Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Finding Holiness ... in Our Families

Love in the Little Things
by Mike Aquilina
... The family is the great catechism God has given the world. The work of our lifetime is to learn how to read it, and then study it prayerfully.

A couple in love will find many lessons to learn in the everyday events of their life together. Throw into the mix a child or two (or six or twelve), and the lessons increase by orders of magnitude. It’s all serious business, I suppose, but a sense of humor plays no small part in our spiritual development. Monks may learn humility by wearing a hair-shirt. We parents have our own means of mortification. We must, for example, sit helpless while our four-year-old daughter, patiently and with scientific rigor, enlightens a visiting priest — an elderly, saintly Franciscan — about the varieties of panties that Mattel affixes to its Barbie dolls. (I’m not making that one up.)...

Our family life is the sacrifice we offer to God every day. It rises like incense to heaven as we do very ordinary things: as we love our spouses, guide our kids, pay the bills, attend countless, endless scout meetings, and do our work. All this is our share in the common priesthood of the Church. It is our daily sacrifice, our “Mass.” God, for His part, gives back to us abundantly, from the treasury of His own perfect fatherhood.
This is a subject that Tom and I recently were talking about on a long car trip. It is easy to look at the family and see why God made that our basic core of life on earth. It is the means of sanctification for us all, as we learn to gracefully take up the many irritations and pinpricks of daily self-sacrifice. It is only in soldiering through many of these that we then see the other side, that the graces we receive are so much more than any sacrifice we make ... and the "self" that we become is so much holier than we would have been otherwise. (Not perfectly holy, just a little more holy ... and when you're like I am, then that means there is a long way to go on the holiness business ...)

I received this book last Friday and have to admit that I was so happy to see it looked lighter than Mike Aquilina's usual "Church Fathers" fare. He is brilliant at communicating their personalities and works but I had just finished his Fathers of the Church and am deep in the middle of a church history. (Of course, I just read about the new, expanded version of Mass of the Early Christians coming out soon and now am suddenly ready for the "deeper" reading again!) This book of short essays was just the ticket. He talks about something we all can relate to -- how family life and marriage give us endless opportunities to live a holy life and see God's touch everywhere. These essays range from short two-page works beginning with a family story, usually humorous, and then go to a simple reflection about a needed grace or lesson learned that the incident illustrates or sparks. These are the sorts of examples many of us need to see God's hand in the everyday and to remind us that everything we do is an opportunity to grow in a holiness that needn't be stuffy or holier-than-thou. It is all very real and down-t0-earth.

Some chapters are longer essays that are packed full of good reflections, also stemming from family interactions, that take us to deeper reflective depths. A favorite of mine is about the "Spousal Secret." In other words, what is the secret to being a good husband (or wife). As you'd guess, it is self sacrifice but it is examined from every angle in a very readable way.

I will finish by sharing one of my favorite chapters so you can get a feel for this charming and insightful book which would make an excellent Father's Day gift. It is simple but there's something about Grace that I just can't resist.
The State of Grace

A lone blonde in a crowd of brunettes, our Grace Marie early sensed her difference, her distinctiveness.

One October night the family poured out of the van and approached our favorite ice-cream parlor -- now decorated for the harvest season. Suddenly, three-year-old Gracie broke ranks and ran to a pair of scarecrows. "Look, Mom! Look, Mom! Look, Mom!" She jumped repeatedly in front of the flopsy couple. We all looked, but couldn't figure out what was so special. She pointed emphatically to the golden straw peeking out from the scarecrows' hats. "Look! Gracie dolls!"

Our peerless blonde had found her peers, or at least she thought so. I found them entirely too subdued to pass for "Gracie dolls."

Early in Gracie's life I decided that the word "irrepressible" must have been coined for her. From the time she could crawl, she's had boundless energy and an inquisitive mind. She could jump repeatedly while she asked a breathless series of questions: "What are eyelashes for? Why did God make dinosaurs? How do flowers know what colors to turn?"

In exhausted prayer I would suggest to our Lord that perhaps He should have sent Gracie when I was twenty-five rather than thirty-five.

But, if He had, I would now have even less muscle in my abdomen than the little I can claim. Gracie is extremely affectionate, and from toddlerhood onward her preferred display of affection has been the flying leap. (Ballet lessons have only made her more adept at this.) So I've grown accustomed to tensing my abdomen, just in case it should have to absorb a strong and sudden impact. I'd wager that, even as I sleep, my belly stays taut (well, as taut as it can), just in case Gracie should swoop down from the darkened eaves of the master bedroom.

When our family flew to Rome several years ago, Gracie was only five and she could barely contain her excitement. As our jetliner passed over the ocean, she bounced across the aisles, from sibling to sibling in the Aquilina dispersion, before bouncing to her parents, then back through the cycle.

Shortly after landing, through an unpredictable series of events, we found ourselves, jet-lagged, at Pope John Paul II’s regular Wednesday audience -- with passes to greet the pope personally afterward. Everyone in the family was awestruck by the presence of that great man, now stooped and partially paralyzed from age and ailments. One by one, we passed before him. He hugged each of the children. But none of us had the courage or presence of mind to say anything.

Except, of course, Gracie, who hugged him tight and said, "I love you very much." The flashing cameras captured his broad smile forever. And hers.

Later, back at the hotel, my wife and I felt the comedown from the excitement of meeting a pope and a saint. Factor in the time difference between Rome and Pittsburgh, and we were plummeting toward collapse. Everyone headed to one of the rooms and found a place on the beds, the comfy chairs, or the floor. I dropped to a mattress, so utterly exhausted that it never occurred to me that I was leaving my abdomen wide open.

Sure enough, as soon as I closed my eyes – crash, whoosh, and out went the breath from my lungs. And there was Gracie hovering over my face, smiling what her mother calls her "thousand-watt smile."

"Oh, honey," I groaned. "If you'll just let me sleep five minutes, I'll be a new man when I wake up."

And then I saw something I had never seen before. Gracie, looking frightened, jumped off me as suddenly as she'd landed. She turned to Terri: "Mommy, when Daddy's a new man ..."

"Yes?"

"When Daddy's a new man, what will he look like?"

All the kids erupted in laughter. But Terri just hugged our actual Grace and said: "Remember what the pope looked like?"

Gracie nodded.

"He'll look like that."

Gracie accepted this and let me have my forty winks. But no more.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines grace as our “participation in the life of God” (n. 1997).

What is God's life? Boundless joy. Boundless love. Limitless energy. Unceasing wonder.

God gives us the grace we need, when we need it. He gives us the children we need, just when we need them. He has given me Grace, amazing Grace, abundantly.

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