Posted September 15, 2015:
What is a Family?

by Michael O’Brien.

The family is not merely a house full of people, for various institutions fit that description. Granted, as anyone who has ever lived in one knows, the family seems to be at times a hospital, a prison, a boarding house, and a mental institution.

It is all of these and more, of course. It is a place of "fearful beauty," packed to the full with every emotion imaginable, with moments of brilliant illumination and dark squalor, with limitless opportunities for heroism and for sin.

In any given home, if you were to slice away a section of the walls, you would find laughter and conflict, story-telling and amateur legal battles, trading and gift-giving, the blooms of romance, and the hard secret labors of learning to love over the long haul.

You might see prayer and sacrifice, betrayal, hidden generosity, meanness, forgiveness, rage, tenderness, ecstasy, thousands of diapers changed, and countless meals prepared.

There would be music and parlor games, jokes and teasing, and copious embraces. There would be faucets repaired, mortgages sweated over, lonely tears in the middle of the night—and the joy that comes with the morning.

The family is by its very nature a crucible of pain and good pleasure. It is by turns utterly exhausting and exhilarating, though most of the time its meaning is hidden from our eyes in the daily grind. Its immense secret is veiled.

If a person wishes to think of himself as a ready-made saint, he should go and live alone inside a barrier that shields him from humanity.

However, if he wants to know what he really is, then he should go and live in community. Of course, very few people are called to be hermits, and even monks live in communities.

Community is the crucifixion of the false self, which is the aspect of our inner life that is always pushing to be the center of the universe unless it is checked and redirected.

The family is also the basic community of the Church; indeed it is called the "domestic church." It is the place where we begin to know ourselves, the good and the bad aspects alike, where we discover daily that we need a Savior.

Here we learn that, yes, human nature is "dysfunctional." This is surely one of the odious buzzwords of our times, spread by a growth-industry of social pathologists who, for the past several years, have placed the blame for most human unhappiness on the internal politics of the family.

Traditional marriage and family life are more and more considered to be a form of bondage, even slavery. This, coupled to the widespread loss of the sense of sin, has created a generation in which people no longer feel ennobled by self-sacrifice and the honoring of commitments, by willingness to let the false self die and the true self be born.

Our families are imperfect because they are composed of imperfect human beings who are in the process of learning to live together and to respect one another.

The alternative is a cold, tidy universe, a society regulated into strictly functional, self-centered units, with everyone "fulfilled" and "well-adjusted"—a secular "salvation" in which ultimately the real problems are not faced, only avoided.

By contrast, real, living, breathing family life is all about facing our essential nature, the fallen human condition. In this arena, any false dignity is burned away—but here also the true dignity of each member of the family gradually emerges. It is where we learn to love.

Excerpted with permission from Father at Night, (2011), pp. 11-12, Justin Press, Ottawa


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