Grandparents oftentimes describe their relationships with their grandchildren in words that resemble God’s relationship with His children. Many grandparents make the following or similar comments:
• “I love to be surrounded by my grandchildren.”
• “I can’t say ‘no’ to their innocent requests.”
• “I love to see them bonding and becoming part of the family, to see them playing with their siblings and cousins.”
• “I like to teach them what is right and wrong. I try to guide them along right paths.”
• “Someone mentions the baby’s name, and I just start smiling.”
When parents become grandparents, they enter a new stage of life. This different stage occasions their living and loving in different ways. Grandparents seem to develop a new perspective, a new presence, followed by new actions.
Grandparents’ new perspective develops from their new role. Their vision becomes more transcendent as they watch their children raise their children. The grandparents’ perspective matures as they look at life through a prism that is longer, wider, deeper and more profound, i.e., longer in time, wider in experiences, deeper in appreciating the meaning of life, and more profound in perceiving the uniqueness and complexity of every child’s life.
Grandparents’ experiences over the decades have taught them that each child needs to be treated in ways that respect the needs of both the society in general and the child in particular. As grandparents admire the personality of each child, they stand in awe of the Creator in whose image each child is created, and whose divine image each child reveals uniquely. Every person reveals uniquely some aspect of God’s personality. Grandparents have learned through life experiences that not all rules are equally important, and that not all rules ought to be equally applied; exceptions to rules respect the individuality of each child’s personality, talents and situation.
Grandparents develop a new level of presence. When physically present, their role is less immediate; their role is more transcendent. They need not instruct, direct and discipline in the ways that parents must. Grandparents are freed to observe and enjoy. They may advise when their advice is sought, or to comment only when safety and security are at risk.
When not physically present, grandparents can be constantly spiritually present. St. Paul advises Christians to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17). In their undivided hearts, grandparents pray for their children and grandchildren daily, many times a day. Photographs and colorings placed throughout the grandparent’s home remind the elders of the younger ones in their lives. One secretary, whom I am blessed to know, places individual photographs of her 15 grandchildren, not facing her at her desk, but facing outward to visitors so that the whole world might see and enjoy the many “angels” in her life. Mutual presence, whether physical or spiritual, between grandparents and grandchildren can be very inspiring and comforting.
New activities emerge in the lives of grandparents. Joyfully, they repeatedly show photographs and tell stories about their grandchildren. Priests — including me — listen with full attention, and watch with broad smiles as we see and hear about each of these children, who (as in Lake Wobegon) are “all above average.” When grandparents encounter other grandparents, they exchange stories of happy experiences, and beseech prayers for special needs. Their affection for their grandchildren is contagious, and lights up a room!
Grandmothers love to shop with their granddaughters, expose them to the world of dolls and dresses, teach them to knit, and attend dance recitals and Christmas concerts. Grandfathers teach their grandsons how to hit a ball, how to catch a fish, and how to defend themselves whenever that might become necessary. When grandma and grandpa tell stories about the grandchildren’s parents, i.e., when their parents were children, grandchildren listen in rapt attention. The young ones happily hear these stories which deepen roots in family lore, and deepen relationships among the generations.
Grandparents sometimes worry about what kind of world their grandchildren will inherit. Faith-filled grandparents remind each other that God will not give us more than we can handle (1 Cor 10:13), that “all things work unto good for those who believe” (Rom 8:28), and that God has promised, “I know well the plans I have in mind for you. . .plans for your welfare not for woe!” (Jer 29:11).
Many grandparents raise not only their own children, but also in significant ways help to raise their children’s children. Many grandchildren depend on grandparents because of the parents’ issues: addictions, imprisonment, abandonment, unemployment, divorce. These grandparents do double-duty: having parented their children, they are parenting their children’s children. These grandparents demonstrate tremendous dedication. Their desire to do the best is unlimited, even though their energy suffers from natural limitations of age and sickness. These grandparents, who had sacrificed so much in raising their own children, continue selflessly sacrificing for the sake of the newest little ones!
Because of grandparents’ perspective, presence, activities and undying desire to do what is best for their grandchildren, may I suggest for consideration the metaphor: God is like a grandparent. The Scriptures already abound with metaphors for God’s relationship with His people, e.g.:
• God is like a father. “Is the Lord to be thus repaid by you, O stupid and foolish people? Is he not your Father, who created you?” (Dt 32:6). Also, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. This is how you are to pray, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven. . .” (Mt 6:8-9).
• God is like a mother. “I have stilled and quieted my soul like a weaned child on its mother’s lap; so is my soul [quieted] within me” (Ps 131:1-2). “As a mother comforts her son, so will I comfort you” (Is 66:13). The Old Testament describes God as a mother bird shielding her young under her wings (Ps 91:8) and as a mother bear protecting her cubs (Hos 13:8).
• God is like a shepherd. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want” (Ps 23:1). Also, “For thus says the Lord God, ‘I shall look after and tend my sheep. As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so will I tend my sheep’ ” (Ex 34:11ff).
• God is like a fortress, a rock, a shield. “I love you, O Lord, my strength, O Lord, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer. My God, my rock of refuge, my shield, the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Ps 18:2-3). Also, “Trust in the Lord forever! For the Lord is an eternal rock” (Is 26:4).
• God is like a king. “The Lord is king forever and ever; the nations have perished out of his land” (Ps 10:16). Also, “Who is this king of glory? The Lord of hosts; he is the king of glory” (Ps 24:10).
While the Scriptural metaphors are divinely revealed, perhaps the metaphor God is like a grandparent may be considered as revealed by human nature and human history.
Displayed in a friend’s home is the following poem which describes the burgeoning friendship between Grandpa and grandchild:
“I like to walk with Grandpa. His steps are short like mine. / He doesn’t say, “Now, hurry up.” He always takes his time. / I like to walk with Grandpa. His eyes see things as mine do: / Wee pebbles, bright and funny clouds, half-hidden drops of dew. / Most people like to hurry. They do not stop and see. / I’m glad that God made Grandpa unrushed and young like me” (Leiden, 1993).
FATHER O’MALLEY, C.M., currently serves as University Chaplain at Niagara University, New York. Ordained in 1973, he has written five books on the saints and various articles on pastoral topics. He has been both an instructor and an administrator at NU.