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Healing the Father Wound

By: George Montague, SM

Healing the Father Wound by George Montague, SM

I am going to speak here about the father wound because for me this was, and for many others still is, the biggest block to experiencing intimacy with the Father, Abba. For many others it is the mother wound that is deepest. 

Some have experienced both the father and the mother wound. I once presided at a Mass for children who had been taken away from both parents because of abuse. At the prayers of the faithful, one of the boys prayed for his dog. Touched by that, I shared it with one of the supervisors at the orphanage. He replied, “Yes, that’s probably because his dog is the only one who ever showed him love.” Something inside me screamed at this tragedy.

Compared to this little boy’s horrible launch into life, my experience was like the annoyance of a gnat. It made me grateful for the father and mother I had. Yet as a boy, I lacked that appreciation of my father because of the woundedness I felt. And I pray that my father will forgive me for sharing his faults in a public way. I do so only so that my experience—and his—will help others.

Papa was a big man, big in many ways. He stood six feet tall without his boots and Stetson hat, and it took a size fifty-five belt to circle his two hundred and eighty pounds. No wonder his grandchildren would call him “Big Daddy.” In contrast to his slender son, Frank Junior, everyone knew him as “Big Frank.” He was wonderfully good in many ways—in the gifts that he gave me and in the time that he spent with me hunting or fishing or taking me with him to the small-town bank, of which he was president. One scene has always reminded me of how really big he was.

For some reason, my mother was not at home, leaving my Aunt Margaret as her replacement to cook supper. We stood at the table to say grace, Papa at the head of the table and Aunt Margaret opposite me. After grace, it occurred to me to act like the gentleman I wanted to grow up to be, so I moved around to pull out the chair for Aunt Margaret. But in the split second between pulling it out and pushing it back, a little devil sat on my left shoulder and whispered, “What would happen if you wouldn’t push the chair back?” My guardian angel commandeered my right shoulder, but not in time to win. Aunt Margaret went down, not quite hitting the floor because I caught her in time. But like a rattler striking, a sting hit my left cheek—Papa’s reflexive slap. Aunt Margaret, whose regard for me was unconditionally positive, came quickly to my defense: “But he was only trying to be helpful.” Papa grunted, about the only sound for the rest of the meal. I toyed with my food, happy when done to escape to my bed upstairs, only to be choked there by guilt and confusion.

But the drama was not over. I heard the sound of Papa’s boots, announcing all two hundred and eighty pounds of him coming up the stairs. I could count each step, and yes, he reached the one that creaked; and on he came until his huge frame filled the doorway, and it was time for me to say the Act of Contrition. But suddenly his huge frame collapsed to his knees at my bedside, and he said, “George, I’m sorry I struck you. I shouldn’t have done that. Please forgive me.” Stunned, all I could say was “That’s all right.” Then Papa kissed me on the forehead and wished me goodnight.

As I said, Papa was a big man. [Footnote: By a series of rare circumstances, in my elder years I was given the opportunity to share that story on National Public Radio.]

And yet, despite all that, I had a fear of my father. I was pigeontoed from birth, and this seemed to anger my father, who would shout at me, “George, walk straight!” And there were a few times that this embarrassing correction happened in public. His anger could flare in an instant, and while that slap on my face was the only flash of physical violence I ever saw in my home, still Papa was a volcano that could explode, and we were careful to tiptoe around it. As a result, my transfer of my father image to God was quite unlike that of Jesus in relation to Joseph. God, to my child’s mind, was simply Papa to the nth degree—meaning, tiptoe around God.

Healing through Forgiveness

That father wound crippled me for a long time by leading me to transfer my father image to other authorities. But that, too, was part of my healing as I encountered other father figures in my religious life who freed me from the volcano myth. And in the process, God himself has freed me from seeing him as a volcano. God the Father has taught me that he is a God of liberation, a God of exodus. He does not want us to live in bondage to the Pharaohs of our memories. Years later in a midnight prayer—my Gethsemane—I was able to confront my deceased father, forgive him, and allow him to forgive me. Yes, forgive me for the things I had done to hurt him, for full reconciliation is a two-way street. For there were things I did to hurt my father. If only this reconciliation could have happened while he was alive! Still, I could be assured that in God, Papa had seen all of our story in perfect light, and his forgiveness was already there, waiting for me to receive it. If I am writing this book about the Father’s embrace, it is because of the transformation that healing prayer has worked in me. Not that I know fully what that embrace means, but I know what it is to be delivered from the pain of unhealed memories and the clutch of unforgiveness.

Forgiving your father? Forgiving your mother? How about your spouse or your brother or sister or that employer who fired you or blamed you for what someone else did? Or that person who injured or killed your child? Though parental relationships are the deepest, forgiveness is not limited to them. In the prayer to “Our Father,” we ask to be forgiven, promising to forgive others, and that means anyone who has hurt us. There is no limitation. Jesus tells us to love even our enemies.

How can that be if justice is not served? Justice, yes, but not recrimination, not retaliation. It does not mean we have to say that what that person did was right. If it was right, we don’t need to forgive. No, it was wrong. But what good does it do to hang on to our bitterness, our grudge, our resentment? It is in our own interest that we need to forgive. Recently, the news media carried the story of a survivor of the Holocaust who, having lived for decades in hatred of the Nazis, said she chose to forgive, not for their sake, but for hers. She said the Holocaust was torture enough; she didn’t need the continuing torture of hatred. As one old rancher quoted to me: “Hatred, like acid, eats the containing vessel.”

But Jesus gives a different reason for forgiveness and love of our enemies: “That you may be children of your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:45). Children bear the genes of their parents. Christians bear in their hearts the genes of their heavenly Father. Jesus shared the same divine nature as his heavenly Father, and so he forgave his enemies from the cross. We do not become God, of course, but we share in Jesus’ relationship with the Father when, like Jesus, we are held close to the Father’s heart in the divine embrace. We are too close to the furnace of all love to hold the ice of hate. Forgiveness must be part of our new nature as God’s children. Forgive because God forgives. You are God’s child.

And God has forgiven you.

Jesus, from the cross you gave the supreme example: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34, my translation). I kneel at the foot of your cross, asking you to reveal to me anyone I have not forgiven. I know it is only with your grace that I can forgive. But with your grace, I will. Amen.

Excerpted from Living in the Father’s Embrace by George T. Montague, SM (The Word Among Us Press, 2014). Available at wau.org/books

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