Families come in a variety of configurations: divorced or separated, widowed, single-parent stepparent, childless, blended, adoptive, multigenerational, aging. Wendy M. Wright aims to adapt her spirituality to suit all configurations. It is a book that digs deep and touches many a nerve.
pp. 224. Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd. To purchase this book online, go to www.darton-longman-todd.co.uk
Preface to the New Edition
Introduction: Turning Home
Approach to the home
1. A matter of the heart
2. A time for wonder
3. The Christ-room
4. Body of Christ
5. A way that you know not
6. Male and female God created them
7. In the circle of a mother’s arms
8. Wreathed in flesh and warm
10. A vowed life
11. Where I heard this melody
12. Circles of care
13. A place of springs
14. The is-ness of things
APPROACH TO THE HOME
Will you, God, really live with people on earth?
Why, the heavens and their own heavens cannot contain you.
How much less this house that I have built….
Listen to the cry and the prayer I make to you today.
Day and night let your eyes watch over this house,
over this place of which you have said:
“My name shall be there.”
1 Kings 8: 27-29
I do not intend to describe for you in minute detail the appearance of the home. That is for you to do. Nor will I paint a portrait of the family that lives inside. They are yours to identify. What I hope is that through a process of association and imagination you will find your own home and family here. I will suggest that, according to sociological and demographic studies of the American family, you will describe the homes and families that are yours in a diversity of ways (1). Only a small percentage of you will be able to construct an accurate picture of your life-situation by appealing to what I might call the myth of the American family: a working father (smiling), a stay-at-home mother (smiling), two children (smiling), perhaps a dog, a single-family dwelling surrounded by a neat lawn.
Many of you may be tempted to call up this culturally treasured image when the word family is mentioned. But most of you will not be able to find yourselves reflected there. Instead, your family will fit a variety of configurations: divorced or separated, widowed, single-parent, stepparent, childless, blended, adoptive, multigenerational, aging. Your homes will be equally diverse in appearance. You will live in high-rises, apartment complexes, condominiums, farmhouses, tenement buildings, trailer courts, duplexes, hotels, rented rooms or in community with other families. Most of you will have moved many times. Most of you are more familiar with city streets than manicured lawns bordering your homes.
Very few of you are smiling all the time. Most of your families are scarred to one degree or another by death, disease, alcoholism, drug addiction, violence, spouse-battering, child abuse, lack of communication, quarreling between generations, quarreling with in-laws. Most of you find the fabric of your relationships stretched unbearably by the pull of contemporary life. You are stamped with the violence and the jaundiced view of human society that is reflected in the media. You are oppressed by the pressures of succeeding or of simply getting by, overwhelmed with financial worry, seduced by a consumerist view of ultimate happiness, absent from one another’s lives because of the sheer number of commitments forced on you by jobs, schools, peer and collegial pressure, duty or the desire for some sort of personal enhancement (2).
Despite all this, most of you will also look to your home and family as a primary source of nurture and meaning. You will accept the idea that home in some way represents (or should represent) a foundational experience of caring community. I think this is not just an unfounded and culturally induced illusion (3). Both philosophically and psychologically the concept of home has been explored as a powerful and primal image in which our deepest being is rooted. The home has been held to be an essential image in the phenomenology of the imagination, a concentration of the entire psyche, our first universe (4). Child psychologists, when they want to ascertain the self-image of a young client, will often ask the girl or boy to draw a picture of a house. The home as an image can reflect a sense of identity and meaning-making that contains within itself a clue to the way we understand ourselves and our world.
The term home has religious associations for us as well. In most faiths home connotes a place of ultimate rest and comfort, of belonging and identity, of being with God. This is remarkably true of our Judeo-Christian legacy. To be reminded of this, one need only recall the Psalms with their frequent references to Yahweh’s dwelling place or bring to mind the poignant melody of the traditional American hymn from which the words so easily flow:
Softly and tenderly,
Jesus is calling,
Calling to carry me home.
Come home, come home.
So for us calling up the concept of home evokes several clusters of ideas and brings into play a spectrum of associative meanings that operate on many levels of our self-awareness. We experience home as representing the American myth which in turn gives expression to our collective longings for a stable, caring environment and community. We also experience home on the level of religious consciousness as answering our hearts’ cries for meaning and ultimacy -“home” is also “homecoming.”
At the same time that we usher in these almost archetypal images of home, we also recognize the current reality of our own homes and families. There may be considerable disjuncture between these sets of data. But this gap need not be uncreative. Nor, I think, should we be deterred from looking at our un idealized life-situations as potential windows through which to touch and be touched by God’s presence. While our “real” homes may not always conform to our “ideal” homes, there is a profound relationship between the two.
By this I do not mean to suggest that we imagine ourselves as other than we are. This is not a book that will attempt to articulate a spirituality exclusively out of the experience of the “perfect” or even the clinically “functional” family (5). After all, an authentic spiritual life assumes that we start exactly where we are, not in some unattained ideal realm. God cannot find us in any place other than the one in which we find ourselves. But neither is this a book that ignores the profound spiritual yearning in each of us to “come home,” to realize the “more,” both the “more” of what we would want our families to be and the desire for “more” that spurs our religious seeking.
Within this lived tension our spiritual lives are cultivated: the tension between the factuality of our daily lives with their monotony, opaqueness, limitations and sorrows, with occasional moments of insight and beauty, and the equally factual but less realized soarings of our hearts. “Home” for each of us is at the lived center of this creative tension.
The roof and foundation of the Christian home
Therefore the “home” into which you are about to enter is not a generic family dwelling, but rather a unique constellation of persons gathered together (permanently, temporarily or occasionally) within the shelter of a variety of structures that house and express that unique network of interrelationships.
Yet in all this diversity there is also a unity to these homes that harkens back to their archetypal aspect. They all share in the perception that there is a “more” about our lives that calls out for articulation and asks for a response. In Christian homes, whatever their denomination, this “more” is in part connected to the idea that God is now truly present to us, woven into the fabric of our lives, present and waiting to be perceived and celebrated. This is what might be termed the mystical dimension of Christian life.
In many ways this mystical dimension is the foundation of spirituality in the home. This intuition, dug from and constructed in the stuff of creation itself, is that God’s own life can somehow be touched here and now, in the faces, places and events of our ordinary daily rounds. This is an intuition that arises, I think, from the core of the created world and from humankind’s most rooted self-knowledge. We as Christians celebrate this intuition at Christmas time: God is with us, God is born among us, Deity becomes enfleshed in blood and bone, the immensity of divine life is gestated in the human womb.
While this mystical dimension is the foundation of the family’s spiritual life, there is another profound human intimation that is common to our diversity of homes. This is that the “more” we sense we are called to is not only discovered to be hidden in whatever is – the “more” is also an arresting call to become other than what we are at present. This apprehension I would term the “prophetic” dimension of the Christian family, and I would liken it to the roof of the home. The prophetic call is the highest upward thrusting element of the entire structure, the architectural feature of the house that most obviously speaks of the aspiration that lives within.
Most Christian families live between the tension of “already but not yet” (6). God is indeed with us but not yet in fullness. And something is required of us, some seeking, some response, some radical restructuring that enables us to become more the way God would have us. The family, as well as the individual, must experience this prophetic dimension of life to be authentically Christian. While the prophetic perspective is deeply embedded in all facets of our faith, Passiontide and Easter are when we celebrate its fullest expanse. Then we proclaim that humankind’s dearest hopes are fulfilled, that God does not simply enter into the substance of history but that God transfigures history utterly. We allow our hopes and our imaginations to soar beyond what we humanly perceive to the limitless expanse of divine love. We look beyond death to life risen, triumphant and full.
The spiritual life of the Christian family comes into being between this roof and this foundation, between the prophetic and mystical dimensions of our faith. As we grow in our apprehension of what God calls us to, we struggle to awaken to the sacred quality of what we are and to respond to the challenge of what we might be.
The family as domestic church
In this the family is not greatly different from any other part of the Christian community. The faithful, after all, are the church. My impression, however, is that families do not often think of themselves as church. At best, families either simply claim agreement with official church doctrine or import “churchy” rituals or prayers into their homes, hoping this will impart religious meaning to their shared life. Most Christian families seem not to feel their very family-ness as sacred. They fail to name their most profound moments of shared memory-birth, death, sexual intimacy, estrangement, forgiveness, gathering, the daily struggles to be with and for each other – with words associated with religion or the spiritual life. Yet, in the documents that came out of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s the Roman Catholic tradition explicitly named the family as “domestic church” (a phrase first coined by St. Jerome!) (7). While the full implications of introducing these words into the vocabulary of accepted discourse may not have been envisioned by those who spoke them, nevertheless their existence is significant, and their intrinsic meaning is being drawn out now by those who live the experience of domestic church (8).
That the Christian family is understood to be an authentic and, indeed, the primary unit of church does not necessarily mean that the family mirrors in miniature the institutional church in its structure or simply that family members embrace official teaching. Nor does it mainly mean that “religion starts at home” (although this is undoubtedly often the case).
Rather, to be the domestic church means that the family, in the uniqueness of its way-of-being-in-the-world (as an intimate physical, psychological and spiritual entity) is an authentic community of believers. What the members of the family know to be their own experience of the sacred in the particularities of marriage, sexual intimacy, procreation, parenting; the building, sustaining and decay of intimate relationships; the struggles of providing, sheltering and feeding this experience is authentic and must be part of the knowledge of the gathered church. The ways that the family senses a call to witness to the gospel are true vocations and serve the whole. The family as authentic church can, and must, inform the whole church of the ways it touches God and of the vocations that it provides. In other words, church teaching and Christian witness must come directly, at least in part, from the lived experience of family.
This way of viewing family as domestic church could have profound consequences for the larger gathered church if the wider body truly began to learn from families what it means to be Christian community. Perhaps church as “the professionals doing for the non-professionals” or church as “committees that direct programs,” or church as “fix-it shop for crises” or church as “social club” might give way to a renewed vision of Christian community.
The family, for its part, must learn to trust the fact that it is a living and authoritative cell of the church. It must know itself to be a community of persons tenderly fashioned by a loving creative hand, a community that tries to respond to that love by listening to the word that God speaks in Scripture, tradition, the experience of being together and through the person of Jesus Christ, a community that, by hearing, becomes the word of God spoken anew. The family needs to know itself as a people deeply blessed and deeply broken, a people who must celebrate the gift of life itself and the gift that is each individual life. The family is called to care for and empower each of its members, not simply for the sake of individual self-actualization, but also for the sake of the whole church and all of God’s creation.
The family shares this mission with the gathered church. But the family’s ways of being church are distinctive. Its ways have only partly to do with the ways the Christian community has chiefly identified itself as church in the past: seeking God in the desert, in silence and solitude, in celibacy, in the freedom of detachment or of voluntary poverty and in the consciousness of the transitory nature of human life. The family’s ways of being church have as much to do with inhabiting, with the co-penetration of bodies and hearts, with the dense fabric of human attachments, with busyness and business, with the labors of providing, with touching and being touched, with consciousness of the continuity and permanency of human existence. The domestic church enfleshes the Word of God in a distinctive way that must enrich the self-understanding of the entire church.
Between the foundation and the roof of the Christian home, in the lived tension between the mystical and prophetic calls, church community comes alive. No two domestic churches are identical, but they all share in the intimacy of incarnate divinity and so present to the entire church and to the world the human face and vital activity of God’s own life.
To enter the door of a home is to pass through a structure that evokes what anthropologists term a “liminal state,” a transitional passage between two phases in the life cycle. A liminal state is a time of ritual power and danger between an old phase which is passing away and a new phase that has not yet come into being. It is a time to be ritually celebrated. The doorway of the home is an architectural expression of the continuously liminal which characterizes the life of the family gathered within.
This is the passageway through which a groom carries his bride, into which a new child may be brought, under which daily kisses of leave-taking and return are exchanged, through which a new college student embarks on a journey of self-discovery or through which a grandparent leaves for the last time. At the doorway we mark the transitions. We recognize that life is most full and complete when all the family’s members are together within the home. But we also recognize that, in fact, this rarely occurs.
The doorway expresses the liminality of the rhythmic gathering and dispersal that is part of family experience. The door is the narrow passage through which the family enters to reunite and through which the family passes when its wholeness fragments into discreet parts. The doorway is thus a sacred space of welcome and leave-taking.
A MATTER OF THE HEART
I will give them a new heart and a new spirit.
I will take the heart of stone from their bodies
and give them a heart of flesh instead….
then they shall be my people and I will be their God.
Ezekiel 11: 19-20
I sit on the edge of my son’s bed. His face is smooth with sleep. The glow of the night-light stands vigil against the “monsters” that he worries lurk beneath his changing table. In the warm dark of the room, the two rhythms of our breathing punctuate the silence. As I stand up to leave, I feel my heart, utterly self-contained a moment before, pulled out of my breast, stretched to span the widening distance between us. A presence, palpable in its intensity, connects us. Before he was born, I did not know how I could ever let him in. Now that I have, I don’t know how I will ever let him go.
Becoming family is many things. It involves, in part, the acceptance of adult responsibility, nurturing and guiding the helpless and unformed, and passing on the living fund of culture, knowledge and wisdom from one generation to the next. But being family as a spiritual discipline is, I think, a matter of the heart. And that involves the reformation of the core of our beings, a radical expanding of the established contours of our hearts to include others in a permanent and life-altering way.
Any genuine experience of love alters the heart and creates it anew. It gentles us. For authentic love is not a transient emotion but a spiritual dynamic of immense power that we as Christians know to be stronger than anything else, even death. To love at the deepest level of our beings is to participate in the birth of our God who is love. This is not a simple matter. Family life is an especially demanding discipline of loving because, in a heightened way, it calls for an increased capacity of the heart to love a person as totally other and to love enough to let go. The great and twin disciplines of the spiritual art of being family are, ! think, the disciplines of welcoming and of letting go. These are matters of the heart.
Our son was baptized by immersion at the 10 am Sunday liturgy at our parish in Boston. The sacrament was enacted to impress upon all of us present the full import of this ritual of welcome that was taking place. After the reading of the Word my husband and I, our two daughters and the designated godparents came forward before the entire gathered community to celebrate the entry of this new Christian into our midst.
Our associate pastor, a talented liturgist, presided wonderfully over the event. Called to consciousness of our own baptismal promises, sprinkled with the cleansing waters that flew from the tips of a fragrant green bough, we proceeded to undress our tiny infant and offer him, naked and squealing, to the waters of the baptismal fount. Then we robed him in the white garments of his new life. We – parents, godparents and congregation – vowed to accept the responsibility for welcoming this child, for instructing him in the ways of faith and for being for him the church, the body of Christ. He was welcomed home.
Several weeks later we were present at the same morning liturgy, this time seated among the congregation in the right apse of the church. Again our associate pastor presided. That morning there were several small children present in the assembly (our church had no “crying room”). None of the children were exceptionally unruly. but all of them were fidgety. The Gospel was a striking one, and when our celebrant mounted the pulpit it was clear from his demeanor that he had planned (as he sometimes did) a special and dramatic homily to explicate the verses just read. As he began in hushed tones, the children opposite us dropped something. Our startled son, who was nestled on my lap, let out a wail. I attempted to soothe him but it became clear that what he really wanted was to nurse, so I tried to get him situated so that he would quiet down. Suddenly I became aware that there was silence from the pulpit. “Some of you may not be happy with this,” the celebrant announced, “but I would really rather not be interrupted just now.” I felt my face turn hot and tried to shush the baby, but I was so flustered nothing would do. So I picked him up and headed for the back of the church. Our presider waited to continue while I walked the length of the side aisle and exited out the doors. (I later learned that the family opposite also escaped the church at the first moment possible.)
I found myself standing in the sunshine, confused and shocked. Moments later my husband emerged. “Well, if they’re going to throw you out, I’m not going to stay,” he announced. I couldn’t imagine going back in, but our car was blocked in the parking lot so there was nothing to do but wait miserably until mass was over. During the wait I realized I was not only embarrassed, I was angry. Angry that it should be assumed that we were not trying our best to maintain a proper spirit of reverence. Angry that the very church which so recently was the gathering of a spirited community now should be more like a concert performance with strict rules of decorum. Most of all I was angry that the whole notion of welcoming was so little understood in our church. And I did not mean just our local parish but our whole church.
Any parent knows what it means to welcome a child. The entry of new life does not call for a polite if celebrative ritual and then a return to business as usual. Nor does it mean that you just schedule this person into your established routine like an appointment or meeting. You don’t make a little space in your day or share a little concern and then wish the infant Godspeed. To welcome a child is to accept responsibility for another person twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for a good many years. Ultimately, it is to welcome the unfolding mystery of an entire lifetime’s joys and pains as your own. To welcome a child is to give priority to the unpredictability of another life, to tend it in sickness, no matter what you had otherwise planned, to allow your plans and dreams to be altered, even set aside, because of another’s need. To welcome a child is to learn to think and speak in response to a different and constantly changing worldview, to be outside of your own frame of reference. You learn patience and judgment and are confronted with your own very real and heretofore untested limitations. To welcome a child is to recognize the surprising expansiveness of your own capacity to love and to confront the shattering truth of your own violence and self-centeredness.
To welcome a child is to have your heart stretched, made capable of loving in a new and unrepeatable way. My sense is that this occurrence is very much a part of spiritual maturity, of being reformed into a closer likeness to the God by whom we are all created. One of the central tenets of our Christian faith is that we are made in the image and likeness of Deity itself. Only we are not mirror images. By human choice (the Fall), the image of God in us is diminished or (in the thinking of some Christians) virtually effaced. The central dynamic of each of our individual and collective lives must be to restore or receive again that lost image and likeness, to find our true identity. (Again, depending on which end of the denominational spectrum you stand, you as individual may be presumed to have more or less responsibility for this process of restoration.) The Roman Catholic position is that the image of God is “wounded” or “tarnished” and that we, with God’s grace and our own efforts, can begin to “heal” or “cleanse” the lost image.
Our hearts are central in this process, for they must be made to resemble the heart of the one human being who perfectly embodied in himself the life of God. Our hearts must become like the heart of Jesus. In the classic literature of Christian spirituality, the activity of this reformation comes under the rubric of “conquering the vices and acquiring the virtues.” Certain inner dispositions – the virtues – are seen to be the qualities of person that Jesus exemplified. In fact, in some of the literature they are thought to be gifts of the Spirit of Jesus. The traditional list of virtues includes faith, hope, charity, prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice. Alongside these the church community has accepted as normative certain qualities of character suggested in Jesus’ teaching. Chief among these are the beatitudes, which represent not simply an otherworldly prophecy of reward and justice for those who suffer on earth but which articulate the very qualities of person from which blessing comes. Among the beatitudes, purity, or singleness of heart, has for some time arrested my attention.
Not too long ago, during an Ignatian retreat, I had the opportunity to spend a considerable amount of reflective time with the beatitudes. Purity of heart, I found, was something I understood only intellectually. Yes, I was sure that one of the major ways this beatitude has been interpreted in our spiritual heritage is as a sort of single-focused quality of heart. One is to love God alone. Or one is to love others primarily as an outflowing of the love that one has for God. Purity of heart has been associated, in the tradition, with the virtue of detachment. In the fine commentary I was reading during the retreat, purity of heart was described with reference to the biblical narratives about the calling of the disciples. Jesus’ followers were described as exemplary because when they were called they dropped their nets immediately and did not look back. In the purity of their hearts the disciples gave precedence to the one call they felt precluded any other concern.
As I tried to focus imaginatively on these scenes of discipleship and to put myself into their frame of reference, I had the uneasy feeling that something was not included here. I kept seeing the wives and children of these impetuous men standing at the doors of their fisherman’s huts watching husbands and fathers drop their nets and start off without a backward glance. These men’s perfect purity of heart was, in fact, an utter detachment from the ordinary concerns of everyday life and relationships. I was not convinced.
I certainly did not want to imagine the men refusing to follow Jesus because they had families and jobs, but my meditation wouldn’t allow the scenario to be played out in the traditional “detachment” interpretation. So I decided to imagine how the women who followed Jesus might have responded to his invitation. (It seemed a fair experiment since no one has bothered to record their stories for us.) Yes, the women heard the radical nature of the call. Yes, they knew that in fact Jesus’ message was the one essential message that must be heard in order for all else (home, family, work, ete.) to have any real meaning.
But they did not drop all and walk away. Instead, the women returned to their families with the face and voice of Jesus burning in their hearts. They returned, knowing that the tender love they bore their children, spouses, parents and friends could never be effaced. But this new and powerful love was forcing its way into their hearts alongside and even beneath the other loves. They spoke to their families about the
desire to follow this strange man. The women arranged for all their dependents to be taken care of, or, where the parting would be too searing, they would carry their small children with them. And then they followed, hearts full, almost torn with the depth and richness of the loves they carried away with them (and to which they hoped to return with new zest). The entry of love into these women’s hearts had reshaped and enlarged their very capacity for it.
No. This beatitude, in the only way that I could grasp it, did not mean the kind of singleness or purity of heart that is narrow or excludes other loves. It was rather an expansiveness of heart that gathers in all the loves and then orders them not in rank order, one “better” than the others, but organically according to the deepest and most sustaining love, the love of God to which Jesus called the women. Then all other loves were made transparent by that love. Through those particular loves of friend, husband, parent, child, the vast and nurturing love of God could be seen. Yes, this was the meaning of that beatitude for the women who followed Jesus.
To welcome a child, to welcome any family member, is to love this way. With each addition, the heart opens a little more. The heart acquires a capacity to love a little differently, to respond in compassion to a new personality, to willingly participate in the drama of an unfolding life. The spiritual discipline of family life, I think, is to allow this re-creation of the heart to take place. It also involves allowing your love for those with whom you are intimate to become transparent enough that the love of God can be seen through it.
“Attachment” is a word that has something of a negative connotation in the history of Christian spirituality. Anything to which a follower of Jesus is inordinately attached tends to be seen as a distraction from, or an obstruction to, the pure love of God. It is, further, a hindrance to a ministry that is free to respond radically to the call to come and follow. St. Ignatius of Loyola’s instructions at the beginning of his Spiritual Exercises are illustrative of this approach.
We call spiritual exercises every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul (1).
I do not mean to obscure the subtlety and maturity with which the virtue of detachment has been expounded and lived in our tradition. But for many committed Christians detachment has meant, first of all, a refusal to attach deeply to any particular person (or ministry or idea for that matter). Celibacy makes perfect sense in this context. And while there are more persuasive and positive reasons for the embrace of celibacy set forth in today’s literature, the fact remains that our tradition has for the most part de-emphasized and even discredited the arts of attachment and human intimacy (2).
Certainly, being inordinately attached to a family member because of the esteem or profit you think they will bring you, or because they are living out your unattained fantasies, is destructive. In terms of children, there cannot be any genuine parenting without first having a real and unalterable experience of bonding with a child. The deep attachment to the child is nurtured and grows over the course of many years. The bonding does not go away even if the child leaves or dies. For when our hearts have been stretched to make a special place for that unique love, they do not shrink again when the loved one has left the nest or been taken away by the violence of death. The heart always remains molded by the shape of that love.
Still it is true that the twin disciplines of family are welcoming and letting go. Letting go does not consist of ceasing to love, or detaching oneself from the affection one feels, but in loving more. Letting go involves radical faith. It means entrusting what you most love to the expansive care and protection of God. By this I do not mean that if you pray hard enough God will not keep all the awful things that could happen from happening to your child. Nor that every evil, even evil perpetrated on the innocent, is somehow “all in God’s plan.” But that somehow God’s presence is available to us even in the mysteries of human suffering and death. Our trust is in a God whose presence accompanies us in every facet of human experience, a God who celebrates, laughs, plays, weeps, wonders and is seared with pain just as we are. This kind of radical trust in an accompanying God is what allows us to let go. We let go not only so that our children can become independent adults guiding their own lives, but also so that God as Father and as Mother may parent them and that we all may know ourselves as children of God.
Two images, both of snow, come to me in relation to the spiritual discipline of letting go. The first is of a day, not too long ago, when I was leading a retreat in rural Nebraska for a group of high school juniors from a Catholic boys’ school. It was January and, though the day was clear, a stiff, frigid snow covered the ground. Late the previous night we had received a phone call from my eighty-three-year-old mother-in-law who was to undergo emergency surgery the next day. My husband hurriedly canceled appointments and set out early in the morning to be with her. Both of us were afraid, because of the gravity of the reports, that this might be the last time he would see her. Our letting go of her, and her of us, was very much on my mind as I entered the retreat.
I had never conducted an all-boy retreat before and had only recently begun doing this kind of work with high-school-age retreatants. They were a delightful group of young men on the verge of adulthood, filled with plans for the future: college, career, marriage. Each individual story took on life as the day progressed. I thought of my own son, still so little. What would he be like at sixteen? What school would he be going to? College, career, marriage? I was filled with his yet to be explored future.
During the afternoon break, I took a solitary walk on the grounds of the retreat center. Trees were bare, the air still and cold. The sharp sound of frozen snow giving way under my feet punctuated the silence. I climbed the crest of a hill and found myself in an old graveyard. My heart followed my husband who was driving south to be with his mother as she went into surgery. The dead, whose lives had been played out a century ago, were encased in small mounds of snow that splintered beneath my feet. At the far side of the graveyard a low tombstone caught my eye. Carved on its uppermost curve was an infant lamb worn smooth by the passage of nearly one hundred winters. The gravestone was that of two children, a little girl and a little boy, just the ages of my youngest daughter and son. They had died one day apart. No doubt an illness carried them off. How had their parents met the sudden loss? How deep was their trust in the God who alone would hold this little girl and boy from then on? And my trust? Could it be so tested?
We all were together for a silent moment on this snowcrusted hill: those long-ago children whose futures had been clipped off so abruptly; my own children whose futures, in my mind at least, stretched into an open-ended expanse of years; the young retreatants and their parents letting them go to face the coming years; my husband and his mother journeying both closer and farther away from each other; the dead beneath my living feet. We were together, our hearts made more pliant, gentle, tender, by allowing ourselves to love enough to let go.
The second snowy image is of a February day in Cambridge several years ago. Friends of ours, he a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, had been expecting their fourth child just after we had given birth to our third. Their child, a boy, was born somewhat prematurely. For the first half-day, he seemed in excellent condition. His mother cradled and nursed him. His siblings came to make the appropriate greetings. Then he began to fail. A congenital heart defect was discovered. Emergency surgery was done. The child died on his third day of life.
Our friends, whose faith came to the fore at this time, were struck. A funeral and burial were held within a few days. The child was buried in the Catholic cemetery in Cambridge. Because the parents were students and had no permanent home, they planned to go from there to wherever work would take them. In several years they would leave Cambridge and leave behind the body of the child they had welcomed so hopefully into the world. The day of the burial was cold. It began to snow. Soft, wet flakes cascaded from the sky, covering everything in sight. The funeral procession moved through the gathering snow out to the cemetery. Rushing flakes filled the dark earthen corners of the fresh-dug grave, making a frozen lake in which the tiny coffin floated. A fine white mantle spread over the top as the coffin was lowered to the accompaniment of prayers. A more sobering form of water flowed that day than had immersed my son on the day of baptism.
Not all images of letting go are so gentle. Others are more fearful: a family member missing, killed in a car accident, lost on the city streets of America to an unknown fate, estranged, dead of an overdose, suicide. Still others reflect a more normal experience of letting go that nonetheless challenges us: a child moving out, going away to college, getting married, making decisions a parent would not have made, children becoming parents themselves, parents aging, moving away. No matter what the scenario, letting go is a matter of reforming the heart that leads us deeper into the life of our God who is love.
To return to the story of our son’s baptism, I must add that, to our associate pastor’s credit, he and I did have several very fruitful, if heated, discussions about the incident at the morning liturgy. And he genuinely heard my pain when I said that our church rarely looks to the model of the family when it speaks “welcoming”. Rarely does a parish genuinely welcome its own children or teach them to embrace one another with anything even approaching the warmth of a parent’s arms. Rarely are families given a language or a sense of the spiritual lessons to be culled from parenthood. Rarely does the church speak to us of the heart of flesh that is being shaped within the deepest recesses of our being by our very family. Rarely is the intimate attachment that re-creates our hearts in the image of God’s own unconditional love affirmed. Being family is a matter of hearts stretched and torn to love beyond our own selves. To welcome and then to let go of each other is to love like and allow oneself to be loved by God.