Restoration

Restoration

Posted September 04, 2015:
A Word for Families: Mercy

by Fr. Denis Lemieux.

Whenever a priest writes about the vocation of marriage or of family spirituality, he always has to anticipate the obvious objection that will arise in the minds of some of his readers. Namely, "What does he know about it? He’s not married! He doesn’t have children!"

This is not an objection without merit. We who are celibate do have to bow with a lot of humility before the limits of what we can know, really, about a vocation and way of life that is simply not ours.

But it’s also true that there are substantial areas of overlap between our intensely communal Madonna House life and the normal life of a family. And long experience has shown us that this intense community life, while having obvious differences from marriage and family life, has a great resonance with the families we have served.

It has also been my great privilege and honor to serve as a spiritual director to no small number of married couples who have opened their hearts and home to me at some depth.

All that being said, the word that comes to me more and more as the word for families, that which more than any other makes a human family into a holy family, a natural family into something touched by supernatural grace and life, is mercy.

 

I know families which possess great physical and psychological order and tranquility; I know other families where all sorts of intractable issues and hard realities make domestic life an ongoing exercise in (barely) managed chaos.

I know families where the parents are strict disciplinarians and guardians of their children, and others where, shall we say, the reins are a bit looser and things run amuck fairly regularly.

I offer no opinions about any of that. Married couples have to find their own way in doing this thing.

No two families are alike in how they sort out the hundred different issues that raising children and making a home involve. But I have been powerfully convinced over the years that no matter what choices a family makes—mantillas or mohawks, home school or the local high school—the core virtue that makes or breaks the family is the quality of mercy practiced in it.

The reason for this is a pretty simple one: marriage and family life are really hard.

 

I cannot tell you how many times a man or a woman has poured out to me their deep sense of failure as a husband and father, a wife and mother.

I can tell you the number of times a man or woman has said to me, "Fr. Denis, really, I’m doing just great at this! No problem. Thanks for asking." That number would be zero.

Marriage is hard. Raising kids is hard. No matter how much competence and natural ability a person brings into it, sooner or later he or she falls flat on his face.

And since the core reality of a family is that you all live together in fairly close quarters, that falling flat happens right out in the open.

Meanwhile, you’ve had kids—one, two, thirteen, whatever. And you who are parents may have noticed that besides inheriting your blue eyes, red hair, cute nose, and musical ability, all of your children have inherited something else from you. Namely, uhhh, Original Sin.

Children are cute bundles of energy and joy; they are also a bunch of little sinners. All of them! Prone to losing their tempers, failing to be strictly honest, collapsing into selfishness and greed, and all the rest of it. All of which are painfully on display to their parents who wonder how it all went so wrong.

In John 8 we read of the woman caught in the very act of committing adultery. It seems to me that in any family (and this is just as true in my MH family), we are constantly catching one another "in the very act" of … well, you tell me. Hopefully not adultery. But just about any moral failure you could mention.

And so … mercy. Which means not casting stones; being quick to forgive; not judging the person’s heart, or assuming a full knowledge of their motivations and culpability; keeping your heart open, even when the person is hurting you; constantly working out what can be worked out; bearing patiently what cannot be fixed; not demanding that at the end of the day, the books all balance and everyone receive exactly what is due them and contribute exactly what (you think) they should.

It is mercy that redeems the strict and disciplined family from becoming a nightmare of control and repression. It is mercy that redeems the chaotic conflict-ridden family from being a nightmare of neglect and acrimony.

The call to mercy is so much bigger than the specific realities of domestic life, of course.

We live in a world dominated, more and more, by anger, hatred, polarization, intolerance, harsh judgment and violence. And this culture of outrage and division is rapidly eroding the very basis of civil society and any hope for real peace in the world.

The need for the Church, especially, to be a place of mercy and compassion for all suffering people, especially for the poor and for those lost in sin and brokenness, is extreme today.

But it is in the family that we learn to be human. That is the central fact of family life. And so the practice of mercy in the family is absolutely necessary for the creation of a merciful society, a merciful Church, a merciful world.

We have to learn to respond to human weakness, human failure, and human sin not with harshness, condemnation, and rage, but with compassion, gentleness, and pardon.

We can learn this elsewhere as adults, often with great difficulty and through much struggle, but the place we are meant to learn it is in the little domestic church of the family, to quite literally learn it at our mother’s knee and on our father’s lap.

To be merciful, though, we have to know mercy ourselves. If we don’t really believe that God is merciful to us when we sin or that God looks upon us in our weaknesses and stumbles, with infinite tenderness and compassion, then it becomes very hard for us to extend this mercy to anyone, let alone to the people who live most closely with us and whose failures and weaknesses are likely to cause us the most distress.

And it is the simple truth that many people genuinely struggle to believe in the mercy of God. It is my priestly observation that this seems to go very deep in us, this struggle to really trust God and believe he loves us and forgives our sins. So much of the harshness and pitiless judgment that is typical of our modern culture (oddly enough generally accompanied by a denial of sin and moral truth) reflects that.

So for the family to be that place of mercy, a little tropical island of mercy in a world grown cold, there has to be a deep and constant seeking out of God’s mercy by husband and wife first, and then the children as they grow.

Confession, the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner"), the Divine Mercy devotions, and constant turning to the great scriptures of mercy—the woman caught in adultery, the prodigal son, the lost sheep—all of these are how we come to know and believe in his Mercy.

And out of that, we can find the grace to make our families and our homes places where mercy is practiced, mercy given, and out of the heart of the family, mercy extended to a world that needs it so very much.

 

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