is lived whenever we gather together as a family and pray: both at meals and at bedtime.
We begin our night prayers with the Sign of the Cross. Then we ask God’s blessing on our family and on all those important to us. We pray for those in need and give thanks for all the good things in our lives. Then we say a set of prayers. The first one is a children’s prayer of thanksgiving that Julia made up:
Thank you God for today;
Thank you for time to play,
and thank you for time to pray.
Anna signs it as she says it. Then we say the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be, and then close with the Sign of the Cross. Through this nightly routine, we are planting the seeds of Anna’s faith at the same time we are nurturing our own.
Outside of our prayer routine, this vow is lived in the way our faith influences our actions. When we show kindness and compassion to one another and to all the people we encounter, respecting them as fellow children of God, we show Anna what our faith is really about. She doesn’t know the definition of the word hypocrisy, but she knows it when she sees it. She doesn’t know St. James’ Epistle, but she knows in her gut—as all kids must know—that “faith without works is dead.”
And that is the meaning of “conversion of life.” What’s the point of praying if prayer doesn’t change me? If it doesn’t make me a better husband and a better father?
That is what God is calling me to be. That is my vocation.