Each one, as a good manager of God's different gifts, must use for the good of others the special gift he has received from God. (1 Peter 4:10)

A Father’s Love

When my mother was about 8 months into her pregnancy with me — just before Christmas, 1946 — my father took one of his infamous walks. “Going for cigarettes,” he’d say — and he might come back, or he might take off for several months or years. The youngest of my three older brothers told me that this particular departure happened a few days before Christmas. He remembers being secretly glad, because then the man — who was an alcholic — couldn’t ruin the family Christmas.

In all of the previous 15 years of their marriage, my mother had always taken my father back when he showed up again. This time, he came back on the very night I was born in January, 1947. He professed to be thrilled at the birth of a daughter after three sons, and I’m sure he made amazing promises — but perhaps not; perhaps he just relied on what my mother called his natural, and sinister, seductiveness.

In any event, she was done. She told him no, that it was over and she would not live with him again. His response took the form of threats — she shouldn’t try to get child support, because he would harm us all — and off he went. I learned, much later, that he got as far as Indiana, where records show he entered into a civil marriage less than 8 months after I was born, and without benefit of a divorce. Less than three years later, he abandoned his new wife and 2-year-old daughter on the side of the road and headed farther south, where he “married” again in New Orleans and fathered four more children that I know of (one of them with his wife’s niece). He never told his New Orleans wife about the four children in Michigan or the one in Indiana until, disabled by a stroke in 1963, he had to make disclosures to receive social security benefits. He lived another 17 years after that, but I never met him. My brother — the same one who was secretly glad the man had left — established contact in 1980 shortly before our father died. Our father wanted to be forgiven, and all of us extended our forgiveness. It cost us little to do so — all the pain was in the past.

There is much more to the story, some of it sordid, some of it poignant; the fact is, I grew up in a single-parent home and never knew my father at all. And for a very long time, that fact got all tangled up in my relationship with God. For much of my life, I felt and believed that my experience of God as my Father was limited and somehow unsatisfactory because I had no real idea, no first-hand experience, of how a father functioned in the family. Just as I always felt uneasy in the homes of my childhood friends when their fathers were around, I felt a little uneasy about God the Father. I didn’t know what to expect.

Over the years, I guess you would say I kept my distance. But God wasn’t keeping His distance, not at all. Tantalizing clues kept peering out from Bible studies and from the Liturgy of the Mass. Some kind of awakening began when one Bible study I attended posed a discussion question about how we address God, and I was intrigued by the image of Jesus referring to God as Father in the intimate manner of a family relationship: Abba — almost like “daddy.”

One appellation really drew me in — a deacon who taught one of the studies I attended used to start his prayers with “Father God….” and that seemed to speak in my heart. Over a period of a couple of years, I pondered this relationship, this sort of fuzzy distant feeling I had about God the Father as unapproachable and unknowable, and something began to change.

As I prayed to my “Father God,” He began to answer me, and this is what I learned: How very fortunate and blessed I am that my first real experience of a father is with the Father of all creation! I began to understand that He loved me into existence and that as the Creator of all the universe, he knows me personally and intimately and wants me to come to Him every day, every hour, every minute of my life. When I begin to pray, I seek to put myself in God’s presence, and the image that forms is of me sitting at the feet of the most fatherly person you could imagine, leaning on His knee and feeling utterly cherished.

In this imagery, little tags of Scripture take on a whole new meaning. “To your Father, you are worth many sparrows….” I’ve learned to take all kinds of things to my Father in the conversation of prayer. I don’t need the experience of an earthly father to form this relationship; rather, I understand that my Father God wants to reveal Himself to me in His own way, that He is waiting every day to show how much He loves me.

I find myself at a loss for words to describe what this new understanding of God as Father means to me. It’s nothing I’ve invented or conjured out of the experiences in my life or from my own lacks and wants. Instead, it is something that God Himself creates and renews constantly in my life, and my soul rests in His embrace as surely and as safely as any infant in a father’s arms.

And for this, I give thanks. I can’t waste time wishing I’d figured it out sooner — it’s enough just to live in gratitude for it.


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