The commitment and effort made to establish a family are among the most difficult to "see through" in our secular, me-first society. In the USA as a whole, one in two marriages ends in divorce within the first three years. How is an Orthodox parent to find the strength to hold firm, in faith and in love? In the article which follows, Dr. Rossi examines his own efforts, which center on our most fundamental calling as Orthodox Christians: prayer. We are directed to pray always, in all ways. Within a family, this is a vocation that every member should (and must) undertake.
by Albert S. Rossi, Ph.D.
In the "Our Father", I am taught to pray, "Thy Kingdom come," and the strong implication is (as C.S. Lewis notes) that the Kingdom can and should come here and come now, in my heart and in the world at large. The Divine Liturgy is replete with similar invitations calling everyone to enter into the Kingdom of God, here and now.
What, precisely, is the Kingdom of God? And, even more pointedly, how do I enter it? Reflecting on the meaning of the Kingdom of God by looking at St. Paul's epistles, one Orthodox theologian explains that from the human perspective and experience, "the Kingdom of God is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17). He goes on to say that my experience of the Kingdom is a special kind of joy, namely, joy which is a gift from God and often found in affliction and suffering for others. St. Paul states this clearly: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake (Colossians 1:24). This is a rather eloquent statement of what I can expect and how I am to live in our family life.
I can expect from my family, both family of origin and present family, deep joy mixed with intense suffering. Within family ties, life is often most personal and most emotional. The personal and emotional suffering may come from a brother or sister, father or mother, husband or wife, son or daughter. Of one thing I can be rather sure, that some of my family members are likely to break my heart, over and over. Any other expectations seem to be unbiblical. The suffering may come from the realization that some of my unrealistic expectations are being emphatically dashed to the ground. I may realize that my marriage partner is, unabashedly, not a living knight in shining armor or a precious princess in distress [as in Disney fairytales or other fallacies of our popular culture. - NTK]. I may gradually understand that my sister or brother is doing a whole lot of narcissistic damage to a whole lot of people. The agony might come from a deteriorating parent, from an acting-out teenager, or from a chronically-ill or alcoholic sibling. The upset may be of a more generalized and free-floating type. I may be keenly aware that much of the time the fragmentation of my home bears little resemblance to a symphony playing harmonious music. The excruciating emotional pain tears at the heart of the person(s) lives so close to my heart.
Precisely in family distress and family affliction can the New Testament message ring most real, most profound. In the family, the question "How do I enter the Kingdom of God?" finds an answer. I enter the Kingdom of God by finding joy, overflowing joy, superabundant joy, the joy found in the Holy Spirit, because of and within the heart-ripping suffering experienced and the blessings given in my family. The joy of the Holy Spirit is inextricable based upon suffering. But I am not here to look for suffering or to create it, only to live it as it enters my life. I turn from suffering to joy by accepting, embracing, and working with the reality that these persons are my family, and therefore God's family for me. My family members are weak and sinning human beings who, by definition of living in a fallen state, will wound and seriously offend me. My vocation is to live fully within this sometimes fractured and sometimes united lifestyle, love all my family members through it all, and to try to sustain the gift of a joyful disposition which is from the Spirit.
The Orthodox view of the family, then, stands in polarized opposition to the prevailing American cultural view of family. For the Orthodox Christian, a family is not primarily a group of persons who provide mutual comfort, ease, predictability, and security from loneliness. The family is not primarily a warm hearth and the smell of baking bread. The family can be those things, but hopefully it is much more. Infinitely more. Primarily, the family is a God-chosen group of persons with whom I most intimately live the life of Christ, that is the agony of Christ and the joy of the Resurrection, simultaneously at times.
Jesus' life was a sign of contradiction and, likewise, so must mine be. As life unfolds I realize I am called, within my family, to love as God loves. As this is progressively more understood, the power of the insight can be quite disarming, threatening to dismantle my defense system. This insight slowly evolves away from a me-at-the-center perspective to a family-member-at-the-center perspective. Basic questions begin to change. I can no longer ask, "When does my turn come?" or "How about my fair share?" or [as the song says] "What about me?". Now I realize that I am called to give in some areas which will be quite unrequited, or so it will seem. This might be financial, social, sexual, occupational, educational, religious, psychological, or spiritual. Of one thing I can be rather sure, that it will seem to me that in certain ways I will be giving to my family members and it is quite unreciprocated.
As the God-life grows within me toward my family members, I can also be rather certain that I will come to the point where I feel I have no more to give. Maybe I feel I'm getting older. Maybe I feel I've gone to the well once too often. Maybe I feel I'm already beyond my real love limit. Regardless of the reason, most adults arrive at the cutting edge, the flash point where they become aware that they may not have enough to give to ensure that they, and those around them, can maintain a sane lifestyle. It's an overwhelming terror to come up against the parameters, the barbed-wire fence around one's capacity to love. Adults are then "over the edge," living in a temporary state of suspended animation.
This experience may open the door, be the connection, enhance my relationship with the Infinitely Sustaining God. I am aware, cogently, that it is and has been God who, all along, is the one who has continually kept me back from going over the edge and, if I did go over the edge for a time, it was He who sustained my very life, being more present to me than I was to myself.
For me, those times of beautiful weakness (the weakness St. Paul mentions) may be times when I learn that indeed I can live and love here and now, with these flawed family members, and that I can love boundlessly. I experience this because I can yield to the infinite, wondrous love of God living through me and directed toward my family members. Precisely in my vulnerability and sheer inability can I accomplish what my love limits would not otherwise allow me to accomplish. At these moments I can experience the fullness of "casting my burdens on the Lord." At these moments I can know, with the marrow of my bones, that it is "no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me." This becomes an experience of a miracle in my life, of being personally touched by the hand of God and enabling me to love more than I ever thought was possible.
I become a sign of contradiction because I perceive, probably erroneously, that I am loving in certain ways that other members of my family are not. In reality, all of us in the family may be living signs of contradiction, living a life of love maximally within each unique personality structure. Each may be living apparently unrequited love in different ways. God's ways are not my ways. God's calling to each member of a family will be uniquely personal, and probably quite misunderstood by some other members within my family. I am called to try to live according to God's ways, not mine.
I, like everyone else in my family, have a grand task, the royal calling, the priestly vocation to pray arduously for the other members of my family, especially the alienated and alienating members. This is a no-nonsense calling which I am probably not fulfilling adequately, probably not even minimally. If I think I am, that may be the clearest sign that I am not. Abba Agathon says that prayer is the hardest of all tasks. "If we do not find prayer difficult, perhaps it is because we have not really started to pray." And Bishop Kallistos Ware continues this idea by saying, "Prayer means that each day we renew our relationship with others (family members) through imaginative empathy, through acts of practical compassion, and through cutting off of our own self-will." Prayer, as the Fathers remind us, is first and foremost a way of life. As Theophan the Recluse states, "But do not forget the chief thing, to unite the attention and mind with your heart, and remain there unceasingly, before the Lord."
I know I am called to "pray always" and I know that I am called to "love my neighbor (family member) as myself." It is also true that more than likely I grossly underestimate the real, practical, beneficial influence my prayer has on others (family members). I probably grossly underestimate the amount of love I deliver to my family members when I sincerely pray for them. As one theologian said, "Prayer is the greatest gift that one friend (family member) can offer to another." Maybe when I pray for them, I am doing as much "good" for them as putting ointment on their bruises, or buying a useful item, or being physically and mentally present when someone has the need to talk. Praying for a family member does "infinite good" in some sense for that person. Praying for a family member can also help provide me the strength to put the ointment on the bruise, buy the desired item, and be authentically present with even more graciousness. Praying for a family member can enable me to have more "imaginative empathy and practical compassion" which Bishop Ware suggests. Of all my roles in my family, I still have the most to learn about how I am called to pray for my family members.
My vocation towards my family members is, in one sense, no different from my vocation towards every other living human being. With and towards everyone, I am called to live in the Kingdom of God now, to be a sign of contradiction, to be a living pray-er. However, as I specifically focus on my family and the tremendous undertaking God has called me to accomplish, I most assuredly can get a clearer sense of my vocation in the world-at-large. In the living of my vocation in my family, I can begin to experience what St. Paul means when he said, " dying, and behold we live" (II Corinthians 6:9-10).
Dr. Albert Rossi is a professor of psychology at Pace University, Pleasantville, NY, and has a private practice in family counseling. He is a member of the OCA Department of Lay Ministries. Reprinted with permission from The Resource Handbook.
© 1997 by Orthodox Family Life and the original author(s).
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