One of my earliest memories of my father was fishing for trout when I was five years old at Corbett Lake in British Columbia.
We were out on a rowboat overlooking the placid waters when a trout struck suddenly and we looked in astonishment as my little green rod was pulled out of the boat and into the lake’s depths. After some frantic rowing, we recovered both the rod and the fish, the incident memorialized by a Polaroid picture of me standing triumphantly with a rainbow trout at the end of the dock.
This would be the first of many fishing adventures with my father – too numerous and fantastical to chronicle here.
With the passing of time, our fishing adventures began to cease. With a welling tide of homework in high school, my main fish-related activities were focused on salmon conservation with the local stream-keeper organization. And with my departure for college, our fishing escapades halted completely. During summer visits home, I figured that I had sufficiently mastered the craft of fishing so that I could launch out on early morning trips to the beaches of Vancouver’s North Shore solely on my own.
Last summer, the lure of a rare opening for prized sockeye salmon on the Fraser River prompted me and my father to dust off our heavy rods. We embarked for our favored sandbar from old times, this time accompanied by a new companion, my younger brother, who had been born after the era of our greatest fishing exploits had already passed.
While the air was hazy from the smoke of recent forest fires, and choppers with buckets circled overhead, the rays of August sunshine still managed to bathe the beach in a warm light as morning dawned. Lest we return home without the customary entertaining vignette of a fishing faux pas, this trip included an episode of me losing footing and floating down the river for several yards. My brother caught his first salmon, high-fives were exchanged, and smiles beamed as my brother and I held up our catch for a photo-op, as I had done at Corbett Lake 20 years ago.
Once we returned home and I took a look at the past and present photos, I noticed that there was something, or rather someone, missing from both: my father.
After some anxiety at having omitted any visual record of the man who’d introduced us to this wonderful pastime, I came to an important realization about fatherhood, that roared into my consciousness like the freight trains that traversed the canyon above us as we fished.
All of us were born of a father by nature. All of us have a man to whom we owe much of our genetic makeup, and with it, many of our traits of appearance and behavior, who played an instrumental role in our biological coming to be.
But nature alone is not enough to make a father.
It is one matter to beget a child; it is another to take up responsibility for raising the child to full stature. A father knows the weight of such a responsibility, a weight that no man can carry by relying on his own efforts alone. To be a father a man must be a father by grace: a man who opens himself to power from on high, to be conformed to the God who is the source of all fatherhood. All of us need such a father, whether he be our father by birth, our father by adoption, or any man who seemingly comes down from heaven into our lives to show us how to be who we are and be that well.
As with all grace, this grace of fatherhood is both visible and invisible. It is the grace which is seen when a father first teaches his first son to catch a fish or catch a fly ball, when he endures the cramps and pains of time to drive his youngest to school when other men have begun to retire, when he humbly acknowledges that he was perhaps too critical of coach after yesterday’s loss. It is the grace that is unseen when he discreetly kneels in the darkness of the confessional to repent of his sins, when he walks about the house to say a prayer of blessing and protection as his family sleeps, when he offers up his creaking limbs and wounded memories to be healed by the divine physician.
For those of us who are sons and daughters, the grace of fatherhood is often so abundant that we fail to realize it. We often begin to operate under the pleasant illusion that we were the ones who taught ourselves to fish, to catch, to drive, to apologize. We begin to wonder at that old man who begins to seem more and more like a curious anachronism: whose figures of speech and prejudices seem to come from the era of ‘Leave it to Beaver,’ who loves to hash, blend, reheat, and serve up the same old stories of the glory days whenever guests visit for dinner. We look at the houses that other fathers have built for their families, and begin to feel walled in by the house built by our own.
But as theologians would tell us, grace perfects nature: it does not destroy it. Yes, we are called to transcend the natural limitations that we may inherit from our fathers, we are called to look for wisdom from others beyond the bounds of what our own fathers can teach us, we are not called to lead the same lives they led. But we must never deceive ourselves into thinking they can be replaced. We can only be ourselves, we can only perfect what our fathers have given us, if we acknowledge it as gift and incarnate it in our lives in our own unique way, always acknowledging its source.
If someone were to look at those victorious fishing photos of me and my brother, they would indeed see our father, in a deeper way than could be captured by any photo of our father himself. Our father can be seen in two sons who he taught to go to a desert place and cast out into deep waters. In the sons, the father can be seen: the father who was always in the scene, behind the scenes.
It is no wonder that I realized all this after a fishing trip. After all, it was on a fishing trip that Christ called his disciples to come on a journey and listen to him speak about his Father, who was unseen by human eyes but revealed in the person of his Son.
While our earthly fathers are imperfect, and can mediate grace to us in only a finite way, it is this Father who is the infinite giver of all grace. While this Father often seems absent from the picture, it is because he is there the whole time. If we look closely enough, we realize that it is we who are to make him seen by living the gifts he has given to us in our own persons.
It is fitting that this year, the Catholic Church celebrates Father’s Day on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, in which we profess our belief in “one God, the Father almighty,” “one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God,” “and in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” On this day, we celebrate a God who is one but never alone.
As I turned to ascend up the trail ahead of my father and my brother, I decided to turn back to look upon the beach one final time. As I looked back, I breathed in the mighty wind that perpetually whistles down the canyon upon its dusty beaches, and I felt the fine grains of sand being blown into my nostrils. Upon the beach, not far behind me, I saw two silhouettes framed by the mountain peaks, the riverbank, and the hazy morning glow: a father and a son, walking together and breathing together that same mighty wind.
Between the eternal Father and the eternal Son, there is a single breath, a wind even mightier, a wind which makes all earthly winds seem like but a whisper, a wind which breathes true life into the nostrils of the ones made from the dust of the earth. It is the Spirit of adoption, who is our respiration and our inspiration as we make our journey of ascent, as brothers and sisters in the Son, to the one who is always there with us, whether he is in the photograph or not: the author of nature and the source of grace, the one to whom we cry out, “Abba, Father!”