On Sunday, October 4, the Synod on the Family convened in Rome. As we pray, with trust in the Lord, for real help for the family from the Fathers of our Church, we should do something else as well. The strengthening of the Catholic family must come not just from new directives from Rome, but also from families themselves. You and I, together with our families, can help change the outlook of the Catholic family for centuries to come. Today I issue a call that is the call of Pope John Paul II, “Family, become what you are!” (Familiaris consortio no. 17). I issue a call for contemplative families.
God has been putting this on my heart more and more. I hear from mothers who want to teach their children to pray, but don’t know how. From women whose husbands have abandoned the family and who are trying to raise godly children on their own. From grandparents who grieve that their grandchildren are not being raised in the faith. I do not need to tell you the challenges that face the family in the twenty-first century. You are the very ones who are facing them.
My dream is to see a renewal of the authentically Catholic contemplative life, but not just in monasteries. I dream to see it in families.
A new model for families
In the Middle Ages, the contemplative life was found among the hermits, monks, and nuns. This tradition reached its height in the teaching of St. Teresa of Avila. Then with the seventeenth century came St. Francis de Sales. He brought the contemplative life out into the world, directing individual lay men and women to immerse themselves in the Gospel, even while living out their vocation.
In the nineteenth century, Blessed Louis Martin sought to enter a monastery and was turned away. Separately, Azelie Guerin, as she was then, sought to enter a convent and was also turned away. The two later married and established something new. They established a contemplative family.
I know many lay men and women who desire a more contemplative life for their families. Some of them have moved near monasteries. Others have joined communities that seek to spread a monastic spirit to those living in the world. I myself was part of the Secular Order for Discalced Carmelites for seventeen years, starting when I was single.
As I married and had children, I found that the Rule that I had been able to follow as a single person became increasingly difficult to fulfill. It conflicted with the duties and obligations of my vocation as wife and mother. I began to understand why most of my Carmelite brothers and sisters were men and women whose children were grown. Eventually I had to leave Carmel. But my desire for a contemplative life did not wane. I thought then, as I do now, that the contemplative life should be available to parents of young children as well as to singles and older adults.
How can we live this out? How can families live the contemplative life as families, not trying to copy the life of cloistered religious, which would place on their shoulders obligations they could not fulfill without neglecting the duties of their vocations? This is the question I wish to explore, the question I would ask you to help me answer.
Religious communities are built on the model of the family with a father and brothers or mother and sisters. Should we build the family in turn on the model of the cloister? Can we not instead build up our own model of contemplative life, a life that flows from and supports the vocation of marriage, rather than adding unrealistic obligations to the ones God has already given us?
My house shall be a house of prayer
Fr. Peyton famously said, “The family that prays together, stays together.” With Blessed Louis and Zelie Martin as our models and patrons, let us begin with praying as a family. Let us pray the family Rosary, not just teaching our children the words of the prayer, but teaching them to meditate on the mysteries and to say each word with love and attention. Let us teach them to sanctify their meals with the Table Blessing. Let us pray as a family every morning or evening or both.
This is the beginning. But if this is all we do, I fear that we may become like the one in the proverb who gives a man a fish. We feed our children for the day. We pray with them and nourish them while they are with us. But what happens when they leave our homes, when they live on their own, with no family to support them in a daily Rosary? What then?
We must teach them to fish. Teach them to find their own nourishment to sustain them throughout their lives. We must teach them to pray. And by this I mean especially to teach them mental prayer.
The Church has a long tradition of mental prayer. If it is not passed down from one generation to the next, it risks being lost. We can teach our children to prayerfully read the Scriptures, listening to the voice of God speaking through His Word and responding to it with love. We can also teach them to practice the presence of God. Through these two practices, as well as growth in virtue, we can help them prepare for the gift of supernatural contemplation, an ever-deepening intimacy with God. This is the meaning of the contemplative family.
Mary taught Jesus to pray
The Catechism tells us that Jesus learned to pray from his Mother (2599). As fathers and mothers, it is our responsibility to teach our children to pray. We cannot abdicate. We cannot depend on schools or religious education programs to do this most important work for us. We must be active in teaching our children the way to intimacy with God.
Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher. He had disciples, students. He taught them to pray by His example, by going aside regularly to spend time alone with His Father. We too must take time alone with God each day and let our children know how important this time is for us. He taught His disciples the Our Father. We must teach our children vocal prayer. He taught them to gather together in prayer in His name. We must gather in prayer as a family. He offered Himself as the supreme sacrifice to God, and invited us to share in that sacrifice in the Holy Eucharist. We must teach our children the importance of the Mass and reverence for the Eucharist.
I would like to begin to join together with other families pursuing the contemplative life as families. God alone knows where this will lead. If you would like to join me, please pledge your participation in a comment below. And if you have a blog that is focused on holiness for families, please provide the link. I may want to share some of your posts with my readers in the future. I hope to begin allowing guests to post on this topic. Then spread the word, so that other families may become what God made them to be.
God bless you and your family!