It’s getting quiet around here.
This weekend, Emma and Trevor are helping with our church’s Core Team Retreat, so just Jodi, Lily, and I, along with our Airedale Bruno, are at home. It’s a preview of our new reality beginning early next month—our youngest as an only child; we, as nearly empty-nesters.
This situation is not extraordinary. Indeed it is almost inevitable, and certainly preferable to a basement full of adult children without direction or dreams. But both Jodi and I agree that the approaching transition feels different.
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In the wee hours of Thursday morning, our oldest son Brendan, his bride, and his two little sons left Bismarck in a plane, bound for Minneapolis, Boston, and, ultimately, Rome. They arrived in the Eternal City early Friday; they will make their home in a convent apartment for 10 months out of 12 for the next two to three years as Brendan oversees Student Life for the University of Mary’s Rome campus.
We hope to visit them this spring. We didn’t travel back and forth to Bismarck often these past few years, but seeing the four of them in person just once a year—and the stark reality that an ocean and two half-continents lie between us—leaves a hollow feeling in my chest.
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Tomorrow morning, we take our youngest son, Trevor, to Saint John Vianney Seminary (SJV) at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul to begin his undergraduate studies and formal discernment of priesthood. In his case, he’ll be less than an hour away, but it seems further somehow. SJV is an island of clean-cut, well-dressed young men living and praying together amid the highs and lows of life on a fairly typical college campus. The young men’s schedule is structured and rigorous; their access to technology—especially smart phones—is strictly limited; their studies are not oriented simply to a career field and a job, but to a lifelong vocational call.
Ordination is not a given. We’ve been blessed to know several seminarians, some of whom have become priests, others who have discerned out to get jobs and start families, but none have regretted the years spent in seminary, with a community of like-minded men attempting to grow in virtue and seek God’s will together.
And they do have fun—lots of it! Why shouldn’t they? Why would God not want joyful priests in His service?
Nonetheless, both Jodi and I agree that tomorrow’s dropoff feels different somehow. For me, it’s as if our youngest son is stepping into different world into which we cannot follow. Priesthood was never on my radar as a young man; my youngest son is entering a world I have never experienced and into which I cannot go. The geographic distance is minimal, but Trevor’s spiritual journey stretches to unseen horizons and heights.
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Then, next weekend, our older daughter Emma moves back to Bismarck for her third year at the University of Mary. She is at home there, among her friends and favorite faculty, and she brings such grace to everything she undertakes—I suspect this summer is the last she will spend with us. She could do anything, anywhere; we are excited to see where God calls her next, but in a very real sense, I miss her already.
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And then Lily starts middle school. Raised by and around teenagers, she’s tall, headstrong, precocious, and a little spoiled, with a tendency to expect our world to revolve around her. And now it will.
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I’ve skipped over Gabe. After four years of missionary work and travel across the country, he’s now the closest of our older children—living in Saint Paul like Trevor, but working part-time for our home parish as a youth minister. He stops in on occasion to visit and eat with us, or to work from our house between meetings and activities.
It’s a blessing to spend time with him here, because in some ways he’s slowly moving further away than the others. Gabe is discerning religious life with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal (the CFRs) in New York City. In the near term, that discernment manifests itself in a steadfast downsizing and simplication of our second son’s life and possessions and a deepening commitment to daily Mass and constant prayer. This time next year, he expects to move to New York City to begin living with the friars; a year later, he will step away from us and the rest of the world altogether to explore this vocation more deeply—and if it is confirmed, he won’t move back again.
Brendan and Becky will eventually return to the Midwest; Gabe, perhaps not.
Like Trevor’s move to seminary, this seems a bigger transition. It’s humbling to see our sons consider following God in these more radical way, and it’s a little frightening as a father. Should they be ordained or take final vows, they will be lifelong, visible witnesses of God’s love, but also targets of the Enemy’s wrath in their collar or habit. I can pass as a mere mortal; they will proclaim eternity by their very appearance.
The road will not be easy.
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Where does the time go? These children of ours were small and helpless only yesterday; now they are crossing borders and oceans and spiritual bounds to do great things in the wide world. It’s what we want for them, of course: to do God’s will and be fruitful in whatever way they are called. So why is it so bittersweet?
Several years ago, our friend Father Tyler Dennis spoke to me about learning, like Abraham, to sacrifice my sons. These children of ours are on loan from God. We speak about adoption as children of our heavenly Father through Baptism, but in truth, our eternal sonship is more real than this temporary, earthly one. Flesh is fleeting; we were made for eternity in His house. And “[U]nless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (John 12:24).
Our family must fade and disperse in order to germinate and sprout.
This morning’s gospel is the parable of the talents (Matthew 24:14-30). The story of three servants entrusted with a portion of their master’s fortune is a stark reminder that we are not to simply preserve what we’ve given, but to grow it. We dare not hide or bury these children of ours in a box and keep them until the final judgement. We are called to sow abundantly and trust in the Lord’s promise.
The road will not be easy. But O, my God, what a beautiful fruitfulness You are yielding through us. Amen.