Spiritual Networks

God the Father and the Fear of Men

Allan Schnarr, M.Div., PhD.
Originally published in Human Development Magazine. Printed here with permission.
For reprints contact Human Development Magazine.

Abba (Dear Dad)

As you know, I am a teacher. Here is a written test for you. Imagine climbing into your father's lap. Let yourself snuggle into the soft strength that holds you in complete safety. Let go of all other concerns. Feel the love as palpable as the warmth flowing between your bodies. Cherish the moment. Let it last.

1. Would you even let yourself imagine it? If not, in one hundred words or less, explain why not, with specific reference to patterns of experience with your own father (or symbolic surrogates).

2.  If you did give it a try, how did you feel being there? In two hundred words or less, identify at least three feelings and their historical derivatives in your relationship with your own father (or surrogates).

3.  How long did you allow yourself to stay? In three hundred words or less, identify your willingness to return, with specific reference to what would be the healing value for you.

4.  In no less than two thousand words, write a letter to your own father

identifying the implications of the above reflections for your relationship with God who is called Father.

This is the assignment I received from God through the experience of your death. I've decided it's not a pass or fail exam. I take it as a test of my willingness to learn from my relationship with you. As of this moment, it's been over five months since you died, and I just recently found my way back to your lap for the first time. Not that I have been refusing the test. I just never heard the call until a couple days ago. Not surprisingly it came from within me during prayer. "I need you to hold me." My own words were such a liberating revelation. As I let myself into the image, I could feel the healing of the vulnerability which had gotten quite a grip on me. The old fear that any power greater than I would spoil things for me had crept inside me once again. This was gravely disappointing and difficult to face, given the outpouring of love I had felt while you were dying, and in the weeks that followed. It was glorious how you surrendered to love and died so peacefully. It was wonderful feeling closer to you than ever before. As the weeks passed after your death, I barely let myself notice how you drifted away. Or was I the one drifting? So many other things seemed so much more important.

The Fear of Men

It's not that I hadn't felt close to you before. It just surprised me is all, with hindsight after your death, to see clearly how much I was still holding myself back. You and I talked about my fear over eight years ago. What has been obvious to both of us since then, though we never subsequently acknowledged it, was that a wholly new quality of loving connection between us began with facing the fear together. Not that we went into it in any great depth. All I really needed was for you to know how afraid I'd been. My telling and your acceptance was a new beginning. Our eyes began making loving contact again. I'd rather not count, even if I could remember, how long it had been since we looked with trusting warmth into each others' eyes. We also began to say I love you regularly and deeply, from the heart. That was brand new. I know we both enjoyed the new life between us. Hence my surprise after you were gone when I realized how much fear I still had.

What I learned long ago from you was to fear any power greater than myself. I think it's what fathers unwittingly teach their sons (and probably their daughters too), unless they've been able to face the fear in themselves. I know that you learned it from your father, from his need for control, and from his punishment when he was crossed. It's how men have been taking control for generations untold. Might makes right. The one with the most power rules. I saw all this before we talked and it made it easier to forgive you for the ways you had abused power with me. It's how men are, especially with each other. That's what I learned as I struggled through trying to make sense of all the ways I'd given away the power of my choices to men in positions of authority throughout my life. The list of the teachers and priests to whom I conceded control of my life would be long indeed. I trust that you get my point. It's not that I'm blaming you for all my issues with authority. What I'd like is for all men to accept responsibility for their own abuse of power. The consequences have been disastrous.

Accepting responsibility for the abuse of power means facing fear. As long as I can pretend I have everything under control, there's nothing to fear. That's the grand illusion with which so many men comfort themselves. The illusion is a prescription for tragedy. The struggle for control is "successful" only through power over others. Abuse of power through the negation of the choices, thoughts, and feelings of others is inevitable. This negation of worth is profoundly humiliating. In my twenty years as a psychotherapist, I have observed that the more powerful any man is in terms of his position in the culture, the greater is his unacknowledged fear of humiliation. The logic is simple. Having a choice means having my way. When things don't go my way, my lack of choice is exposed. There I am in the harsh light of all the ridiculing eyes: humiliated.

The underlying, 'ungolden rule' is, "Do unto others what I most fear might happen to me." Not that I am afraid of being humiliated. Not that it has ever happened to me. I'll just make sure that it never does. The more power I have the more secure I can feel. Not that I need to feel secure. Such worries are for the weak. If they inherit the earth, it's only because the powerful have taken pity on them. Not that I feel sorry for them. Everybody makes their own bed. If you're laying there without any covers, whose fault is that?

Humiliation is the exposure of one's lack of the power of choice. It is excruciating. The divine freedom inherent to human dignity is lost. Ironically, it seems to be the fear of humiliation that draws the would be mighty into the power game. One must prove one's power of choice, thereby warding off the possibility of humiliation. Hence any fear must not show. Fear is weak. Weakness is a loss of power. The loss of power is humiliating. Nor must the fear be acknowledged to oneself. Self-doubt is for losers. It is a cardinal rule of the power game that the primary motivation (fear!) must be ignored. Only the strong (fearless!) survive. The fittest claim their Darwinian righteousness, and those at the mercy of fear follow them. God knows how many choices are based on the fear of men. How many men, women, and children are, at this moment, acting on this fear? What is the cost to human dignity?

The Cost of Control

I've spent a lot of years prayerfully observing the power game that men (and the women and children wannabes) play. I'd like to identify some of the losses inherent to the game. These costly consequences must, of course, be ignored or devalued by those with the temerity to play. Dad, I hope you'll recognize you and me in every one of these.

1.  Loss of Embodiment. The body cannot be the wide open center of

experiencing that it is for weak children. It must be harshly subjugated so that it serves as proof of power. Limits, needs, and unwanted information are betrayals of one's power. The body is simply an object, a tool to be used to get what's important (i.e. one's way). The bodies of others get treated in the same way as one's own.

2.  Loss of Feeling. Real men know that feelings are irrational and

uncontrollable. They are for women, children, and the weak men who are at their mercy. Insensitivity to such distraction is nothing but strength of purpose. What a fine place the world would be if everyone would just be reasonable.

3.  Loss of Relationship. When it comes to having things under control, the only person I can really count on is myself. Others are only competitors. If someone else is in control, I am not. Hence, others become only pawns in the game. Whenever their personhood conflicts with my need for control, it can be ignored. Going along to get along is fine when it serves my righteousness. Ultimately however, being right eclipses staying connected.

4.  Loss of Presence. Players know that the past and the future are what matter. Past losses must be avoided. Future gains must be plotted. There is hard, thoughtful work to be done. The present moment is a distraction from what really matters. Enshrining the past ensures control of the future.

5.  Loss of Coherence. Managing all of the above means that a lot of information must be ignored. The result is disconnected little packets of rationality. Contradictions between them are overlooked. As long as I just focus on this little piece of reality, everything is still under control. Even Hitler had his rationale.

6.  Loss of Flexibility. No new information allowed. I already know what makes sense to me. I have already figured out how things work (for me). Challenges to my convictions are a threat to my control. They are viruses and will be exterminated.

7.  Loss of Spirit. Given the above, the free flowing life force that connects all beings is a dangerous concept. It must be brought under control or religion will be a free for all. God forbid. If I am to be in control, free spirits cannot be allowed. There have to be rules, and even if I don't make some of them, I can still make them work for me.

Faith of our Fathers

Powerful men stay in the game by successfully avoiding humiliation. None of the above losses happen to them - or at least, they do not matter. The tragic narrowing of the divinity in humanity simply does not get noticed. Unfortunately (or not?), religious leaders are not exempt from the fear of humiliation and the consequences of its avoidance. Many engage in the righteous display of power over others in the name of God. What could be more important than revealing, and when necessary defending, God's truth? When God is on your side, what is there to fear? Not a question.

I also took the prevalence of the abuse of religious power into account when forgiving you, Dad. Your faith was so foundational to your identity. You were the head of the household just as the pope was the head of the Church. It was your job to train me to think and act in the right ways. Like the religious authorities you followed, you didn't notice what it cost me to submit to your reality. How could you notice how much of my inner world had to be denied as if it didn't exist? How could you see my humiliating loss of the power of my own choices? Like the religious authorities you followed, you had been taught to impose your way, as had your father before him. Most priests I met in my early years seemed to operate the same way. They had God with them in their corner on the truth. To think or feel otherwise was to be on the outside, against God. Being a sinner wasn't the worst. Heresy was the real evil.

I jumped into what I thought was our corner on the truth for many years. It seemed so clear that the best way to be a person of worth was to be on God's side. We could take on all the losers who hadn't yet found the truth. And all those genuinely seeking the truth would look up to us as wise men. With hindsight I can see that I was pleased to have gone one better than you by entering training for the priesthood. I would be one of the benignly powerful who knew the truth and fearlessly proclaimed it. I would be a light shining on the mountain top. I'd be so far above those losers in the valleys below. It was a little disturbing to me how difficult it was for many of my fellow seminarians to see the truth through my eyes. It was quite a shock to me, eventually to recognize that I hadn't cornered the truth. Actually I was the one who was cornered. And as for the thrill of the mountain top, my fear of falling had me hypnotized. As a therapist working with religious men, I have met many who have come to this same staggering realization. The promise of quietly glorying, with righteous humility, in power over others, is inevitably betrayed.

Ultimately, I could not tolerate the requisite submission to the truths of the more powerful. The lack of authenticity became too costly. I didn't have the courage of Jesus to stand up to the powers that be and challenge their hypocrisy. I was too aware of my own, and too afraid of their power to humiliate me if I differed with them. Furthermore, after so many years of trying to gain power by telling the more powerful what I thought they wanted to hear, I was too unsure of myself to speak up about anything conflictual. So, after ten years in a religious order, I emptied myself of the pretense of religious power. I left the priesthood and religious life. Making that decision was the single most frightening moment of my life. What leverage did I have in the power game now?

I had done my best to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and surrender to God the Father (and his representatives). On a thirty day Ignatian retreat in my twenties, I hit rock bottom after ten days. I realized that I was trying to manipulate God, to impress him with how good I was at imaginative prayer. He was not fooled and I felt humiliated (not that I knew it at the time). All I could do for the next twenty days was let God hold me. It was a sacramental beginning of the healing that I've nurtured in so many ways since then. A couple years later, on retreat again, I willed myself to surrender to the Father. I wrote a poem which I had on my wall and prayed for years. I kept saying the prayer because it was so clear to me that my mind was choosing it, but my heart was not in it. I had little idea at the time how far I had to go in learning to trust anyone who could be a father. Without willfully swimming against some strong internal stream, I couldn't keep myself attentive to trusting an image of a father. Eventually, without noticing, I gave up and shifted my focus to Jesus. No-one called him father, and he was so different from the men I'd known. Him I could trust. I longed to spend time with him. It was effortless. I fell in love. We bonded.

I just ignored the fact that he was a man. Gender was irrelevant anyway. Love was what mattered. Love was all I needed. Ultimately, I made love the pearl of great price. Little by little, I turned to finding it in relational experience with embodied humans. Not surprisingly nor consciously, that meant relationships with women. They seemed more open to love, more trustworthy, less caught up in the power game, less likely to be the cause of humiliation. With many dear women friends, and especially my wife, I slowly learned to open my heart to love. I found with them what I'd found with Jesus. I even began to find love, albeit tentative, with a few men.

The New Covenant

It wasn't until after your death, when I saw your life through the prism of the way you died, that I realized you and I were traveling the same path. When I saw the whole sweep of your life, it was suddenly so evident how much you too had been following in the footsteps of Jesus. He also grew up in a world where powerful men laid down the law to ensure their fearful control. He saw the tragic consequences of the self-righteousness dominance of others. He emptied himself of any pretense of power over others. Instead he chose to hang out with the lowly, with fisherman, tax collectors, sinners, even prostitutes. After spending so much time with him, it became clear to me that all he ever did was love them, and teach them how to love each other.

Love is what you and I focused on after we talked about abuse and fear. I saw how you had already been mellowing out of the need to have everything your way, and to have the last word. Gradually, over the years, you had become more relational, more attentive and receptive to the experience of others. I knew your faith had been a primary source of this softening. At the time I could not conceive how completely you would be able to surrender to love.

In your last days, when your heart and lungs were failing, you gave yourself so humbly to the care of your wife and children. Being reduced to the status of a needy child would once have been intolerable humiliation for you. Yet, here you were humbly receiving whatever you needed. The outpouring of love amongst your family held you so securely that you were able to peacefully let go of any pretense of control, and surrender to death. There we were, around your bed, in your home, singing hymns and love songs as you left your suffering body behind. No fight. No struggle. No control. Simply communion, lasting forever.

We saw how you trusted love, how you surrendered without fear. I imagine your soul saying the words of Jesus, "Into your hands, I commend my spirit." I wonder though, if you began with the word, "Father." Had love and father become synonymous for you? Had you come this far?

The Father's Love

Jesus called God, the omnipotent creator of all that is, Daddy Dear (Abba). This is the foundational uniqueness, say many Christologists, that differentiated him from the faith of his fathers. In the Hebrew tradition God was "I am who I am", the mysterium tremendum, the unknowable and wholly overpowering other. One could not look on the face of God and live. To Jesus, God was a loving person who guided his choices, and with whom he was free to be himself. God was like a good father. In another culture, at another time, Jesus may well have experienced this wise and loving person as a good mother. Perhaps it was part of his intuitive genius to know that the image of father was in great need of healing. Jesus spent regular, intimate time communing with the good father who had shown himself to him. Clearly it was here that he felt known and accepted just as he was. Within this relationship he came to understand the divine power of his own freedom.

Jesus realized himself in the image of his Father. When he referred to himself with the words "I am who I say I am", he was accused of heresy and blasphemy. Ultimately, the religious authorities had him killed because they could not control him. When he said to them, "You have no power over me", he revealed to everyone the freedom that love engenders. His Father's love had set him free to love others in kind. He did not have a Father who said, "Go, overpower others as I have overpowered you. Then you too can be free of humiliation." Nor did he relate to others in any way that was humiliating for them. His way of relating to others was simply a mirror of how his Father related to him. He simply loved them as they were, and encouraged them to be true to themselves. In so doing, he revealed the true nature of a father's love. A loving father reflects to each other the divine freedom alive within them. A loving father reveals the truth from within himself (I am who I am), and welcomes the same from each other. A loving father relates in a way that says, "We may all be true to ourselves with each other."

Dad, I know that you discovered and nourished this love in your family. I would say that it was exactly this kind of love that flowered in fullness around you as you approached death. I believe that as you made your passage to your new life, it was this kind of love that you recognized in the arms of the Father waiting to receive you. I imagine you snuggling into his soft and strong lap, releasing all the fear of humiliation that ever gripped you. I see you breathing freely, knowing that at last everything you are has found a home. You are completely safe now. It's OK to simply be true to yourself.

I'm smiling as your head turns and our eyes meet. Here I am snuggling beside you. I am with you forever now, in the truth that matters most to us. It's you and me, two men together, safe in his arms.

For reprints contact Human Development Magazine.

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