Saturday, June 14, 2008

Fathers and the Gift of Standing Alongside

Barrie Hibbert tells this story about a father and daughter (names are changed):

Sometimes, unexpectedly, in the middle of a conversation something is said that strikes you as being quite extraordinarily profound or beautiful or moving. That seems to happen often when I’m talking with my old friend William.

The other day as we were sharing news of our respective families, William mentioned his very bright, talented and vivacious daughter. But life has not been kind to Sarah, and over the years she has endured hardship and suffering almost beyond belief. Currently she is going through another very difficult time, and talking about it, William said:

“You know…I often think of the words “Stabat Mater”- that incredible phrase which describes Mary the mother of Jesus standing before the cross on which hangs the broken body of her beloved child.”

“She stands there heart-broken and helpless: she feels so deeply…but she cannot do a thing to help her suffering son.” William paused for a moment, then added, “That’s how I feel about Sarah.”

A brief silence followed. It was somehow the only appropriate response.

The scene at the foot of the cross is briefly described in the twenty-fifth verse of the nineteenth chapter of John’s Gospel. The brevity of the account somehow adds to its poignancy:

“Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother… and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.”

“Stabat Mater dolorosa” (“Stood the mother, full of grief”).

All of us… like Mary, like William… have ‘been there’ one way or another. Heart-broken and feeling helpless, we have watched a partner, a child, a grandchild, a parent, or a friend, enduring a pain which we can do nothing to cure, and little or nothing to even alleviate. At other times, we are more like those other women as we stand alongside the one standing alongside.

But ‘standing alongside’ is not as useless as it may sound. Many a sufferer would testify that it mattered more than they could ever say that there was somebody there - just standing alongside. When that is all you can do, that is all you can do and in the mysterious way that love works, it helps.

I am sure Sarah knows that her Dad is standing there. She knows that he can’t do anything much, but she knows that he is there and that he cares. As William talked the other morning, my heart went out to him. Perhaps, in a sense and for a moment, I felt that I was like the other two Marys in the Gospel: one who was standing alongside the one standing alongside. In such times, the poet John Milton reminds us: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Source: Barrie Hibbert, 14 June 2008.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Father and daughter.