Voices Online Edition
VOICES - Vol. XX No. 3
Christmas 2005 - Epiphany 2006
The extraordinary paradox at the heart of family life
by Rita Joseph
Do you remember the old World War II movie Mrs. Miniver? It was based on the book by Jan Struther, published in 1939 at the beginning of the war, when London was being bombed. Mrs. Miniver describes how their family has been scattered -- her husband is away with his war work, her eldest son is training to be a fighter pilot, her younger children have been sent away to the country for safety, and Mrs. Miniver is now a hospital aid:
… they had found themselves looking at each other and their cherished possessions with new eyes … they had gained … an appreciation of the value of dullness. As a rule, one tended to long for more drama, to feel that the level stretches of life between its high peaks were a waste of time. Well, there had been enough drama lately. They had lived through seven years in as many days; and Mrs. Miniver, at any rate, felt as though she had been wrung out and put through a mangle. She was tired to the marrow of her mind and heart, let alone her bones and eardrums: and nothing in the world seemed more desirable than a long wet afternoon at a country vicarage with a rather boring aunt.
Many families today understand only too well what Mrs. Miniver is saying here. So many recent tragedies -- tsunamis, twisters, earthquakes, hurricanes -- from Kashmir to New Orleans, so many families, displaced, disoriented, are longing for a return to “blessed ordinariness”.
Yet it seems to me that it should not take tragedy of this scale to gain a true appreciation of ordinary family life. To be enabled to truly count our blessings, maybe we need to make a conscious effort each day to eliminate contempt for the familiar. We need constantly to try to see our families with new eyes, with a more appreciative perspective, with a deep love for all that is dear and familiar, and perhaps too, with an ever-present consciousness that it is all too soon passing. To develop a true appreciation for husbands, children and our extended families, we need to apportion due respect for them and for the regular work we do for them in our ordinary everyday lives.
It is no small thing to endure the routine frustrations and frictions of family life. This is the curious paradox: that behind the ordinary demands and challenges of building and maintaining a family there lies an extraordinary purpose. True perspective is so important.
As Catholic wives and mothers privileged to live in all the fullness of our faith, we need to be not just counter-cultural, but supra-cultural. We have to break with what Arnold Lunn called “the prison of our times” and escape “the mental fashion of our age”. The fierce ambitions, petty resentments, egotism and noisy demands of the secular feminism of our own times are not for us. Our perspective must reach much higher and wider to be transcendent -- to transcend earth and to reach for the things of heaven, not just for ourselves but for all those whom the Father has given us. To do God’s will in our own small world, in our family, in our community -- this is truly a blessed ordinariness.
For within the blessed ordinariness of family life is to be found some extraordinary things. Within that blessed ordinariness, great things, heroic things, can be accomplished for the Lord.
“… in the midst of my daily occupations”
We have only to look to the life of Mary, our Blessed Mother. The greatest coming in all human history was announced to Mary when she was by herself in quiet prayer. The birth of our Redeemer took place in a very ordinary stable. With two notable exceptions -- the flight into Egypt and the three day search for the lost boy-Jesus -- her Son’s first thirty years were spent in the very ordinary circumstances of small-town life in Nazareth.
Mary knew all the normal little joys and worries -- she did all the ordinary household tasks, cooking, cleaning, washing, making and mending clothes, careful house-keeping to make ends meet, working hard as well as praying. Mary knew the ordinary sorrows of family life too -- both small sorrows and great ones: at Saint Joseph’s death, both she and Jesus knew the deep human grief of separation from someone you love.
But within that ordinary life at home in Nazareth, Mary, Joseph and Jesus pleased the Father. And it is indeed a very wonderful thing to please God.
This is what we must understand: that God looks down on us as we try so hard to raise our families for Him, and He loves us and is pleased with us. He is ready to hear and grant everything we need to do this job, with and in and through His Son.
Each day we can pray:
Lord Jesus, help me
To love as you love,
To forgive as you forgive,
To endure as you endured
And to please the Father as you pleased Him
Each one of us is placed on this earth in a unique family and given special work to do for God within that family -- a particular job that no one else can do for Him. We can’t outsource the raising of our children. We can’t contract it out like lawn-mowing or window-cleaning. No one else can replace us -- no one else can love God for us -- we have each to love and serve and please Him in our own inimitable way. Like Jesus, we too have been “ordained for this hour”.
Pope John Paul II understood the special work of raising a family:
The family is the hope of humanity…. The future of humanity and the People of God passes through the defense and fulfillment of the family.
And yet this responsibility is not so daunting when we recognize that every step of the way God our Father is sharing it with us -- we parents are His little ones too, just as our children are His little ones. He watches over them and guides them, and is helping us, as parents, every moment of every day. In His great love for us, He covers our mistakes as parents, and makes up to our children for our inadequacies as we try to raise them to know, love and serve Him. He will compensate our children, too, for our failures in love and patience and wisdom. For God is good.
Our Father in heaven is infinitely good with a goodness beyond all human understanding. He listens to our prayers for our families. Carefully, lovingly, He has planted each family as “a vine brought out of Egypt”; when things go terribly wrong, we must pray -- we ask God:
… look down from heaven and see
Visit this vine and protect it,
The vine your right hand has planted,
And we shall never forsake you again:
Give us life that we may call upon your name.
God of hosts, bring us back;
Let your face shine upon us and we shall be saved. (Psalm 79)
In good times and in bad times, through every day’s work and recreation, in small joys and in great distress, in the moments of sheer delight in our children, in the gladness of heart at the beauty of the sky and the sea, the sunshine and rain, the colors of the grass and trees, through hours of contentment, as well as through sharp disappointments, through ugly scenes and dismal failures we are to live as a family always in the presence of our God. Talk with Him, consult Him, thank Him, plead with Him, ask Him anything, tell Him everything.
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux teaches us this:
I understand and know from experience that: “The kingdom of God is within you.” Jesus has no need of books or teachers to instruct souls. He teaches without the noise of words. Never have I heard Him speak, but I feel that He is within me at each movement; He is guiding and inspiring me with what I must say and do. I find just when I need them certain lights that I had not seen until then, and it isn’t most frequently during my hours of prayer that these are most abundant but rather in the midst of my daily occupations.
To love as You love
Raising my family is about my loving those the Father has given me.
“I have manifested your name to those you have given me out of the world…” This is each mother’s essential task to love her family home to the Father each one He has given her, to pray them home. How do we do this? Saint Thérèse of Lisieux tells us:
God is too good to make divisions; He is so rich that He can give without any measure everything I ask him.… He made me understand these words of the Canticle of Canticles: “Draw me, we shall run after you in the perfume of your ointments”. O Jesus, it is not even necessary to say: “When drawing me, draw the souls whom I love!” This simple statement “Draw me” suffices; I understand, Lord, that when a soul allows herself to be captivated by the perfume of your ointments, she cannot run alone, all the souls whom she loves follow in her train; this is done without constraint, without effort, it is a natural consequence of her attraction to You. Just as a torrent, throwing itself with impetuosity into the ocean, drags after it everything it encounters in its passage, in the same way, O Jesus, the soul who plunges into the shoreless ocean of Your love, draws with her all the treasures she possesses. Lord, You know I have no other treasures than the souls it has pleased You to unite to mine; it is You who entrusted these treasures to me, and so I dare to borrow the words You addressed to the heavenly Father, the last night which saw You on our earth as a traveler and a mortal. Jesus, I do not know when my exile will be ended … and then I want to be able to say to You, O my God:
“I pray for them, not for the world do I pray, but for those whom you have given me, because they are yours; and all things that are mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep in your name those whom you have given to me.”
How tremendously reassuring: when a mother allows herself to be captivated by the Lord, she cannot run alone, all the souls whom she loves follow in her train.…
To forgive as You forgive
To those whom God has given us, we are to forgive everything there is nothing not to be forgiven.
We must forgive our children, our husbands, mothers, mothers-in-law, fathers, fathers-in-law, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts -- everyone. Wayward children, errant husbands -- we must forgive -- everyone -- always -- everything.
Ask Jesus to help us. “Forgive them, Father”, He said from the cross, “they know not what they do”. He understands -- He is so very human. He understands mothers, He understands their tears over willful children. His own great heart breaking, He looked down on Jerusalem and cried: “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and thou wouldst not”.
Yet He never gives up on us, or on any of our children. “It is not the will of your Father that even one of these little ones be lost”.
We must never give up on the black sheep of our families. We must pray for them with great patience and with absolute trust in our Father “… for nothing is impossible with God”. We know that God is able to bring good even out of evil. “The Lord says: my plans for you are peace and not disaster; when you call to me I will listen to you. And I will bring you back to the place from which I exiled you”. We know that our Father, the Eternal Shepherd, sends us the Good Shepherd who day after day leaves the 99 and searches out the lost sheep. And we know that “… there is more joy in heaven at the repentance of one sinner than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to repent”.
We know that He does not leave us orphans -- He sends the Holy Spirit to be our Advocate, our Consolation, our Wisdom. And when our wayward children, or sisters or brothers, or fathers or mothers or spouses are lost to us, He does not leave them orphans. He will hear our prayers and send the Holy Spirit to them to “bend the stubborn heart and will/Melt the frozen, warm the chill/Guide the steps that have gone astray”. It is the Holy Spirit who will break their hearts of stone and give them true contrition. It is the Holy Spirit who can create in them a new heart, a pure heart, a heart for God alone nothing is beyond the power of the Holy Spirit who comes to renew the face of the earth.
For our God is a God of second chances, a God of extraordinary mercy, a God of extravagant love. He loved us so much that He sent His only Son, His beloved Son to redeem us on a Cross. And in obedience to the Father, that Son came, and He called us “friends” and He laid down His life for His friends.
And even now, He comes. For such is the loving kindness of our God, that He still sends Jesus to us each day in the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist. The Father sent Jesus and He came. And now, again each day in every Mass, He comes like the Dawn from on high to shine on us as we blunder in the darkness. And in the shadow of death, He guides our footsteps onto the path of peace.
Nothing can happen to us that our loving Father has not both allowed to happen and allowed for in His divine plan for each of us. Even from apparent disasters, He can bring forth good outcomes. “For those who love God, He works all things to the good”, says Saint Paul. Like the prodigal son, sometimes, spouses and children can come back home from that far country to our forgiving Father along that same road that took them away. Sometimes those who were lost can travel vast distances on circuitous roads into that bedeviled far country and still in God’s great mercy be guided back to the narrow gate.
Against the forces of evil, we are out of our depths. Remember that we don’t have total control over our families. We can’t make them love God or make them do His will. Our children’s salvation is not earned by good parenting. There is no 100% effective mechanical parental application or automatic formula such as “If we do this and that in raising our children, then we can guarantee their spiritual fidelity”. No, it is neither in our competence nor in our gift. As Saint Thérèse of Lisieux was dying, she said: “Everything is a grace”. She is right. Faith is pure gift. We must do our best to impart the faith by example and in our teaching, and then rely on God’s grace to convert their hearts.
To endure as You endured
Meanwhile, we are to endure everything for the Kingdom’s sake -- offer everything we can to God and leave everything we can’t do to His loving providence.
To endure the hard things in every life, in every family, we need to practice detachment -- to be able to say with Saint Paul: “I have learned to manage on whatever I have, I know how to be poor and I know how to be rich too. I have been through my initiation and now I am ready for anything anywhere: full stomach or empty stomach, poverty or plenty. There is nothing I cannot master with the help of the One who gives me strength”.
Every family has money worries of one kind or another; every family comes up against sickness and pain. But don’t let these things throw you off balance. It’s still God’s world He has His hand on our heads, directing us, comforting us.
It is so that we can have purpose and fulfill our destiny that we are allowed to share in our Lord’s suffering, to make up in our own lives what God has deliberately allowed to be lacking in our Savior’s passion and death. If we can just understand and accept this profound truth, then all else falls into place.
To love more is to suffer more. But the corollary is also true: to suffer more is to love more. To suffer more is to be enabled to love more. Suffering is given to us in order to increase our capacity to love. No one, no human being on this earth suffered as much as Jesus. No one before Him, no one still to come, no one ever will suffer, or will have suffered more than He did. Jesus suffered most grievously because He loved most perfectly.
This is one of the great paradoxes of life -- that the more we suffer the more we can truly love. There is a meaning to suffering -- we are privileged through our troubled lives, through pain and loss and grief to share in Christ’s work, to bind ourselves to Our Lord and share in His great work of redemptive love. We offer up all we suffer for our children -- it becomes the best prayer of all that we can make for those we love.
To endure is to be courageous, to practice what Dietrich Von Hildebrand called a “holy boldness”. How many of us are abject cowards when we wake at 3 a.m. in an agony of anxiety about our children? Over long years of experience, I have found that the surest way of overcoming my cowardice and my fears is to go to Mass as soon as morning comes.
This is where we must come each week, and on as many weekdays as we are able, to praise God, and to thank Him, to tell Him each day’s troubles, to ask His forgiveness and to request His help for ourselves and for all those we love. Here we receive new confidence, new courage and new strength to do our best for husbands and families. It is here at Holy Mass that the demons of doubt and fear can best be dispelled.
Saint John Chrysostom once said that each time after receiving Holy Communion: “My soul is as a lion roaring flames and the demons flee in terror.”
To please the Father as You pleased Him
The essence of pleasing the Father is to love His Holy Will. To line up our will with His will. To do God’s will each day, each of us in our own small and rather ordinary family-sized world this amounts to a quiet heroism that pleases God immensely.
To do God’s will is to be able to claim kinship with Our Lord. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother”.
Free will is a privilege. The Father has willed for us the best possible outcome within the constraints that we ourselves of our own free will put on His loving providence.
We must will ourselves to trust completely in His providence. Trust your heavenly Father: do not be afraid. We do not raise our children on our own. They are God’s children too and He loves them and grieves for them even more than we do.
Our Father in heaven, watch over your family. Keep us safe in your care. All our hope is in you. (Entrance Antiphon)
When we trust God it pleases Him. When we come before Him as little children, He hears our prayers and with the greatest love and compassion He shares our concern for our own little ones, and is always ready to give them everything they will need to come home to Him. In our greatest troubles, remember always “He is close to the broken-hearted”.
“I am His beloved …”
In conclusion, I would like to quote Bernadette MacLennan, mother of four young children, one of whom has cerebral palsy. (Bernadette, my niece, died very suddenly of a cerebral aneurism in July this year her eldest child is 13, her youngest 6.)
This excerpt is from an oral submission given by Bernadette some years ago to the Australian Bishops’ Commission on Women when it conducted a public enquiry into the role of women in the Church. This meeting took place at the height of the militant feminists’ push for women priests and other “positions of power”.
Whatever glamour and kudos the world wants to attach to women performing male roles, we should not lose sight of the true value of being an “ordinary” wife and mother. For those hankering after a “higher level of decision-making”, I would ask this: what higher level of decision-making is there than to cooperate with the Creator of the heavens and the earth to bring into the world a new human being, a brand new little body and soul destined for eternity? What higher calling is there than to raise up our children to know God, to lead good lives that we may “meet merrily in heaven”?
It’s not easy being a mother. The long hours of tedium, grocery shopping and getting meals, routine housework, lonely times, endless worry, broken sleep and mistakes heaps of mistakes in raising our children. But surely what sustains us is the knowledge that we are loved, that we are doing the will of the One who loved us so much He sent His only Son to die on the cross for us. Each morning I can say: “I am His beloved”. That gives me a dignity, a priceless worth that cannot be taken from me. Washing diapers, cleaning toilets, even the most menial tasks can not be demeaning.
It is not my career, or my job, or my work that gives me meaning and status, that empowers me. It is that I am loved by my Lord Jesus Christ. “I am His beloved”. Saint Paul understood well the only true source of self-esteem, of self-confidence, of indomitable courage to face any ordeal: “Nothing”, he said, “can come between me and the love of our Lord Jesus Christ”.
Rita Joseph has represented family concerns at UN conferences, and writes and lectures on social issues especially concerning women and families, and has made a special study of the Holy Father's writings on family and on women. She has previously lectured at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Studies in Melbourne. Rita and her husband live in Canberra, Australia.
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