My Vocation in The Family

By Albert S. Rossi

To Live in the
Kingdom of God, Now

In the “Our Father” I am taught to pray, “Thy   Kingdom come,” and the strong implication is, as C. S. Lewis notes, that   the Kingdom can and should come here and come now, in my heart and in the world   at large. The Divine Liturgy is replete with similar invitations calling everyone   to enter into the Kingdom of God, here and now.

What, precisely, is the Kingdom of God? And, even more pointedly,   how do I enter it? Reflecting on the meaning of Kingdom of God by looking at   St. Paul’s epistles, one Orthodox theologian explains that, from the human perspective   and experience, “the Kingdom of God is . . . righteousness, peace and joy   in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). He goes on to say that my experience   of the Kingdom is a special kind of joy, namely, joy which is a gift from God   and often found in affliction and suffering for others. St. Paul states this   clearly, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake ...” (Col.   1:24). This is a rather eloquent statement of what I can expect and how I am   to live in our family life.

I can expect from my family, both family of origin and present   family, deep joy mixed with intense suffering. Within family ties, life is often   most personal and most emotional. The personal and emotional suffering may come   from a brother or sister, father or mother, husband or wife, son or daughter.   Of one thing I can be rather sure, that some of my family members are likely   to break my heart, over and over. Any other expectations seems to be unbiblical.   The suffering may come from the realization that some of my unrealistic expectations   are being emphatically dashed to the ground. I may realize my marriage partner   is, unabashedly, not a living knight in shining armor or a precious princess   in distress. I may gradually understand that my sister or brother is doing a   whole lot of narcissistic damage to a whole lot of people. The agony might come   from a deteriorating parent, from an acting-out teenager, or from a chronically   ill or alcoholic sibling. The upset may be of a more generalized and free-floating   type. I may be keenly aware that much of the time the fragmentation of my home   bears little resemblance to a symphony playing harmonious music. The excruciating   emotional pain usually tears at the heart because the person(s) lives so close   to my heart.

Precisely in family distress and family affliction can the   New Testament message ring most real, most profound. In the family, the question   “How do I enter the Kingdom of God?” finds an answer. I enter the   Kingdom of God by finding joy, overflowing joy, superabundant joy, the joy found   in the Holy Spirit, because of and within the heart-ripping suffering experienced   and the blessings given in my family. The joy of the Holy Spirit is inextricably   based upon suffering. But I am not here to look for suffering or to create it,   only to live it as it enters my life. I turn from suffering to joy by accepting,   embracing, and working with the reality that these persons are my family, and   therefore God’s family for me. My family members are weak and sinning human   beings who, by definition of living in a fallen state, will wound and seriously   offend me. My vocation is to live fully within this sometimes fractured and   sometimes united lifestyle, love all my family members through it all, and to   try to sustain the gift of a joyful disposition which is from the Spirit.

The Orthodox view of family, then, stands in polarized opposition   to the prevailing American cultural view of family. For the Orthodox Christian,   a family is not primarily a group of persons who provide mutual comfort, ease,   predictability, and security from loneliness. The family is not primarily a   warm hearth and the smell of baking bread. The family can be those things, but   hopefully it is much more. Infinitely more. Primarily, the family is the God-chosen   group of persons with whom I most intimately live the life of Christ, that is,   the agony of the Cross and the joy of the Resurrection, simultaneously at times.  

To Be A Sign of Contradiction

Jesus’ life was a sign of contradiction and, likewise, so must   mine be. As life unfolds I realize I am called, within my family, to love as   God loves. As this is progressively more understood, the power of the insight   can be quite disarming, threatening to dismantle my defense system. This insight   slowly evolves away from a me-at-the-center perspective to a family-member-at-the-center   perspective. Basic questions begin to change. I can no longer ask, “When   does my turn come?” or “How about my fair share?” or “What   about me?” Now I begin to realize that I am called to give in some areas   which will be quite unrequited, or so it will seem. This might be financial,   social, sexual, occupational, educational, religious, psychological, or spiritual.   Of one thing I can be rather sure, that it will seem to me that in certain ways   I will be giving to my family members and it is quite unreciprocated.

As the God-life grows within me toward my family members, I   can also be rather certain that I will come to the point where I feel I have   no more to give. Maybe I feel I’m getting older. Maybe I feel I’ve gone to the   well once too often. Maybe I feel I’m already beyond my real love limit. Regardless   of the reason, most adults arrive at the cutting edge, the flash point where   they become aware that they may not have enough to give to ensure that they,   and those around them, can maintain a sane lifestyle. It’s an overwhelming terror   to come up against the parameters, the barbed-wire fence around one’s capacity   to love. Adults are then “over the edge,” living in a temporary state   of suspended animation.

This experience may open the door, be the connection, enhance   my relationship with the Infinitely Sustaining God. I am aware, cogently, that   it is and has been God who, all along, is the one who has continually kept me   back from going over the edge and, if I did go over the edge for a time, it   was He who sustained my very life, being more present to me than I was to myself.  

For me, those times of beautiful weakness (the weakness St.   Paul mentions) may be times when I learn that indeed I can live and love here   and now, with these flawed family members, and that I can love boundlessly.   I experience this because I can yield to the infinite, wondrous love of God   living through me and directed toward my family members. Precisely in my vulnerability   and sheer inability can I accomplish what my love limits would not otherwise   allow me to accomplish. At these moments I can

experience the fullness of “casting my burdens on the Lord.”   At these moments I can know, with the marrow of my bones, that it is “no   longer I who live but Christ lives in me.” This becomes an experience of   a miracle in my life, of being personally touched by the hand of God and enabling   me to love more than I ever thought was possible.

I become a sign of contradiction because I perceive, probably   erroneously, that I am loving in certain ways that other members of my family   are not. In reality, all of us in the family may be living signs of contradiction,   living a life of love maximally within each unique personality structure. Each   may be living apparently unrequited love in different ways. God’s ways are not   my ways. God’s calling to each member of a family will be uniquely personal,   and probably quite misunderstood by some other members within the family. I   am called to try to live according to God’s ways, not mine.

To Be A Living Pray-er

I, like everyone else in my family, have the grand task, the   royal calling, the priestly vocation to pray arduously for the other members   of my family, especially the alienated and alienating members. This is a no-nonsense   calling which I am probably not fulfilling adequately, probably not even minimally.   If I think I am, that may be the clearest sign that I am not. Abba Agathon says   that prayer is the hardest of all tasks. “If we do not find prayer difficult,   perhaps it is because we have not really started to pray.” And Bishop Kallistos   Ware continues this idea by saying, “Prayer means that each day we renew   our relationship with others (family members) through imaginative empathy, through   acts of practical compassion, and through cutting off our own self-will.”   Prayer, as the Fathers remind us, is, first and foremost, a way of life. As   Theophan the Recluse states, “But do not forget the chief thing, to unite   the attention and mind with your heart, and remain there unceasingly, before   the Lord.”

I know I am called to “pray always” and I know I   am called to “love my neighbor (family member) as myself.” It is also   true that more than likely I grossly underestimate the real, practical, beneficial   influence my prayer has on others (family members). I probably grossly underestimate   the amount of love I deliver to my family members when I sincerely pray for   them. As one theologian said, “Prayer is the greatest gift that one friend   (family member) can offer another.” Maybe when I pray for them I am doing   as much “good” for them as putting ointment on their bruises, or buying   a useful item, or being physically and mentally present when someone has a need   to talk. Praying for a family member does “infinite good” in some   sense for that person. Praying for a family member can also help provide me   the strength to put the ointment on the bruise, buy the desired item and be   authentically present with even more graciousness. Praying for a family member   can enable me more to have the “imaginative empathy and practical compassion”   which Bishop Ware suggests. Of all my roles in my family, I still have most   to learn about how I am called to pray for my family members.

Summary

My vocation towards my family members is, in one sense, no different   from my vocation towards every other living human being. With and towards every   one I am called to live in the Kingdom of God now, to be a sign of contradiction,   and to be a living pray-er. However, as I specifically focus on my family and   the tremendous undertaking God has called me to accomplish, I most assuredly   can get a clearer sense of my vocation in the world-at-large. In the living   of my vocation in my family, I can begin to experience what St. Paul means when   he said, “. . . dying, and behold we live” (2 Cor. 6:9-10).

“As for me   and my family, we will serve the Lord”.—Joshua   24:15

For Discussion:  

1. In what ways do   you see the Orthodox family life to be in opposition to the prevailing American   cultural view of the family?

2. Discuss personal   prayer as you know it, and what effect it has had on your life.

Dr. Albert Rossi   is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Pace University, Pleasantville, NY   and has a private practice in family counseling. He is a member of the Department   of Lay Ministries.

Taken   from the OCA Resource   Handbook for Lay Ministries