Parenting as a pilgrim

In so many ways the last 10 years have been a blur of hectic family and work life. Our youngest starts school next year, and we are also embarking upon the world of parenting teenagers.

Reflecting over this time I find myself challenged by the question about how I have lived my life. Have I grown as a person, as a father and husband? Or have I checked out of life somewhat, avoided in some way the reality of my situation and taken shortcuts rather than going deeper into living my life more authentically?

The Catholic spiritual tradition provides us with the powerful analogy of pilgrimage for reflecting on these challenging questions, which I suggest can be very helpful for thinking about our role as parents in the context of the challenges facing families in our contemporary society. For me this is poignantly captured in the following:

“To journey without being changed is to be a nomad. To change without journeying is to be a chameleon. To journey and be transformed by the journey is to be a pilgrim.” ~ Mark Nepo

As parents, I think there is value in asking ourselves: In my life, do I want to be a nomad, a chameleon or a pilgrim? Or, put another way, how real or authentic do I want my life to be? I recently had an experience that helped focus my attention on this question. I took part in a community bike ride in the mountains just outside Canberra. It’s a 10 hour, 205 km ride, and the hills are a real killer! My late preparation meant that completing the course was always going to be a major challenge.

It was at the 150 km mark that I was forced to really face my demons. I had nothing left in my legs and my feet were cramping. But it was the emotional and mental challenge that was most revealing to me. Everything in me was screaming for an exit strategy… some way to avoid my situation. After having some serious arguments with these demons, and with the support of fellow riders, I was able to push through, and eventually found the finish line.

So much of our lives can become consumed by pursuing the shortcuts rather than being real, honest and genuinely present to our actual circumstances.

We can so easily opt for the path of the nomad or the chameleon rather than the pilgrim, and the bike ride revealed to me my capacity to do this in my own life.

More than ever before society is providing stressed and busy parents with a smorgasbord of shortcuts. And the impact of us taking these shortcuts is devastating for family life, and our wider society.

It is in this context that the Christian tradition proposes something different. If we want to be the best fathers and mothers, I think the key lies in embracing the identity of the pilgrim in our parenting role.

Either we allow the journey of parenthood to transform us, or we pass on something second rate to our children. “If you do not transform your pain, you will surely transmit it to those around you and the next generation” (Richard Rohr OFM).

What are some of the nomad and chameleon pathways ways for parents today? Working too many hours, consumerism, too much television, various addictions, not trying new things, avoiding resolving tensions or conflicts… the list goes on.

It is only in taking the road less travelled, the more intentional path in life that we experience true growth and transformation.