The Absent Father --- A Meditation
I’m sure, like me, you have all found over the course of your life that something you have experienced or read, perhaps even long ago, suddenly comes into your mind in a way that throws hitherto unnoticed light on some passage or theme in the Gospels.
In my case it is what I call “The absence of the Good Father and its consequences” and the passages on which it throws light are found in the gospels of St Matthew and St Luke, which the two evangelists present differently. St Luke has a landowner who goes away on a journey leaving his property in charge of tenants who cheat him and abuse his servants, finally killing his son. St Matthew describes what happens when the ‘master of the house’ doesn’t come home as soon as expected and the servant left in charge says to himself ‘my master is long in coming’ and starts beating the servants and drinking himself silly. Both these passages, it now seems to me, have much to tell us about the current spiritual condition of western society as it has developed since the 1960s and moves further into the 21st century.
Please don’t be alarmed. I am not going to launch into a denunciation of western society. There is still an immense amount of good in it and much to be grateful for. But it is also fairly obvious, at least to any Christian, that it has contracted a serious disease or diseases, which it is our duty, in so far as we can, to try and combat or cure. However for that one must first find the cause, and to find the cause one must know how to recognise and understand the symptoms. The particular disease I am going to talk about results from what I have just called “The absence of the Good Father”, and I will begin by describing how I first became aware of it through personal experience and then through reading a book.
The experience took place when I was 12. To improve my French my parents sent me to France for 6 months to stay with a Mlle X who took in students for that purpose at her house in Touraine. I was the only 12-year-old. The other students were all undergraduates or just post- university in age. To help look after us there were 3 indoor servants, a cook, her assistant and a femme de chambre. Then after a month or so Mlle X had to go away for two weeks on business of some kind. She left the oldest student, a Dutch girl of 24 or so in charge. Unfortunately for Mlle X, however, the Dutch girl did not have the character or will to fill the role entrusted to her.
As soon as Mlle X. had gone, regularity and discipline rapidly went to pieces. Instead of getting up at 8 in the morning we lay in bed until 11. We did very little studying. We made life burdensome for the servants by having meals at irregular times, and we played cards and other games until long after the usual bed time. We were really enjoying ourselves or thought we were.
Then suddenly late one evening Mlle X reappeared unannounced. She had completed her business sooner than expected. I can still see her face as she threw open the door into the fumoire or smoking-room where we mainly sat. She might have been Elijah coming across a body of Israelites bowing and dancing in front of a statue of Baal.
Furniture had been moved around, carpets taken up to allow for dancing, empty glasses and cups were scattered everywhere, some of the students were in pyjamas or night dresses, and no doubt on her way from the front door she had learned of other misdeeds from the servants.
It would perhaps be more accurate to call Mlle X a mother-figure rather than a father-figure. But in the circumstances she was filling a fundamentally masculine role and most of the students were sent packing the next day back to their countries of origin. I alone was allowed to stay. Because of my age I was considered innocent, and unexpectedly, although I had enjoyed the week or ten days of disorder, I was glad to return to regular ways and, rather than liking Mlle X less, liked her more.
It then happened that a year or two later I read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park for the first time only to discover a similar incident or theme at the heart of her novel: the departure of the good father on a long journey abroad; his leaving his estate and family in charge of his eldest son; and his sudden return only to find that the son has proved untrustworthy. As soon as the father had left expensive parties and pleasure-trips multiplied, the servants began to neglect their duties and become insolent, while untrustworthy young men were allowed to flirt with the daughters and so on. Fanny, the heroine, an adopted niece, observes all this with distress and so welcomes the uncle’s return.
However it was not until recently that these two incidents, one real, the other fictional, suddenly came together in my mind and I saw an underlying connection between them and the passages in the Gospels I have mentioned together with certain features of modern western life which we have become ever more familiar with since the 1960s.
Without condemning our western societies outright or in toto Popes St John Paul II and Benedict XVI have already characterised them as in some respects ‘cultures of death’ and ‘tyrannies of relativism’. But the aspect I am going to talk about here is the quasi-frenetic pursuit of pleasure and enjoyment, not just as periodical and legitimate relaxations from work, but as ends in themselves. It is as though with the decline of belief in another life snatching as many passing pleasures as possible in this one had become an obsession. A pleasure missed here is a pleasure missed for ever. More and more of us seem to be acquiring, if not the incomes, at least the tastes and attitudes of pre-World War I aristocrats and multi-millionaires. This too our pontiffs have deplored, not least our present Holy Father. It has produced what they have called “the spirit of consumerism”, or what one is sometimes tempted to call a ‘culture of perpetual partying’.
Again, please, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not trying to promote a kind of neo-Calvinism. I have a convert friend, now a priest, who told me that one of his reasons for becoming a Catholic was that as a Catholic you were not forbidden to enjoy yourself, and I fully understand his point. No, I am speaking about a phenomenon, which goes beyond the bounds of enjoyment and has more of the nature of an addiction. As such it resembles what I experienced as a boy in France and soon after came across in Mansfield Park. ‘Partying’ or what one could call ‘pleasure-hunting’ seems for many of our fellow citizens to have become an end rather than a means.
This being the case, can we not see ‘The Absence of the Good Father’ as the primary cause? The only difference today is that the Father has not gone away of his own volition. He has, so to speak, allowed himself to be driven out of his property by his own stewards. I mean our cultural leaders or the now dominant majority of them who have inherited from the French revolution and the 1968 student rebellions so great an aversion to the idea of authority --- provided it’s not their own --- that they would rather have society fall to pieces than submit to anything that did not originate with themselves. As they hack away at the moral law and belief in God we can almost hear them saying out loud: “This is the heir. Come let us kill him and the inheritance will be ours.”
Of course there are dedicated unbelievers who are not given to partying or making the pursuit of pleasure the end of their lives. Indeed they see themselves as dedicated to making the lives of their fellow men as rewarding and happy as possible. But they are illogical and do not seem to understand the basics of human nature. With the majority of us, weak as we are, if we are not going to get a reward in the next life for doing difficult things in this one, how can you expect the majority of us not become more and more consumerist and self-centred.
In all this I have, of course, been speaking to some extent figuratively. Our Father in heaven is everywhere and always remains accessible to those who want him. Nevertheless it is clear from what he himself tells us in Holy Scripture that there is a sense in which at times, to their detriment, he can be said to withdraw or distance himself from societies and cultures as well as individuals.
So let us pray urgently that he will soon ‘come back’ and heal the diseases from which our poor western world is suffering and more and more spreading across the globe.
Version: 9th May 2015