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Within the intricate pattern of relationships

A reflection on the family, at this time when the Church is questioning herself, is an important opportunity, but certainly not an easy one, in view of the phase of history which we are going through. One must approach every event with a spiritual outlook capable of grasping the dynamic of salvation. The revelation of the Gospel brings light into the darkness of the times, it unmasks, dislodges, so as to liberate and purify. It considers not the form, but the substance. It asks not for observance, but for conversion. 

Lladró, «Nativity» (Valencia)

Even a theme so delicate as the family cannot escape this perspective, and so one must consider Christian marriage above all as a "school of humanity" and of inner transformation. From Genesis onwards, the man-woman couple is considered in its dynamic oneness. "A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall be one being" (Genesis, 2, 24). The Hebrew termbassàr, flesh, refers to the living being in its entirety. Man and woman express a complementarity which touches every aspect of being human, the physical, the psychological and the spiritual. Genesis alludes to an original unity which precedes the division of the sexes. God is One, man created in the image of God is one: "in the image of God He created him". But then it is specified: "male and female He created them" (Genesis, 1, 27). God imprints in human nature the masculine principle and the feminine principle which He possesses in Himself. He divides them in order to create distinction and allow relationship. Even the account of the creation of woman alludes to an original unity. The Hebrew termtzelàʽ means one of two parts existing side by side, like the two halves of a double door. In Latin, costa means a side. The ribcage is made up of two symmetrical parts side by side. The man (ish) and the woman (ishà) are the two parts of the original human nature which is one in itself. Adam refers to earth (adamà), to blood (dam), but ish and ishà refer to fire (esh), they are divine powers. This original unity will resurface in its fulfilment: “In the resurrection they do not takes wives or husbands, but they are like the angels in heaven” (Matthew, 22, 30). Sex etymologically means cut: the meaning of sexual division therefore makes reference to relationship. The deep desire of every human being is to reunite in himself these principles, but the path of integration and harmonisation is long and involves the transformation of eros into agape. The fire of passion is moved by a deficiency, it burns, it consumes. Agape by contrast spreads the brilliance of fullness which flows from the original connectedness. 

The point of arrival and of completion is the Incarnation. Jesus is the fulfilment, he is the human being in whom masculine and feminine are harmonised in love. He appears alone, with neither wife nor children, His love spreads towards the whole of humanity. He makes a break with the Old Testament tradition in which biological generation, posterity, blood relationship, have a central role. The Son knows that He has been begotten by God, His mission concerns the transmission of divine life. This is the leap in level, the change of mentality which is needed. “Here is my mother, here are my brothers: for whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven, this one is to me a brother, sister and mother” (Matthew, 12, 49-50). Jesus signals the passage from the custom of the family founded on blood ties to the novelty of a communion in the Spirit. The revelation of the Gospel constitutes a dynamic force which pushes consciousness towards an enormous step: the psychophysical dimension is called to converge with the spiritual plane. The phases which precede this fullness involve contradiction: forms of relationship which include errors, which are fallen, but in which love grows. Opposition, conflict, failures, need to be put into the furrow which brings together the origin and its fulfilment, innocence and awareness. Every state of separation, of sin, is within that furrow, not outside it. Every stage, with its steps forwards and backwards, plays a part in the tension which pushes forward the history of salvation. The family passes through psychological billows which crash against the emotional, affective, sexual sphere, but the sacrament of marriage keeps the seed of the Spirit alive in the soul. Conjugal relationship, despite being conflictual, must always be considered in relation to its potential for love. One cannot however put in first place the preservation of the partnership, but rather the dignity and growth of the human person. The sacrament accompanies, it does not abandon in trials, nor even in breakdown, but no one knows what steps are required for the softening of hardened hearts. “What God has joined together let no man divide” (Matthew, 19, 6; Luke, 10, 9). God unites through love; where there is no love, but rather oppression, bullying, violence, it is not God who unites, it is the ego which is in command. Love unites, it does not tie down, it grants the freedom of the children of God. “Where two or three are united in my name I am in the midst of them” (Matthew, 18, 20). The presence of Jesus is incarnate love, it blossoms into humanity, it expands. There is but one commandment: “Love God and your neighbour as yourself”. The spiritual plane which operates vertically, the more it reconciles the human being to God and himself, the more it also works in the horizontal plane promoting relationships of communion. In the centre must be put the communion of each person with the source of love who is Christ. Grace works within the intricate pattern of relationships in order to break chains, untie the psychological knots of possessiveness, of dependence, and so on. The sacrament sanctions the union of man and woman in Christ, but it becomes the means of a deep psychological and spiritual transformation through one who accepts giving in to himself, entrusting himself: “The one who finds his life shall lose it, and the one who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew, 10, 38). The sacraments are helps, instruments of conversion which act in the obscurity of the soul, the Church administers them, but salvation is brought about mysteriously by the Holy Spirit. They do not require particular conditions, but sincerity of heart, a feeling of being needful: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will refresh you” (Matthew, 11, 28). Jesus is not interested in the seven husbands of the Samaritan woman, but rather her infinite thirst for love. In the final discourse of Pope Francis to the Synod, one is struck by his reference to temptations, especially “to the temptation to turn bread into stones to throw against sinners, the weak, the sick”. One must distinguish between the gift and its efficacy. The gift is for all, the efficacy depends on the response to the action of grace. Baptism itself is like a seed sown, it is not always fruitful. We know well how much resistance and how many obstacles get in the way, and only the mysterious divine economy knows the times and the means of breaking them down: “Everyone needs to be touched by the comfort and attraction of God’s saving love, which is mysteriously at work in each person, above and beyond their faults and failings” (Evangelii gaudium, 44). The Church rightly proposes that “formation is needed to accompany the person and the couple” (Relatio Synodi, 36), but the greatest help for favouring the action of the Holy Spirit in the soul is still listening, the cura animarum. The final document of the Synod invites us to look to the Holy Family, but it is important to try to identify the profound messages which are behind the simplicity of the life of Nazareth. The Holy Family is made up of a virgin mother and a putative father. Two extraordinary messages which are at the root of the revolution of the Gospel. There is a theological connection which links the virgin maiden of Nazareth with the virgin daughter of Zion evoked by the prophets. Jerusalem does not respond to love, it betrays God with idols. The prophetic figure of the virgin daughter of Zion, on the other hand, alludes to faithfulness to the covenant: Mary makes present the prophetic expectation. Virginity refers above all to the virginitas cordis, the absolute faithfulness to divine love which purifies the heart. The virgin mother, made incarnate by Mary, expresses the movement from a psychological maternity, dominated by selfish mechanisms of possessiveness, to a spiritual maternity which requires a humanity purified from desires and seductions, humble and open to the action of grace. Mary listens, she welcomes the immaculate motherhood conceived in her by the Holy Spirit, she is silent, she guards the mystery in her heart. The putative father, in turn, constitutes a true and proper break with the patriarchal cultural context insofar as it expresses a renunciation of that form of male power identified with generative power. He renounces the right of ownership over his wife, over his offspring, he guides, he protects. The family of Nazareth is not built on blood ties, but on the action of the Holy Spirit. The descent of the Spirit onto Mary is the first baptism by fire. The spiritual conception which shapes biological life requires purified hearts. The Holy Family, by means of human life, transmits divine life: children are not a possession, they are children of God. Placing the Holy Family in the centre demands sharing in a new dynamic of family life, in which the supreme value becomes that of causing spiritual life to flourish, by means of biological life. The virgin mother and the putative father must be assimilated on a symbolic level in order to open up pathways in the psychological sphere, where they must grow in order to become incarnate. Christian marriage can only be understood in terms of spiritual evolution. The Gospel speaks to the human person, for each person there is a key to accessing it and today, on account of the contradictions and dangers which our world is passing through, as Pope Francis affirms, there is need for an activity which opens up towards the margins of humanity. It is a time for the spreading of love. Precisely because suffering is great and the old equilibriums are crumbling, the push to go further is stronger. The “pastoral challenges for the family” which Christianity faces consist therefore in helping to interiorise spiritual models of motherhood and fatherhood so that they may become active in the soul. The family, as it was constituted, is passing through an irreversible crisis, it is not possible to remain pinned to old configurations which in fact rest on contradictions and hypocrisy. The socio-economic conditions have changed, but the psyche is still propped up by models forged on patriarchal rights and the silent consent of women. Female emancipation has broken this pattern precisely in Christian cultures, bringing to light how the present model of development has become inadequate for human growth. As saving activity matures, it dislodges. In the gaps, wounds and dangers emerge, there is fear and lack of trust between the sexes. Virtuous circles of gender are created in order to rediscover an identity. Women began this phenomenon, feeling the need to get to know themselves, recognise themselves in the other, speak a common language, rediscover the sacredness of the body which had been expropriated by a commercialising culture. What has emerged is a new subjectivity to which the whole social fabric, Church included, has had to face up. This has brought with it a strongly aggressive reaction on the part of men who have seen themselves deprived of an acquired right which seemed natural: men accept with difficulty the questioning of themselves, the working out of their own profound identity. There is an extraordinary model in the Gospels, the father of the prodigal son, the image par excellence of divine love and mercy. If on the one hand we have so many examples, even among the young, of beautiful families in which there emerge harmonious and visibly loving relationships, they are ever more arduous and complex, as the many cases of separation and divorce bear witness. Conflicts among couples, disorientated children, economic struggles, these can cause closure which is sometimes irreversible. In the first place the desire for motherhood is in crisis. Uprootedness from nature, role models proposed by the media, socio-economic conditions, these are all eroding the maternal instinct, as though its transmission from mother to daughter had been interrupted. Many young women are lost, alone, they are afraid of motherhood. Openness to life involves an expansion in all directions, it cannot simply concern biological childbearing. It involves a perspective capable of noticing beauty, of having trust. But if this is lacking, fear prevails which closes in. Motherhood develops in intimacy, within a guarded space which welcomes and protects. It involves listening, care, tenderness. But in empty households where the children look out for themselves and the parents return home tired, where one no longer wants to talk, how can the sense of motherhood grow? A standardising culture pushes one ever towards external things, bringing about serious effects on the psychological and spiritual level. Dispersion, estrangement, loss of the sense of the sacred. The family is in crisis because the human being is in crisis. But it is precisely at this point of being lost that the spiritual pathway opens up by means of which a regeneration may come about. Jesus gives humanity the Consoler. The Holy Spirit is the divine motherhood which must emerge into the darkness of the world. The Virgin Mother whom Mary incarnates seeks to be incarnated in every woman: a love in action, strongly dynamic, in those who give in and open up. He intervenes in every need, His maternal operation never fails. He is the very power of baptism by fire which transforms into new creatures. He only asks that one let oneself be loved by love. By means of interior pathways which wear away at these eddies of pain and purify immense pockets of darkness and selfishness, it will be possible to make that qualitative leap to which the Gospel calls us. Precisely when everything is wavering, the Spirit gives anchorage because it leads intimately to Christ. Prayer and silence are ever more necessary. When one member of a family opens up, he or she becomes a channel of this work of sanctification. It cannot happen to everyone at the same time. It is more likely to happen to women because, being more sensitive, more aware and receptive, they have accepted the need to break the mechanisms of engrained customs. The more they become aware, the more their inner, spiritual firmness will dispose them to help men to open themselves up, to begin the journey. Together they must rediscover trust. The Church too should listen more to women, and invite them to bring their experience to decision making. Precisely on account of her maternal role, the Church needs the feminine voice.

by Antonella Lumini

the author

For more than thirty years a strong vocation to silence and solitude has led Antonella Lumini (Florence, 1952) to lead a life of seclusion in the world. Her only rule consists in striving for a balance between interior research and immersion in reality. After studies in philosophy, she has devoted herself to the study of Sacred Scripture and of spiritual texts. She works part-time at the National Library in Florence, where she is responsible for the Ancient Books Section. She holds meetings on spirituality and meditation. Among her recent books are: Dio è madre (God is mother) (2013), and Memoria profonda e risveglio (Deep memory and reawakening) (2008).

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