Having Faith: The Spiritual Education of Mommy, Part II

I was thinking a couple of weeks ago about a post I wrote back in November, which for reasons I didn’t articulate at the time, I titled Having Faith: The Spiritual Education of Mommy, Part I. Why Part I? At the time I typed without thinking about it. I must have figured I’d have more to say on the subject of the intersection of faith and parenthood. I guess it was a door I wanted to leave open.

Yesterday, I attended what was my second-to-last Family Program religious ed class of the year (for those who don’t want to click over to the old post, I’ll sum up: though not a very religious person, I joined our local Catholic church a couple years ago for mostly cultural reasons; to give my kids a grounding in the same religion their dad and I grew up in. As fate would have it, our church requires parents to take classes too. My “education” has been interesting sometimes, enlightening other times, and though sometimes it loses me, it’s never been a complete snore).

Yesterday’s class was different. It ended on a highly emotional note, and it’s left me really struggling with these questions of parenthood and faith.

I’m not, as I said, a deeply religious (or strictly Catholic-with-a-capital-C) person. I never have been. But I’m a seeker by nature; my relationship with the church has always been one of “wait, you want me to believe what?” But as I’ve gotten older and, hopefully, a smidgen wiser, I’ve realized that there is a vast army of people like me, in various stages of seeking, who may perhaps never swallow the whole Catholic line, but who still find belonging satisfying. Why?

  • Because it feels good to belong, to partake in cultural touchstones, sometimes just to say the words (and none of this is, despite what some people have said to me, hypocritical).
  • Because it’s nice to recognize people around town that I know from church, and see how those groups intersect with the people I know from the boys’ school, from soccer, from the gym, from the Super Stop & Shop, even.
  • Because when I drop some canned goods in the lobby, or collect coins for the rice bowl, or write a check, or think about something or someone other than myself or my own family, it takes me out of the swirl of my own head, and that’s a peaceful place to be sometimes.
  • Because our priest, Father Frank, who is nearly 7 feet tall, with hands the size of half a basketball each, is hilarious, a Netflix junkie and a truly insightful person.

Anyway. I’m getting far and away from where I started, which was with yesterday’s class. Before it began, a father in the program stood to speak to the parents about an annual four-mile run/walk he organizes in memory of his son who, five years ago, at the age of 16 months, was backed over by an SUV in his own driveway, and killed.

When I got to class, our teacher launched her discussion by talking about the man, Bill, and his son, Alec. He has faith that his son is okay, that he and his wife and his other children are okay, she said, asking us to think about what faith is. Is it a mind game? Or is it what we use and require to survive?

Bill’s foundation, his political work to press car manufacturers to reduce the blind spots behind vehicles, his outreach to other parents: all of these are part of his faith. Because he knows, intuitively through his horrible tragedy, that if he opens up rather than closes down, he’ll get the help he needs. Because in being open and vulnerable in the reaching, he receives what he needs. Literally, what he needs to keep getting up every morning and breathing and eating breakfast and living, in this long life after Alec.

So I started thinking, as I had in that older post, about how faith requires, even demands, a blind, trusting leap, not unlike parenting itself. What is parenting, if not an openness and vulnerability to things that, quite frankly, scare the living daylights out of you? The sheer responsibility of parenting, of the care of this being you created or adopted, requires — if, I happen to believe, you do it right — a heart that beats right out on the surface of your chest.

A woman in my class (I don’t know her personally, but her daughter and my son were together in first grade), raised her hand to wonder: How do I give up control, to be open to others stepping in to help me? I care for my husband and my daughter, that’s my job.

Where’s she going with this? I wondered.

Because you’re saying you have to be open to relationship with others, in order to receive the help you need. But how can I give up that control, and let others do that? Because you see, I’m sick.

I spent the rest of the class quietly crying (I wasn’t the only one). And of course this is on the day after I cleaned out my purse, which otherwise would have contained random bits of questionable but still usable tissue, or at least a napkin from Panera, so I had to make do with my shirt sleeve.

My questions are old ones: Why did that man lose his son? And was it really his faith that allowed him to come out from under the bedcovers to create something concrete from Alec’s memory? Is his motivation to get a bunch of suburban parents to do a four-mile run and raise money and force car makers to install backup cameras, or is it to feel, if he keeps putting it out there, that Alec is somewhere enjoying the fullness of eternal life? Is it both? Does he truly believe that the people who show up for his run are keeping him upright in his faith and his work? Will that mom of the little girl from my son’s class (I remember her; a petite redhead Daniel sat next to all last year) live, or not? What’s fair? Is faith a mind game after all?

I don’t know. I don’t know.¬† The only conclusion I can draw is the same one I came to in my first post on this subject: parenting is the biggest act of faith I can think of, because it’s left me the most vulnerable¬† (to the beauty of my children’s faces, the sheer wonder of their bodies, but also to the pain that might be coming my way, the same as it came to that man, Alec’s father, and that mother beside me last night).

If you’re open to the beauty, you have to also be open to the pain.