It can be disconcerting to watch the ranks of people walking along the city streets with wires in their ears, oblivious to the lives being lived around them, and tuning in only to what they choose to hear. It is surprising that more of them are not run over by taxis, but even if they met so mean a fate, the music would still go on in mechanical mockery. A father recently bemoaned the fact that the iPod had “deprived” him of his teenage son. That is the son’s fault, but it is also the father’s fault. As Christ is shepherd of our souls, using rod and staff to guide us — the rod to knock us on the head when we are in danger of straying and the staff to gently encourage us — so is a parent a shepherd of the young, and sometimes the rod must smash the iPod, but never without the staff gently urging the youth along the right path.
This is easier for me to say since I have never been the father of a teenager, and there are those who curiously and inexplicably list this among the sacrifices a priest must make. A pastor, of a parish, though, is entrusted with the care of a flock as a father, and the Pope himself has a very large flock and is to them not a Holy King or Holy President, but a Holy Father. In the singular economy of the Church, a man may be a father to those older than himself and as old as himself, as well as to those younger. In the confessional, no one has to calculate one’s age in relation to the confessor before saying, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” And when the rod must be used, those who need to be tapped into moral consciousness may object at first, but on the Last Day they will be thankful if it saved them from going off a cliff.
So we have the maxim, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” Those who quote the Bible without reading it, often assume that the line is scriptural, though it was coined by the seventeenth century Cavalier satirist Samuel Butler in his narrative poem, “Hudbibras” which mocks the Roundheads, Presbyterians and Puritans. The line is perfectly consistent with the Book of Proverbs which speaks of ‘rod discipline’ six times, and the New Testament is in concord: “My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him: for who the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges” (Hebrew 12:5-6).
In the politicized diction of gender neutral translations, we would say sons and daughters: “If you are without discipline, in which all have shared, you are not sons (and daughters) but bastards.” (Hebrews 12:8)
On occasion, our present pope has been required by the One whose Vicar he is, to wield the rod according the demands of his lofty office, and must take heroic virtue when it is not instinctive to his gentle nature. Had discipline been more evident in the practice of mercy in previous decades, the rod would be lighter now. Instead, a world of spoiled children, even among consecrated Religious, rallies the perpetual adolescents in the media to support them in their crusade against reality. The rod without the staff would certainly be a battle-axe, but the staff without the rod would be a weak crutch. St. Paul was not the father of a child, quite in radical departure from the rabbinical code in which he was reared, but he became a father of many churches, and as such seems to be speaking to himself when hewrites: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up with the training and instructions of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4)
The Good Shepherd says that “the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his sheep by name” (John 10:3). Like the father excommunicated from his son by the iPod, God Himself can be blocked out of our consciousness if we hear only our own voice, living in a “virtual reality” sustained by the imaginings of the ego. Jesus told Peter “Tend my lambs. . . Feed my sheep . . . Feed my sheep” (John 21: 15-17). The sheep are those who hear God but need encouragement. The lambs are those who seem to have blocked out God, Who continues to call to them. Once they have been brought to consciousness, sometimes by the shock of crises in life, which can strike like a rod, then God leads them with His shepherd’s staff into green pastures and“restores my soul” (Psalm 23:3).
Spiritual mortification is our inner attempt at contacting God without the interference of disorderly passions. There will always be outward distractions when we pray, but there are also willful distractions rooted in self-absorption, that can only be overcome by discipline, and the spoiled soul has lost the art of such self-control. Just to take a domestic example, it is not unknown that someone will actually answer a cell phone during Mass. Unless God is on the other end, this is inverted prayer. The personality type that lets a machine interrupt worship has excommunicated its self through the agency of self-uncontrol.
Now prayer is conversation with God, and it is often difficult for us because, by misuse of free will, we can “put Him on hold.” When we do not answer, God leaves us a recorded message through the words of the Scriptures, the pulse of the saints and the songs of Liturgy. The Latin word for deaf is surdus, and man does become an absurdity to his very self when he willfully listens only to himself. Aquinas hymned “Sedauditu solo tuto creditur,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins translated: “How says trusty hearing? That shall be believed…” When the dying St. Stephen said he could see the Son seated at the right hand of the Father, the mob covered their ears in a simulation people listening to iPods. But one of them listened. Later on the Damascus road, he was dazzled by what Stephen had seen. When St. Paul was converted, he said: “You also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians1:13).