by Holly Mohr
The Saturday morning Scripture reading in my Give Us This Day was a passage I had never seen before.
“Do not give in to sadness, or torment yourself deliberately.” (Sirach 30:21)
I almost burst out laughing.
My first thought was equal parts caught and suspicious: “How do you know I do that?”
My second was, “Are you sure? Are you really, really sure?”
It was the day before Father’s Day, the first Father’s Day without my father. I didn’t know how it would go, how I would feel, how I would allow myself to feel.
The weekend had a lineup of pretty full, somewhat uncharacteristically cheerful plans: that Saturday, I was signed up to take on a crazy hike with a friend (not a thing I really do in life), and on Father’s Day itself, we would celebrate my husband, an excellent father, someone I’m unproblematically happy to celebrate.
The sense that Father’s Day is coming has always felt heavy. Once my husband and I had kids, it got a little lighter. Finally, the day had multiple meanings, and the primary focus was Eric. But even then, a proverbial specter hung over the day.
As a general rule, holidays do not go over well in my family of origin. Too much pressure, too much enormity of meaning for a people who already imbue reality with a perpetually plodding significance. (Yes, I indict myself here: in college, I would assign myself drinking and partying days the way other people might have to plan out study hours. I knew my natural inclination would be to bury myself in the library alone and that expanding my horizons to terrible beer and singing around a campfire was necessary. I wasn’t wrong. Those were the most balanced days of my life).
Reading those words of Sirach felt like some mixture of gift, God laughing at me, God reaching out in tenderness toward me, and God giving me the side eye.
All of which is to say, I felt seen.
I pushed back a little. Ever a Wednesday Addams, I sneered a little toward the heavens:
“What, you want me to be perky? You want me to just pretend everything is okay?”
God was silent, but in a good way. I knew what this meant. It was an invitation not toward a forced pep, but a giving over of control I never had anyway. I was reminded of the Thomas Merton quote where Merton hears God explain, “That is a penance I do not ask of you.”
What a paradigm shifter. (There are penances you DON’T ask of us?! Sometimes we’re just making OURSELVES miserable?!)
Holding onto sadness like it’s efficacious is a penance you do not ask of me. Tormenting myself deliberately is a penance you do not ask of me. Whoa.
I do tend to awaken every morning feeling as though if I give into heaviness of mind, if I think through every last detail of life thoroughly enough, I am showing stewardship and care. Baseline is assuming I’m psychically responsible for anything and everything I can think of.
This is tough for Catholics sometimes, I think, since there is that sense that we can do something about someone’s eternal situatedness. We’re called to pray for the dead, and if Saint Paul has anything to say about it, we’re to pray unceasingly. We’re never done.
I don’t know about you, but finitude is very important to me. The sense of any project lacking a clear beginning and end triggers my anxiety in a big way.
Sirach showing up for me in such a specific, hilarious and helpfully judgy manner that morning gave me permission I didn’t know I needed.
Yes, pray for your dad, Sirach seemed to say. But lighten the hell up about it! Meaningful prayer doesn’t require dredging up all the sadness you can muster. Torturing yourself doesn’t solve all the inconsistencies in your heart, as Rilke puts it. They’re inconsistencies! Leave them the fuck alone! You can’t give him more by being sad. But you might be able to offer him something by being whole.
Waking up Sunday morning, I felt an unexpected lightness and peace, an unprecedented state for Father’s Day, if I’m honest.
“Dad,” I prayed. “I love you. I feel as though you may actually be having a lighter and freer and more joyful Father’s Day than usual. I don’t know if that’s true, if I can trust that. But I’m choosing to. Be at peace, Daddy.”
Then, with a leap of trust, I asked God to take it from there. I went and ate pancakes with my family and enjoyed the sun, like a normal person. I gave my husband his Father’s Day present and laughed with my babies and listened to jazz.
Hey, Sirach told me to. (And I think he was pointing and laughing when he did it).