06 Jan Family: A Treasure
By Nicole Scheidl
Nicole and her husband have seven children. She has worked both inside and outside the home. A woman with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, Nicole’s fondest passion is her family.
I want to begin this article with a caveat. This article is not about men, husbands or fathers. What this article assumes is that we are women, that we are married and that we have families. The reason that I outline these ideas as the underlying assumptions is that the ideal of family that I want to place before you for your consideration is founded on the bedrock of marriage and that marriage is composed of one woman and one man.
The drama of our lives is lived out in the gap between what we are and what we should be. Which raises the question – what should we be? There are a lot of answers out there to that question. Every serious philosopher has tried to give an answer to that question. I personally like the answer given to us by Jesus Christ – after all, as the Son of God, He is a pretty reliable and trustworthy source. He said, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.”
Perfection is a pretty ambitious goal and what I propose to do is sketch out for you some ideas about what perfection might look like in a woman, in marriage and in a family. These are not my own ideas. I put them before you because I think they are ideas worth aspiring to. As well, if we don’t know what’s on the other side of the gap from where we are, we really don’t know which direction to move in.
The first place that I want to start is with the fact that we are human beings. We have a will and an intellect. In order to move with our will to an ideal or goal we need to understand with our intellect where we are going. The first step in moving forward in personal growth is to develop self-awareness. We need to know our strengths and weaknesses as individuals. This is very difficult to do on our own steam. In order to do this effectively a spiritual director (or coach) and the light of prayer are essential. When you go to God and ask for the light to see yourself and where you need to change and grow, you will get an answer. In fact the “Ask and it shall be given to you” is oftentimes truer and more honest than we want it to be.
We also need to be aware of the obstacles within us that make this growth difficult. There are four that are common to all of us, though in varying degrees.
- Laziness – the tendency to do what we like and to avoid things that do not tangibly reward us. As children, our parents had a role and a responsibility to see that we matured. After the age of eighteen that role falls into our own laps. We have to become the drivers in our own growth as a person. This is often difficult to do on our own and a spiritual coach can be very effective in helping us to keep on going.
- Rebelliousness – we resent not being able to do whatever we want whenever we want to do it. Often this is exacerbated by a mistaken notion of freedom. In our culture we view freedom in a negative sense as the absence of rules and restrictions. If no one is telling me what to do then I am free. The Christian view of freedom however is a positive one. Positive freedom is focused on the freedom to become what we are meant to be. This means that we are only truly free when we choose the good because choosing the good allows us to grow into who we were meant to be.
- Sensuality – this can range from seeking comfort to becoming obsessed with giving an inordinate amount of pleasure to the body, whether through food, drugs or sex. Sensuality dulls the intellect and focuses the mind on the body.
- Self-absorption – the tendency to think that the world revolves around me. We are all familiar with the saying “It’s all about me, and why shouldn’t it be?” and it is very easy to live by this creed.
We need to come to a clear understanding of what we are as human persons and see clearly where our struggles are with these particular obstacles. We also have to take the next step and contemplate what is particularly unique about us as woman.
As human beings we occupy an unique place in the universe for firstly, we have been created in the image and likeness of God, and secondly, our nature (human) unites both the spiritual and material worlds and both these facts have specific consequences.
Since we have been created in the image and likeness of God, we possess the dignity of a person who is not just something but someone. We are an end in ourselves. What does being an end in ourselves mean? It means that we were not created to serve the purpose of another creature like the grass growing in the fields was created to feed the cows. Since we are an end in ourselves, we are not to be treated as an instrument or a means to achieve some result. Basically, we cannot and should not be used. This really is the first principle of morality – to respect persons and to abstain from using them.
We have to apply this principle of morality to ourselves and teach it to our children. We have to respect human persons and this really has to start with respect for ourselves. One very practical way we can do this is in the way we present ourselves as individuals – the way we dress, the conversations we engage in, the expectations we have for ourselves and the people in our lives. So we take care of our conversations – we don’t engage in gossip or in crude conversations. We take care of our appearance – we are clean, well-groomed and we dress appropriately for where we are at in our lives. While we don’t compete with our younger daughters, this does mean taking into account what is fashionable and adapting it to reflect our personality and style.
Sometimes you may think this is impossible. Most of the fashions that we see advertised, the billboards and magazine ads, are not geared towards respecting ourselves as women but give off the message that we are really products to be marketed. We should dress as if we value ourselves as persons because we are more than just bodies – we do have a soul. We need to give our children good criteria in this regard – for example, you might say to your daughter, “Since your face and particularly your eyes express who you are as a person, when you meet people you want them to focus on your face. So dress to draw attention to your face.”
Though we are human persons with that inherent dignity, we are also distinctly female. Our feminine nature has some very real consequences in our lives.
We live in a culture in which sexual differences between men and women are becoming confused, the idea of masculinity or femininity is held to be of little value, and sexual identity is in danger of being lost. True sexuality is being radically misunderstood and constantly misused. This frustrates the true personal development of each one of us. The first step, therefore in establishing our human identity and personality lies in our effort to become a woman.
The fact that we were created male and female by God, is the key to human identity, development and destiny. The human person was created by God in a dual mode – male and female – and it is together that we image God. What we can draw from this is that men and women are complementary towards each other – like a lock and a key.
In trying to understand what being a woman means we can analyse traditional roles and try and find their deeper meanings. You may be familiar with the saying that characterizes the man as the head and the woman as the heart of the marriage relationship. We can consider what this statement reflects about men and women. I think you can draw from it the observation that man is more thing-directed or situation-directed and women are more person-directed. As a consequence of this orientation, we as women have a greater capacity for humanizing life.
So one of the first treasures we can give to our family is to be very clear that we are woman, with special gifts that a woman more naturally can bring – gifts of support, understanding, sensitivity, tenderness, attention to detail – really being the heart of the home.
It seems to me that in many ways our homes have had their hearts cut out of them. We as women have to reclaim our homes and make them a haven of understanding, tenderness and support. Where there is time given to family members – not just quality time – but quantity time, lots and lots of it.
We teach by what we say and by what we are and we have an obligation to set up for our children good, healthy role models – role models to be emulated as they pass from childhood through to adolescence.
Their first role models and primary educators in this regard are their own parents. We have to teach our daughters how to be woman and this does not mean the purely biological facts about human reproduction. We must show them that their sexuality is an enrichment of the whole person – body, emotions and soul – and it manifests itself most concretely in leading the person to the gift of self in love. The giving of the self in love leads to the formation of the bedrock of the family, that of marriage.
The nature of the human person is to live in relationship, to give ourselves to others and the most radical self-giving of one person to another human person occurs between man and woman in spousal love. This kind of love is a complete surrender of oneself to the other and the will of each to belong to each other.
Since human beings are made up of both body and soul, love between a man and a woman cannot be reduced to mere biology. Our spiritual nature has an essential role to play in this aspect of spousal love. As St. Ambrose said “those who kiss one another are not content with the donation of their lips but want to breathe their very souls into each other.”
So this love that we have in marriage, that encompasses both our body and our soul may be considered in four essential aspects: physical, emotional, spiritual and supernatural. To make marriage truly what it is, we have to develop all of them.
- Physical – The physical relationship we have with our spouse is an important part of an expression of mutual love but in order to fulfill its proper role in the marriage it must be integrated with all the other aspects of total self-giving. We have to see this quite clearly. The bodily union which we have with our spouse is a total gift of self, it is an act of mutual self-donation and the fulfillment of spousal love. It is something noble and mysterious and we should approach it with a deep reverence.
The sacred nature of sexual intimacy is why this type of physical relationship properly belongs within marriage. And this is also why contraception does harm to the marriage because it denies the full gift of everything I am to the other and denies the full acceptance of that gift. What contraception does is shift the focus of sexual intimacy for the reaffirmation of the whole marriage covenant (true love-making) to joint seeking of mutual satisfaction. It is a subtle shift but a decisive one and creates an atmosphere of selfishness in sexual relations between the couple that can damage them in a very intimate way.
- Emotional – Small demonstrations of mutual affection mean a lot in a marriage. Little things done for love make the home a shelter of peace and joy; and the human heart, being what it is, needs these expressions of love. The analogy of a fire may be useful to illustrate this point. When you are sitting around the campfire and it begins to die down, you don’t throw a big log on it – that would completely put the fire out – you put lots of little twigs on the fire which starts a bigger blaze and then you can add the big log.
The small demonstrations of affection are the little sticks in our marriage. Things like making the meals that he likes, showing interest in your husband’s career and the problems he faces at work, rubbing the stiffness out of his shoulders at the end of the day. These small demonstrations of affection can generate family traditions. In our family when my husband comes home from an extended time away, the children hide notes of affection all over the house for him to find.
- Spiritual – A mutual love between spouses, the unity of mind and heart that they must have, the common principles that they must share and the common goals that they must strive to attain together form the foundation of the spiritual elements of married life. Spiritual unity between husband and wife is fostered in many ways. Some ideas for fostering this unity are:
- constantly making the effort to put oneself in the shoes of one’s spouse, bearing in mind that very seldom can a person say he or she is completely right.
- making it a habit to see the positive side of things, and to be positive in making comments
- being patient
- by not taking oneself too seriously, a good sense of humour helps smooth over many rough patches
- not arguing over unimportant manners such as anything that is a matter of taste or opinion and not a matter of morality.
- respecting the other’s freedom in matters of opinion.
- knowing how to approach problems in an open and friendly way. To assume the intentions were good even if the action was hurtful and if that is impossible, to attribute in to tiredness etc.
It is important for spouses to unite on a spiritual plane.
- Supernatural – Marriage not only aims at happiness on earth – it also aims at happiness in heaven. As Josemaria Escriva often said, marriage and family life are a path to holiness. We find in our love for God the strongest and most definitive reason to bear with the difficulties of married life. And every time we feel the need for God’s aid, we can count on the grace of state to help us to do what we have to do. Jesus Christ raised marriage to a sacrament and we can count on his grace to sustain us in times of trouble. Getting down on your knees with your spouse can forge the deepest bonds of love.
Mature married love takes time and we have to give it time to grow. We also have to invest energy into helping it grow. That means taking time for your marriage. Finding things that you can do together as a couple and focusing on common projects and interests. This brings us to the third point, which is the greatest common project that a married couple can have – that of their family.
In considering the family, I want to use the fire analogy again. When you are in the daily battles of family life – it’s like being in the middle of the fire – you see all the ashes and soot – the sparks flying this way and that way; but when you step back, you see and feel warmth and light. It is really important to create that warmth and light in your family. To do that we need to look at what a family is and what it is for – its purpose.
A married couple creates a family as an extension of their love. In the Christian understanding of family, we image God through the vision of the Trinity. The love between God the Father and God the Son is so strong and so perfect that it creates another person, God the Holy Spirit. And in marriage the love between husband and wife should be so strong and so perfect in its generosity that it creates another person –their child.
To create a family means to create a community and to be a community it must have a certain size. I don’t think there is an essential size but in my personal experience you really get stretched as a parent when you have three children. All of a sudden there are more children than you have hands and I would say it is really the tipping point.
A family also plays an educational role by creating a framework within which the human personality of each child is formed. If it is to be correctly formed it is very important that the child should not be alone, but surrounded by a natural community. While it is the role of the parents to direct their children’s upbringing, in some sense the children impact on the formation of each other within the community of children. There is nothing like the brutal honesty of a sibling in pointing out the error of one’s ways.
The importance of this role was brought home to me during a summer vacation. We had sent our oldest two children out to western Canada to visit with their grandparents and cousins and we took the youngest four camping. We spent a good portion of the weekend refereeing and dealing with squabbles and we realized the important role the two oldest had in sorting out their siblings. I was so glad to get them back!
While there are many great goods in family life, truly one of the greatest gifts you can give your child is a brother or a sister. The love and affection that pours out of them, the genuine need that you have for their help, encourages them to grow beyond themselves.
So now you have this community and you need to give it its own particular flavour. You need to build a family culture. In my view the family culture begins to grow around the family table. Even though this may seem like the most chaotic crazy time of the day, this is the moment to begin to build the sense of family. Try and eat as many meals together as possible. Make supper time a really important family time where you share the joys and sorrows of each day. Do not bring up discipline matters at the family table – and don’t allow your children to use it as a time to “tattle” on their siblings. Make the supper table a time of sharing and as much as possible of cheerfulness.
Create family traditions, especially around birthdays and other important holidays. We have a birthday tradition of putting up posters and pictures of the birthday child the previous evening so that when they come down in the morning they are celebrated on their day. These family traditions are so important for building family unity and are treasured by our children. This lesson was driven home to me on my son’s birthday, which happened to fall during the big power outage that shut down most of New York State and southern Ontario. He came down that morning expecting his birthday poster – and in the confusion of that previous evening I had forgotten to put them up. He totally collapsed into tears and was inconsolable. Any reasonable explanation I had was not acceptable to his seven year-old mind – I got those posters up in a hurry and I haven’t forgotten since.
Create family traditions through family vacations. We camp and every year we have more stories to add to the family lore. You can also create family traditions through family movie nights or family games nights. As well, create individual time for your children – father/son camping trips; mother/daughter days out. Spend time getting to know them as individuals. Your children should find a friend in you. Try not to be angry but understanding of their problems and failings. It’s really a good ideas to delay corrections of faults to another day, when emotions have cooled. The message is more likely to be accepted.
Limit the amount of television, video and computer games that your children engage in – and allow the use of the television and computer only in public spaces. Watch television with them and comment on what you see. Give them a critical eye to analyze and assess what they see with sound judgment.
I would strongly encourage you to monitor closely your child’s use of the internet. You can’t do that when it’s in their bedroom. Unsupervised access to the web can have an absolutely devastating effect on your child when they access pornography and chat rooms and are exposed to unfiltered ideas and causes which can skew their vision of the world. There is a certain arrogance of youth that thinks that “nothing can hurt me” yet many of these things can do great damage to the soul.
Encourage your children to play together and above all pray together as a family. Teach them the traditional prayers and incorporate it into their bedtime and waking routines. This will really give them a great stability and root them in a solid foundation as they grow and develop into mature human beings.
In conclusion, I want to leave you with one final thought about marriage and family life. In the second movie of the Lord of the Rings (the Two Towers) Samwise Gamgee makes a very moving speech about people in the great stories…the ones that really meant something…they had lots of opportunities to turn back but they didn’t…and the reason they didn’t was because they saw that there was good in the world and that it was something worth fighting for. We hold a great good in our hands – our husband and our children – and it is worth the effort – it is worth fighting for – to make of our lives and theirs a great story.