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Catholic Activity: The Family

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Newland gives some final guidelines for attaining unity within the family, exhorting parents and children to turn towards Christ, Who will be their strength as they strive to love one another.

DIRECTIONS

One of the great dangers in writing about family unity is that, treating the family as a unit, a whole body which is a miniature of the Mystical Body, everything you say will sound good, maybe a bit inspiring, maybe a bit sentimental, but also maybe a bit pat. And looking from the subject treated in the round to your family, one is apt to sigh and throw up the hands and say, "Yes — I suppose so, but I just wish it could be that way in our family."

Of course, it is that way in "our family," no matter who we are, because a family is always a unit even at the times it feels its disunity most painfully, and that ought to be the most comforting thought of all if we could just hang onto it. A family is because God wills it, because He made a design for it, because it grows out of a sacrament which makes one person of two, and they bear fruit in the co-creation with God of children who receive their bodies from their parents, their souls from God. And if there are times when the unity does not feel like unity, it should not be surprising. In spite of its mystical oneness, a family is made of several — sometimes many — individuals, each one of whom is the most important person in his life, and this makes for great conflict in spite of the ties of blood and sacramental oneness.

But rather than prove some flaw in the family as a wise design, it only proves its wisdom, because man is a social creature made to live in the world with millions of others like himself, and if he had not this little society for learning in the beginning how to get along, he would be hopelessly lost once turned out into the world.

Consider the advantages of learning to live as part of a family. Consider, first, how it is with all of us: in spite of our deep love for one another, we remain self-centered, wrapped up in our own desires, ambitions, plans, pains, sensitivities. The father works hard, and sometimes feels no one appreciates it, that all his work is taken for granted. The mother works as hard and sometimes feels the same way. The children are full of wonder and energy and curiosity, have a thousand discoveries to make every day, and many times feel that any claim on them beyond the most moderate (like washing a bit, eating at the proper time, sleeping some of the time) is unfair and robs them of time for the really important things. On a bad day, when all these injustices are stinging all the members of the family at the same time, the life of this group called family can become a screaming dissonance rather than a harmonious unit.

Yet, let someone drive into the yard for a visit, and suddenly like magic the group springs back to its primal unity. There is an understanding in the minds of each (in his own way — and unspoken), "We are a family. We can't let them see us like this!"

Instantly the father is aware that his work has been fruitful in providing this house for these children, in feeding and clothing them, and it has been done in union with this wife. It is good; he is proud; he wants no thanks. The mother is suddenly immensely proud of these children, of this husband who supports them all, and her suffering over their faults and failures and ingratitude is evaporated in the warmth of her confidence that the guests will see much to admire in them. And the children are busy greeting and entertaining the guests, or, if they are shy, seeking refuge with this father or this mother, all eager to show what "we have," "we have done," and what "we are going to do."

In the discussions that follow there is much pointing out of the child who has Daddy's eyes, and Mother's hair, the one who is 'just like his father — it is really too comical," and the other who does things "just like her mother — it is quite wonderful." There is the one who has done well at school ("we are all so proud"), and the one who has had a struggle. ("but we all help and we are sure things will come along"). And the sense of family burns very bright.

With what marvelously invisible ties Divine genius has bound the family together. Its members are so united that when all the outward signs of unity fail — when sharing the same house, eating at the same table, driving in the same car, bearing the same name, all fail to preserve the sense of unity — a challenge that might expose the disunity they sometimes suffer will prick them once and they spring immediately into a full-blown state of unity. Family unity is not and never has been a matter of tangibles first. These protect, strengthen, nourish it; but the unity is because it is first of all from God.

There are more striking examples of the force of these ties. Catastrophe strips them naked and in times of suffering one sees the complete annihilation of self in all the members for the sake of the afflicted member. But of course this white peak of intense devotion cannot last. The child, the mother, the father recovers, life returns to "normal," and little by little the same old obstacles to perfect harmony emerge.

"It's All in the Family"

Gathering together all the times of love and great devotion, and all the times of irritation and misunderstanding, we see God's wisdom in this sacred thing called Family. No one comes into the world knowing anything. That there will be pain and struggle in the learning is the most obvious thing of all. We start from scratch. We have souls upon which He will pour His grace that we may learn. We have minds we must subject to others that we may learn. We have instincts, senses, a great variety of gifts all beautifully ordered and planned by God, but at every step of our learning we think we have learned enough to be our own masters; because we have not, however, our instincts, our senses, our impetuous minds make of our lives a magnificent hodgepodge. It is part of growing to maturity, that we will pass through one stage of hodgepodge after another. But suppose He had skipped the family, this small and private cell where beginning begins? Suppose we were put to discovering why we are here and how we are to act on it in the middle of a mob! The family by its very nature is private and even at its largest it is never a mob.

I remember reading a long time ago about a little girl who told Monsignor Ligutti that she liked living in the country "because nobody can hear us yell at each other." Or did she say "hear us fight?" No matter; whichever she said, that is a distinct advantage, not only about living in the country but also about being part of a family, because in all families, no matter how hard they struggle for holiness, there are times when tempers fly, when judgments are not prudent, when selfishness makes ugly claims over all loyalty and we get fed up. And even if the family doesn't live in the country, at least they can "keep it in the family."

Obviously these defections are not pleasing to God. But for creatures inheriting original sin, weakened by its scar even after it is removed by Baptism, they are almost inevitable. This is not to imply that our sins are predestined. It is just facing the facts. We have inherited a terrible weakness. And God has great compassion for us in our weakness — else why the Redemption? Even though He did design the family before sin came (I can hardly tear my mind away from this once I get to wondering what it would be like to raise children untouched by original sin!), its pattern is the ideal beginning of life even in a world full of sin. He has combined our obligation as stewards of children who rightfully belong to Him with our own fierce pride in possession, made our children from our own flesh, and planted deep in us strong parental instincts, enclosed us with a sacrament which continually feeds us grace, and in this combination of securities a new generation begins.

It would certainly seem, then, that somewhere there ought to be a foolproof pattern for raising a Catholic family. Do we not have the law of God reduced to the most careful detail so that we need never guess about the right or wrong of anything? Have we not the Mass, the sacraments, sacramentals, methods of knowing and meeting God through prayer, work, suffering, joy? We are even called to be part of the Body of Christ, the Church — which gives our lives a motive far beyond even the highest humanitarian reasons for being good. We are partakers in Divine life, every day, every hour. Having conceived us in His mind without any need for us, after the Fall and the Redemption He permits us to be needed. To be needed by God puts the highest price on human life. Certainly all this ought to produce a formula for all Catholic parents to apply and thereby achieve the ideal.

It would — if we did not have free wills. Like nicely trained animals we could be trained and forever after do as we have been trained to do. But added to all the other gifts — and higher than all the others — is the gift of free will. Free will puts us — in one way — almost on a par with God. He made us because He loves us, but He does not force us to love Him back. He has left us free to love Him or not to love Him. The price of the happiness for which He created us is our own love, freely given. Nothing could prove better than this how God loves man. Both man and the angels fell when they loved themselves more than God. To define very simply what is the weakness left by original sin, it is the ancient inheritance of Adam's self-love.

No Perfect Formula

Thus one can get just so precise, and no more, with a formula for the raising of perfect Christians, for each member of a family is an "original," unlike anyone else; and the formula must be extemporaneously woven of Christian principles warmed by Christian love. No wonder life can be far from serene, sometimes, in even a deeply Christian home. Perfect serenity comes when we achieve perfect love, and that is the work of a lifetime.

It is ideal that the first love of one's life grows out of one's dependence on parents. This is instinctive, born of need, and it creates a relationship ripe for the unfolding of the knowledge of God's love. For we believe those we love and are loved by (this is not the same love as physical passion), and God waits for the child to come first to parents who love him before His own greater love is revealed to him. The child's love for his parents is so strong, so satisfying, and their love returned is so rewarding, that it covers over a multitude of parental weaknesses and mistakes. There is a saying — a corruption of St. Augustine's famous words, I suppose — which goes: "You can love a child and do as you please." Which does not give any of us license to do as we please with our children, but allays the fear that the destructive power of our weaknesses might be greater than the constructive power of our love.

I remember one time feeling terrible remorse for a scolding delivered in the heat of my own temper. Going to one of the boys that night I said: "I am terribly sorry, dear. I was much too cross. What you did was naughty, but not that naughty, and I hope you will forgive my ranting at you."

And he looked at me with that beaming face children turn to the ones they love and said: "Sure I will. What did you say?"

That is the kind of experience that teaches parents more than a thousand books, and we learned a little of humility that night, of how love forgives and forgets. Children forgive, not because they are wise, but because they love. It is the only reason for forgiving. One must love all men — but what a vast order that is! So God begins the lesson in the intimate life of a family, and one step at a time we expand in love, savor what it is to love and be loved, and in this warm security we learn how it is God loves us, and how to return His love. Each step brings us closer to the day when we can reach out beyond the fences around our own yards and love those beyond.

Our First Teacher

We first learn to serve in the family. We tend and care for those dear to us, work and sacrifice for them, and, struggling to see each member of the family as another Christ, to help our children develop the same vision, we begin to see Him in the members of other families, to see that our community is not just a collection of population figures but many individual "other Christs." Thus we learn to carry our service of Him beyond the enclosure of our family out into society.

We first learn to pray together in the family. We pray for our needs, for blessings on our family. And ever so slowly the horizon moves back a bit and we are able to hold in our minds the first great idea of the Mystical Body. We make our first effort to join our prayers with the prayers of the whole Body, for the souls of all men in dedication to a cause that began on the Cross and will not end until the end of time.

We first learn about sin, also, in the family. And again we must thank God for the privacy where these first rebellions can (if they must) take place in a hidden manner; where we may correct them, encourage the use of grace, habits of prayer, humility in self-knowledge, and the sense of deep contrition. The child who is piggish and steals his brother's lollipop, who slaps his sister, who disobeys his father, learns in the simplest terms that it is wrong, that he has offended God and a member of his family, and that apology and retribution are due. How wise God is, knowing we will fall, to permit our first falls to take place at home. How meaningless it would be if they should come in the midst of a faceless society where cheating a mass of workers, say, is cheating a statistic — not a number of particular people who have rights and to whom we are bound to behave in a moral way.

Even the very painful clashes between one member and another teach us much. Christ has said many times to the mystics that human failings followed by true remorse are useful to Him, because He treasures the remorse, which gives Him glory, and because by our falls we discover our dependence on Him. So, too, the remorse following periods of trial within the family teaches humility to both the offender and the offended, the one seeing how weak he is, the other recalling that he has been as weak on another occasion. Patience with one another's faults grows because there are faults to be patient with.

Parents, plumbing their own relationship with God, learn to understand the motives for their children's behavior when they see their own behavior mirrored against perfection. I know a child has licked the frosting all around the bottom of the cake because I have been horribly tempted to do the same myself — and sometimes did! I know a child will lie to save face because I have been tempted to do the same myself. I know he is reluctant to apologize because time and time again I have hated apologizing, have hated to admit I was wrong. I know the ugly rebellious thoughts in his mind because I have had the same ugliness in my own.

Abroad in the world, our instinct for self-preservation (especially the preservation of our own good opinion of ourselves) prompts us to measure what others do and minimize our own actions, which seem less grave. It is easy: there are so many who are worse than we. But at home we are few, and each fault stands out to accuse us by its effect on the father, the mother, the brothers, the sisters, and on the very atmosphere of the house in which we live. Our house is less happy for our ugliness, warmer for our love, and we can see it. One day we will mill around with the multitude, and it will all seem to make relatively unimportant the goodness or ugliness of our own acts. After all, who knows — and who cares? But if we have learned in the bosom of the family that sin is sin, that it does affect us, does affect the people around us, does offend God sees and cares) — we can cross that bridge between private and public life with the conviction that the same rules of behavior apply to each. A sin is not less grave because it offends a number of people whose names and addresses we do not know. It is always a sin, and always an offense against God — but the slow, piece-by-piece integration of this knowledge begins in the hidden daily life of the family. What Divine delicacy, to have designed for these needs the privacy of the family!

We have said that it is impossible to arrive at a precise and perfect formula, because each soul is different and the pattern will be different for each one. But the way will be the same — for Christ said, "I am the Way." As long as we know, when we fail each other, that we have failed Him; when we serve each other, that we have served Him — sanctity is within reach. It is Christ Who will perfect us — we will not do it ourselves; and it is Christ Who will perfect our family life. Christ seen in the person of each member, responded to by the other members, all "other Christs." When we acknowledge the Divine indwelling of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and ask God's help. He will respond and we will begin to learn.

Do we love one another? It is His love burning in us. Do we try hard? It is His grace that feeds us. We are slow to learn? He has infinite patience. Are we loyal, do we protect, defend, calm, comfort? In His great sacrament of Matrimony He begins the family by making two into one body, sharing the same flesh: "No man hates his own body."

We need to know the ideal. But we must not be discouraged because we fall short of it. The "ideal family" is not the end of all this living. Its end is union with God. This is the essence of the sanctity of the family. It is the womb of sanctity. There is no other beginning for man. He is always born of a mother and father. And the end for which he is created is always God. The family produces the man who is made for God. It is a magnificent thing.

Activity Source: We and Our Children by Mary Reed Newland, Image Books, 1961

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