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Sacred Dwelling: A Spirituality of Family Life

Author(s): Wendy Wright

ISBN13: 9780232526424

ISBN10: 0232526427


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  • Families come in a variety of configurations: divorced or separated, widowed, single-parent stepparent, childless, blended, adoptive, multigenerational, aging. Wendy M. Wright aims to adapt her spirituality to suit all configurations. It is a book that digs deep and touches many a nerve.
  • Wendy Wright

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    Wendy M. Wright sets out to balance the traditional metaphor of the spiritual life as journey, pilgrimage and battle that was probably more tuned to celibate life with one she thinks more suited, for lay people and family life - the metaphor of home and dwelling.

    Home, she says, give us identity: it is where we find nourishment and meaning. We know who we are because we know where we come from. Moving across the threshold and through the rooms and furniture, even up to the attic and out the windows, she develops themes of homemaking, intimacy, gestating, nurturing, remembering, cultivating, harvesting. And in the process she enlightens us on the virtues, challenges and opportunities for enrichment that that this "sacred dwelling" puts out to us to choose to grow into.

    Family life, she says, is a paradoxical mixture of permanence and constant change. Its formative disciplines are welcoming and letting go. This book moves between one and the other in an intriguing originality that provides a very satisfying read.

    - Catholic



    I will give them a new heart and a new spirit.
    I will take the heart of stone from their bodies
    and give them a heart of flesh instead....
    then they shall be my people and I will be their God.
    Ezekiel 11: 19-20

    I sit on the edge of my sons bed. His face is smooth with sleep. The glow of the night-light stands vigil against the "monsters" that he worries lurk beneath his changing table. In the warm dark of the room, the two rhythms of our breathing punctuate the silence. As I stand up to leave, I feel my heart, utterly self-contained a moment before, pulled out of my breast, stretched to span the widening distance between us. A presence, palpable in its intensity, connects us. Before he was born, I did not know how I could ever let him in. Now that I have, I dont know how I will ever let him go.

    Becoming family is many things. It involves, in part, the acceptance of adult responsibility, nurturing and guiding the helpless and unformed, and passing on the living fund of culture, knowledge and wisdom from one generation to the next. But being family as a spiritual discipline is, I think, a matter of the heart. And that involves the reformation of the core of our beings, a radical expanding of the established contours of our hearts to include others in a permanent and life-altering way.

    Any genuine experience of love alters the heart and creates it anew. It gentles us. For authentic love is not a transient emotion but a spiritual dynamic of immense power that we as Christians know to be stronger than anything else, even death. To love at the deepest level of our beings is to participate in the birth of our God who is love. This is not a simple matter. Family life is an especially demanding discipline of loving because, in a heightened way, it calls for an increased capacity of the heart to love a person as totally other and to love enough to let go. The great and twin disciplines of the spiritual art of being family are, ! think, the disciplines of welcoming and of letting go. These are matters of the heart.

    Our son was baptized by immersion at the 10 am Sunday liturgy at our parish in Boston. The sacrament was enacted to impress upon all of us present the full import of this ritual of welcome that was taking place. After the reading of the Word my husband and I, our two daughters and the designated godparents came forward before the entire gathered community to celebrate the entry of this new Christian into our midst.

    Our associate pastor, a talented liturgist, presided wonderfully over the event. Called to consciousness of our own baptismal promises, sprinkled with the cleansing waters that flew from the tips of a fragrant green bough, we proceeded to undress our tiny infant and offer him, naked and squealing, to the waters of the baptismal fount. Then we robed him in the white garments of his new life. We - parents, godparents and congregation - vowed to accept the responsibility for welcoming this child, for instructing him in the ways of faith and for being for him the church, the body of Christ. He was welcomed home.

    Several weeks later we were present at the same morning liturgy, this time seated among the congregation in the right apse of the church. Again our associate pastor presided. That morning there were several small children present in the assembly (our church had no "crying room"). None of the children were exceptionally unruly. but all of them were fidgety. The Gospel was a striking one, and when our celebrant mounted the pulpit it was clear from his demeanor that he had planned (as he sometimes did) a special and dramatic homily to explicate the verses just read. As he began in hushed tones, the children opposite us dropped something. Our startled son, who was nestled on my lap, let out a wail. I attempted to soothe him but it became clear that what he really wanted was to nurse, so I tried to get him situated so that he would quiet down. Suddenly I became aware that there was silence from the pulpit. "Some of you may not be happy with this," the celebrant announced, "but I would really rather not be interrupted just now." I felt my face turn hot and tried to shush the baby, but I was so flustered nothing would do. So I picked him up and headed for the back of the church. Our presider waited to continue while I walked the length of the side aisle and exited out the doors. (I later learned that the family opposite also escaped the church at the first moment possible.)

    I found myself standing in the sunshine, confused and shocked. Moments later my husband emerged. "Well, if theyre going to throw you out, Im not going to stay," he announced. I couldnt imagine going back in, but our car was blocked in the parking lot so there was nothing to do but wait miserably until mass was over. During the wait I realized I was not only embarrassed, I was angry. Angry that it should be assumed that we were not trying our best to maintain a proper spirit of reverence. Angry that the very church which so recently was the gathering of a spirited community now should be more like a concert performance with strict rules of decorum. Most of all I was angry that the whole notion of welcoming was so little understood in our church. And I did not mean just our local parish but our whole church.

    Any parent knows what it means to welcome a child. The entry of new life does not call for a polite if celebrative ritual and then a return to business as usual. Nor does it mean that you just schedule this person into your established routine like an appointment or meeting. You dont make a little space in your day or share a little concern and then wish the infant Godspeed. To welcome a child is to accept responsibility for another person twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for a good many years. Ultimately, it is to welcome the unfolding mystery of an entire lifetimes joys and pains as your own. To welcome a child is to give priority to the unpredictability of another life, to tend it in sickness, no matter what you had otherwise planned, to allow your plans and dreams to be altered, even set aside, because of anothers need. To welcome a child is to learn to think and speak in response to a different and constantly changing worldview, to be outside of your own frame of reference. You learn patience and judgment and are confronted with your own very real and heretofore untested limitations. To welcome a child is to recognize the surprising expansiveness of your own capacity to love and to confront the shattering truth of your own violence and self-centeredness.

    To welcome a child is to have your heart stretched, made capable of loving in a new and unrepeatable way. My sense is that this occurrence is very much a part of spiritual maturity, of being reformed into a closer likeness to the God by whom we are all created. One of the central tenets of our Christian faith is that we are made in the image and likeness of Deity itself. Only we are not mirror images. By human choice (the Fall), the image of God in us is diminished or (in the thinking of some Christians) virtually effaced. The central dynamic of each of our individual and collective lives must be to restore or receive again that lost image and likeness, to find our true identity. (Again, depending on which end of the denominational spectrum you stand, you as individual may be presumed to have more or less responsibility for this process of restoration.) The Roman Catholic position is that the image of God is "wounded" or "tarnished" and that we, with Gods grace and our own efforts, can begin to "heal" or "cleanse" the lost image.

    Our hearts are central in this process, for they must be made to resemble the heart of the one human being who perfectly embodied in himself the life of God. Our hearts must become like the heart of Jesus. In the classic literature of Christian spirituality, the activity of this reformation comes under the rubric of "conquering the vices and acquiring the virtues." Certain inner dispositions - the virtues - are seen to be the qualities of person that Jesus exemplified. In fact, in some of the literature they are thought to be gifts of the Spirit of Jesus. The traditional list of virtues includes faith, hope, charity, prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice. Alongside these the church community has accepted as normative certain qualities of character suggested in Jesus teaching. Chief among these are the beatitudes, which represent not simply an otherworldly prophecy of reward and justice for those who suffer on earth but which articulate the very qualities of person from which blessing comes. Among the beatitudes, purity, or singleness of heart, has for some time arrested my attention.

    Not too long ago, during an Ignatian retreat, I had the opportunity to spend a considerable amount of reflective time with the beatitudes. Purity of heart, I found, was something I understood only intellectually. Yes, I was sure that one of the major ways this beatitude has been interpreted in our spiritual heritage is as a sort of single-focused quality of heart. One is to love God alone. Or one is to love others primarily as an outflowing of the love that one has for God. Purity of heart has been associated, in the tradition, with the virtue of detachment. In the fine commentary I was reading during the retreat, purity of heart was described with reference to the biblical narratives about the calling of the disciples. Jesus followers were described as exemplary because when they were called they dropped their nets immediately and did not look back. In the purity of their hearts the disciples gave precedence to the one call they felt precluded any other concern.

    As I tried to focus imaginatively on these scenes of discipleship and to put myself into their frame of reference, I had the uneasy feeling that something was not included here. I kept seeing the wives and children of these impetuous men standing at the doors of their fishermans huts watching husbands and fathers their nets and start off without a backward glance. These mens perfect purity of heart was, in fact, an utter detachment from the ordinary concerns of everyday life and relationships. I was not convinced.

    I certainly did not want to imagine the men refusing to follow Jesus because they had families and jobs, but my meditation wouldnt allow the scenario to be played out in the traditional "detachment" interpretation. So I decided to imagine how the women who followed Jesus might have responded to his invitation. (It seemed a fair experiment since no one has bothered to record their stories for us.) Yes, the women heard the radical nature of the call. Yes, they knew that in fact Jesus message was the one essential message that must be heard in order for all else (home, family, work, ete.) to have any real meaning.

    But they did not all and walk away. Instead, the women returned to their families with the face and voice of Jesus burning in their hearts. They returned, knowing that the tender love they bore their children, spouses, parents and friends could never be effaced. But this new and powerful love was forcing its way into their hearts alongside and even beneath the other loves. They spoke to their families about the
    desire to follow this strange man. The women arranged for all their dependents to be taken care of, or, where the parting would be too searing, they would carry their small children with them. And then they followed, hearts full, almost torn with the depth and richness of the loves they carried away with them (and to which they hoped to return with new zest). The entry of love into these womens hearts had reshaped and enlarged their very capacity for it.

    No. This beatitude, in the only way that I could grasp it, did not mean the kind of singleness or purity of heart that is narrow or excludes other loves. It was rather an expansiveness of heart that gathers in all the loves and then orders them not in rank order, one "better" than the others, but organically according to the deepest and most sustaining love, the love of God to which Jesus called the women. Then all other loves were made transparent by that love. Through those particular loves of friend, husband, parent, child, the vast and nurturing love of God could be seen. Yes, this was the meaning of that beatitude for the women who followed Jesus.

    To welcome a child, to welcome any family member, is to love this way. With each addition, the heart opens a little more. The heart acquires a capacity to love a little differently, to respond in compassion to a new personality, to willingly participate in the drama of an unfolding life. The spiritual discipline of family life, I think, is to allow this re-creation of the heart to take place. It also involves allowing your love for those with whom you are intimate to become transparent enough that the love of God can be seen through it.

    Letting Go
    "Attachment" is a word that has something of a negative connotation in the history of Christian spirituality. Anything to which a follower of Jesus is inordinately attached tends to be seen as a distraction from, or an obstruction to, the pure love of God. It is, further, a hindrance to a ministry that is free to respond radically to the call to come and follow. St. Ignatius of Loyolas instructions at the beginning of his Spiritual Exercises are illustrative of this approach.

    We call spiritual exercises every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul (1).

    I do not mean to obscure the subtlety and maturity with which the virtue of detachment has been expounded and lived in our tradition. But for many committed Christians detachment has meant, first of all, a refusal to attach deeply to any particular person (or ministry or idea for that matter). Celibacy makes perfect sense in this context. And while there are more persuasive and positive reasons for the embrace of celibacy set forth in todays literature, the fact remains that our tradition has for the most part de-emphasized and even discredited the arts of attachment and human intimacy (2).

    Certainly, being inordinately attached to a family member because of the esteem or profit you think they will bring you, or because they are living out your unattained fantasies, is destructive. In terms of children, there cannot be any genuine parenting without first having a real and unalterable experience of bonding with a child. The deep attachment to the child is nurtured and grows over the course of many years. The bonding does not go away even if the child leaves or dies. For when our hearts have been stretched to make a special place for that unique love, they do not shrink again when the loved one has left the nest or been taken away by the violence of death. The heart always remains molded by the shape of that love.

    Still it is true that the twin disciplines of family are welcoming and letting go. Letting go does not consist of ceasing to love, or detaching oneself from the affection one feels, but in loving more. Letting go involves radical faith. It means entrusting what you most love to the expansive care and protection of God. By this I do not mean that if you pray hard enough God will not keep all the awful things that could happen from happening to your child. Nor that every evil, even evil perpetrated on the innocent, is somehow "all in Gods plan." But that somehow Gods presence is available to us even in the mysteries of human suffering and death. Our trust is in a God whose presence accompanies us in every facet of human experience, a God who celebrates, laughs, plays, weeps, wonders and is seared with pain just as we are. This kind of radical trust in an accompanying God is what allows us to let go. We let go not only so that our children can become independent adults guiding their own lives, but also so that God as Father and as Mother may parent them and that we all may know ourselves as children of God.

    Two images, both of snow, come to me in relation to the spiritual discipline of letting go. The first is of a day, not too long ago, when I was leading a retreat in rural Nebraska for a group of high school juniors from a Catholic boys school. It was January and, though the day was clear, a stiff, frigid snow covered the ground. Late the previous night we had received a phone call from my eighty-three-year-old mother-in-law who was to undergo emergency surgery the next day. My husband hurriedly canceled appointments and set out early in the morning to be with her. Both of us were afraid, because of the gravity of the reports, that this might be the last time he would see her. Our letting go of her, and her of us, was very much on my mind as I entered the retreat.

    I had never conducted an all-boy retreat before and had only recently begun doing this kind of work with high-school-age retreatants. They were a delightful group of young men on the verge of adulthood, filled with plans for the future: college, career, marriage. Each individual story took on life as the day progressed. I thought of my own son, still so little. What would he be like at sixteen? What school would he be going to? College, career, marriage? I was filled with his yet to be explored future.

    During the afternoon break, I took a solitary walk on the grounds of the retreat center. Trees were bare, the air still and cold. The sharp sound of frozen snow giving way under my feet punctuated the silence. I climbed the crest of a hill and found myself in an old graveyard. My heart followed my husband who was driving south to be with his mother as she went into surgery. The dead, whose lives had been played out a century ago, were encased in small mounds of snow that splintered beneath my feet. At the far side of the graveyard a low tombstone caught my eye. Carved on its uppermost curve was an infant lamb worn smooth by the passage of nearly one hundred winters. The gravestone was that of two children, a little girl and a little boy, just the ages of my youngest daughter and son. They had died one day apart. No doubt an illness carried them off. How had their parents met the sudden loss? How deep was their trust in the God who alone would hold this little girl and boy from then on? And my trust? Could it be so tested?

    We all were together for a silent moment on this snowcrusted hill: those long-ago children whose futures had been clipped off so abruptly; my own children whose futures, in my mind at least, stretched into an open-ended expanse of years; the young retreatants and their parents letting them go to face the coming years; my husband and his mother journeying both closer and farther away from each other; the dead beneath my living feet. We were together, our hearts made more pliant, gentle, tender, by allowing ourselves to love enough to let go.

    The second snowy image is of a February day in Cambridge several years ago. Friends of ours, he a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, had been expecting their fourth child just after we had given birth to our third. Their child, a boy, was born somewhat prematurely. For the first half-day, he seemed in excellent condition. His mother cradled and nursed him. His siblings came to make the appropriate greetings. Then he began to fail. A congenital heart defect was discovered. Emergency surgery was done. The child died on his third day of life.

    Our friends, whose faith came to the fore at this time, were struck. A funeral and burial were held within a few days. The child was buried in the Catholic cemetery in Cambridge. Because the parents were students and had no permanent home, they planned to go from there to wherever work would take them. In several years they would leave Cambridge and leave behind the body of the child they had welcomed so hopefully into the world. The day of the burial was cold. It began to snow. Soft, wet flakes cascaded from the sky, covering everything in sight. The funeral procession moved through the gathering snow out to the cemetery. Rushing flakes filled the dark earthen corners of the fresh-dug grave, making a frozen lake in which the tiny coffin floated. A fine white mantle spread over the top as the coffin was lowered to the accompaniment of prayers. A more sobering form of water flowed that day than had immersed my son on the day of baptism.

    Not all images of letting go are so gentle. Others are more fearful: a family member missing, killed in a car accident, lost on the city streets of America to an unknown fate, estranged, dead of an overdose, suicide. Still others reflect a more normal experience of letting go that nonetheless challenges us: a child moving out, going away to college, getting married, making decisions a parent would not have made, children becoming parents themselves, parents aging, moving away. No matter what the scenario, letting go is a matter of reforming the heart that leads us deeper into the life of our God who is love.

    To return to the story of our sons baptism, I must add that, to our associate pastors credit, he and I did have several very fruitful, if heated, discussions about the incident at the morning liturgy. And he genuinely heard my pain when I said that our church rarely looks to the model of the family when it speaks "welcoming". Rarely does a parish genuinely welcome its own children or teach them to embrace one another with anything even approaching the warmth of a parents arms. Rarely are families given a language or a sense of the spiritual lessons to be culled from parenthood. Rarely does the church speak to us of the heart of flesh that is being shaped within the deepest recesses of our being by our very family. Rarely is the intimate attachment that re-creates our hearts in the image of Gods own unconditional love affirmed. Being family is a matter of hearts stretched and torn to love beyond our own selves. To welcome and then to let go of each other is to love like and allow oneself to be loved by God.


Sacred Dwelling: A Spirituality of Family Life