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Fathers’ Day and decades

The inexorable passage of time that any father faces is, well, humbling. Our children race through the days and years, and we wonder what sticks. But as anyone knows, we carry memories of our dads with us. Heaven knows why only a few moments - words, gestures, embraces - arise from the dross of time.

Sometimes I wonder if there's a calculus. Is it one minute of crystal clear memory our children glean from every 5,000 hours of "quality time" we spend with them? Ten seconds for 10,000 hours? Whatever the math, its vast mystery has a humbling capacity.

Just sit down and try to list 10 distinct memories you have of your own father in your first 10 years of life. The moments elude me, but the whole is visible. My dad was constantly there for Mom, me and my brothers, but specific memories are scarce.

I ask my 10- and 12-year-old children, and it's humorous to hear what they are culling from this first decade of my life as a father. The memories seem trivial and unremarkable - but so they are. I wonder at the mystery of it.

From another arena of life, I'm sure I've heard well over a thousand homilies to-date. I try to listen well, but I am so forgetful of specific points. Nearly all the words fade and merge into a general impression I have of a priest - of the whole man, of his witness, faithfulness, his humanity - and his pattern of revealing Christ and His church.

Our vocation as dads bears resemblance. The details of our "big talks" or tonight's story-time are unlikely to be recalled in 30 or 40 years. But in this apparent hiddenness rests a truth; in this seeming amnesia, a deeper form of memory.

The memories merge as pieces of a stained glass window. I have had a few opportunities to sit in an old church on a cloudy late afternoon. As the sun slips through the clouds, a transcendent dimmer switch suddenly renders the dark glass a window into the heavens, where radiant saints laugh and feast together. A dad's love is like that - so resplendent, filling the world around us with light.

Our heavenly Father moves outside of time - yet I wonder if some ratio isn't at work: "A thousand years in your eyes are merely a day gone by" (Ps 90:4). Does He sustain our very lives for 10,000 hours, only to be experienced directly by us in five seconds - in a consolation He allows? A strange warming of the heart. A rose. A sudden visitation. Suddenly the heart's interior cathedral radiates as the sun illumines all.

And the next day, all is drab and austere again. Where moments ago the stained glass visage of the Blessed Virgin Mary lanced our hearts with the beauty of a Michelangelo, we see only the spiderlike lead lacing between dark bits of glass. And yet on these days, He sustains with love unseen, ever near, allowing us to touch His Son's cross, if only for a moment.

"Sundays, too, my father got up early," wrote poet Robert Hayden, "and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold / then with cracked hands that ached / from labor in the weekday weather made /

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him."

Countless times we receive Our Lord in His Eucharist, and yet, perhaps, no single, distinct memory. Only the resilient, unseen fact of His grace and very Body and Blood finding unity with ours. The banked fires of the heart again blaze. A once-darkened phrase of the Gospels ignites in meaning. A chance encounter with a stranger ushers a fresh newness.

When asked late in life about writing an autobiography, Dorothy Day said, "I try to think back; I try to remember this life that the Lord gave me …" The prolific Day found herself without words.

"I just sat there," she said, "and thought of Our Lord, and His visit to us all those centuries ago, and I said to myself that my great luck was to have had Him on my mind for so long in my life."

On Fathers' Day, her words point us to a certain hope: that on some day long after our earthly life, as our children or grandchildren sit there and try to think back, whatever memories they may have of our cracked hands and the fires we banked will fuse almost indiscernibly with their gratitude for the Lord's visit all those centuries ago.

Johnson, a husband and father of five, is Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde's special assistant for evangelization and media. He can be reached on Twitter @Soren_t.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015