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for families everywhere
In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis makes this provocative statement:
"The Church, in order fully to understand her mystery, looks to the Christian family, which manifests her in a real way."
In other words, the Church understands her own identity by looking at the family.
I think there are a lot of implications for this belief, but one that has resonated with me recently concerns asceticism, that is, the ways that each of us corporates with grace through prayer and sacrifice to grow in holiness.
This teaching makes me think that perhaps the best spiritual advice for those in the married vocation is to lean into the natural asceticism, the natural demands of love, already present in family life rather than trying to mimic the monastic life.
There was an article that came out a year or two ago, titled the monastic bell of motherhood, that compared domestic and monastic lives.
Her thesis takes this quote from Ronald Rolheiser about monastic life and then compares it to being a mom:
“All monasteries have a bell. Bernard … told his monks that whenever the monastic bell rang, they were to drop whatever they were doing and go immediately to the particular activity (prayer, meals, work, study, sleep) to which the bell was summoning them … The idea in his mind was that when the bell called, it called you to the next task and you were to respond immediately, not because you want to, but because it’s time for that task and time isn’t your time, it’s God’s time. For him, the monastic bell was intended as a discipline to stretch the heart by always taking you beyond your own agenda to God’s agenda."
In short, this article argued the the baby crying for food or the toddler yelling (for whatever million things toddlers yell for) are the "prayer bells" of domestic life that call parents to stretch their hearts beyond their own agendas.
I thought this was a helpful way to think about it, the first step for valuing the spiritual life of domestic Christians. However, I now see that the comparison it makes is backwards. Family life doesn't model the monastic, monastic life models the family.
This isn't to raise the married vocation above the celibate vocation—their equality and complementarity is crucial—but to say that if the Church understands herself by looking at the family, then family life is the model for how to live a good celibate or monastic life, not the other way around.
Instead of a toddler waking him up in the middle of the night, the monk sets his alarm to pray at 3:00am. Instead of an infant demanding she stop whatever she's doing at the drop of a hat, the nun has bells that go off every few hours that demand she drops what she’s doing to go and pray.
If family life is the model, then I wonder if it is best to direct spouses and parents to adopt the asceticism of celibates rather than helping them to recognize the asceticism built into family life?
Rather than insist that spouses and parents take on rigorous prayer routines, days of fasting, and cold showers, wouldn't it be better to help them see how every act of love they show for their family is cooperation with grace? Wouldn't it be better to help them lean into the sacrifices that are already being asked of them by their families?
Towards the end of Amoris Laetita, the pope is clear that the ordinary sacrificial love of family life is a pathway to sainthood, a path to the heights of sanctity. He says:
"A positive experience of family communion is a true path to daily sanctification and mystical growth, a means for deeper union with God. The fraternal and communal demands of family life are an incentive to growth in openness of heart and thus to an ever fuller encounter with the Lord...Hence, those who have deep spiritual aspirations should not feel that the family detracts from their growth in the life of the Spirit, but rather see it as a path which the Lord is using to lead them to the heights of mystical union."
Changing diapers at 4:00am, being kind to your spouse when they are tired and cranky, not yelling at your kid when they’ve asked to play video games for the ten thousandth time in the past five minutes—these decisions to love can lead “to the heights of mystical union."
Happy Feast of the Holy Family!
My wife, Kristina Fahey created the original painting you see above. You can get prints or cards of that painting here.