Professor Zena Hitz, in A Philosopher Looks at the Religious Life, writes of our longing for eternity and asks, “How much of our life or work is about our children?”
“The lives of childless persons like myself have meaning thanks to other people’s children. I am a teacher. I pass on to young people the habits of mind I learned myself when I was young…If there are no young people, there is nothing and no one to teach; those habits of mine will die with me and my contemporaries. So too with any endeavor: starting a company, planting a farm, building a skyscraper, lobbying for justice.”
We’re hard-wired, in other words, to long for eternity, to long to pass on what we’ve learned, for life to continue after we’re gone.
That means children.
And this longing for life to continue is one reason why the teachings of the Church on marriage and family make total sense. Those of us without children support–in a sense, lay down our lives–for other people’s families and children.
Fall in Tucson is spectacular. It’s still in the 80s during the day with cool mornings and cooling evenings. The sky at dusk is enough to make a person weak at the knees. Arizona doesn’t observe Daylight Savings so sunset’s around 6 this time of year and I often start out on a walk around 5.
I did that last night, wandering up and down the streets and alleys of my neighborhood, watching the light shade purple on the Santa Catalina Mountains, listening to the mourning doves, feeling the caress of the desert air.
There’s a park near my house, a block long, a couple of blocks wide, and when I first moved here I thought–How ugly. Himmel is a far cry from, say, Central Park–but then again, what isn’t?
The grass is brown much of the year. There are no groovy water features. There are tennis courts and a soccer field and (maybe this is the same field) a baseball field.
But over time I’ve come to notice the oleanders that fringe the whole southern edge. the vermilion flycatchers that flit among the mesquite, the hawks soaring over the fraying palm trees. People gather here to do tai chi, practice juggling, play folk music, hold drum circles, set up chairs in the shade and chat. The Himmel Park branch library sits on the northeast border.
Twelve-step groups stake out a tree, sit in a circle, and recover beneath the pines. People walk their dogs, exercise, meditate, toss Frisbies, hold clandestine phone conversations.
But in a way, I’ve come to see, HImmel Park belongs to the children. They come out in droves after school and on the weekends, shouting, sprinting, panting, gamboling. I seldom walk through as opposed to around the park and in fact usually give it a wide berth in favor of the relative solitude of the residential streets.
Last night, though, drawn by the children’s exuberance and distant cries, I deliberately walked their way. A soccer game was in progress and whole row of parents had set up shop on the sidelines, snacking and chatting and cheering the kids on. On the outskirts fathers played catch with their sons. A mother taught her toddler to walk. The shadows were lengthening. There is something about the sight of children playing at dusk that stirs the heart.
I was an observer, not a participant. All I did was walk by and drink in the sight and sounds. But over me washed a profound sense of well-being. Of belonging, of gratitude, both for my own life and for these parents who were doing the hardest and most important work any human being can ever hope to do. I’d been praying the Rosary so Mary at the foot of the Cross was mixed in there somehow.
And I looked at these kids, who were not mine, for whom I had done not a single corporeal work of mercy, and thought. Through my celibacy I am laying down my life for you and all like you.
In a way of course that is nothing. It’s nothing compared to what an actual parent does. But I didn’t have to compare. I didn’t have to feel less than or other than. I felt an incredible sense of peace, of Consummatum est, of I am loved, I am forgiven, again–that I belong.
Also I didn’t cry, which is unusual, not tears of sorrow and remorse but not tears of joy either. I just felt solid. It is right and just, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Oh Lord…
In a way my life, like every human life, has been a long, long desert. Ireland this summer was a desert. But I have somehow returned refreshed, renewed, transformed in some new way. Nothing cataclysmic, or that I can much articulate or put my finger on. But it has something to do with freedom from bondage, and in particular the bondage of wounds around love, sex, abortion, childhood, my own (sainted) mother, the fact that I wasn’t up to being a (biological) mother myself.
There are many ways we lay down our lives for each other, of course. Celibacy, if that’s our station, is just one of them. But for me it has been a particularly rich, fruitful, utterly unexpected grace. A way of healing and of giving that seems to the world like a negative, an emptiness, but that in God’s economy is a fullness that I could never have engineered, or even imagined, on my own.
“The most precious goods must not be searched for; they must be waited for.”