Narratives of Silence: Availability in a Spirituality of Fathering

By Pembroke, Neil | Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Narratives of Silence: Availability in a Spirituality of Fathering


Pembroke, Neil, Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality


The author takes a narrative approach to the spirituality of paternal availability. In all of the stories that are investigated, the theme of silence is prominent. Silence manifests itself through the modalities of restraint, loving action, and listening. These three modalities express quite comprehensively the Marcelian concept of personal availability. Marcel relates availability to both receptivity and belonging. Further, he identifies Christ as the ground of these commitments. Using these concepts, a Christian perspective on the spirituality of fatherhood is developed.

The research that social scientists have carried out on fatherhood over the past thirty or more years has indicated a small but significant increase in paternal participation in the care and nurture of children. While this constitutes a positive development in fatherhood, it is important to recognize that there is a deeper level of paternal relationality than basic care for the needs of the child. "Caring for" a child is not necessarily the same as "caring about" her (Rohner & Veneziano, 2001, p. 392). When a father cares deeply about his children, there is a spiritual dimension in his relationship with them. The spirituality of fatherhood, I contend, is grounded in a father's capacity for a loving disposal of himself for the sake of his children. It is this disposability or availability that I am interested in here. In my view, the best treatment of the meaning of personal availability is provided by the French philosopher and Catholic Christian, Gabriel Marcel. In Marcel's (1964) approach, availability means both openness to the other and forming a covenant of belonging with her. This covenant of belonging, he contends, is ultimately grounded in the love of Christ. The aim of this paper is to explore the way in which fathers express their love for their children through these spiritual dynamics.

The method used in this attempt to gain an understanding of the spirituality of paternal availability is a narrative one. Psychologists, theologians, and moral philosophers who use this method are impressed by the fact that human persons think, feel, act, and exercise their moral imagination according to narrative structures. Story, they note, is highly significant in the human quest for meaning and self-understanding.

In carrying out a search for stories of fathers' caring relationships with their children, I was initially struck by the way in which Sarbin (2002) identified silence as a prominent theme in the narratives that are recorded in the book, Between Fathers and Sons. As I continued my search, I found myself drawn to this motif. Paternal silence was most often presented in a negative light. There were a number of references in adult children's reports to suffering the "silence of absence," to receiving "the silent treatment" when father disapproved, and to the inability to communicate affection. Given that paternal parenting failures are a common topic both in the popular media and in academic publications, these are the kinds of reports that one might expect to find. What I was less prepared for was the finding that paternal silence was also reported in a positive light. Specifically, it was associated with paternal love and self-communication. It is this dimension of paternal silence that is pursued here. I have taken an account by a father and some stories from adult children (including one drawn from my personal experience) to present a portrait of the spirituality of paternal availability through silence. The way in which silence functions in these personal reports I have sought to capture through the following three modalities: restraint, self-giving, and listening. I discovered, first, that some fathers are wise enough to silence their inclination to dominate their children's learning. They know the value of restraint. Keeping quiet on occasion creates a space for the child to develop her natural sense of wonder.

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