Of Baby Spit-Up, Paternity, and Piety

19 Jun

Want to find parents of newborns in a crowd? Look for shoulder stains, especially on dads.

When my kids were babies, I was usually the last to know when a white splotch appeared on my upper back. Invariably it was at church, and we were passing around kids in a vain attempt to moderate the pew disturbances, and I’d end up with the youngest peering past my neck as she bounced in the BabyBjörn. Maybe I was trying to pay attention to the homily; maybe I was just trying to stay awake. Regardless, when the bouncing produced the inevitable blurp on my shirt, I’d remain oblivious, and the folks in the pew behind would enjoy a little little chuckle at my expense.

But I didn’t mind, because I was always proud of my shoulder spit-up stains. Even now, when I’m privileged to hold other people’s babies, I firmly rebuff offers of burping cloths. “Naah,” I say. “If she spits up, I’ll wear it as a badge of honor!” And I mean it. Shoulder spots that stem from cradling infants are marks of distinction. They say to the world, “I was entrusted for a time with a fragile imago Dei, and here’s proof!”

Of course, if my only claim to fame as a dad is that I’ve been known to sport spit on my shirt, then I’d have nothing to brag about. But hopefully that intermittent badge of honor was a decent hint of what I did shoulder in my paternal vocation – that I worked hard to provide for my family, for instance, and that I took pains to model the very virtues and discipline I called on my children to embrace.

In a sense, I’d like to think that spit-up residuals (and their moral equivalent) were clandestinely present all the time, not just when they visibly appeared during Sunday Mass. Fatherhood is about love, love entails sacrifice, and sacrifice always leaves scars of one kind or another. Sometimes you see them; most the time you don’t. But if they’re there, you’ll know it, because you’ll glimpse their associated fruits in the family.

The life of St. Juliana Falconieri, whose feast is today (June 19), illustrates what I’m getting at in a particularly vivid way. Born in 1270, Juliana was from a prominent, pious Florentine family. Her uncle, St. Alexis, was one of the Seven Founders of the Servites, and he took charge of Juliana’s religious formation after her father died prematurely. Inspired by her uncle, Juliana founded a women’s branch of the Servites while still a teen, but she waited to fully inaugurate its communal dimension until her mother died in 1305.

St. Juliana and her sisters led a life of fervent prayer and mortification which sustained them as they tirelessly cared for the sick. Juliana herself was particularly selfless in that work, and her example of service inspired her sisters whom she also led as superior for over 30 years until her death.

At the very end of her life, Juliana was unable to keep down solid food, and so she was deprived of the Holy Eucharist. Consequently, she made an unusual request: that a priest lay out a corporal on her chest and place a consecrated host there. “Shortly afterwards the Host disappeared and Juliana expired,” according to legend, “and the image of a cross, such as had been on the Host, was found on her breast.” This extraordinary occurrence is attested in the collect for Juliana’s feast, and images of the saint typically feature a communion host on her habit.

But that visible sign of communion with Christ would’ve meant little if it hadn’t penetrated into the life of Juliana and blossomed into Christlike charity. As it was, the outward sign was eminently backed up by an inward disposition that led, in turn, to Juliana’s generous outward actions. In any case, the extraordinary sign was truly extra: It wasn’t for Juliana’s benefit, but for ours. Today, it acts as a reminder of what’s supposed to happen in and through all of us who receive the Lord.

It’s the same idea that we encounter in today’s Gospel – the very Gospel we read on Ash Wednesday every year. “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them,” Jesus tells his disciples (Mt 6.1). So, give alms in secret, pray in a closet, fast with a smile on your face – which goes along with dads caring for their families behind the scenes.

But if somebody does happen to see us do those things – if somebody, for instance, spies the Lenten ashes on your forehead or the spit-up on your shoulder – don’t try to hide it. Be glad that your life can be a sign that points others to Christ, and then do your best to back up that sign with the hidden life it’s supposed to represent.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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