Being a Holy Family is Hard as Heaven

A Hidden Life: Terrence Malick and the Omniscient Child - IGN

The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both women and men, busy at work in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world’s great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring laborers who work in the Lord’s vineyard. Confident and steadfast through the power of God’s grace, these are the humble yet great builders of the Kingdom of God in history. — St. John Paul II

I heard a wonderful homily last year on the Holy Family. It prompted me to write a reflection later that night in my journal. The priest spoke compellingly on Catholic social teaching, in which the family serves as the most basic cell and grounding paradigm for any just society. “This is,” he argued, “because family embodies the most important expressions of loving your neighbor as your self, a commandment that defines all social life.” Here’s what I wrote, spinning off of some of his brilliant points:

Yes! Yes! The word “neighbor,” as used in Scripture, carries the sense of social proximity and intimacy, literally one who is “nearby” or “next door,” or even someone we happen upon along the way who suddenly lays claim on us, like Samaritan who discovered the victimized stranger on the road to Jericho (Luke 10:25-37). Neighbor is anyone whose well-being is within our reach, whose face comes into view, whom we can positively influence and benefit. I loved how he made the observation [in his homily] that there is a great danger in what he called “over-inhabiting a virtual world” on social media, “making the far near and the near far, when the neighbors nearest you claiming your attention are starving for your love.

… He used a wonderful phrase, “We know all too well family is the #1 community of I’m-stuck-with-you.” He was clear, not just the nuclear family, which he said is a modern invention, but the whole tangle of extended family. Including the crazy uncles. But in the midst of all that tangle, where society REALLY begins and ends, he added, “is just where Genesis makes clear it does, the North Star of all neighborly love: marriage.” 2-in-1-flesh Adam and Eve embody neighbor love in its most extreme and radical form: “I am yours and you are mine” in an indestructible till-death covenant exchange of persons that is so total it (tremble) resembles the Shema: “You shall love her with all your heart, soul, mind, strength, and as your other self.”

… “Marriage anticipates heaven, as in marriage there’s no private property. For the couple, even their bodies are no longer theirs” (1 Cor. 7:4-5; Eph. 5:28).

… In this way marriage, as a relationship defined by mutual self-giving, provides an exemplary basis for society privileging the common good, as well as an icon of the commune-ity Church (Acts 4:32-35). Monastic communal poverty exists to remind Christians of this original nuptial idea. Even the life of grace itself is not private to the man and woman in marriage. My interior life is hers, and hers is mine, and our participation in God is entirely shared as a Sacrament which we cannot receive without the other, and which we are.

… In society, this makes marriage the rightful and fitting social bond out of which new human life is justly conceived, born, grows and discovers itself as embedded within an unbreakable covenant community of love and grace. Marriage is to be the I-We in perfect balance, which when lived out is — amoris laetitia — a wellspring of joy. While the on-the-ground reality quite often looks severely different, this remains man and woman’s exalted vocation to help heal a world riven by Eden’s Great Divorce. Marriage is, in fact, such a hard call that God chose to be crucified as a Bridegroom to fittingly image, interpret and provide for marriage and family’s redemption.

… In family, children are to learn all of the virtues of good citizenship — among them, justice, humility, mercy-forgiveness (70×7), solidarity, honesty, respect, fairness, patience, perseverance, self-denial, self-sacrifice, sharing and hard work. All of these, of course, being animated by the four loves — eros, philia, storge, agape. Parents exist to embody and educate their children in these virtues, which is brutally hard. It takes gobs of death-to-self for parents to be parents and not peers, to tame their morally immature children. The struggle invokes a certain heroism, which offers parents a built-in opportunity to become saints. Parents who cultivate home as a space in which their children can practice virtues, and not just self-indulgent happiness (which is hell), are parents preparing their paperwork for canonization.

Thanks, kids! I do hope you have kids one day to return the favor.

When a family thus described gives their child or children as a gift to the world, the civilization they inhabit is immeasurably blessed with these faithful citizens. When I watched It’s a Wonderful Life again last week, I saw exactly this. Mr. & Mrs. George Bailey, Sr. gave Harry and George to the world.

… Will Durant famously said, “A great civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” The “within” is, in the final analysis, the family. Civilization’s delicate balance of I-We is first the family’s, in which that balance is first learned and mastered — making parents the real architects of civilization. Of course, civilization and its leaders must provide a felicitous context for family to carry that out. In the order of nature, family is the “domestic civilization,” just as it is, in the order of grace, the “domestic church.” This is what Jacqueline Kennedy was getting at when she said, “if you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.” We could say, to repurpose Red Sanders’ famous quote, “Family isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Everything else builds on family, or not.

This is why I tell the seminarians that marriage and family are the most important pastoral priorities of the church, which is herself the City of God attempting an invasion of human civilization through Christian marriages and families. As a friend of mine who has done youth ministry for over two decades said to me of his CYO kids, “I love them, but by the time they get to me my ministry is mostly damage control. The people upstream have to start doing a better job” …

This is why I find Terrance Malick’s A Hidden Life such a masterpiece on these very points. If you have not seen it yet, please do. But if you have, I also encourage you to watch this (spoiler) 10 minute analysis of Malick’s genius at revealing the hidden greatness of marriage and family in the face of a collapsing civilization…

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