(3rd in a 6-part series on family)

Many classical spiritual writers used to espouse this. What does it mean to say that families are schools of charity?

As a young novice, reading books by Francis de Sales and Thomas a Kempis, I thought I knew. It made simple sense: When you live in a family, the give-and-take or life that you experience there, all the quirks and selfishness you have to life with, gives you (and every other member in the family) the opportunity to learn patience, forgiveness, understanding, and every other virtue under the sun. That idea, while not entirely wrong, is not quite what people like Thomas a Kempis (The Imitation of Christ) had in mind when they said that families are schools of therapy.

What they meant is in fact very close to what might be called “the therapy of a public life.” What is this? Negatively stated, it means that if I live without enough real give-and-take within a concrete family of some kind, there will be constant dangers and dangerous deprivations in my life.

The constant dangers will include an unhealthy fantasy about who I am, an illusion about what life is all about, a selfishness in terms of not sufficiently giving myself and what I have over to others, and a paranoia about guarding myself and my freedom. The dangerous deprivations will consist in the fact that nobody is really supporting me, even as nobody is helping me really deal with my pathologies and sins.

What a healthy family does is de-fantasize us, challenge us, dispel our illusions, demand unselfishness, and help us carry our pathologies. Practically, this means that if we give ourselves over to the rhythms of family and community life, we will constantly be corrected in how we perceive ourselves, deflated in our egoism and inflated self-importance, asked to be less selfish, stretched in how we see the world, and exposed in our faults. At the same time, if the family is healthy, we will also be met at that deep place in our hearts where we need the familiar, given a home (in the real meaning of that word), and helped to deal with our sickest secrets. This latter point is especially important.

Anthropologists tell us that one of the major functions of family is to help carry the pathologies of its members. They also point out that in previous cultures, where the family unit was much stronger than today, there was much less need for private therapy than there is now. Family life was the essential therapy for its members. That is an important truth. Without family, I am truly alone before my inner sicknesses and sins. Today that is often not understood. We have a virtual library of literature on dysfunctional families. Valuable as that is, it generally fails to point out that all families and communities (save the Trinity) are dysfunctional. Thus, the question is not so much, “Is your family dysfunctional?” but rather, “how dysfunctional is it and how are we helping to carry each others’ pathologies?” Families are schools of charity – and also our primary clinics for therapy. To live in a family is to be in therapy.

Perhaps an illustration can be helpful here: Several years ago, a woman came to me seeking counselling and spiritual direction. She was middle-aged, divorced from her husband, with grown children who no longer lived with her. She felt she was missing something in life, something she once had but now could not even name. It scared her. She described things this way: “I’m slipping! I don’t know what’s happening to me, I’m not even sure exactly what I want, but I’m just not moored any more, nor growing, nor happy. I need more anchors in my life.”

I only had one session with her because she was, in fact, quite a healthy woman who didn’t need counselling, nor particularly even spiritual direction. She needed the therapy of a public life. She needed to re-enrol in a school of charity. She needed family. Healthily, she herself sensed the dangers and dangerous deprivations inherent in not having a vital enough link to a living school of charity. Thus, I didn’t refer her to any counsellor or spiritual director. Instead I referred her to the registrar of a local Catholic theological school where she enrolled, met a group of persons much like herself, began to go to Eucharist several times a week, became involved in a series of prayer, discussion, and friendship groups … and blossomed. She found the steadying she sought and countless kinds of challenge through the therapy of a public life, through a family, through a school of charity.

We need desperately family, not just to meet our needs for intimacy and companionship, but also, like rocks being polished in a grinder, to jostle us around so that our rough edges get smoothed, our fantasies get dispelled, our selfishness gets derailed, our sicknesses get some attention, and our hearts get stretched enough to let us sit at the final family-table where everyone will lovingly and healthily be able to sit with everyone else.