Father’s Day is a great day to remember our earthly fathers and reflect on the fatherhood of God.
My dad was an Irish Catholic dad; he was hard-working, humble and very generous. He cared deeply for others, especially his wife and children. However, he rarely said, “I love you.” He rarely encouraged us with words at all. My mom used to try and make up for his silence by explaining that we should know our father loved us by the way he provided for us.
Dad was quiet with his words, but generous, providing us with money or practical things people needed. He firmly believed Jesus’ teaching on giving when He said, “do not let your left hand know what the right hand is doing.” (Matthew 6:3)
Contrary to his lack of encouragement, dad had a deep and abiding faith. He went to Mass every day, not of obligation, but out of desire. I would wake early on Saturday to go to Mass with Dad because I knew that he’d take me out to breakfast afterward. But also because when he was at church, Dad was different. Before God, Dad’s humility and love exuded through his devotion. When I entered high school, I started going to daily Mass with him. It was the best time of day to connect with Dad.
Dad’s emotional absence was compounded by his drinking problem. Later in life, I would come to realize that alcohol probably helped him connect with others and escape his criticisms of himself. However, for me, his drinking increased the distance between us. I didn’t feel safe and protected when Dad drank. I worried that the physical provisions of shelter, food and security were threatened when Dad drank.
One would think I would judge my dad to be a hypocrite, drinking at night and going to church every morning. But I knew that in church my dad was truly his best self. He wasn’t self-righteous and condemning or in any way blinded to his faults and failings. In church, Dad was truly himself before God. When he took my hand gently as we prayed the “Our Father,” I knew we were both children of God, reaching out to an eternal Father who loved us beyond our own means to be loving. It was that reach that finally allowed my father to stop drinking when I was in elementary school and helped me to feel more secure about the future.
Despite our morning connections at daily Mass and the end of his drinking problem, my struggles with dad intensified during high school. His criticisms were too harsh for me as I looked towards defining my own future. I guess it was his way of trying to help prepare me for future success. I think he believed that if he was hard on me, then I would succeed.
Finally after major battles over plans for career choices (he wanted me to become a secretary, but I kept failing typing class) I renounced my father as my father. After a particularly loud and verbal fight with dad, I told my mother that I would no longer call dad my father, but rather I had taken God as my heavenly Father and I’d look to Him for all the guidance and help I needed.
It broke my mother’s heart, but in retrospect, it was the healthiest thing I could do for myself and for my relationship with my earthly father. In truth, my dad showed me how to look to God for guidance, inspiration and strength. Now I had to do it on my own.
I attended a college that dad didn’t want me to go to, majoring in theology and English/creative writing, against dad’s wishes. I found my true identity as a daughter of God as I pursued Him in the study of literature and theology. In those four years of college, I grew to know God the Father loved me personally for who I am, faults and all. Contrary to the distance I felt with dad outside the church, I discovered the intimacy with God that my dad led me to believe.
It was from that place of knowing the love of God, that I was able to forgive my dad for his emotional distance, his verbal criticisms and his lack of faith in me.
In those college years, Dad took an early retirement and was able to be more present to me. He loved visiting me at school and talking on the phone. He listened intently as I shared with him what I was learning in the study of theology. He still told me I was crazy with one hand, but with his quiet other hand, he encouraged, and I think possibly even admired, my pursuit of faith seeking understanding.
Though it took years for us to reconcile and forgive, the actions were there and it helped to heal the past. Dad finally learned to say “I love you” when he lost one of his older daughters in a drunk driving accident. The ironic nature of her death was not lost on me and I’m certain not on Dad either. After my sister’s death, Dad ended every conversation with “I love you” as he focused on appreciating his children and grandchildren.
Being at my father’s bedside when he died was one of the most profound experiences of my life. I prayed and sang with him till his last breath. It was like the doors to heaven opened and I knew Dad was being welcomed home into the presence of God.
Dad died just before midnight and that night’s sleep was the best sleep of my entire life. I was perfectly at peace knowing that now I had two perfect fathers in heaven looking out for me from a life beyond the grave.
Knowing God as a father can be a hard concept to grasp. Knowing God as a merciful father is even harder when one lacks an earthly experience of a father’s unconditional love. But I promise you from my own life and beyond, that even in the experience of a distant dad who loved from behind a veil of criticism, the mercy of God can break down the walls that separate us and turn “the hearts of children to their fathers and fathers to their children.” (Malachi 4:6)
Jesus revealed God as Father using the Hebrew word, “Abba” which means “Daddy.” He blew the disciples away with this knowledge of an intimate and loving God who is also our father. Jesus encouraged the disciples and each of us not to ramble on in prayer because “the Father knows what you need before you even ask.”(Matthew 6:8)
My dad always knew what I needed before I asked and his generosity helped formed a foundation in me to trust God as a loving Father who always provides. Even now as I pray the “Our Father” as Jesus taught, I can picture my dad reaching out to hold my hand.
This Father’s day and always, I pray that whether you have known the unconditional love of your earthly father or not, you may experience the intimate love of our Heavenly Father as you pray.
Our Father, Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be Thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come.
Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
Eileen Benthal is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a B.A. in Theology from Franciscan University. She is the author of Breathing Underwater: A Caregiver’s Journey of Hope.
Eileen and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Their youngest, Johanna, is a teenager with special needs.
Eileen can be reached at CareforaCaregiver.com.