Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Frustration, vocation, and family life

I’m kneeling in the confessional, admitting my failure to accept certain trying family relationships. I’m frustrated, resentful, and fed-up. I’m having a hard time—an ongoing hard time. But the priest reminds me that marriage is a vocation. And vocations are meant to make us more holy. In other words, we can expect to be tested.

Had I chosen the consecrated life, my Mother Superior might have given me work I was unsuited for and didn’t enjoy. Then, in addition to struggling with my assigned task, I’d have to watch someone botch the job I could have done well. She would purposely frustrate me.

A light bulb blinked on above my head.

Deep down, I’d held onto the idea that only consecrated religious “signed up” for holiness. That in choosing the married life and children, I got a bit of a pass. Sure, it might be hard, but the bad parts just required some discipline and diligence. Besides, my husband would be right there with me. But married life is more than a choice; it is a vocation—and it is also chock-full of difficulties.

Photo: Large family group portrait at Cairns, 1886.
Item is held by John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.
My confessor told me that nothing confounds the devil as much as embracing our Crosses. That I should be thanking God, truly and genuinely, for my Crosses, with all there dashed hopes and failed expectations. It sounded impossible in the confessional, and it still does.

Because no one longs for difficult relationships. My husband and I share our faith, goals, and vision for our family. Conflicts are usually small, petty, and quickly resolved. The same is true of my friendships. We share beliefs, dreams, and struggles; our interactions are encouraging.

But not all relationships are chosen, and they do not all come easily, or make us happy. Everyone we are in contact with is not going to be a positive role model who inspires us. It’s tempting to think that all our relationships should build us up—that the good priest, confessor, spouse, friends, and family will make us both happier and holier.

After all, Church history is filled with pairs of saints: St. Clare and St. Francis, St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. The Blessed Virgin Mary had St. Joseph, Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin. It’s easy to assume that camaraderie made their holiness more attainable, the same way we believe finding the one will guarantee that we live happily ever after.

But that’s not necessarily true.

In God’s plan beauty is born of hardship, faith is tested by frustration, and all things work for the good of those who love him. In other words, it can be just these difficult relationships that sanctify us. Saint Monica’s husband Patritius was pagan, violent, and short-tempered. But her dedication to this unhappy marriage resulted in conversion for Patritius and sainthood for Monica and their son, Augustine—the fruits of frustration born in love.

Yet we all desire the less rocky path to holiness. Maybe that’s why more young people don’t get married, have kids, or want more than one or two children. Because relationships are tough, and it’s tempting to avoid difficulty. But I’m told we should do the opposite: consider the gnashing and weeping three-year-old our spiritual director; the holiday gathering a spiritual exercise in humility and sacrifice.

Because both encouraging relationships and difficult ones are beneficial to our spiritual growth. Indeed, what need would there be for the guidance and wisdom of saints, priests, and confessors if our God-given vocations were free of conflict?

God expressed this in The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Sienna:

You cannot arrive at virtue except through knowing yourself and knowing me. And this knowledge is more perfectly gained in time of temptation, because then you know that your are nothing, since you have no power to relieve yourself of the sufferings and troubles you would like to escape....for the devil is weak and can do nothing of himself, but only as I permit him. And I give him leave not through hatred but through love, not so that you may be conquered but that you may conquer and come to perfect knowledge of yourself and of me, and to prove your virtue—for virtue can only be tested by its opposite.