The Word Among Us

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The Vocation to Family Life

Family life is an other-centered vocation, constantly changing because children are always growing.

By: Tim and Sue Muldoon

The Vocation to Family Life: Family life is an other-centered vocation, constantly changing because children are always growing. by Tim and Sue Muldoon

In Christian tradition, a vocation is a way of living rooted in the understanding that the Lord has gifted us with talents that we are to put in service to his kingdom. Consider Paul’s reflection on the various vocations within the Church:

As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. . . . Some people God has designated in the church to be, first, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then, mighty deeds; then, gifts of healing, assistance, administration, and varieties of tongues. . . . Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts. (1 Corinthians 12:12, 28, 31)

Notice the way that Paul points to the different manifestations of God’s gifts, all of which work together to build up Christ’s body. Elsewhere he critiques attitudes that diminish the importance of some gifts: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you’” (1 Corinthians 12:21). The law of the Church, he suggests, is complementarity. What we see in contemporary society, on the contrary, is often a law of competition, one that has unfairly impacted women.

If a vocation is a living expression of fidelity to the God who has given us the gifts of our very selves, then there are as many vocations as there are people. Traditionally, the word vocation has referred to a particular form of lived discipleship: specifically, a particular form of the celibate, vowed life of nuns, priests, monks, or brothers. But the vocation to family life is another form of religious life, rooted in vows before God that call us to consecrate our families toward God’s unfolding project in the world.

Today we encounter families in a variety of circumstances. We know priests who have been put in situations where they have had responsibility for raising a child—one through the death of a sibling, another through the adoption of an orphan without other choices. We know single men and women who have been moved to enter the adoption process, feeling called to give of themselves even in spite of a longtime desire to find a spouse. We have friends who are widows and widowers and who soldier on bravely after the death of a spouse and provide love and support to their children. We know people who have divorced and who still do everything they can to love their children and provide what they can. In all these cases, we see something of what Christ meant when he said that there is no greater love than the willingness to lay down one’s life for a friend. Many parents lay down their lives for their children.

Those stories highlight for us anew what the call to marriage represents in the life of the Church: a call to partnership with another person whose complementary gifts offer children perspective on what it means to be a human being formed in the image of God. In recent decades, with changing attitudes toward marriage in modern societies, we can understand this approach to marriage in sharper contrast. Gone are the days when the path to marriage was practically a foregone conclusion, with “spinsters” or “bachelor uncles” being the anomaly. Today the choice to undertake a sacramental marriage must be more deliberate. For while fewer Catholics are being married or staying married in the Church, those that do are more likely to give serious thought to what God desires from this form of vowed life.

In the Rite of Marriage, husbands and wives vow to “accept children lovingly from God and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church” and to be faithful to each other “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” The language of these vows is sacred, enjoining couples to consider family life as ordained by God and part of his unfolding plan for the welfare of all people.

Historically, the vocation to family was understood to flow out of the vocation to married life. For many, that connection is still a lived reality, but for others, as we’ve noted, the reality is different. In all cases, though, the vocation to family means a readiness to understand that one’s happiness is intimately tied up in the happiness of others in the family. Work, no matter which model one embraces, cannot be an exclusive good in itself. It must also be an instrumental good, in the sense that it provides a means by which one provides for the family. Even in cases when one does work for the enjoyment of it—let’s imagine a case of someone who is wealthy and need not work—the call to work still fulfills emotional, creative, or social needs that spill over into one’s family life. Family life is an other-centered vocation, constantly changing because children are always growing. And their growth means that even from one year to the next, the texture of life undergoes great change.

In our experience, raising children is an invitation to an often profoundly meditative way of being-in-time. Whereas the workday ticks by with predictable regularity, punctuated by meetings, tasks, and to-do lists, family life exists in a different kind of time. Especially when our kids were younger, it felt as if we had to take off the workaday world’s approach to time as if it were an overcoat and enter a new world with them. Fredrick Buechner puts it beautifully:

For a child, time in the sense of something to measure and keep track of, time as the great circus parade of past, present, and future, cause and effect, has scarcely started yet and means little because for a child all time is by and large now time and apparently endless. What child, while summer is happening, bothers to think much that summer will end? What child, when snow is on the ground, stops to remember that not long ago the ground was snowless? It is by its content rather than its duration that a child knows time, by its quality rather than its quantity—happy times and sad times. (The Sacred Journey)

Buechner puts his finger on one of the great gifts of the family vocation: God’s invitation to dwell within his time in a way reminiscent of our own childhoods. It is very easy—and always tempting—to treat time as a commodity when we are busy. Even now, as we write this, we have one eye on the clock for the next item on the day’s to-do list. In a busy life, scheduling happens because of the desire to accomplish many things—many good things!—especially when they have to do with cultivating important relationships. (In the coming hours, for example, we are looking forward to spending some one-on-one time with our children.)

Yet even in the midst of these demands, it is possible to discern God’s voice saying, in effect, the words of Jesus to the disciples when they found themselves getting too busy: “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” The Evangelist Mark describes the scene: “People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat” (6:31). Jesus’ invitation to rest comes after he has sent the disciples off to preach in various villages and towns in the vicinity: he has, in a word, commissioned them. As parents, we too have been commissioned: that is, “co-missioned,” sent with God’s Holy Spirit to do the works of mercy in our families. Yet even in the midst of this vocation, Jesus calls to us to rest a while: to dwell in that sacred time away from the constantly ticking clock of our adult lives.

Excerpted from Reclaiming Family Time: A Guide to Slowing Down and Savoring the Gift of One Another (The Word Among Us Press, 2017) by Tim and Sue Muldoon. Available at wau.org/books

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