Several years ago, some priest friends were locked in debate over the question of whether twins bore a special spiritual connection. Some genuinely interesting anecdotes were offered. Educated opinions were put up for scrutiny. Scholastic distinctions were made. Disagreements were formed. In short order, we were going nowhere fast and what’s more, things were slowly getting heated. What makes all this even less inspiring is the fact that it also took place in that soulless 21st-century forum, a sorry replacement for encounter and true dialogue, the “group chat” via SMS.
Sidestepping the somewhat tantalizing though perhaps prideful possibility of being a Grand Synthesizer, one brother (me) introduced the thought that maybe Scripture could offer some food for thought. Was it not interesting, he (I) noted, how much Jesus downplayed the connections and obligations of family life? “Let the dead bury the dead!” (Lk 9:60) And even more pointedly, Matthew 12: 46-50:
While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”
He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
As a verified rabbi, Jesus was no stranger to using hyperbole strategically in conversation. It is certainly present in his discourse about family and one’s obligations to it, but the startling truth implicit in his statements is clear. The deepest bond, the ultimate bond, is faith, the loving submission to the will of the Father of us all. Certainly, twins may share a special natural and even spiritual connection, but what value is this if it is not rooted in the living waters?
Our subject matter is the communion of the saints. A deep bond, united by the ultimate bond of faith, connects the pilgrim church on earth, the church being purified in purgatory and the church in glory. These three “churches” are better referred to as the three “states”of the One Church, the One Body, human and divine, visible and mystical. (CCC 954) In short, those who raise their eyes to the Father and say with Christ Jesus, “Abba!”, are a new and deeper and lasting family passing from one state of glory to the next. This is not merely a theological point. Have you not felt this with certain people? A familiarity, a warmth, an ultimateunderstanding and harmony underneath words and gestures?
I have often reflected on this point and wondered, “Does belonging to this family of divine love do a disservice to our family bonds here on earth?” Sacred Scripture definitely presents a dialectic: we are commanded to “honor thy parents” and yet, as if moved by an unquenchable fire, Jesus tells us “I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother.” (Mt 10:35) These are strong words! They remind me of C.S. Lewis’ rule in “”: love ceases to be a demon only when it ceases to be a God. Must Jesus destroy the idol of “Family Is Everything” to make way for the disciple to proclaim with Paul “to me life is Christ and death is gain”? (Phil 1:21) Value formation and transformation, and indeed conversion, in the end, might not be a comfortable business.
If we could drive this point even further home, does it not strike you how Scripture time and again seems to suggest that we are both orphans and adopted? Is Grandma’s old joke coming full circle?! (For better or worse, your grandparents may have had a milder sense of humor.) On this score, Scripture repeatedly invites us to a profound examination of consciousness and identity and memory: what of our family life? Family life determines so much of who we are – nature and nurture – but as the decades pass by, it leaves us orphans, empty nesters, unsatisfied, painfully longing, hurt and at worst, deeply scarred. Ungrateful, children leave mom and dad behind. Sorrowful, they must watch their children do the same to them. Just as they begin to re-appreciate mom and dad, dementia sets in before the greater crossing of the line. All this to drive the point home: family life is an intermediate, and not an ultimate value.
Into this space of being orphans, a voice breaks. We become adopted, chosen, “Follow me.” We are introduced into a new family. Friendship sees us through as the dream of happiness in this life gives way to the divine dream of joy beyond the veil, over the mountain. “I have called you friends.” “I am preparing a place for you.” The Christian promise that I exist in a communion of saints, that friendship and intercession bear me up on my pilgrim journey, is a promise that cannot fail to bring peace and a deep consolation. We will one day meet the saints we so much admire. We will see the ways they helped us and how it all fit into the Father’s plan of glory. People now unknown to us, in some hidden place, lovingly accept penance for us, if even through a vague prayer, “Father, I offer this up to you in love…Use it.”
If we believe these truths, they would change the way we see family now. Perhaps we would become less anxious and more trusting. Maybe we would become less controlling of space and more hopeful in the wisdom that time imparts. As I am fond of reminding people in family crisis, the devil is a specialist in the short term. Unfortunately for him, God is a specialist in the long run. Our communion with him – in the pilgrim, purifying and glorified states – ensures that in the end, all things work to the good for those who love him. And in loving him first, all our other loves become rightly ordered.