The Universal Call to Holiness: Five Kids and a Goldendoodle
I begin this post, as I sometimes like to do, with an admission. As I thunder and bluster about the bourgeois worldliness of the modern Church, and the need for all of us to take up the universal call to holiness, I have harbored in my heart a smoldering doubt about whether or not I am a hypocrite, or worse, a fraud. I don’t mean a fraud like some infomercial huckster selling air fryers (fried means fried, as in hot oil), but the more academic fraudulence of a scholar so caught up in an idea – – however true that idea might be – – that he forgets to submit it to the existential verification of his own life. I started this blog in order to be blunt, even brutal, about our cultural and ecclesial crisis, but also to be equally unsparing with myself. And so I want to be clear: I live a materially comfortable life and I always have. I have never been a wealthy man by American standards and have always lived paycheck to paycheck with very little money, if any, in savings. Still, I have never gone “without” and my pot-belly attests to my ready access to Cheetos and Chips Ahoy cookies, not to mention my nightly bourbon, while I survey YouTube on my IPad for all the latest on intelligent parrots and the most recent Bigfoot sightings. Indeed, for me, unlike millions of truly poor people around the world, a “food crisis” consists of the realization at 5:00 AM that we are out of half and half for my morning coffee – – a crisis that leads immediately to me climbing into our old Mini Cooper to drive furiously, and contrary to all of the laws of God and man, to the nearest Quickie Mart to purchase the magic elixir. And if the Quickie Mart is out of half and half then for me that constitutes proof positive that God does not exist.
Furthermore, and not to put too fine a point on it, we did not start our Catholic Worker Farm until we were empty nesters and it was safe to launch out into more precarious financial waters. And by “safe” I mean we were now free of the responsibility of making sure my daughter was raised in a materially secure environment. My wife and I were discussing this just the other day and reached the conclusion that it is precisely the pressure of making sure that your children “fit in” to their broader socio-economic milieu that leads to most of our compromises with worldliness. I could be wrong about this, of course, but I am certainly guilty as charged in this regard and refrained from “inflicting” upon my daughter my own desire for a more radical Catholic existence. I thought this would be “unfair” to her and sought instead to make sure that her life was as bourgeois as that of her social peers. What this attitude bespeaks, sadly, is that in my mind the boilerplate for what constitutes “being fair” was the default mode of suburban, bourgeois living and that somehow living a more radical Catholic life was something potentially harmful. Apparently, the dogma does live loudly within me, but not the dogmas of my faith, but rather those of secular modernity.
The very next day I received an email from a reader of my blog named Victor who raised exactly this point. He has graciously allowed me to share it with you:
“A few personal reflections, purely from introspection, on “bourgeois Catholicism” that I thought I’d share:
Thinking about my own recent past, I have found the growth of an unconscious bourgeois impulse since getting married (four years ago; I’m fairly young). This is not because my wife is bourgeois – she grew up in a poor immigrant household – but because within me, this new sense of responsibility for the material well-being of someone else almost overnight made material/monetary concerns take a more important place in my heart… but I have become conscious of the need to care for the family spiritual well-being as well.
-I believe that there is some legitimate tension there; the impulse of a man to provide for his family is a good one, by and large, though like any good impulse it can become perverse. But I think this is where there can be legitimate difference between the monastic and married vocations… the difference is likely more nuanced than the “way of the commandments” and the “way of perfection” dichotomy that you mentioned, but I do think that there is, in fact, a difference. I think the married person is, necessarily and rightly, more concerned with the material things in his pursuit of the well-being of his family, but that he must remain vigilant to prevent the desire to provide from becoming a desire to possess.”
“I have been thinking about the above a lot lately because my wife is pregnant (thanks be to God!). I have the desire (good, I think) to ensure that my child grows up in a materially safe and secure environment, and I mentally wrestle with how to square this with the desire to ensure that I don’t get so wrapped up with finding the best school district that I neglect the more urgent requirement for spiritual nourishment. I have generally concluded that I need to learn to live with some of this tension – perhaps uncomfortably, since discomfort will prevent complacency and force me to examine my conscience and motives regularly – and that such tension is actually just a feature of being a pilgrim creature in a material creation that God saw was “good” but which fell through sin, and will one day be redeemed.”
This wonderfully honest email reminded me as well of a private Facebook message I received a few months back from a former student of mine who is a very good guy and a devout Catholic. He asked me if I had any practical suggestions on how to live a more authentically Catholic life in the midst of this world-gone-mad. And so I sent him an article I had written on Dorothy Day and the call to holiness lived through a life of voluntary poverty. He wrote back: “Ugh. How can I do this?? How does one live the ideals of Dorothy Day when you have five kids and a Goldendoodle??” It struck me at that moment that perhaps I had not been clear enough about our need to transpose the principles embraced by Dorothy Day into the unique register of our own lives. Therefore, I want to emphasize that I in no way expect people, least of all myself, to simply imitate in every detail the specific contours of Dorothy’s vocation. That is not only impossible for most of us, for a host of various legitimate reasons, but also undesirable insofar as we all have our own unique vocations to live out in the kaleidoscopic variety that God has provided. Nor do I think that it is necessary for all of us to live like monks or to take on a life of financial destitution.
And so I told my former student that as far as I could tell he was already living a life of Christian sacrifice that is analogous to Dorothy’s since he had made the decision to have a large family and to take on the task of the daily grind of employment in order to provide for them. His wife is also a former student of mine at DeSales who willingly took on the bodily pains and degradations associated with pregnancy and who now has given up the freedom of youth and the allure of a carefree and affluent life, in order to nurture her children properly. Such is the vocation of marriage and why it is a true sacrament, not just in terms of the fidelity of husband and wife mirroring the fidelity of Christ to His Church, but also in the very literal death to self that raising a large family requires. The key requirement, therefore, in battling the siren song of the false Gospel of Mammon, isn’t that we mirror the complete material poverty of someone like Dorothy Day or Francis of Assisi, but that we choose a life lived radically for others which will, all on its own, generate the needed moderation in our appetite for material possessions. Because one cannot live radically for others while pursuing at the same time wealth and pleasure as the chief goals of life. And therein lies the key: all of us are sinners, most of all me, and we all fall short of the sanctity we desire, but if our goal is to live for others in the regime of Christ’s grace, the pursuit of financial security above all else will recede until it dissipates into a faded memory of the folly of our youth.
But there is also something else that is instructive here: Children. Lots of children. One of the oddities of modern American suburban life is that the smaller our families became the larger our houses grew. I too was one of five children and I grew up in a cracker box of a tiny house where we had one bathroom and all of us boys (three of us) had to bunk together in a makeshift “bedroom” my dad had cobbled together in the basement with blankets for walls and a carpet remnant he bought used from some sketchy carpet outlet store. And such was the plight of almost everyone who lived in my neighborhood: big families living closely together in small homes. The homes were small because that is what people with large families could afford. Most mothers were stay at home moms in those days. Choices were made in favor of children over material comfort and the sacrifices that large families entailed. Nobody waited until all of their financial ducks were lined up before they started having children. I understand that today far more people go to college and thus delay marriage until they have a chosen career started. But even still, there has been a palpable shift in emphasis over the past fifty years away from large families and toward much, much smaller families that you “can afford.”
But rest assured of one thing. My parents could not “afford” their five kids. Nor could anyone else really in those days, but they chose that path nevertheless. My father was a fireman and made very little money. And on his days off he worked a second job to make a little extra cash to support the kids he could not “afford”. I have vivid memories of my father coming home after having been up all night fighting a fire in subzero temperatures puking into the toilet from all of the smoke he had ingested and from sheer exhaustion, only to grab a quick bite to eat before heading out the door for his factory job that involved menial and boring labor. And then, on his one day off a week, when I am sure all he wanted to do was sleep, he took us all fishing, or to my grandparent’s home in Omaha, or to McDonalds as a “treat”. One of my siblings, my younger sister Francis, was born with a very severe heart defect and was extremely ill most of the time which consumed my mother’s energies and ate away at her soul. And when our beloved Francis eventually passed away following surgery at age 5 the grief of my parents was a lacerating experience that only a parent can understand. If I had experienced a similar tragedy as a parent I would have curled up into a fetal position and remained there for years, before simply expiring in a world- weary despondence. But my parents soldiered-on since there were still four other children to care for. School lunches still had to be packed and work still made demands. I marvel now, really marvel, at their sacrifice and their courage. My father is now 87 and my mother 84. And yet they still bleed that wound every day.
My point in this autobiographical excursion is that the path followed by my parents and others of their generation is the path of the counsels whether it is recognized as such or not. They did not live in a monastery and they did not run a soup kitchen in the Bowery and they did not protest in the streets for more worker’s rights. All of those things are good and holy to be sure, but the death to self they entail are often less than what is asked of any parent who struggles to pay the light bill and who must care for sick or troublesome children. And that is the remedy for the worldliness that afflicts the Church today – – a death to self in a life lived radically for others in the shadow of the cross. It is a measure of how far removed from the world I just described – – the world of larger families and the sacrifices they entail – – when people raise their eyebrows quizzically and wonder how in the world it is possible to pay heed to our Lord’s condemnation of Mammon (not just its pursuit either, but its possession) in a manner consonant with “modern life”. An earlier generation of parents would have needed no such tutoring. They knew from lived experience that parenthood=Golgotha.
However, I hasten to add that I am NOT condemning those who have small families. Everyone must walk in their own shoes and all lives are different. There are often very sound reasons for limiting the number of children in your family and I am not here to judge anyone, especially since I myself have only one child. And some couples cannot have children at all. However, what I am saying is that we only progress in the spiritual life when our moral commitment to live a life for others is not just one more “lifestyle choice” that we can abandon whenever we want to move on to the next phase of my “life journey”. And this is why the most existentially honest moral choices are the ones that bind us to the needs of others in unavoidable ways. Preeminent among such choices is the choice to have a large family or to bind yourself to the Church via priesthood, or the religious life. There is the old cliché “the ties that bind” for a reason. And bindings often constrict and hurt. But it is precisely in such constrictions that true freedom and liberation are born.
I attend an Anglican Ordinariate parish. My pastor, Father Eric Bergman, has ten children with the 11th on the way. And he is the best pastor I have ever had. I cannot help but think that the two things are related. I have had excellent celibate pastors as well and I do not think the Church should end mandatory celibacy. But the one thing Father Bergman has in common with the many fine celibate priests I have known is that spirit of sacrifice for the sake of the other. The spilling out of one’s innards, of the viscera of your life, out of love for those for whom you are responsible. Of such spilled viscera are saints made. And that is what Dorothy and Peter were on about.
True sanctity never develops when we parse out our sacrifices in manageable units. As I have written elsewhere, we do console ourselves with the soothing balm of a thousand small “crosses” that are more manageable and can fit into our lifestyle. But what that means is that they aren’t really crosses at all, but the appalling opposite: narcissistic play acting at “religion” in a degraded form of Pascal’s wager where we convince ourselves that if we can at least imitate “sacrifice” in manageable bits, that means we are “sacrificing”. Or, at the least, to convince ourselves that if we keep play acting at being a “man for others” then maybe we will be someday, despite the voluminous evidence to the contrary. Like Peter Sellers in “Being There”: we like to watch. We approach life as a spectator, which is to say we approach God as a spectator, which is to say, we do not approach God at all.
But I bring up the Ordinariate parish for another reason as well. Because in this parish there are many, many large families. So many in fact that the parish opened a home schooling cooperative a few years back (Maria Kaupas Academy) in order to accommodate not only the large families but also the desire of those parents to educate their children alongside of other children whose families shared their faith. These parents understand that you cannot throw your children into the cultural septic tank of our society and then expect them to come home excrement free. You can shut off your TV but you cannot shut off your culture. There are, of course, no guarantees that your children will retain the faith no matter what you do. Free will is a funny bird. But to return to the email from Victor, I think it is true to say that in order to live out the evangelical counsels as a married person with children it is necessary to find a faith community that is the central focus of your family life, and not simply one compartmentalized aspect of your life, confined to one hour on Sundays at a typical suburban parish filled with people with whom you share no bonds of common aspiration with regard to the totalizing demands of the Gospel. This is why my wife and I, though both cradle Latin rite Catholics, joined the Ordinariate parish. We are now, as I said, empty nesters, but I am also now an old, broken down, maladroit curmudgeon given to bouts of melancholy who needs this community of faith like never before. And do not be afraid to “parish shop”. The stakes are too high to “settle” for something less, as the tsunami of cultural paganism sweeps away everything in its path.
In this rambling and very personal blog post I am trying to write my way into an answer to Victor’s question. I probably did not succeed. The insight I seek to communicate is a simple one: in order to avoid the fruit of the poisonous tree of bourgeois mediocrity it is sufficient to bind yourself to the life giving tree of the path of the cross. You can pursue that path as Dorothy did, or you can pursue it through the medium of an oblative parenthood or a deeply devoted priesthood. But whatever path we choose we cannot shrink from the task. The fact that we all struggle with this is not evidence of the ideal’s impossibility or goodness, but of just how difficult it is to swim upstream against cultural forces that want us all to adopt a spirituality that is as tasteless and empty as eating rice cakes. I myself truly desire sanctity and I truly desire to live a life of voluntary poverty, ascetical discipline, and contemplative prayer. But it is always short-circuited and thwarted by my own execrable weaknesses – – weaknesses born of an addiction to comfort caused by a lifetime of ingrained living in that trajectory, in that regime. And is this not why we need the example of the saints? Of people like Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin? To prick our consciences and to show us what is possible?
And therein is the rub. Modernity is so totalizing in its reach that it robs us of the very ability to imagine differently. To think that something else is possible. It suffocates and snuffs out every alternative candle. I have lit many such alternative candles in my life. They have all been snuffed. But I keep lighting them. You should too, and parenthood, far from being a distraction from living the life of the counsels, is the brightest candle of all.