There is such a thing as Providence. A young man taught me that. I knew it before, but I had trouble believing it. Now, thanks to John, who turns just 22 within a few days of my writing these lines, I may be a little on the way to believing it.
John, in their kindergarten and primary school days, was our son David’s best friend. John’s family was a large, close-knit Catholic clan. His father and grandfather were farmers. They imparted to John a practicality and knowledge of nature that the little boy soaked up with astonishing thoroughness. Whenever he came to play and stayed for supper, he not only ate heartily, but between bites he educated us about the corn and bean crop or his dad’s farm machinery. Then he always added some other information he had gleaned from a book someplace—how castles are built, for instance, or how some Civil War battle was fought.
John was smart; he paid attention to things around him, and he was intellectually curious. His vision spanned a broad, grown-up world that far surpassed the limited baby view of most children. No wonder David loved to play with him. John always taught him something. In addition to intelligence, John had a natural cheerfulness and buoyancy. And where less stalwart fellows might falter, John was tough and resilient. He grinned his broad grin and was undaunted.
He was often at our house. He and David spent hours at one of their favorites activities, drawing plans of forts or huge mansions. As they drew more walls and towers in the fort or more rooms in the mansion, they spun bigger and bigger tales of heroism and grandeur. John was also a partner in a mulberry stuffing when he and David over-loaded on mulberries from a tree on our creek bank. Though John’s cast-iron stomach survived, David was mightily sick that night. John was at the ready, too, when David stepped on a rusty nail by the storage shed. Offering his matter-of-fact observations on the accident, John went along to the emergency room to watch the treatment of the puncture wound. In those days, I think, he planned to become a doctor.
When David went to John’s house to play, his mother treated David as one of the family. She never failed to fix him a breakfast of biscuits and gravy, to this day one of his favorite dishes.
As I was lately cleaning out David’s closet, I discovered in a box of random snapshots and class photos a number of pictures of David and John. These photos reminded me both of John’s steady presence throughout the two boys’ early school days and also of their consistent keeping in touch. At first communion there was David, looking pleased in white shirt and navy tie, tallest child in the class, stationed midway in the back row. Toward the front of the picture, standing near the pastor, was John, grinning widely, dressed in a navy blue suit. Another picture showed John and David standing side by side in a Christmas pageant. David appeared to be a most pleasant king; in the modest style of St. John’s school, his costume was a paper crown and a bath towel draped Superman-style around his shoulders. Next to him, about half-a-head shorter, stood John, grinning in his navy blue suit. There was another photo of John, bundled in a corduroy parka, on a third-grade field trip.
Then there were three final pictures, taken a year ago. John and David stood side by side, husky and mature young men. No longer was John half-a-head shorter; he was nearly as tall as David. His neck looked as if he had been lifting weights. His grin was the same old familiar expression. The scene for these pictures, however, was new: Cheshire, Connecticut, where John had followed Providence to become Brother John, a novice in the young order of priests, the Legionaries of Christ. David had gone to Cheshire to visit John.
Years ago, when we moved from Indiana to Ohio, John was a fourth-grader who wanted to become a doctor. Though he and David kept in touch, none of us realized for a long while that John’s vision was expanding to something more. We did know that when college time came round, he chose a Midwestern seminary. But he did not stay; the school was not rigorous enough for him. He tried another seminary; it, too, was floundering and did not offer much formation in the priestly life. John left and worked for a while. He rehabilitated houses. He worked as a handyman. He even taught a bit of elementary school.
His magnet, however, was still the priesthood. Another year or so passed, and David received a jubilant letter. John had found the Legionaries, a vigorous and growing new order. He wrote enthusiastically of the rigorous order of each day, of the camaraderie and high morale of the novices, of his admiration and respect for his superiors, of his own intentions to serve Christ. Just a few months ago he wrote from Brazil, where the novices ordinarily spend some time. He loves Brazil, a difficult place but not daunting. As he wrote David, “Every day is a good day if you stay close to Jesus and Mary.”
I have a birthday in a few days, too. I am a generation older than John. Older, but not wiser. John has let Providence guide him. I, on the other hand, with red face, admit the latest in my own scrambles to resist Providence.
This was the fall when our two oldest children, David and Catherine, were to set off for the University of Dallas, he for graduate school and she for undergraduate. We were all delighted. The curriculum and faculty are excellent. The school is small, familial, and Catholic. Seldom in this age of ailing academia can one open a college catalogue and read of a “center of higher education whose primary purpose is the pursuit of wisdom and the formation of students in the intellectual and moral virtues.” Seldom does a school, without embarrassment, declare that “It is dedicated to the renewal of the Western heritage of liberal education and to the recovery of the Christian intellectual tradition.” Such statements are balm for parents who are worn out with schools that run ever counter to faith and culture; they are an elixir of hope and exhilaration for students who yearn to learn unfettered by ideology.
When David and Catherine announced, more or less independently, that their respective choices were the University of Dallas, I was overjoyed not only about the quality of the school but also that they would have each other as friends to rely on. Few people are fortunate enough to take family to school with them. What but Providence could have brought about this happy coincidence? Throughout the spring and summer I lived on the marvel of this Providential blessing.
The crash came the day Catherine began packing. I watched her taking things off her shelves and putting her jewelry into a little flowered box. She was even stacking her treasured photo albums. After all the months of her high school senior year spent on the college decision, after all the weeks of summer getting clothes ready and collecting items for a cozy dorm room, was it possible that she was piling her clothes on the guest room bed in preparation for her actual departure? Staring at the familiar clothes, I was stabbed with a heartbreak of realization that two of three children were speedily emptying the nest. I fled into the bathroom and cried into a fistful of Kleenex. I cried all the rest of the week, while washing, ironing, cooking, packing Catherine’s sweaters and her pretty comforter and sheets, helping David load the U-haul with gear for his grad school apartment. Since I hardly ever cry, I took the family by surprise. “I’m sorry,” I told them, “I just can’t turn off the faucet.”
That our family was experiencing the normal autumnal occurrence of millions of families who each year see children off to school did not mitigate my own sense of loss. Nor did my remembrance of sending David to his freshman year in college ease the emptiness that now caught hold of me. That leave-taking had been sad, but it had been somehow different. After all, he was attending my alma mater, only three hours away, that I knew like the back of my hand. I knew what his experience would be. Dallas, though, would be new to all of us.
“They are merely going to be away at school,” my husband kept telling me. “And Margaret is still here for another couple of years.” I was not to be consoled. Merely away at school, possibly; yet it could be the beginning of a permanent move away from Cincinnati, I thought in terror. My mind raced ahead to the day when Margaret, too, would be setting off for college and the house would be empty of children for weeks and even months on end. What do mothers do when children leave home? Dry up? Blow away? Die? No, they grow deeper, my husband said, and so do their children. Besides, my mother reminded me, nobody ever really leaves home. I knew she was right. People carry their home with them forever, incorporating it into every successive home. I also knew that people never outgrow their need for their parents. If my own experience is any criterion, I have grown more, not less, attached to my parents.
All the same, I cried throughout the two-day drive to Dallas. Why had I not looked at my children—really looked—when I had the chance? They were so familiar to me that I had looked without seeing. And what of their future? What would the future bring; that was the frightening question. My mind told me the future would bring them good things—reading in the greatest books, friends, conversation, fulfilling work, a life’s mate, a new generation of children. Yet my maternal instinct wanted to reach into the unknown to smooth the way and scare away the bogeymen, just as mothers always want to do.
“We simply can’t predict the future, but it will be good,” my husband said. Although I knew he was right, I was desperately trying to predict it. “We can’t predict the future,” he insisted, “but it will be all right. Not only will it be all right; it will be wonderful and exciting because it is in God’s hands.” Even if I was not, my husband was taking counsel from our young friend John.
We did arrive in Dallas, all five of us, with the van, the U-haul, and a car. One cannot cry forever, and so I did quit crying. Despite the immense heat—105 degrees—I was relieved. The more we worked on David’s little apartment, the better I felt. On the day we moved Catherine into her dorm, met her roommate and her future friends, I came back to life. With a visit to the bookstore, locating the books for Catherine’s literary traditions class, The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Beowulf, Sir Gawain, my brain settled back into place. The parents’ meeting, including presentations by the president and the school administrators, brought back to me why we had come: to help initiate our children into an excellent education formation. Once again—as I have been shown so many times in my life—the reality itself is consolation for all my preliminary worrying.
At the end of the freshman moving-in day, the school’s young chaplain celebrated a Mass for all new families in which he not only blessed the students but also specially blessed the parents. He read the Gospel of the Vine and the branches, which speaks the miraculous truth that in order to be united with Christ the Vine, we, the branches, must grow strong through pruning. The chaplain’s homily on the Gospel recalled the baptism of the young students, at which their parents literally held the next generation in their hands. Just so, each generation must grow up in order that it may hold the following generation in its hands. In our own family, as in so many others, there are grandparents who have had the joy of holding three generations in their hands.
The homily, with its emphasis on the unity of the Vine and branches, and, likewise, the unity of generations, even while acknowledging that both unities require a pruning to encourage new growth, brought to my mind the last two Joyful Mysteries of the rosary. As our friend John pointed out, every day is a good day when lived in union with Jesus and Mary. The rosary does much to keep that union Wore our eyes. As we send forth our children, the mysteries of the Presentation and the Finding of Our Lord in the Temple have particular meaning.
When Mary and Joseph presented their Son in the temple, they offered Him to the Lord and to his Providential purposes. Though it must have been a poignant moment for them, a reminder that our children are not possessions but gifts entrusted to our care, they must also have been profoundly grateful for the privilege of offering back to the Father this greatest of their gifts, their child. When a dozen years later they suffered the anguish of losing their Son, or so they thought, they found Him again, found Him in the temple conversing with the learned doctors. He told His parents He must be about His Father’s business. When Mary and Joseph thought they had lost Him, they found Him—yet found Him in a different form, matured and even more amazing to them.
It is so with our children. Sending forth means not losing but presenting and finding in a new form. As Mary and Joseph discovered, it is not possible to lose your children. Once there was a time, before they were conceived, when you never knew they would exist. But once they come into your life, they are forever and inseparably part of you, and you are part of them. You are both branches growing from the Vine. Most delicately you hold them in your hands so that one day they may hold their children in their hands. That is Providential.