It’s a refrain that occasionally seeps into church circles—a parish Bible study, a retreat, that sort of thing—when getting to know new people. When characterizing their home life, a devout mom or dad might say, “I’m just trying to get my family to heaven.”
Yes, this is technically true. A major purpose of marriage and family life is to grow in holiness. However, there’s an unintended shadow side to this, one that seems inaccessible and, ultimately, alienating.
“Oh, well, I’m not that religious,” a perfectly fine Catholic parent might tell herself. “We don’t pray the rosary as a family. We don’t do a lot of extras for Lent.”
The list goes on and doesn’t get any prettier: My wife and I got testy with each other while discussing insurance plans. Insurance plans! I sent my preschooler to his room for hitting his sister unprovoked. Then I got mad at his sister for leaving her art supplies all over the floor. My wife crabbed at me for not emptying the dishwasher like she asked. I snarked at her for some predictably wrong action taken by an in-law.
Anyone who relates to even a couple of these points and tries to be a good Catholic knows that family life often doesn’t feel like it has much to do with holiness. But the happy news is that the problem is not so much a lack of holiness as a lack of understanding—even by those nice folks in Bible study—of what holiness means and looks like in practice.
As Pope Francis continues to call our attention to family life, most recently in the Year Amoris Laetitia Family (which began March 19), the conversion he seeks from us is to apply a little mercy in how we view the messy family lives of others as well as our own. This means giving the rough edges the benefit of the doubt. I’m not ready to fully embrace the pope’s folksy, problematic language of “sometimes plates can fly!” in describing marital conflicts, but there’s a strange grace to having a partner willing to call you out when you need it.
There’s a strange grace to having a partner willing to call you out when you need it.
When my wife stops and says, “Really, dear?” she generally doesn’t have to explain. I usually know what I’m doing, the suboptimal space I’m occupying, the sloppy posture I’m maintaining. It’s almost assuredly my problem, a situation in which my contribution is no longer a life-giving one.
What strikes me about this dynamic is how much it has in common with our other most important relationship: that between us and God. God loves us lavishly, unconditionally. God shares our joys and sorrows, is immeasurably patient, but also has ways—subtle and not—of letting us know when we’ve stopped striving and have started coasting, indulging, enabling, or otherwise taking advantage of a situation.
While the comparison “my wife is like God” is even more inaccessible than the “trying to get my family to heaven” line, it’s helpful that this comparison actually involves God and is about growth in literal holiness. After all, God is supposed to be wrapped up in this. A couple that only relates to each other is still turned inward. For Catholics, love is trinitarian. God is there, drawing us ever closer, hewing those rough edges.
“Day after day, friendship in marriage requires us to overcome self-centeredness and move toward other-centeredness,” write Bridget Burke Ravizza and Julie Donovan Massey in a reflection on their “Project Holiness” in Sex, Love and Families (Liturgical Press). The project, which they sourced through interviews with dozens of Catholic married couples, offers a radical jolt to perceptions of holiness.
Holiness—found in family life or elsewhere—is not some abstract, pietistic thing. It is an area of growth that other people in our lives can foster, even unintentionally. When my wife calls me on my nonsense, it may be a lapse of patience for her. But for me it’s the graced realization that I’m not as clever as I think I am, that I’m not being the partner I should be, that I need to be less selfish and move beyond myself. To extend the examples to raising kids, nothing fosters growth in humility and patience like realizing that I can be undone by a 4-year-old who ignored my repeated requests to not tug on the cat.
Holiness––found in family life or elsewhere––is not some abstract, pietistic thing.
Pope Francis describes this dynamic in his 2016 apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). He writes, “The fraternal and communal demands of family life are an incentive to growth in openness of heart and thus to an ever fuller encounter with the Lord.” I trust a pope with a sprawling extended family of cousins, nieces, and nephews to understand this.
Pope Francis delves into the mechanics of holiness-building in everyday life in his 2018 apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate (On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World). He explains, “At times, life presents great challenges. Through them, the Lord calls us anew to a conversion that can make his grace more evident in our lives.” The result is that “we shape by many small gestures the holiness God has willed for us, not as men and women sufficient unto ourselves but rather ‘as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.’ ”
The same goes for a wife who’s done listening to the same excuses as well as a husband who responds graciously to receiving a little bit of correction.
As we invite God into our lives and call on divine help, we begin to extend that invitation posture toward others beyond ourselves. The call to holiness is ultimately not some merely devotional thing. Dorothy Day’s intense devotion to the Eucharist led her out to the streets to work for justice and peace. If we insist that we’re holding marriage and family life to the standard of “trying to get each other to heaven,” that cannot absolve us from the commission to go out into the world.
The rough edges of family life shouldn’t lead us to thinking we are inferior in holiness.
The rough edges of family life shouldn’t lead us to thinking we are inferior in holiness. Really, they should reassure us that God is with us. God was incarnated into the same world that we inhabit, with its chaotic moments, draining schedules, and fraying nerves. Seriously, what was St. Joseph deciding not to say all those times he stayed silent? My experience is he probably had to work at it. And his family was the holy family.
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