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January 01, 2020 Wednesday 04:02:15 PM IST

Parenting Lessons from Joseph and Mary

3rd Eye

We must be relieved that Jesus was not highly educated by our standards. Had he been after our fashion, he would have, perhaps, lived for himself. Served the status quo. Despaired of the ‘impossible ideals’ of spirituality. In that event, we wouldn’t have, at a distance of two thousand years, known him as one relevant to the human predicament. He would have come and gone like a bubble; or, as Kierkegaard said, like a withered autumnal leaf blown away deep into the thick forest by the wind!

Christmas is also about parenting. It is about the stupendous power of faith that breaks the shackles of the extant scheme of things. About the power that individuals can still have, by the grace of God, to be free in spite of the chains that Rousseau heard clanging everywhere in society. Mary was free and strong enough to accept the enigmatic and unnerving plan of God that was contrary to the way of man. Imagine ‘a virgin being found with a babe’! It is too shocking to contemplate even today, for rivers of sweat and blood shed for the liberation of women! Most shocking, ironically, for women. 

‘The world’, Wordsworth lamented, ‘is too much with us’. The manacles of organized life come upon us with our complicity. The irony is that letting the world come too close to us and proving too much for us makes us useless especially for the world. It is because Mary did not do so that she had a son called Jesus and she enjoys an assured place in the story and destiny of our species.

But, then, how can a little woman, fearfully alone, resist the invasive power of the world? Fortunately, the ‘invasive’ power of the world was still at its infancy in Mary’s days. The land of the Jewry did not have, thank God, an open sky policy, like ours today. The invasiveness of the media and the consumerist culture was still a long way away in the future. But, that did not mean that Mary’s society was idyllic. There were other invasive forces: religion most of all. There was no aspect of life that was safe from the invasive arms of Judaism. The Pharisees and Sadducees were experts, like some contemporary manipulative politicians, at making laws that left no part of individual life spontaneous and unregulated. Moral policing wasat its brutal, belligerent worst; especially in matters sexual. Whatever was perceived as deviant was crushed.

So, we must not underestimate the risk Mary incurred in carving out a niche for herself within her society and religion. The point to note, however, is that this was not a matter of personal courage. It was the strength of purity, about which we have become sceptical and ill-at-ease. When the angel accosted her with the intimation of immortal things, the first emotion Mary experienced was fear. But fear turnedinto unselfconscious courage that is ideally called faith in God. The moment of divine, salvific insemination, if you please, was the moment when Mary exclaimed, “Behold your servant; let it happen to me according to your will.” That point of awful self-surrender is the point on which heaven and earth converge to fashion an alternate destiny forhumankind.

Did Mary have an inkling that Joseph, that hard-working country carpenter -no different, apparently, from the carpenters of the times- would respond likewise and accept the unthinkable? No sterner test for male ego, no shock more shattering to the macho self-image of a man, can there be than what he had to face. All other forms of mockery can somehow be accepted, endured. Anything but this! Did Mary worry then about the man, somewhere out there, who was to be her man by holy matrimony, to be yoked together under the burden of the mysterious?

They faced an epic, grueling conflict: the pattern of which has a bearing on parenting at all times: the conflict between the integrity of an individual family and the wholeness of the human family. Often enough the two are counterpointed in the ‘city of man’, to borrow St. Augustine’s terminology. But we are coevally citizens of two contrarian cities. They are agonizingly turned in opposite directions.  The example of the Holy Family in respect of parenting proves that the two have to meet. The Good News is that they can. And, as Kant would say, ‘what can be’ must become ‘what is’. Call it fearlessness, if you wish. The spiritual word for it is purity. Purity is the medium in whichthe will of the individual comes to abide in the will of God, in spite of the world. It is not inappropriate to call its outcome metaphoric Immaculate Conception.

Loss of such purity is the foremost challenge that parenting faces today. The seminal problem is not that the world is too much with us. It is that we are too little with God. God still is, and will always be, the primary reality. Or, God is the substance of which the world is the shadow. The shadow becomes grotesque and threatens even as our alienation from the substance increases.

Hence the poignancy of the helplessness that afflicts millions of parents today. For an illustration consider the erosion of parental authority. Charles Dickens visited America in 1842. He had an idealized image of America as the second Eden: the land of freedom and justice. When he returned to London, he was quizzed by journalists. One of them asked Dickens what was the most astonishing thing he saw there. “It is,” he said, “how implicitly parents obey children!” It has only got worse since then. How, and why, has parental authority sunk so low? Is it not by parents living entirely and blindly in the city of man, wholly indifferent to the City of God?

The Blessed Virgin is an exemplar of parental authority. She obeyed God over and against the authority of the world. Her obedience broke social mores! She risked much in order to be of the City of God even while being of the city of man. God is the fountainhead, for aught that atheists and agnostics advocate, of authority. It is an undeniable existential and historical reality that alienation from God undermines authority of all kinds, including priestly and parentalauthority. A godly priest still commands awesome authority. A godly parent will be honoured by her children. Children learn obedience not when they are urged and exhorted to obey, but when they see parents obeying God. The riskier and more adventurous this obedience, the more eloquently it speaks to the depth of their children’s being.Nothing proves the beauty and greatness of obedience more convincingly and inspiringly than this.

But there is a problem with obedience when it is mistaken for something else. The sort of obedience that we seek to promote –especially institutionally and politically- is at stark contrast to the obedience Mary exemplified. Mary’s obedience is not indiscriminate and self-abasing. It is enlightened and momentous. It is risk-taking without being reckless or self-denigrating. She is obeying, on the perilous edge of the unimaginable, none less than the Giver of life. This is different from prostrating oneself before the potentates of the world. No man has the right to demand of Mary, or of anyone else, what God alone is entitled to. True obedience has, hence, a sting in the tail. Obedience to God does include responsible disobedience to man. This distinguishes obedience from slavery. Children feel demoralized when they find their parents soullessly complaisant and obsequious. The inculcation of involuntary obedience extracted by overpowering authority paves the way to the creation of dictatorial and totalitarian structures of authority in society.

Did the Blessed Virgin ever discuss such matters with her son, Jesus? Very likely. The clue is the special place she had in Jesus’ public ministry. And, most of all, the agonizing attention he paid to her on the Cross. She was the one, he would never forget; no, not even under the bludgeon blow of death. Addressing John, he said: “Here’s your mother”. Jesus knew how much a mother needs a son! If only our sons were like Jesus!

All this is generically different from the parental bewilderment that covers the earth today! In this light the rat-race of education looks a bit of a farce. Francois de la Rochefocauld, the wisest of French aphorists, was outside of the formal system of schooling till he was nine years old. George Bernard Shaw used to say, tongue-in-cheek, that he survived schooling because he did not allow his native genius to be blighted by formal education. Dr. Johnson said to Boswell, reminiscing his days at Eton, “While others were burning their brains in class rooms, I was rolling down the meadows of Eton!”

This is not to belittle the importance of formal education, but to underline the value also of whatever is outside its framework; in particular, the value of parenting, in the holistic development of children in which spirituality has to necessarily play a formative role. Life-enhancing freedom is the essence of spirituality. That freedom needs to be exercised in the service of something greater than individual ego or fleeting social norms of what is in and out of vogue. To stay queued up for the fruits of the times is tostay parasitical and invite irrelevance to tomorrow. It thwartsauthority. Children need parental authority much more than they need parental indulgence. Today we burn ourselves at both ends to provide the latter to the neglect of the former. This is foolish parenting.

Joseph and the blessed Virgin were wise parents. They were not social rebels, by any stretch of imagination. They were ordinary souls wise enough to know that there need to be priorities in life and that the will of God merits to be one’s topmost priority. Recognizing this is the seed of human greatness and parental authority. And blessed are the children whose parents are instinct with authority of that kind.

Dr. Valson Thampu

Former Principal of St. Stephen's College, New Delhi

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