(Fifth in a six-part series on family)

There is a story told of a Jewish farmer who, while ploughing in his field one Friday afternoon, was too distracted to notice the sun setting. Now, being a very pious man, he feared travelling on the sabbath and therefore spend the whole night and all of the next day, until sunset, in his field. Of course upon returning home the next day, he was met by an irate wife and a less-than-pleased Rabbi. The Rabbi especially chided him for his carelessness and finished his little diatribe this way: “What did you do all day in the field? Did you at least pray to God out there?” The man answered humbly, for he was a humble man: “Rabbi, I’m not a very bright man. All the prayers I knew, I said in five minutes. So what I did afterwards was just recite the alphabet over and over again. God is smart, I thought, he can make the words out of all those letters!”

This parable contains many lessons, including one about what it takes to keep a family together. Simply put, despite all of our best efforts and all the valuable things we know about family systems, we are, when we are all on our own, not able to sustain our families for very long. Too many things are beyond our control. God has to make the words! God has to give us something that we cannot give ourselves.

If that is true, and it is, then the key piece of advice we need in terms of sustaining family life has more to do with letting God work within our families than it has with attempting to create and sustain family life through our own techniques and practices, however good these might be. Families need to let God form and sustain them. How do they do this? Three practices undergird all else.

The first is family prayer. The family that prays together, stays together! This is not a soft piece of piety but a hard truth that can be empirically verified. Check it out in your own experience: If you are honest, you will admit that it is at that moment when you stopped praying together as a couple or a family that you began to lose some ground in terms of marriage and family. Certainly this is true in my own experience. When I think back on my own youth, growing up in a close family, I would single out one thing, more than anything else, that bound us together, namely, a common faith which expressed itself in family prayer. We went regularly to church as a family and, every single day, would pray the rosary (plus other prayers my parents would invariably add) together. That time of common prayer – when we would have liked to be doing anything else, when we were not talking about family things or our own concerns, when in fact we weren’t talking at all but were together in a “Quaker-type” silence – was the real glue that held us together. This was also true for many other families. Today, for the most part, we have lost the practice of family prayer, save perhaps for very brief (and rushed) prayers before meals. No wonder our families aren’t strong. A family that doesn’t pray together, regularly and at some length, will begin to dissipate.

The second underpinning to family life is chastity. This may sound curious or like a private hang-up, but, like prayer, chastity is a sine quo non for family life. This is easier to explain negatively: All lack of chastity effectively destroys family life. We see this most clearly in its strongest expressions, adultery and incest, which ravage the very foundation of family. But lack of chastity in its milder forms (pornography and lack of proper sexual respect and propriety) also despoil family. It is not incidental that chastity is included among those gifts of the Holy Spirit that lie at the basis of any long-term coming-together in family and community.

The last great non-negotiable of family life is forgiveness because it is simply impossible to be close to anyone for any length of time without seriously hurting him or her and without that person seriously hurting you. We cannot not hurt each other. The name of the game then is forgiveness. We must learn to live graciously in a situation within which life will not be fair, our feelings will often be bruised, our needs will often be neglected, and others will constantly disappoint us (even as we disappoint them). When we forgive, when we live beyond our hurts and hypersensitivities, God can enter our lives in a way that approximates what happened at the resurrection. Forgiveness is the force that rolls back the stone.

No family, however good, is able to sustain itself by its own efforts. God sustains families. God makes the words. Our job – through family prayer, chastity, and forgiveness – is simply to properly recite the alphabet.