I read a story yesterday that drilled right through me. It’s from a letter Montaigne wrote to a neighbor about the love fathers show toward their children. The excerpt is long. Forgive me in advance. You’ll thank me when it’s done:
After the late Marshal de Monluc lost his son . . . he used to stress greatly to me, among his other regrets, the sorrow and heartbreak he felt for never having opened up to him. He had lost, he said, by that habit of paternal gravity and stiffness, the comfort of appreciating his son and knowing him well, and also of declaring to him the extreme affection that he bore him and the high opinion he had of his virtue.
“And that poor boy,” he would say, “saw nothing of me but a scowling and disdainful countenance, and took with him the belief that I knew neither how to love him nor how to esteem him according to his merit. For whom was I keeping the revelation of that singular affection that I bore him in my soul? Wasn’t he the one who should have had all the pleasure of it and all the gratitude?
“I constrained and tortured myself to maintain this vain mask, and there by lost the pleasure of association with him, and of his good will along with it, for he could not be other than very cool toward me, having never had anything but harshness from me or experienced any but a tyrannical bearing.”
There’s so much there, but go back to the second paragraph: “I knew neither how to love him nor how to esteem him according to his merit.”
My beloved son
As I read these lines I went back to something Doug Wilson points out about the baptism of Christ. Wilson starts his book Father Hunger with the story. The events are familiar to us. After Jesus was baptized, the sky spread apart and the Spirit descended. Then came the voice: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3.17).
Wilson teases several points from the passage, but his last two directly address Monluc’s sad story. The Father, says Wilson, “expressed [both] His love” and “His pleasure in His Son.” He adds: “The first thing we are told about the relationship between the Father and the Son is that the Father thought His Son was doing a great job.”
These are the two principal things that Monluc denied his child and which burdened him the rest of his days. Without them his son never knew his father’s affection and approval. And yet these are these are the first words spoken by God in the New Testament. Neither Jesus — nor we — could ever miss the affection and approval on display.
If Monluc’s regret doesn’t make the application apparent, then let the Apostle Paul connect the dots for us.
“I bow my knees before the Father,” he says in Ephesians, “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. . .” (3.14-15). It’s a play on words obvious in the Greek. Pater, patria. Father, family. Our function and identity as fathers extends from that of our Heavenly Father. And the first display of that Father toward his son was affection and approval.
We’re supposed to do it like he does it. Well pleased, says Wilson, “is the pitch that a father/son relationship needs to match. . . .”
How often do we say it? “I’m pleased with you.”
“I’m proud of you.”
“You’re doing great.”
“You mean a lot to me.”
“I’m happy to be with you.”
“I appreciate you.”
If I’m not doing this often — as in, several times daily — why not?
What to say
Live for a moment inside Monluc’s questions. “For whom was I keeping the revelation of that singular affection that I bore him in my soul? Wasn’t he the one who should have had all the pleasure of it and all the gratitude?”
It wasn’t that he didn’t love his son. It was that he felt he couldn’t express his pride, approval, appreciation, delight. Who was he saving that information for? Only his son would benefit from it, and yet he kept it pushed under the weight of stern parenting — to the eventual alienation of his boy and the ruin of his own heart.
If we would avoid that grief, we should return to the Jordan and carry the example of the Pater into our patria. “I love you, Fionn, Felicity, Moses, Jonah. I’m proud of you.”