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Family Life

Being home when God comes


Did you know, Jonathan, that before you were born, Mommy and Daddy had no baby at all?”

I was sitting at the kitchen table with my 2-and-a-half-year-old son. There had been very few quiet moments alone together since his little sister had arrived a year ago. Colicky, rambunctious and difficult, she had completely absorbed our energies, a high maintenance baby. I was trying to let our peaceful little firstborn know that we still loved him, even if we had been neglecting him sadly.

“We wanted a baby so badly! We told God it didn’t matter. It could be a boy or a girl, a big baby or a little baby, have brown eyes or blue eyes. We just wanted a baby. Any baby would do.”

I had stopped for emphasis, reached out and hugged my son and said, “But now that you are here, we are so glad God sent us you.”

He looked back with his big, loving eyes and responded, “I’m so glad you stayed home the day God came.”

The whole of family spirituality in a nutshell: being home when God comes.

Simple enough

When I was invited to discuss family spirituality, the task seemed simple enough. After all, I have spent the last 30 years of my life teaching family spirituality, offering retreats on it, producing books and videos exploring it. Perhaps that was the problem. Is there anything left inside me that has not been said at least eight or nine times, in person, on video, in print? But maybe the question is even more basic than that. Have all those words made a difference? Is anybody listening?

My memory took me back 15 years to a small restaurant in Mystic, Conn. I was arguing with Neil and Pat Kluepfel, founders of Twenty-Third Publications, about whether or not we could call a video “Family Spirituality.” Their primary concern was that no one would know what the title meant. They pushed me to define clearly what the term was describing, what other words could take its place, what title would indicate more clearly the content of that video.

Above all else, spirituality is about our relationship with God. The word we use to modify “spirituality” tells us the principal way we experience that relationship. A monastic spirituality is one that finds God in the silences, the prayer rituals, the work and discipline of the monastery. An ascetic spirituality relies heavily on denial, while a “spirituality of the market place” seeks God in ministry.

A family spirituality experiences God in and through the ordinary relationships and events of family life. This way of life becomes the principal means for knowing God, the primary source of grace and holiness for those called to this particular religious vocation. The simple tasks of bathing, feeding, storytelling, playing with children, all become sacramental when we understand sacraments as outward signs of our relationship with God and that relationship as incarnated in family. The more difficult tasks of letting go, welcoming the people our children choose into the circle we have created, caring for the aged with the pain it brings, all become passion and resurrection, when we recognize them as ways of laying down our lives for the other.

In the end, Pat and Neil had agreed. “Family Spirituality” was the only name encompassing enough to define what the video was about.

Unfortunately, the term “family spirituality” has come to be seen as “soft theology” in much the same way that doctors call anecdotal accounts “soft research.” In this context, “soft” implies something that lacks any scientifically proven content or matching research studies. We can “prove” that sacraments give grace; we have the teaching of several councils down through the ages. We can “prove” the church is a source of holiness; we have the doctrine of the church about itself. The only things we have to suggest that family is a source of grace are anecdotal accounts from people like Thérèse of Lisieux and our own experiences of faith.

The result is a church that has, for centuries, kept a tight hold on the sources of grace. Grace had become something the church owned and dispensed, and the “church” was identified with the hierarchy. When the Second Vatican Council proclaimed that the church was the people of God and that we were all called to the same holiness, all gifted with the same grace, this foundational theology was somehow buried in the flurry of liturgical and biblical reforms.

There were a few who heard the call to families and responded. Mary Reed Newland tried to teach us how to make Bible stories into family stories, how family stories held their own religious mysteries. Dolores Curran answered our parenting questions as she wove faith through the ordinary events of family life. Christiane Brusselmans taught us to ritualize family events with our children so that they would grow to understand church ritual. John Westerhoff challenged our belief that religious education was capable of giving our children faith and called on parents to recognize the essential nature of the evangelization of the home. By the time I met with the Kluepfels, I was standing, or perhaps awkwardly balancing, on the shoulders of giants who had come before.

Yet the question still remained. Will anyone know what we are talking about? And the deeper question, “Does anyone really believe that family life can be the source of a holiness and a relationship with God as profound as any ‘calling?’ ” Despite the efforts of a heroic few, the universal call to holiness had never quite taken hold. Despite the widespread liturgical and biblical reforms to which the council had given birth, the church remained pregnant with the concept of a called and gifted laity, an overdue baby refusing to be born.

Jesus and the rich young man

Ten long years after the council closed, I was invited to keynote a catechetical day at a minor seminary for an order of religious priests. I had been sharing my belief that vocation is, for all of us, the source of our holiness. The words of Jesus to the rich young man, “Sell what you have and come follow me,” are meant for all of us, lay and religious alike. As I began to explain how it was possible, within marriage, to live a spiritually committed life, a young man in the back stood up and interrupted me angrily.

“If you can serve the Lord by being married and having children, then what the hell am I doing here?”

He took my breath away. Years later, when accosted in a similar manner, I would have the presence of mind to say, “Maybe it’s time you asked yourself that question.” But I was young and I said the first thing that came to mind. “I don’t know. What are you doing here?”

I have since used the same gospel story of the rich young man with countless parents across the United States and Canada. I always end the story by asking them, “Who are the people called to sell what they have, give to the poor, and follow the Lord?”

And I always get the same response: the sisters, the priests, and some will remember the brothers. The professional holy people. But never the parents.

It is not just a misconception of those of us who grew up in a more hierarchical, traditional church. Ask any child to point out a holy person. Most children will choose the pastor, sister, the director of religious education, someone closely associated with church.

When our youngest was 8 years old, she was invited to celebrate Passover with the family of a Jewish classmate. She came home delighted with the wonderful evening and announcing authoritatively that she now knew the difference between being Catholic and being Jewish. According to this pint-sized theologian, when you were Catholic, everything important happened in church; when you were Jewish, everything important happened at home. She had caught the Catholic message: The church is the source of holiness.

Church people

Where did we get that idea? Not from Jesus. Some of his strongest diatribes were against church people, those who put the needs of temple and temple ritual before the needs of the people. His own parables of holy people included widows, publicans, fathers, shepherds, the poor, the young and the ill. We cannot point, as we have in the past, to the story of the rich young man. Jesus was not calling the rich young man to religious life as we know it today. He was doing what he so often did: comparing the Law of Moses to the law of love. The young man had already affirmed that he was keeping the commandments. Jesus was calling him to the new commandment of love.

I suspect our problems began with Paul, who believed that all should choose to be celibate if they could (1 Corinthians 7:8), his implication being that it would be easier to pray. His words to the Corinthians were the foundation for an argument that waged in the church for centuries over whether or not people who were sexually intimate could pray. It took 700 years for the church to acknowledge that married people could pray. As late as the last century, matrimony was still considered a sacrament that did not give grace. If the church’s own sacramental ritual could not be seen as giving grace, how could we possibly believe that living in the state of matrimony could be a source of grace?

The end result has been a church that views marriage as less than holy, and a concept of holiness as stratified, with the “holier” spots belonging to people whose lives are committed entirely to the church. Even our language betrays us. A “religious vocation” is not the call to a life committed to God, to sharing faith with others in a community, as a family or alone. A “religious vocation” is a life committed to the church.

The church’s century-old designation of the home as the “domestic church” makes family holiness consist in being a little “church” in the home. Implicit in the statement is the idea that the church is the model for holiness. But our theology teaches to be holy is to be like God, and God is not a church. God is a family, Creator, Son, and Holy Spirit. We do not need families to be churches; we need churches to be families.

There is only one call to holiness in our church and that is baptism. Lumen Gentium affirmed it, and Paul VI made it more specific by saying that parents are the first evangelizers of their children and receive the gospel from them as it is lived in their lives (Evangelii Nuntiandi). We are all called to the same holiness, and that holiness begins in the family.

Ours is an incarnational religion. We believe that God became human so that we could know, love and emulate God. Parents continue the work of incarnation, putting skin on God. Through our love, we make God visible, touchable, believable. There is a sacredness that is inherent in the tasks of parenting. Most parents sense this but would hesitate to give voice to it because it has never been held up as a form of holiness. It is much more than church, much more than being a Catholic.

My dad, my mother

My father was an Irish Catholic of a forgotten era. He went to daily Mass all of his life, and usually took at least one of his children with him. He gave up meat every Lent and insisted on our giving up candy, ice cream, parties, movies, anything that might be considered “frivolous.” We said the family rosary, went to confession every Saturday, “did Stations” on the Fridays of Lent, and visited the seven churches on Holy Thursday. My dad is definitely the one responsible for my Catholicity.

But I am a person of faith because of my mother. Faith is much more than a set of beliefs. Faith is a relationship with someone who has proven to be faithful. Faith is the gift of a God who is faithful and of the person who incarnates that for us. My mother taught me faith.

My mother is the one who picked me up when I cried out as a baby, and I learned that when you cry out in the dark, someone answers. Without knowing that, I would never have learned to pray. It was my mother who kissed my hurts and taught me about the power that touch has to heal. She taught me to wipe my feet, and I learned to take off my shoes on holy ground. She insisted on our being on time for supper, and I learned that the family table was about much more than food. The meal could be reheated and eaten later. It was our presence at the table, our “being there” for each other, that could never be replaced. My dad may have taken me to daily Mass, but it was my mom who gave me my understanding of Eucharist. My dad taught me how to ritualize it, but without the initial understanding, the ritual would have had no strength and little meaning.

Most of what we understand about faith comes in these “homely” lessons, long before they have a theological context, often before we are conscious of what we are being given. We, in turn, hand them down, becoming the evangelizers even as we are evangelized. As parents, we learn about who God is, primarily through who we are called to be for our children. It is in caring for them, loving them, believing in them, that we learn about a God who cares for us, loves us, believes in us.

It is essential for all of us to remember that God wants a relationship with us far more than we want to be in relationship with God. Like any lover, any wise friend, God reaches out to us where we are, through the people we love best.

Creed offers us answers. Spirituality is about living with the questions. Tom Stella, in The God Instinct, suggests spirituality is not about moving from question to answer, but from question to question. Anyone who has ever lived with a 3-year-old will recognize the irony in that statement. There is no answer to “why” that cannot be greeted by a 3-year-old with yet another “why.” Children challenge us continually to examine the answers we have learned to accept. If we are focused on growing spiritually, on moving from question to deeper question, every “why” becomes a “source of grace,” an opportunity for understanding God in a whole new light.

My own children’s questions, complete with the answers they created when I was unable to respond, have shaped my spiritual journey. “Is God a grownup or a parent?” (Grown-ups love you when you are good, and parents love you anyway.) “Why are the dandelions weeds?” (It’s because they don’t grow where you want them to.) “Where is heaven?” (If heaven is where God is, then heaven is in my heart.) “If it’s Jesus’ birthday, how come we give each other presents?” (To say “Happy Birthday” to Jesus in us.) Their questioning has forced me to look at all I have been taught about God, all I have been taught to label as weeds, all the rituals I have been taught to celebrate, and ask “why?” The simplest questions have forced me to subject some of my deepest beliefs to piercing scrutiny.

Family spirituality is not a warm fuzzy. It is not “soft” theology. It is a particular way of entering into relationship with God, a way of understanding and celebrating that relationship.

‘It never ends’

My 25-year-old daughter arrived in my office as I struggled to finish this article. She was close to tears, brought on by the stress of applying for medical residencies, a discouraging meeting with an adviser, and doctors who had failed to get her recommendations and evaluations in on time. None of it was her fault; it just felt like it.

“Why do I never feel good enough, Mom?”

I held her in my arms, struggling to hold back my own tears. At that moment, the phone rang. It was her older brother, his voice tinged with stress, exhaustion and something I could not quite name. I listened carefully as I struggled with the dilemma before me. How many times in my life have I had to decide which child needs me more at any given moment? How many times have I had to ask which cry was more critical, which need more life-threatening, and risk a choice that sometimes proved destructive? St. Ignatius taught a system for arriving at discernment. In family spirituality, there is no formal education, only lots of practice. I said a silent prayer for my son and promised to call back in an hour.

My daughter made a quiet, insightful comment as I hung up the phone. “It never ends, does it, Mom?”

If a spirituality is valid, it requires all of us, the totality of our being. It never ends. Parenting is such a commitment. We may send them off to school, to jobs and careers, to families and homes of their own, but we never stop being their parents. Our sense of God has been shaped by what family has taught us. We have become generous and courageous through the growth and sacrifice it has required. We have become holy in the effort to be home when God comes.

Kathleen O’Connell Chesto’s latest books are Exploring the New Family (St. Mary’s Press) and Raising Kids Who Care (Second Edition, Liguori). Her newest videos, a sacramental series, are available from Twenty-Third Publications. She gives retreats and workshops and enjoys being a grandparent.

National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 2002