… if you structure your life for “holiness” in this somewhat old-fashioned way, you also structure your life for productivity.

Zachary Guiliano’s recent post, “Holy living in the PhD desert,” struck several nerves with me for its candid appreciation of solitary academic work, its challenges, and its opportunities. I wish I had read it about five years ago when I began my doctoral studies. I am not, by natural tendency, an especially disciplined person. That is part of why I so appreciate being in an environment full of external structure (like a traditional boarding school). It is much easier to structure my time in a holy and productive way when I can rely on an authority-shaped community. Chapel, class, meals, and duties provide the structure around which to arrange personal study, prayer, administration, and time with family.

It’s that last bit that had me scratching my head a bit after reading Zack’s post. Is this idyllic scholarly life possible with small children? I would like to think that it is, because many people before me have successfully written dissertations with small children around. But it’s hard for me to conceive of such a life, because my ideal of scholarly and spiritual goodness is tied, like Zack’s, to a semi-monastic rhythm that needs, in order to work, a certain amount of control over one’s environment.

That kind of control is hard to come by in a house with kids (especially small ones). I think Brian Gordon’s comic here suggests something of the internal conflict that I feel between a need to love and be loved by my family and the need for the kind of discipline that’s possible elsewhere. (And, of course, much PhD work is not “work” in the distinct way envisioned by the comic, and academic work/life distinctions are another large subject in itself.)


Semi-monastic discipline, for the parent of small children, entails a cost of some sort. That’s not to say that it’s not worth paying, just that every moment I spend alone (whether it’s goofing off, writing super-brilliant Covenant posts, or reading medieval theology) is a moment that my wife (or someone) has to spend watching and playing with the children. That parenthetical “someone,” of course, with today’s high-cost (not to mention excessively “educative”) childcare, is not really an option for many of us. I wonder sometimes if the strong Protestant preference for a married presbyterate comes as much from bourgeois economic and family sensibilities as it does from historical anti-Roman bias. As a married priest — happy to be both married and priested — I have no difficulty understanding the deep value in the Latin discipline of clerical celibacy. There are some kinds of holiness that are not accessible to me as a 21st century father.

But there is more than one kind of holiness, just as there is more than one kind of productivity.

On the days when I lose all patience at my own impatience at my children, I often remember comedian Jim Gaffigan’s remarks from Dad is Fat about having a lot of kids (see here):

I guess the reasons against having more children always seem uninspiring and superficial. What exactly am I missing out on? Money? A few more hours of sleep?  … I believe each of my five children has made me a better man. So I figure I only need another 34  kids to be a pretty decent guy. Each one of them has been a pump of light into my shriveled black heart.

I can only hope that my children are God’s way of making me more holy. Sometimes it feels like they do the opposite. I will not “treasure every moment,” because not every moment is worth treasuring (really, am I supposed to be pleased and overawed by wiping fecal matter off of everything?), and because I’m usually too busy feeling guilty about not spending enough moments with them, or about not spending moments reading or writing or a million other things I’m supposed to be doing.

Having children is not wonderful because my kids are super cute (though they are) or because everyone else thinks they are super cute (which they do); it’s wonderful because it has forced more honest reflection, conversation, evaluation, planning, critique, and just all around discipline and intentionality between me and my wife, between us and others, and within ourselves individually. Maybe having children is a goad to holiness because it shows us just how little progress we actually make in holiness. I’m not sure, but it’s awesome. Every time I want to be Martha, my kids are there tugging on me demanding that I be Mary. It annoys the heck out of me, and I’m starting to see that as a good thing.

Sam Keyes’s other posts may be found here. The featured image is from Pixabay.  

About The Author

Sam Keyes serves as Professor of Theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California, and a priest in the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.

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One Response

  1. Zachary Guiliano

    Thanks for this, Sam. I think the short answer is: No, you probably cannot lead the life I described with small children! Indeed, part of structuring my life in a fairly rigid way, packing it full of duties and tasks, was precisely because Melissa and I don’t have children yet. There’s a need to fill in the time! And perhaps take “advantage” of this space, while it lasts.


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