(I have been struggling for weeks on writing about how family is the blueprint for authentic Christian worship and practice – and a participation in the interior life of the Trinity, itself. It dawned on me that I can’t contain it to a single – or even a few – articles here. It is one of the fundamental insights of my life. There have been a few concepts that dominate me: God calls all men to salvation; the fullness of the dignity of the human person; faith is an act of the will; mankind is created in God’s Own Image. These are not the subjects of a few articles, but rather the wellspring from which everything God gives me to say rises. Family as a participation in Trinitarian life now joins those concepts.)
The family is sometimes called the “first church.” – and so it is. But it is more than a cradle of Christian virtue and values: it is the blueprint for authentic Christian behavior and worship.
Natural family relationships mirror the interior life of the Trinity. In the course of my life I have been son, spouse and father – three persons in one being – and so have you. But there is only one spiritual relationship in the family of man; sibling. At bottom we are all brothers and sisters. Your children are actually your spiritual siblings whose little souls are given for a time into your care. Your old, enfeebled parents are also your spiritual siblings whose venerable, vulnerable souls are given for a time into your care. Wipe away the delusions of grandeur satan tempts you with and you realize that the heart of your salvation lies in how well you live this vocation God has given you.
Jesus tells us to “…love your neighbor as yourself.” It is a command to see the good in your neighbor, but that is just the beginning. At its heart it is a command to seek the good for your neighbor. Think about how you actually love yourself. If you are balanced and healthy, you are not deluded that all you do is good. To the contrary, your flaws and sins are always before you. In fact, the most noble among us usually see their vices more clearly than their virtues. Yet this does not stop a healthy man from seeking to improve, to ever be a little better person today than he was yesterday. Properly ordered, it is a recognition that our life here is a pilgrim journey and each day should be the next, right step in that journey. Many personality disorders – perhaps even most – come from a distorted view of ourselves or a perversion of self-love. To have a properly ordered view of ourselves and others we must see with clarity, act with humility and live obedience.
The most obvious form of modern personality distortion arises from the cult of self-esteem, a philosophy that aggrandizes the self without requiring actual accomplishment. This is a perverse form of impotent lust – for yourself. Actual accomplishment requires commitment and sacrifice; to build those around you up. The cult of self-esteem merely moons after itself in the mirror of your spirit, savagely tearing down any who hint that your image may not be the fairest of them all. Everything becomes an act of self-actualization. Just a few generations ago General Dwight Eisenhower was the primary architect of D-Day. Before it began, he wrote his resignation in case it failed, taking full responsibility. Once it began, he left the decisions on the ground entirely to his commanders on the scene. When it was over, he lauded those commanders’ courage, judgment and sacrifice, in making the plan a success. He made the plan, prepared to accept the blame for failure, and jubilantly gave credit to the men he depended on to execute it for its success. Over on the Nazi side, Hitler made all the field decisions from headquarters, then blamed his subordinates when his orders failed. Almost all of public life now has become a mad scramble to claim credit for what one has not actually done and shift the blame for ones error onto those who are blameless. This is the logical end of the cult of self-esteem. The healthy man works to lift his fellows up even as he does the same with himself. The diseased man struggles to tear those around him down in order to convince himself his mediocrity is actually dominance. It is a cancer that eats away at a culture.
When you regard life as a struggle for dominance over your fellows rather than a call for collaboration with them, you deceive yourself, distort reality and end in ashes – then frantically search for who you can plausibly blame for the ashes. Competition is good. In fact, it is the primary means by which we become better. So how do you make competition into an exercise in refining and purifying yourself rather than a destructive struggle for mere dominance? The blueprint is in healthy family relationships.
When I was young two of my brothers and I loved baseball. In summertime, we would organize sandlot games and often play from dawn till dark. My brother, Jerry, was a superb pitcher, a good hitter, average fielder and, though not particularly fast, quite deceptive on the base paths. My brother David was a superb fielder, fast and deceptive on the base paths, and a solid contact hitter. I was a superb hitter, sub-mediocre fielder, slow as sludge, and an average pitcher. When we played on the same team if you put me at shortstop, David pitching and Jerry batting clean-up, we would have been quite mediocre. But we had clarity, so Jerry would pitch, David play short or center and I would bat clean-up. That array was quite formidable in the neighborhood. We also relished each other’s skills and accomplishments, even when they came at our own expense. When I hit a home run off a tough pitch from Jerry, he would savor my accomplishment as lovingly as I would. I was very tough to strike out, but Jerry knew I had trouble with low inside sliders. When he was hot, he could pound it there relentlessly. He struck me out more than all other pitchers combined, How could you not admire that? We sometimes called David “Little Brooks” after Orioles third baseman, Brooks Robinson. David is the best fielder I have ever seen outside a major league ballpark. People would smoke a ball yards from him and – with a dive and a cloud of dust, he would have it and toss you out. Frustration from the hitter almost always gave way to astonished admiration at the elegant grace that had just robbed him of a hit.
In a healthy family the achievement of one member does not diminish the others. It lifts them all up. The failure of one member is not cause for glee that you now have a leg up on the competition: it is cause for sorrow and an outreached hand of help. This does not mean that, if a family member embarks on a relentlessly self-destructive course you must go there with them in support. That would just be to enable disorder. Sometimes in even the healthiest of families, you must withdraw for a time from one you love, lest you enable their disorder or begin to participate in it. But even then it is not their destruction that you long for. Rather, you pray ardently for their reclamation, for their return to the fellowship of the family table. Even when you have to shut the door against their disorder, you do not permanently lock it against them. When you have no influence on their course and cannot even safely be in their presence, your prayers are a candle in the window that may one day be a beacon in darkness to guide them back home.
Most people have family members that they grieve for but cannot help just yet. Your grief, your love is what God feels for all of us, His children, who separate ourselves from His love. When you begin to treat all men as you would treat your natural family members at your best, you begin to participate in the very interior life of God. In fact, that is one of the reasons God set up natural family relations as He did – so we would know how to properly treat each other, the spiritual siblings of His family.