“Are you the adult you want your child to grow up to be?”
I just love that question from Brené Brown. As a mom, she is kindly inviting other parents to consider what really matters. It is their lived example, far more than anything they say or even anything they do, that leaves a lasting impact on their kids. It’s all about how they show up in relationships – and continue to grow and mature.
Can the children sense the honor and delight that husband and wife show to each other? Or do they sense the rift and feel the contempt? Do the children feel seen and understood, celebrated for who they truly are? Or are they pushed into behaving and looking the right way? Do they feel invisible or unheard? When someone makes a mistake, what is the reaction? Is there a capacity to talk about it, to name truthfully what the experience was like for everyone, to learn, to grow, and to become even more bonded together? Do the children see in their parents that conflict can be healthy and need not signal the end of a relationship? Do mom or dad treat their bodies and others’ bodies with respect? Do they exhibit shame around appearance, body parts, or body shape? Are they mature in their own sexuality – or do the children sense the awkwardness, shame, or fear that surges in mom or dad whenever that topic comes up? You get the idea…
For us who are priests, we can ask a similar question: Am I the kind of disciple I want the members of my flock to be? If we are not growing and maturing as disciples, if we are not brave shepherds who keep engaging in our own human growth, no amount of toil or labor will bear lasting fruit.
When I meet people, they often ask, “Where did you grow up?” Sometimes I quip, “Oh, I’m still growing up.” But it’s true! Like so many other adults, I struggle with insecurity and a lack of emotional maturity. It’s a work in progress.
I shared previously about my experience seven years ago, seeking help for myself, and discovering that I have a story. I then began rediscovering my emotions, many of them long ignored, numbed, or buried – and for good reason! Remembering and facing the heartache of my story opened up wells of grief, loneliness, rage, terror, or shame. As I learned to welcome the waves of those emotions, I became more and more capable of emotional connection with others – who noticed the difference. I became much more aware of my bodily and emotional needs: to be understood, to feel safe, to be connected, to be pursued with curiosity, to be encouraged, to play, or to rest. I continue learning an awareness of what’s really happening in my body – which opens up my capacity to bring empathy, connection, and awareness of what is really happening in the person in front of me.
More recently, welcoming others to engage my story with me has helped me come to grips with my style of relating, and whether I want to make any changes. I am more aware now of how I both want and don’t want certain things. I welcome closeness and then sabotage it when it actually happens. I intensely desire connection, but often isolate instead. I long for play or rest, but sometimes prefer addictive substitutes that don’t involve meaningful connection in the present moment. I passionately seek justice and renewal – which will result sometimes in feeling anger at what is not right – and when that anger shows up I tend to mute it, shut it down, or soothe it with an addiction. I am still learning how to allow that energy instead to propel me as a witness to the Kingdom of God. In all these efforts, I thank God for those who have been companions. When I feel stuck or discouraged, they help me notice and celebrate the real progress that has happened.
This entire process of growing up is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church and seminary formation documents mean when they talk about “affective maturity” and growth in chastity. I could have chosen the title “growth in chastity” for this post, but it would have been misunderstood by most. Depending on the listeners, I find it more effective to say “healthy sexuality” or “affective maturity.” Even there, the authentic meaning is elusive.
The Catechism covers all these themes in my favorite paragraphs: nn. 2331-2347. There we find a breathtakingly beautiful an introduction to the commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Rather than casting shame on bad behaviors, rather than jumping into a laundry list of sexual sins, the Catechism begins by painting a picture of healthy sexuality and what it means to become a whole person living in healthy relationships.
Paragraph 2332 teaches that sexuality affects all aspects of being human – most especially our affectivity and our capacity to enter into bonds of communion with others. In other words, those who are sexually healthy are emotionally mature. They are secure in relationships, receiving and giving love in a way that shows honor and delight to the other person. If I am struggling with insecurity, if I am less than free in how I show up in relationships, that is a symptom of my wounded sexuality. It reminds me that I have need of more integration – that I have need of maturing in my affectivity and thereby growing in chastity.
Growing up is a lifelong labor. The Catechism describes growth in affective maturity and chastity as a long and exacting work that must be renewed at every stage in life. I need to hear those words on the days when I wonder why this is all taking so long, or thinking, “I thought I already did this!” I like the image of toiling up a winding mountain path, stumbling on obstacles and snares, passing the same views again and again – but ascending, slowly ascending.
Probably my most important lesson was not to climb that mountain alone. I need the living God, of course, but I also need true companions on the journey – those who know everything about me, without any need for me to hide. And I need mentoring. I need wise guides from whom I can receive nurture, sheltering, and guidance without having to give anything.
The Catechism describes this need as apprenticeship (n. 2339). We cannot grow in chastity (in affective maturity, relational health, and human integration) without someone helping us make sense of it all and slowly growing into it. We needed that as children, and we need it still – in every age of life.
We all began life totally needy. We received some level of apprenticing. But if we tell the truth about our story, most all of us did not receive nearly as much apprenticing as we needed. Few parents today live consistently as the kind of adult they desire their children to become. Most all our families have multi-generational trauma that has yet to be confronted, much less healed. When Jesus comes again and tells the full stories of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, just imagine the hardships and shadowy secrets that will be brought to full light. Those stories are tributaries flowing into our own story. That which has not been transformed gets transmitted. That means we definitely need apprenticing as adults to make greater sense of where we have come from, to recognize both the beauty and the brokenness, and to allow Jesus to put all the pieces together.
We who are priests are invited to a unique manner of self-gift. Celibate chastity, when lived in integrity and freedom, is superabundantly fruitful for the sake of the Kingdom. That all sounds great when we engage in a theological flyby, admiring the scenery from a distance. When we get down into the mud of our humanity, it is not always fun! But, wow, is it worth it. We become so much more truly ourselves, and therefore capable of giving with ever greater freedom, joy, and fruitfulness.