A fresco of the Holy Family adorns the right side altar of the Church of the Assumption in Erinsville, Ontario – the church of my childhood. Mary and Joseph stand on the porch of their home looking out to the world with their holy child in front of them, kneeling in prayer. On the opposite side is an image of St. Joseph on his deathbed, surrounded by his family. These are the images of the Holy Family that shaped me as a young Catholic. And I loved them. They presented to me a comforting ideal image of the peace that exists in a home where love – and only love – reigns. Oh, how I yearned for that peace.
It was so incredibly different from my actual experience. This summer, having spent a lot of time at our childhood home (and in this childhood church), my sisters and I did a lot of recollecting about our family life. We recalled fights over secret diary breaches, music book thefts, alliances made and broken. We looked at school pictures with the word BRAT scrawled across the face. We remembered the particular ways we tortured one another and tortured our parents! We laughed a lot at these recollections. But at the time, it was not all that funny. We were nothing like the Holy Family we gazed at each week when we went to Mass.
According to many of my teenage journal entries, I was going to prevent this sort of strife in my home when I became a parent! “When I am a mom, my home will be much more peaceful.” Ha! The naïve arrogance of the young. I tried. That is for sure. I posted signs around the house that said “Speak with kindness!” We prayed together as a family. Though, reverence in that prayer eluded us. I could never seem to prevent my children from saying grace before meals in a variety of foreign accents!
As a pastoral minister who has heard the stories of thousands of families, I have yet to meet a family substantially different. The forms vary, but the substance is the same. We try to love, but we are selfish. We strive for peace, but we quarrel. We aim for acceptance, but we reject. Family life is hard. Holiness eludes us.
That’s where these idealized images (I say idealized because I believe the Holy Family must have had their bad days, too) can help us. They point us in the right direction and provide us with a vision. They remind us that our goal is to model ourselves on that one and only truly holy family. They remind us that we can grow in holiness even if we will not achieve perfection in this life. We can be more loving, more peaceful, more accepting. We can grow… but we can only grow, if we strive. The vision of perfect peace and love in these images provides us with encouragement to do so.
Christine Way Skinner is a lay minister and author. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Theology degree from St. Francis Xavier University and a Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School. Christine loves trying to find inclusive, compelling and creative ways to pass on the church’s 2000 year old traditions. She also loves art, playing music, reading, gardening and playing board games with her children. Christine’s numerous publications can be found and purchased here.