Fr. Ron Rolheiser, omi


March 29, 1999

(Third in a six-part series on family)

Families are schools of charity.

Many classical spiritual writers used to espouse this. What does it mean?

As a young novice, reading Francis de Sales and Thomas a Kempis, I thought I knew. It made simple sense: When you live in a family, the give-and-take you experience there, all the quirks and selfishness present, gives you (and every other member in the family) the opportunity to learn patience, forgiveness, understanding and every other virtue under the sun.

That idea, while not entirely wrong, is not quite what people like Thomas a Kempis (The Imitation of Christ) had in mind when they said families are schools of therapy.

What they meant is in fact close to what anthropologists of family and community call "the therapy of a public life." The therapy of a public life means that if I live without enough real give-and-take within a concrete family of some kind, there will be constant dangers and dangerous deprivations in my life.

The constant dangers will include an unhealthy fantasy about who I am, an illusion about what life is all about, a selfishness in terms of not sufficiently giving myself and what I have over to the family, and a paranoia about guarding myself and my freedom.

The dangerous deprivations will consist in the fact that nobody is entering and touching the most moral part of my heart, even as nobody is helping me really deal with my pathologies and sins.

What a healthy family does is de-fantasize us, challenge us, dispel our illusions, demand unselfishness and help us carry our pathologies. Practically, this means that if we give ourselves over to the rhythms of family and community life, we will constantly be corrected in how we perceive ourselves, deflated in our egoism and inflated self-importance, asked to be less selfish, stretched in how we see the world and exposed in our faults.

At the same time, if the family is healthy, we will also be met at the deep place in our hearts where we need the familiar, given a home (in the real meaning of that word), and helped to deal with our sickest secrets. This latter point is especially important.

Anthropologists tell us that one major function of family is to help carry the pathologies of its members. They also point out that in previous cultures, where the family unit was much stronger than today, there was much less need for private therapy than now. Family life was the essential therapy for its members.

That is an important truth. Without family, I am truly alone before my inner sicknesses and sins. Today that is often no longer understood.

We have a virtual library of literature on dysfunctional families. Valuable as that is, it generally fails to point out that all families and communities (save the Trinity) are dysfunctional. Thus, the question is not so much, "Is your family dysfunctional?" but rather, "How dysfunctional is it and how are we helping to carry each others' pathologies?" Families are schools of charity – and also the primary clinics for therapy.

Perhaps an illustration can be helpful here: Several years ago, a woman came to me seeking counselling and spiritual direction. She was middle-aged, divorced from her husband, with grown children who no longer lived with her.

She felt she was missing something in life, something she couldn't name. It scared her. She described things this way: "I'm slipping! I don't know what's happening to me, I'm not even sure what I want, but I'm just not moored any more, nor growing, nor happy. I need more anchors in my life."

I only had one session with her because she was, in fact, quite a healthy woman who didn't need counselling, nor even particularly spiritual direction. She needed the therapy of a public life. She needed to re-enroll in a school of charity. Healthily, she herself sensed the dangers and deprivations in not having a vital enough link to a living school of charity.

Thus, I didn't refer her to any counsellor or spiritual director. Instead, I referred her to the registrar of a local Catholic theological school where she enrolled, met a new group of persons like herself, began to go to Eucharist several times a week, became involved in prayer, discussion and friendship groups . . . and blossomed.

She found the steadying she sought, and countless kinds of challenge, through the therapy of a public life, through a family, through a school of charity.

We need desperately family, not just to meet our needs for intimacy and companionship, but also, like rocks being polished in a grinder, to jostle us around so that our fantasies get dispelled, our selfishness gets derailed, and our hearts get stretched enough to let us sit at the final family table where everyone will lovingly be able to sit with everyone else.