By Albert S. Rossi, PhD
Our God-given family is our great source of joy and satisfaction. Our God-given family is our source of great frustration and anguish. In this sense, our family is our garden, giving delicious fruit and nutrition as well as intense labor and cultivation.
Christ and His cross are the axis of family life. What, as a Christian, can I expect from my life in my family? We can expect death and resurrection, crosses and crowns. In both our family of origin and current family—that can include close friends, especially where blood-related relatives are scattered afar - we can expect deep joy mixed with intense suffering. This may come from a husband, wife, son, daughter, mother, father, uncle mother or sister-in-law, friend. One thing is sure, some family member is likely to break our hearts, over and over. We need only to look at the life of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and Jesus. Jesus’ brothers were among His strongest detractors (John 7:3-5). We turn our suffering into joy by accepting, embracing and working with reality, forgiving each other seventy times seven, which means without number. Our family members are weak sinning human beings just like us. We all live in the fallen state. Our vocation is to live within the sometimes fractured, sometimes united family lifestyle, love all our family members through it all, and try to sustain the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of joy.
Our family life, like our garden, requires continual care. Within our family our first care must be care of ourselves. If we don’t care for ourselves we will have nothing left over for others.
Adam, while living with his family in the garden, was given the awesome task of tending the entire garden of Eden. “The Lord took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till and keep it” (Gen 2:15). One interpretation of this command is that Adam was to care for himself, his body, soul and spirit before all else. Adam was to tend to his heart as his garden. So, too, for us.
We find this message in many places. When traveling on an airplane the flight crew gives instructions for a possible emergency. The crew describes how oxygen masks will drop from the ceiling. An adult with an infant is instructed to put the mask on her/his face first, and then cover the infant’s face with a mask. At first this seems counterintuitive. Any loving adult would give her/his life to save the infant. However, that’s the point. The loving adult must give up instinctive impulses to do something apparently heroic. The adult must care for her/himself first. If not, both the adult and the infant might perish.
Care for Self
We are called to care for our total self first, physical, emotional/social, intellectual and spiritual. Interestingly, this point is sometimes lost in Orthodoxy, all in the name of love.
We care for our physical self through adequate sleep, nutritious food, exercise, abstention from tobacco and moderation with alcohol. We care for our intellectual self through stimulating reading, inspiring music and other forms of intellectual engagement.
We care for our emotional/social self by cultivating trustworthy friendships, disclosing our deepest thoughts and behaviors in and out of confession, by being more aware of and owning our feelings. We care for our spiritual self through intimacy with Jesus Christ. Like any visible relationship, intimacy with the Lord includes private time with Him in quiet meditation daily, pondering His Word in the bible daily, and trying to please Him by doing His will for us. We try to keep His commandments of love as best we can and go to His holy Church services.
We cultivate the garden of our selves through loving attention to our very soil, our heart.
We try to live in and out of our heart. St. Theophan says, “The essence of the Christian life consists in establishing oneself with the mind in the heart before God in the Lord Jesus Christ, by the grace of the Holy Spirit.” And he goes on to say that he means the physical heart first.
The outer limits of the human person are extremely wide; each of us knows very little about his true and deep self. “Within the heart are unfathomable depths,” affirm the Homilies of St. Macarius. “It is but a small vessel and yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the Apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace; all things are there.”
Theology gives us a tool to achieve personal peace that we can then bring to the family. “Peace of heart is both the aim of spiritual warfare and the most powerful means to achieve victory in it. So, when passionate turmoil steals into the heart, do not jump to attack the passion in an effort to overcome it, but descend speedily into your heart and strive to restore quiet there.” We go into our heart and stay until we are calm. Simple, yet hard to do.
Asceticism in the Family
Our God is a God of surprises. In family life we expect the unexpected. So, our asceticism—self-denial—is primarily a control of thoughts and expectations. We reclaim our inner selves and provide for others.
In the family we learn to outgrow our parents’ sins, their imprinting onto us. We are created in God’s image, not our parents’ image. Becoming a new person in Christ is an extreme asceticism because we tend to fall into habits of familiarity, those we learned in childhood that include the sinful inclinations of family members.
In the garden of our family we learn from our mistakes. Our family members often help us become aware of our misdeeds and mistakes.
Asceticism in the family means to see beyond the obvious and be able to perceive God’s hand in family life, to perceive the miracles of God as they occur to us and to our relatives. Sanctity consists in making the ordinary extraordinary, perceiving the family routine as a God-given harmony to give Him glory and to provide for our salvation.
Asceticism in the family pivots on prayers. Suppose we accept that family life is difficult. Then what do we do? Jesus gave us the answer in Luke 18, “He told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.”
Care for Family Members
We cultivate the garden of our family by all the common-sense initiatives we can muster. Love is the only rational family act. We forgive every member of our family, everything, without delay. We know that each family member is our real self, Christ in disguise.
Many of us do not live in a squeaky clean, intact and rather healed family. For a host of different reasons, many of us, perhaps most, live in broken or divided or needy families. That’s life in America today. But, the call of the gospel for family living is the same for all. We never tolerate abuse, but beyond that, we are called to love our God-given family members in divorce and estranged situations, nonetheless. The least we can do is pray for all our family members daily. And, we try to deal the best we can with what we have been dealt in our family, by love and service.
We cultivate the garden of our family through the ego-crushing attention to every spoken and unspoken need of family members. We wash their feet, metaphorically, in the thousands of opportunities that life provides, as Christ’s presence in the person of our family members.
Truth be told, we love our family members or we die. It’s that simple and basic, yet profoundly difficult at times.
When we intentionally tend the garden of our family, inevitably one family member emerges as someone for whom we can do a small act of love. We might take steps right now to make that happen, as plain as a letter or phone call, yet pregnant with consequences.
We cultivate the garden of our family by reaching out to the most marginal member of our family, from our point of view. That might be the person who lives closest to our skin. Again, this might take the form of a casual drop-by visit, a special note of appreciation, a thoughtful smile.
Can I Make a Difference?
Life is like a target, with the black circle in the center as the bull’s eye. Our relationship with Christ, with ourselves, and our family is the black center of the target. The little loving gestures to our family members might be the evidence of whether we are shooting the arrow into the little black circle, or whether the arrow is sailing over the top of the entire target.
Only by living within a family, as Jesus did, can we go through to the other side. Ultimately this means living with the new family, the new Israel, the Church. Only by living within my God-given family can I know that I can make a huge difference in the lives of these few people God has entrusted to me as family members.
Lord have mercy upon us and upon our family.
1. What is one difficult but obvious act I can do for one family member to cultivate our relationship? Sometimes this is for an in-law or a not-obvious member.
2. Give one example from your family, illustrating how family life is the life of a garden.
3. What is one example of living-in-one’s-head and living-in-one’s-heart in the family?
4. God could have easily cultivated the Garden of Eden. Why do you think He gave the opportunity and responsibility to Adam? What are the implications for us?
1 Chariton, Igumen of Valamo, Compiler, The Art of Prayer, (London: Faber & Faber, 1977), 165.
2 Ibid., 25.
3 Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, ed. and revised by Theophan the Recluse, Unseen Warfare, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 257.
Dr. Albert Rossi is a retired psychology professor and teaches Pastoral Theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, Crestwood, NY.