A Catholic Parent Takes on the Challenges of Parenting

Every day, the cross, with joy!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Rethinking the Physical Pain of Parenting

"Behind a locked door," pastel by artist Mark A. Hewitt, April 2012
The Easter season is always a good time to reflect on the Catholic Church's teaching regarding the resurrection of the body. The Catechism, in paragraph 997 states the following:

"In death, the separation of the soul from the body, the human body decays and the soul goes to meet God, while awaiting its reunion with its glorified body. God, in his almighty power, will definitively grant incorruptible lives to our bodies, by reuniting them with our souls, through the power of Jesus' Resurrection."

So what exactly is a "glorified body"? Too often, I fear, we may associate a glorified body with a "perfect" body in accord with the current standards of health and beauty here on earth. Maybe we picture perfect symmetry, glossy hair, straight teeth, flawless skin, and just the right weight, with the perfect BMI.

And yet, one crucial point of emphasis in the resurrection narratives of Jesus is the presence of his wounds. Given the scourging at the pillar, the crown of thorns, the carrying of the cross, the crucifixion, and the piercing of the lance, we can surmise that Jesus' body laid to rest in the tomb was in pretty bad physical shape, far from the ideal human figures we label as perfect. But even in his resurrection, Jesus retains the wounds of the cross -- maybe not every mark of the scourging, but at least the nail wounds from the cross, and the piercing in his side. That scriptural detail should challenge our conventional notion of the "perfect body."

The presence of Jesus' wounds in his resurrected body indicates perhaps that the beauty of the body comes from sacrifice made in the service of God. The service of God, lived out in a particular vocation, can certainly take a toll on the body. For example, anthropologist Dr. Susan Sheridan has been working to analyze the skeletons of 5th and 6th century Byzantine monks in Jerusalem. In an article in Notre Dame Magazine, Sheridan observes: “When we pulled the bones out we found the legs were really pathological.” In other words, biomechanical analysis indicated that the monks had knelt a lot; bones rubbed against bones at the knee, and the big toes fused as a response to repetitive stress. In other words, the monks' constant prayer left actual physical marks on their skeletons, marks that are still evident on their bones a millennium and a half later. If this is the condition of their bodies, what about their souls? For prayer in the service of God influences not just the body, but the soul as well.

These monks' skeletons can provide useful reflection for us parents who believe that the work we do as parents not only marks our bodies, but our souls as well. A biomechanical analysis of the skeletons of those who spent much time caring for children would probably show the signs of parenting, and particularly the physical pain of parenting. Perhaps one hip would be slightly lower than the other from constantly holding a babe. Or perhaps the spinal column would be compressed. There are also pains of parenting that wouldn't remain on our skeletons. Many of these caught me off guard when I became a parent. No one warned me about how much it hurts when a toddler throws back his head, connecting his skull with your nose. No one mentioned the pain of a kiddo using your hair as a rappelling aid. No one informed me that parenting would give me scratches and even bruises caused by my children. Nor did they emphasize how parenting can be bad for the back, especially with young children.

But like the 5th and 6th century Byzantine monks, these are physical pains of our vocation, lived out in service to God. In some sense, they are the wounds of Christ, which we willingly embrace in the same manner that he embraced his passion and death. The body is for loving, and sometimes loving others - such as our children - will leave marks on our body. But the physical pain of parenting is an opportunity for parenting mortification, an invitation to die to self and live for God. The glorified body is not the perfect body idolized by our society. The wounds on Christ's body are not imperfections, problems that stand in the way of beauty and ought to be healed. 

Many view the pains and physical imperfections that come along with parenting in a negative light. Parents who love and serve God on earth through their parenting may not have the "perfect" bodies according to our current conventional standards. Those bodies may not be thin or attractive. They may not be healthy or free of pain. They may not be strong or sturdy. Rather, those who love and serve God on earth will likely already suffer the physical consequences of this service.

Of course, there is something praiseworthy in trying to preserve our health so that we can love and serve God. We should try to take care of our bodies and aim for health in order to do God's will, particularly so that we can be good parents to our children. But physical health and the goal of long life for its own sake cannot be seen as ends in themselves. And in fact, even injury and illness are wonderful opportunities to love and serve God by offering that pain to God, uniting it with Christ's passion for the good of others in the world. Injury and illness may disfigure and weaken our bodies, but they can also increase the beauty of our souls, uniting us with the passion of Christ so as to share in his resurrection. 

The sacrifices of parenting indicate the continuity of our life on earth and in heaven, and hence those physical pains undertaken for God's work are rightly associated with the glorification of our bodies. If we are offering our daily work to God - whether or parenting or praying or teaching or cleaning or even suffering - then the physical blemishes we incur as a result bring us closer to perfection, not imperfection. They increase the beauty of our souls and help us move closer to that final glorified body.

So the next time you get kicked in the shin, scratched on the arm or hit in the head by a flying shoe, just remember that the physical pain of parenting is an opportunity to die to self and live for God...and that has eternal rewards.

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