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franciscan - January 1998

© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 1997

A Mutual Agreement: The divine in parent and child relationships

by Lorraine Cavanagh

One afternoon, when our eldest daughter, Meara, was little more than four months old, my husband and I took her to Barmouth for a breath of sea air. It must have been late in the season, as the beach was virtually deserted, the air crisp and clear, and Snowdon just visible in the distant haze of early Autumn.

That this outing stands out as significant is not only due to the awesome beauty of our surroundings, but to a minor event which marked the beginning of our lives together as three inter-relating members of a single family. It was the occasion of our daughterís first conscious laughter. Such laughter in babyhood is an entirely different expression of feeling to that of the hiccups and gurgles, which normally accompany the pleasures of eating at this early stage in a personís life. This laughter was a manifestation of the genuine delight which our baby felt at bouncing on her fatherís shoulders as we ran along the sea shore on that chilly afternoon.
It was the mutuality of the moment which was memorable for us as parents. By mutuality, I do not mean that all three of us laughed together for the same reason, but that the laughter in each of us was prompted by the depth of the pleasure experienced in being a part of the other two. I sensed, instinctively, that this was as true for our young baby as it was for us.

It was a mutuality which I now realise reflects that of the Trinity. For mutuality between parents and children is the joy of reciprocal love between two or more people who, in their diversity, rejoice in what they hold in common. That which is held in common is nothing less than each person trusting sufficiently in the love which exists between them to know that they are free to be fully themselves in it. In this respect, our daughterís first moment of conscious laughter was the beginning of her life. She laughed because she knew she was free.

I want to reflect briefly on how this God-given freedom might inform our understanding of trust and mutual obedience in parent-child relationships. This knowledge of freedom, which the young child senses in her initial moments of consciousness, consists in knowing that she is a person, and it is a knowledge which in time will reveal the responsibilities she has to other persons. The family is the context within which we learn to value personal freedom and to shoulder the responsibilities which that entails towards the wider community. However, we do not have children merely to ensure that responsible citizens are raised and sent out to make their contribution to society, any more than God created Adam out of a sense of duty towards the animal kingdom. We have children because, like God, we yearn for someone in our own image and likeness. If then our yearning is like Godís, his other motives must be at least partly reflected in our desire for progeny.

The biblical creation story speaks to us of a God who, from the beginning, so loved the world that he wished to enter into relationship with his Creation. For this reason, he created beings who, in a metaphorical sense, spoke his own language. Our desire to procreate reflects this need to be in communion with another human being who is not only flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone but the fruit of reciprocal human love, entered into fully and freely.

The human beingís relationship with the Creator becomes formalised in covenantal ties both old and new, but the parent-child relationship, if we are to be realistic, rests entirely on trust.

The formal ties of kinship are neither more nor less effective in holding families together. It is trust on which true kinship depends. Adopted children may well form deep and lasting relationships with their foster parents, while other children have been known to break permanently with biological parents who, for whatever reason, have betrayed that trust. At different stages in the childís life with her parents, the bonds of trust will reflect the mutuality of the Trinity, the trust which governed the relationship of Christ with the Father and, tragically, the covenantal trust which was shattered between God and Adam and between Israel and Yahweh. The trust which should exist between parent and child involves a profound and joy-filled awe in the face of the enormous potential given to every human person.

Love, which should form the basis for the parent-child relationship, calls forth a free and reciprocal obedience, on the part of parents as well as children, to the conditions which promote a climate of trust. When it fails, the parent-child relationship differs most significantly from the loving Creator and his creation in a denial of freedom for the child to become fully her own person. The desire for progeny then expresses a consuming need for power over others. It is here that personal disappointment emerges among certain parents as ambition for their children, in the hope that these children will somehow vindicate the failures and frustrations of the previous generation. Worse still, disappointment may appear as naked jealousy in the face of their childrenís giftedness.

Obedience born of trust, as a basis for covenant, is, in the manner of all agreements of this sort, a two-way process. Children also have obligations towards parents and siblings, but they too rest on a trust which is rooted in the divine mutuality of the Trinity. These obligations have very little to do with the crude obeying of orders and still less with the honouring of undeserving parents. They are obligations which require that children strive to honour the trust placed in them by good parents in the realisation of all that they were created to be. This entails risk. Failure to accept challenges, in being untrue to oneself, is, from the very beginning, the worst kind of disobedience. The Prodigalís elder brother, whom C S Lewis described as like one who Ďwears his faith like an old shirtí, is an example of this kind of failure.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the younger brotherís return was so fêted. Out of the muddle and the mess of those wasted years came the possibility for a new beginning and for a greater Ďbecomingí of the human person. His squandering of an inheritance was, to be sure, a sin, but to have sat meanly on all of his God-given potential, looking instead to material security, both now and in the future, would have been a greater one. It was the inner wealth, so disarmingly displayed in the person of his errant younger son, which the father wanted to celebrate and of which the brother was, presumably, jealous. Such wealth was due in turn to the fatherís courage and generosity in having allowed the risk in the first place. His own joy in the reunion is an indication that what we give in the parent-child relationship is reflected in what we subsequently receive. The letting go of children is the greatest challenge to parental love. It also reaps the greatest rewards.

The laughter and joy, which must have accompanied the Prodigalís return, marked the beginning of a new creation. The boy was a new person. He was not divorced from his past which had been permitted and then redeemed by his fatherís eager forgiveness. But he was greater and stronger through having risked and lost. The ties which held him safe within the mutuality of the family, revealed in his relationship with his father, were strengthened and renewed by the joy which accompanied that reconciliation. Perhaps, this was an echo of a long-forgotten afternoon when, as a young baby, he might have ridden on his fatherís shoulders and laughed for the first time. §


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