Tag Archives: wife

Holiness, families, connection, otherness

The first reading today, is a couple of disjointed passages from a longer section where surprise, surprise the father (patriarch) of a household is setting up his own wellbeing and interests as “God’s law” over his children. There is a section defining the parent’s power over children as natural and right, God’s will, then he sensibly looks ahead to a future time when he may be feeble or have dementia and sets up taking care of him them as a virtue for his children.

While I agree that looking after the old with compassion and respect is virtuous, as a whole this piece of writing leaves me cynical and disconnected from my tradition. I want to look for holiness instead at real holy families I know… two women who defy their church and some of their relatives to give loyalty and nurture to each other “for better for worse, for richer for poorer…” and let their mutual love outflow to their communities… a single mother on the barest pittance who struggles to put food on the table but always finds some change or a cigarette for any homeless person who asks her, and refuses to give up her World Vision sponsored child…the couple who take turns running for election or supporting each other’s efforts, who work together to manage their household finances, chores, child rearing, extensive political involvement, gardening and still find time to each have personal interests and entertain friends (how do they do it all?)…the single person who knows s/he (I know more than one of these)is on a good income and looks for opportunities to be generous and transformative with their money, even while enjoying a good standard of life themselves…the elderly people whose love for their own (now grown up) children spills over into grandchildren and others who they can mentor, support, encourage…the teachers who are like family in the way they see and respond to an emotional need…the nurses who heal more than a physical wound by lingering or listening for a (precious and scarce) moment longer than they have to…the chef who finds an excuse to feed people even beyond the call of duty…the boss who genuinely cares about how unique her employees are and their individual needs and issues…the now separated or divorced couple who remain friends for the sake of their child, or add encouragement and support to the ex, rather than bitterness and judgement…”

And there are broken families too of course, people betrayed, abandoned, insecure, criticised, misunderstood, neglected…all families are Christ’s family whether we approve of them or not, whether we can see the life-giving potential in them ore not.

To extend this logically, the family called “the church” which is also extremely flawed and at times abusive is Christ’s family too…

The second reading starts off well, with all the advice about loving and forgiving each other, but also ends up devolving into patriarchal family hierarchies. Husbands over wives, parents over children. I don’t want to rehash all the apologetics here about “this is actually liberative for its time and culture because it is two-sided.” Maybe, maybe not but I am reading it on the threshold of 2018 and this way of putting it does NOT liberate someone who has experienced being a child and then a wife. As a lay-person in a church where there is so much power and authority accorded to clergy I am wary of this asymmetrical two-sided responsibility where my responsibility to obey is supposed to mesh with someone else’s responsibility to nurture me. That has often not been the way it has panned out. I also added back in here the verse the lectionary has swept under the carpet, because I think it illustrates our need for caution with texts.

God created all humans with intelligence, will, agency; it in no way makes sense for some to give up their own ability to reason, choose and decide and to hand that power over to others.

I am digging in my heels at these reading with a big fat NOPE.

In the context of these two readings, the gospel seems a little bit oppressive too. Here is Jesus’ family following tradition, celebrating his maleness and first-borness by killing some pigeons. I understand that this is not my culture and I try to bite my tongue as I read it (but there were those other readings to set the tone for me to resist this too). So here they are doing everything that is “prescribed” and Jesus’ specialness is affirmed by people outside the family, people important within their religious community.

As someone who never got to be “special”, as “only a girl” I can watch it from the outside but this story has never really captured my imagination much, nor has it given me any sort of useful concept of “holiness” so that as a child this feast-day was more of a puzzle to me than anything else. I was a pious little goody-goody so I took it for granted that they were holy, I was not and my role in the faith always was to obey and follow- never any more.

But when I was pregnant myself (no longer a child by then) I thought a lot about Mary and her struggles, about Joseph and his ability in other parts of the gospel to put his family radically first (which is pretty transgressive in a patriarchal context). I thought of Jesus’ contradictory attitudes toward his own family- now clear affection, now a seeming desire to escape and deny…of his need to be more than his origins or pedigree, of his resistance to being subsumed in domesticity or family expectations. Leaving the security of the family leads to the cross; the cross might have broken Jesus’ body, but imagine the wreckage it wrought to Mary’s heart?

I prayed that none of my children would ever in any way or in any movement be a “Messiah” and yet I also knew that whatever they were or were not, despite the first and second readings of today I would neither choose nor control. The holiness of “family” then, must lie somewhere in that contradiction between individual agency and call, and collective support, love, acceptance of one another. We yearn as human beings both to connect and to be free. We can achieve so little alone, as a pure individual and yet perhaps the most frustrating and perennial challenge is the attempt to be understood by each other (and the pain of stopping our own knowledge and emotions in their tracks long enough to know another).

So on this feast of the holy family, I look at my own flawed self as a mother of sons, as a sister and daughter, aunt and cousin and friend. I look at my single-state, my difficulty with managing intimacy in my life, but miraculously the relative stability of my friendships. I offer a prayer of thanks for the people who have with-held judgement (or even advice) and have offered encouragement and practical help, fostering my slow growth.

I anticipate my need for more- necessary but slow and painful growth to better relationships and the best inspiration I can find in tradition can only be the prayer of St Francis,

Divine Wisdom make me an instrument of your peace,

where there is injury let me sow pardon,

where there is hatred, let me sow love,

where there is confusion, let me bring Wisdom,

(God I know the original said something different but I mean to bring creative doubt to over-certain faith as much as reassuring faith to toxic doubt)

where there is sadness, let me bring joy

where there is darkness let me bring your light

(and as a three-year old once pointed out where there is too much light let me bring the rest and peace of your darkness)

and to despair let me always show the chance of hope.

Oh beautiful and loving One teach me always to seek

more to console others than to need consolation,

more to listen and understand than just to be heard and understood

especially when I have privilege in worldly terms.

Teach me not to be needy in matters of love but to be generous and ready to pour out and be poured out in love.

 

Let me know with you that it is in giving that we receive

it is in pardoning and making allowances for others that we lose our own guilt and complicity in sin,

and somehow, in some hard to comprehend,

miraculous way

even death is not final as our eternal vocation is into You.

 

Make me an instrument, a way for you to play the music

that is peace and healing

to all.

Amen.

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Family values; what is “holy”?

Apologies for the length (and yes I do have things to do apart from writing blogs) 😉

This one gets called the feast of the holy family. So I have been thinking a lot about families and wondering what is “holy” about one family or another and I will keep this in mind as I turn to the readings. Sad to find the libraries I had to scroll through a couple of websites where celibate, white, old, men tell us that a family is always grounded on a “marriage” and that marriage always intends children but isn’t about being carnal (I won’t link but feel free to google things like “catholic family”. These armchair experts on both the complex praxis that becomes “family” and seemingly at times on human relationships themselves can make all the distant, arrogant pronouncements they like but to some of us family is centred on loving bonds and commitments that defy exact classification and may “intend” a better society or a more love-filled life rather than merely procreation.

In the first reading then we have Hannah who in common with many of my friends is full of desolation because she does not have a child. Rather than accept her keen need to have children as an indication of “natural” femininity (as it often gets interpreted both in her life and in the lives of modern day women who struggle to conceive for whatever reason), I see this story as indicating how at war with their own bodies women can be when they are surrounded by patriarchal expectations narrowing the value of a woman (and a wife which in patriarchy is a synonym) to motherhood only. It may seem heartless of me on the feast of the Holy Family to question the very icon of woman/mother at the centre of all we cosily seem to believe about families- but I think of the other sisters and friends who want something other than motherhood from their lives and even in 2015 get everything from blame, snide remarks and unasked for advice about “hurry up and breed”.

In tandem with the women who don’t want to be mothers, I cannot forget those of us who ARE mothers but want to be measured by our words and deeds not just by the quality of the people who might have come out of our womb and learned much from us but like to keep within themselves a sense that they belong to themselves and not only to us. The double bind of motherhood, (if that is all we have) is that the healthy child grows up and becomes independent, wants to leave our influence and not be limited by our prejudices. So I look to the “holy virgin” the “mother of God” the blue clad female figure at the heart of the holy family and want to ask her “Who are you when you are not ‘mother’?”. The gospels give us crumbs of this in the Visitation (powerful prophet and counsellor) and at the Wedding at Cana (radically insightful disciple and theologian). But even these crumbs get reduced to “just a mother, just a woman, just the womb-source of something more important”. I don’t believe men have to face any such essential reduction of their complexity and their very existence as “person” that is so perpetually held before their eyes as a lynch pin of everything we say we value as “family”.

And what of fathers in this world view? Is their career and even their vocation more important than the children they have caused (or perhaps contributed to) a woman to bring into the world? But when we focus on Joseph I think he undermines much of what patriarchy tells us about fatherhood. For now we have Hannah’s desire to conceive.

And so the barren Hannah is nothing, not a mother, a failure and she pleads with God to give her the honour of a child which she will then radically gift back to God (or to the church). How is this less disturbing to us than Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac? How do we celebrate this story in the cosy little feast of the Holy Family? I can’t see this otherwise than as a text of terror. But unlike in Abraham’s story, no angel of the Lord intervenes. The death of the child may not ensue but Hannah leaves him there. The little boy left in the temple now that the parents’ pride has been satisfied. But even today, how many much wanted babies become nothing more than a background figure with its own computer and its expensive education and not always the time for anyone in the family to relate to each other in ways other than buying things? This is my sin too, I have to pay bills and I struggle to find meaningful time with my children and forget how to relate to them.

The psalm doesn’t solve this for me. It only talks to men who get enriched by God giving them a “wife like a fruitful vine” and “children like olive plants” (excessively multiplying and tenaciously tough? or just making mess all over the driveway?). Noone asks the wife or children what they think of this set up, since in this psalm they are prizes not people. I have vivid memories of this psalm in the daily psalter and my dad loved it and the rest of us made faces whenever it came up (which he couldn’t work out why). I guess the word “husband” suggests “husbandry”- cultivating land, plants and stock rather than relating to equal human beings. But the “blessed” who “fear the Lord” are husbands, are the owners and operators of the household. I still haven’t found a “holy” family in these readings….next…

The second reading begins well. Compassion, kindness, humility, love, wisdom, gratefulness. Maybe we have found that ideal here…the holy family. But it couldn’t stop there could it? Patriarchy once again comes into the church’s teaching on family. Uncritically, unreflectively, unwisely and as usual blinded by only having one type of person in the highest levels of authority (always male and overwhelmingly middleclass and white) the church on the day that focuses on families and the values that make them up lets in a reading that advises wives to be “subordinate” and children to “obey”. I’ve heard a lot of nonsense about how in fact it is equal and is not oppressive because husbands are also commanded to love their wives and fathers not to provoke their children! But the reality is that husbands and fathers are an imperfect and human as the rest of us and will at times (even the best of them) fail to love and will inadvertently provoke. And the only safety for the everyone else of the family is an equal status to the all too human father.

I cannot be subservient and obedient to a father or a husband. I do not see God’s word in this sort of bondage! If this is family as the church construes it then I am done with families! I don’t feel furious that readings about donating children to the church and being blessed by being given the ultimate prize of wife ‘n kids or the supremacy of the male/father in the household are in the canon of my faith. We know what sort of societies gave rise to the canon and we know that God calls us to read it carefully and critically, to see it as a photo album of our ancestors not an authoritative recipe book for life today. But I feel furious and frustrated at the stupidity of a church hierarchy that still thinks to celebrate the ideal of “family” by choosing those readings! It explains a lot about the abuses and wilful deafnesses that the church has long been implicated in, that are increasingly coming to light.

Wake up you fools! God comes to liberate us from the sins of our ancestors not to reify them as “The Christian way of life”. As a baptised Christian each of us is called out of the original sin of the societies and imperfect families we are born into to live transformative, grace-filled faith in radical and dynamic (and ready to challenge) love with them. In this spirit my son who has not spoken to me for a few months came to my house on Christmas day, to speak to me adult to adult about his hopes, dreams, inability (and lack of desire) to obey either parent, and dynamic life within the heritage we have given him. If a seventeen year old can see beyond the narrowness of the authority of his parents (and yet be wise enough to retain what he sees as good in the values he was taught) to me that was “holy family” as were my grey months of waiting and hoping he would talk to me one day. We were not enough for him (as a husband’s or a father’s authority would not be enough for me) but as an equal he brings love and courtesy back into the circle of our “family”.

Jesus in the gospel, like my son in the world, finds he has a mission  bigger than the little family he is born into. He does not ask permission from his parents, perhaps even it is selfish of him not to communicate to them what he is doing. But he rebukes them that they ought to have trusted him and his vocation more, they ought to have let go knowing that he has his own business in the world and that this does not mean he does not love them. The story finishes with Jesus submitting back to their authority, which to me seems like an editor who did not want this story to have too much radical power to unsettle the status quo of a society largely based on obedience and varying status. To me the attempt to close Pandora’s box AFTER Jesus has escaped from parental authority and been wise on his own account is too late. The idea of the family hierarchy has already been irreparably damaged. Children have been shown to be more than the puppets of their parents.

And I reflect on radical examples of “holy” family I have seen this year. Of the father who argued powerfully for his son’s right to choose a traditionally “female” sport such as netball. Of the woman who is still a parent to her ex-girlfriend’s children while also nurturing another single friend’s children when possible. Of the foolish women who keep going back to abusive exploitative boyfriends. Of people with elderly parents who need nurture in various ways and get in the way of people’s plans for the year. Of babies yearned for or whoopsies. Of the liturgical “family” that I belong to that radically shares headship (there are leaders but they lead by enabling other people’s co-leadership) and the way they threw open their doors on Christmas Eve and welcomed in a diversity of families. Of the love my son has for his separated mother and father and four scattered siblings, and father’s girlfriend, and all friends and relatives of the family all of whom he accepts with a quiet security that family just means good people. Of the wild mothers who nurture us in our feminist journeys and the wise ancestors who wrote words we are enlightened by and the imperfect fathers who build churches and their miraculous moments of transformative humility.

The holy family is not one legalistic pattern of heteropatriarchy. It is not the dominance of man over women; adult over child nor the reification of breeding as the purpose of life. The holy family, every holy family is a complex network of love, challenge, individuality and collectivity. A holy family will always be recognised by serving the interests of God’s reign (justice, kindness, walk humbly with each other and the world). In every holy family, Wisdom is always born and reborn to every member, to the collective whole.

May your holy family be blessed with love and joy, as you recuperate over this hot and holy season of Christmas.