As a young seminarian, I spent a summer working in a retreat house. The priest directing the house had a curious hobby—he polished stones.
During long, solitary walks he would watch for small stones that looked interesting and, when he found one that looked like it might have value, he would bring it back to his workshop. There he had a small barrel-drum which was itself, filled with small, very hard stones.
He would take the stone he had found, his potential gem, and place it inside the barreldrum, add some water, seal the drum tightly, and turn on an electric motor which would slowly rotate the drum. After several weeks of this, he would open the drum and search for his little stone.
Many times, he would find that it had disappeared, the weeks of grinding had reduced it to gravel and sand. If the stone, however, had value he would find it now, polished, gleaming, a gem, with all its rough edges rubbed off and all useless gravel and sand knocked out of it.
There is something in that image about family life. There used to be an expression, popular in spiritual literature, which said: Families and communities are schools of charity. I remember reading that as a novice many years ago and, very naively and very badly, misunderstanding it.
My simple thought then was: “Yes, that makes sense! When you live within a family or some other community, it gives you a lot of chances to practice patience, forgiveness and understanding . . . as you deal with other people’s faults!”
How wrong I was! What that expression suggests is no, first of all, that we grow in charity and maturity by putting up patiently with other people’s faults, but that real relationship, actual interaction within family and community, deflates our fantasies, makes us see reality, punctures our narcissism and against every protest, denial, and rationalization we can muster, shows us how selfish and immature we often are.
We cannot live long within any community—marriage, family, religious community or genuine friendship—without becoming aware of our faults and narrowness. We either begin to grow up or we leave.
Sadly, today the temptation is most often to leave. The prevalent theory is that we grow mature by growing away, especially away from the family and community that, by circumstance, we find ourselves within. The idea is that we will be—happy and available for real family and friendship—if we are free spirits, soaring, unattached, unencumbered.
I remember a young nun to whom I once served as spiritual director. Before entering the convent, she had lived alone in her own apartment and was quite popular. She had many friends and was, to her own mind, quite a mature, giving and unselfish person.
Not long after joining a religious community, where she lived in close quarters with other novices and those directing the novitiate, she began to experience major problems within her relationships. She was often at odds with her peers and her directors who, tactfully and otherwise, told her that she was somewhat self-centred and immature. She was particularly frustrated because, often times, the tensions arose over very petty things.
“It must be the community that’s causing this,” she told me during one of our sessions, “I was never a petty, selfish person when I lived alone!”
Then, when I asked why she continued to stay in the convent, if this was the case, she replied: “Because, in my better moments, I know that if I ran off now and got married probably most of the things that are happening here would begin to happen again! Some of this stuff would catch up with me again.
“When I lived alone it was lonely, but it was easier, you didn’t have to live your life under a microscope… but you could easily fool yourself too!”
What was happening to her in that community? The stone was being polished! She was being churned in the barrel-drum that’s called family, community. The other stones were knocking some rough edges off of her and rubbing her free of considerable useless gravel and sand.
It was painful and humiliating for her, but she was learning the most valuable lesson of all, how to share your life in reality as opposed to fantasy. She was in a school of charity. She was being purified.
Family and community aren’t boring, they’re terrifying; they’re too full of searing revelations, there we have no place to hide.
In family life, our selfishness and immaturities are reflected back to us through eyes that are steady and unblinking. Staying within them is often the hell that is purgatory and so leads to heaven.