Sacramental Echoes in the Domestic Church
We fell in love in the summer of 1970. We hadn’t any sense of God working in us. We both were influenced by the tumultuous culture of the late 1960s in Chicago. We shared with others of our generation suspicion if not contempt for the institutions of society. Though Civil Rights opened new possibilities for us regarding education, careers, and social connections, we were engulfed in a culture of cynicism that bordered on fatalism. Andrew was especially dismayed with the Catholic Church, which he had surmised from three difficult years in the archdiocesan primary seminary to be a white, racist institution that held no value for black people. The local police imposed a daily threat of harassment and were considered the worst among the “gangs” we had to contend with on Chicago’s Southside. Viet Nam, the Democratic National Convention in 1968, the assassinations of King, the Kennedys, Malcom X, Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, and the ubiquitous internalized racism that gripped our community shaped in us a general disillusionment and scorn for authority and societal rules.
When we married in 1975 it was without any guidance from authority figures, especially not the Church. Typical of our generation, we didn’t trust the wisdom of authority and put our trust in each other. It was us against the world. And when the early years of marriage proved imperfect, we realized that even our love couldn’t save us from brokenness. Ironically, it was the rekindling of faith that gave us a lifeline to reconnect us to hope. Marriage Encounter gave us a renewed sense of personal worth. The expression “I am good. God doesn’t make junk” was on a banner that weekend in the summer of 1978 and was especially helpful for us to restart on a path of faith that debunked our cynical perspectives. Returning to the Catholic Church was both enheartening and dismaying. Partaking of the Eucharist nourished us and reminded us that we are what we eat, always becoming what we truly are, the Body of Christ. Yet, we found plenty of reminders that the Catholic Church, as with the broader society, is wrought with racism, America’s original sin. Our newly energized commitment to each other and this sense of becoming in the Holy Eucharist directed us to being agents for change in the Church and society. As we were learning to embrace each other in our brokenness, we were learning to embrace a broken Church and determined to take part in some needed healing. We wouldn’t argue against a charge that the Catholic Church is a white, racist institution. But we would contend that the Church is so much more than just that. We got onboard the nascent Black Catholic movement that bridged our experiences that once made us cynical with our faith in God who is all-good and all-loving. Expressing our Catholic Faith within the historical narrative of African Americans, a culture of resilience, and a spirituality that got us through the holocaust of chattel servitude, domestic terrorism, second-class citizenship, systemic societal structures designed to diminish our inherent dignity as creations of God, was cathartic. All this was made palpable in the Sacred Liturgy that incorporated the drama of the Story of God and the passion of Black Spirituality.
The Eucharist stimulated in us “sacramental imagination” that sees the invisible God in ordinary substances and even ourselves. This sense of indwelling of God in us didn’t remove our brokenness, but it freed us to see so much more in us. Our sacramental imagination wasn’t just about our perceptions of God but also ourselves, our society, and the Church. The perennial vexes in our relationship didn’t vanish but were no longer disabling. We discovered that many if not most of our issues weren’t things to get over but get through. The burdens of married life, instead of getting rid of, we learned to carry. It felt as though we had uncovered the secret to successful marriage.
Our growing love for God made us dynamically different than we were before. It transcended our love for each other and drew us closer in new ways. Particularly when we were stuck in disillusionment about any perennial vexation of our relationship, it seemed that the most expedient and effective path back to each other was through our crying out to God, drawing nearer and attuning our ears to God through prayer, worship, praise, and ritual.
The best of what we the Church do to minister to marriages is illuminate their life with God and draw them closer to God. Let’s consider the marriage as a triad relationship with God at the top-center angle, and the spouses flanking the bottom left and right angles. Notice that as we bring the husband and wife closer to God, they become closer to each other. When they experience and honor this sacramentality of their marriage—God-in-them—they also come to revere the marriage as a holy relationship that is much bigger, more significant than the two of them.
Sacramental Marriage reflects God in all three Personalities.
The process of falling in love is a glimpse of God’s abundant love that seems to never run out and fills us, comforts us, makes us feel safe in each other’s arms. The love that privileges us to be co-creators with God and bring new life into our world – new life in the self, new life in our coupleness, and new life in our children. God the Father, our Creator shines through us.
The growing process of our relationship is God’s ongoing invitation to love the way God loves, unconditionally and forever. We grow into that through the nudging of the Holy Spirit. From acquaintances to dating to engagement to marriage, the Holy Spirit prods us and forms us each step along the way. God the Spirit radiates through us.
As we traverse through life with its ups and downs, we bargain with each other; we compromise; we sacrifice; we suffer each other. In time we encounter the “other,” our spouse, in their sin, their wretchedness, and in their darkness. To continue the journey together, to stay the course to Forever, we must reconcile our differences, forgive the other’s brokenness, make room for their issues, and carry their load with them. There are times when the other, our spouse, may seem undeserving and unworthy of the love we give. The promise with which we began may seem to have faded, if not vanished. The promise we made can feel like a sacrifice. Yet, it shapes us. We find that, though the burden can be heavy, we can bear it. It makes us stronger, and it creates in us new resolve. The promise we made to each other when we married begins to make us into who we need to be for the sake of our marriage, and for the glory of God. The Paschal Mystery of Jesus, who died for undeserving people, is revealed in us, it shapes us, and we learn to love on a higher level.
What does it mean for marriage to be sacramental?
This is what the Church says about sacraments. From the Baltimore Catechism: “A Sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” From the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Sacraments are ‘powers that comes forth’ from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving. . .They are actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church... They are ‘the masterworks of God’ in the new and everlasting covenant. (1116)[i]
The sacraments are “of the Church” in the double sense that they are “by her” and “for her.” They are “by the Church,” for she is the sacrament of Christ’s action at work in her through the mission of the Holy Spirit. They are “for the Church” in the sense that “the sacraments make the Church,” since they manifest and communicate to men, above all in the Eucharist, the mystery of communion with the God who is love, One in three persons. (1118)[ii]
Sacramental marriages reflect God. The love they make evident, to each other and to others, mirrors the love that God has for us all. They are open to God’s grace. They know they need God’s help and allow the wisdom of God, which often comes through the people in their lives, to instruct them. Sacramental marriages are directed by the Holy Spirit. They both try to get out of the way and let those good, healthy, and positive forces external to either or both of them give direction. They are a “new sign” pointing toward God. Their public promise initiated something new in them, something that witnesses the real presence of God. They become a “new reality” of God’s promise. Something changes in them individually and collectively. This happens at the wedding and throughout their life together. They participate in God’s Holy Covenant with the People of God. The promise they make reflects God’s promise to everyone. Their relationship becomes a new sacred space, a dwelling place for God, and a witness to God’s desire to be among us as a faithful friend.
Marriage, nonetheless, has inherent duality in tension between aspiring toward God and fulfilling one’s personal visions for self. However, the dichotomy isn’t between God and self. For God is merciful and frees us to be humanly flawed and even broken, and still the focus of God’s loving gaze. There is a quid pro quo character to marriage that doesn’t reflect God but our own egos. In search of personal fulfillment, we discover promise beyond our personal aspirations. God meets us in our perceived needs for fulfillment and directs us to a better path to commitment, on which we reflect and transmit God’s love. Growing in wisdom, age, and grace, we become more trusting in the new vision for ourselves through the model of commitment from God. Over time we find our goals shifting more toward God, who patiently accompanies us and delights in our growth.
Our parenting years were the 1980s and 1990s. Lessons learned, and principles followed during that phase of our family life now carry over in fresh ways with our grandchildren. Our participation in the broader faith community began with our practices within our family setting. Going to church on Sundays, we valued the principle of bringing something to share, to bring our faith, our needs, our assistance, our longings, our generosity, our caring, our service, our praise, and our love. We didn’t come to Mass to be with God. God was evident in our family life. We brought our family spirituality with us to share with other families, to connect with others and be a part of a larger collective of worshippers.
Andrew’s late uncle, Archbishop James P. Lyke, in his pastoral letter on the African-American Family said:
“The black family teaches black people values, a philosophy, a view of the world rooted in ancient tradition and theology learned on the other side of the Jordan, a theology with God’s calling and coming ‘for to carry us home.’
“The black family teaches us the notion of sacrifice for kin, reverence for the aged and the child, and belief in the natural sequences of cause and effect.
“The black family is the place of our life; the place in which we move; the mirror through which we discover our being. The black family is the ‘domestic church’ in which we learn who we are and whose we are and how we are to live.”[iii]
Uncle Jimmy eloquently articulated the essence of black family life in his pastoral letter. However, his words are just as true for families in general. When raising our two children we identified how we and other families are domestic churches. Our domestic church has five components:
We are a teaching domestic church in how we instruct our children on what is right and wrong. We saw ourselves as the primary purveyors of religious education to our children. We read the bible as a family and discussed the Scriptures and homily after Sunday Mass. We shared family faith stories that were passed down through the oral tradition. We encouraged our parents and grandparents to tell our children stories from their earlier life. An important way that we are a teaching domestic church is through advocating social justice in our words and actions.
We gave witness to the Gospel through our selection of quality TV programming, books, activities, for our children and ourselves. We tried to show respect for each other and did for each other in selfless ways. We tried to deal with family conflict in respectful ways. It was important that our children saw the power of forgiveness in us.
We lived the Gospel through our choices at work and school, adhering to the laws of the land, and to the higher laws of God. Following the laws of the land was not always a moral choice. Jesus Himself was a social dissident and countercultural. We accepted the possibility that making moral choices may bring us in direct conflict with the laws of the land. We believe that a part of our challenge to live the Gospel is to be prepared to defy unjust laws, to take action against injustice, and to work for peace.
When it came to service and ministry, we knew that charity begins at home. Simple service to one another and demonstrating generosity among ourselves were paramount in our domestic church. Our marriage was a model of service for the kids. They observed the care and service we gave to each other. Our morning “coffee ritual” when Andrew prepares coffee for Terri, preparation of meals, household chores, and doing things for the benefit of each other were on display for the kids to observe. And they were encouraged to do the same for each other and us. But we also identified as a family with service to the community. We took part in community service or ministry through the broader Church and social institutions. Our children shared in our ministry to marriage in as many ways as possible, setting up chairs, stuffing and stamping envelopes, and any other ways they could pitch in. And we looked for ways to serve as a family. When Andrew was a campus minister at DePaul, our family often took part in service initiatives during Spring and Winter breaks. Easter Sundays were spent preparing and serving meals at a local homeless shelter.
The old axiom is true: “The family that prays together stays together.” We recognized God as the center of family life. All of our teaching, witnessing and service was done with God’s will in mind. Our family called on God to be in our midst, to strengthen the bonds between us, to guide us when we were in darkness, to dance with us when we were in joy, to comfort us when we were in sorrow, and to show us how to do all this for each other. We established a regular rhythm of prayer at home, before meals, bedtime, when dealing with family stress, celebrations, bereavement, and any moment when God’s grace was apparent. Acknowledging God, calling on God, thanking God, and praising God were elements in the atmosphere of our dwelling, which is anywhere we are gathered as a family.
For our domestic church, Communion is the end result of our teaching, witnessing, service and prayer. We think of our family table at home as an extension of the altar at church. It is making and taking the time to be one with each other by giving our marriage, the cornerstone of our family, priority over all human relationships, even our children (Notre Dame’s Fr. Hesburgh once said, “The greatest gift a father can give his children is to love their mother”). We held as sacred our family meals as a time to not only nourish ourselves physically, but also to nourish our relationships. We valued recreational activities as a family, like our annual “Lykes on Bikes Cross-Country Bike Ride.” Our domestic church is Communion by our giving ourselves in prayer to God, asking Him to bless, protect, and guide us, by feeding and being fed by each other.
With the gifts we received from the domestic church, we were compelled to seek communion with the larger church. We attended church to not only receive, but to bring our faith experience, our talents, and our gifts of service and dedication. We shared our total selves as expressed in our domestic church—our uniqueness, our special identity as a family, and the richness of our African-American culture. We were enriched by the other, unique and special domestic churches that came together to form a larger community of believers.
Our domestic church is as intrinsic to us as the seeds planted in the wombs of our mothers, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. It is where we discover our true selves and encounter God. And it is from that experience we are called forth to enrich the broader Catholic community.
St. Paul, defining love says, “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”[iv] Other characteristics of love are that it isn’t earned or deserved, and it is suffering.
The inherent messiness of family life humbles us and has us reaching beyond human justice. For love to be never failing it must be given unconditionally and without merit. This untainted love is what we are born into. It is without reason or cause. Our love for a child is a natural impulse that comes from our Creator. We reflect the inexplicable, irrational love that God has for us all. Our Catholic understanding of the sanctity of life and the inherent dignity of each human person is founded on God, the Author of love. Expressing such love for the unborn and innocent infants is as easy as it gets.
However, there is no need to distinguish love as unconditional for such innocents. As flawed human beings, we can lose our way when sin gets in the way. On this side of the birth canal we mess up, we are selfish, errant, spiteful, and judgmental. Love is not so easy when the beloved is willfully bad. We are tempted to withhold love until there is some expression of atonement. But for our love to be authentic—a reflection of God, there must be forgiveness. This is a struggle for families. We establish systems of reward and punishment as an avenue to sustain love. But this isn’t authentic love; it doesn’t reflect God’s unfathomable love without conditions.
For families, authentic love demands risk and suffering. Conventional wisdom suggests that giving love to someone undeserving risks playing the fool. This is the intersection we must cross for love to be authentic—suffering, playing the fool, possible betrayal, and mortification. Authentic love doesn’t wait for it to be safe to reconcile. It suffers through a process of forgiveness without letting up. Forgiveness is not optional; it’s required. Therefore, it needs skillfulness, tenacity, hope, and prayerfulness. Authentic love forgives beyond reason. It reflects God’s forgiveness given on the Cross for undeserved people.
Forgiving doesn’t require forgetting. Rather it demands seeking understanding and remembering the grievance but disallowing it to have power over the relationship. Authentic love doesn’t forgive and forget but remembers and repents. It dissipates the power of sin over the relationship and sets a course for the relationship to move forward healthily and safely, seasoned and stronger to carry the memory. Often such reconciliation feels like the grievance is forgotten because it no longer has power to destroy the relationship.
Our Catholic Faith equips us to be prophetic and be about building God’s Kingdom in our midst. Our sacramental imaginations make visible the invisible God and make tangible the hope that endures in us through our faith. With the gifts of the Spirit, we are intentional in following Jesus, even to the Cross. But our faith informs us that the Cross isn’t where our story ends. Something wonderous happens in us, to us, and for us. Like Jesus, we too are resurrected, untied, and free to be evidence that God lives among us and reigns over us. We learn this in the setting where we first and most profoundly encounter God: the family, the Domestic Church, where we learn who we are, whose we are, and how we are to live with one another.
[i] Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1116
[ii] Ibid., #1118
[iii]. Lyke, Most Reverend James P., O.F.M., Ph.D., So Stood Those Who Have Come Down Through the Ages: A Pastoral Reflection On THE FAMILY IN THE BLACK COMMUNITY (Addressed to the Black Catholics of the Diocese of Cleveland)
[iv] 1 Corinthians 13:4-8