“It is a profound spiritual experience to contemplate our loved ones with the eyes of God and to see Christ in them.”
Pope Francis may not have had a conga line in mind when he wrote these words in his apostolic exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia,” but it worked for me.
Weaving my way through a wedding reception with my six brothers and sisters in a long conga line swaying to the music of Harry Belafonte, I felt such a deep affection for them all. Bound not by the ordinary ties of friends and workmates, but by ties of flesh and blood, the moment felt like a gift of love, an undulating chain that visibly represented the genetic bonds that can never be denied or revoked.
Being family is hard these days for many people. It isn’t just the age-old tensions of kith and kin described in so many novels and plays. It is the modern pressures of distance, distraction and fragmentation.
My wife and I live far from our families, so such gatherings are infrequent and a little bittersweet — a coming together that is a reminder of longer apartness. We are both oldest children, so it’s possible our sibs occasionally perceive our distance as a blessing of sorts!
Yet we are welcomed back as annual prodigals returning home. The fatted calf is slain, and our ever-expanding clans gather around food and drink and conversation. We all take each other’s emotional temperature, catching up on job developments, marital twists and turns, and of course the status of our many nephews and nieces.
No family is perfect, so we all fit right in. Among us all, we have had marriages and divorces and remarriages. Some have chosen other faith traditions. There have been bouts of unemployment and illnesses. Every one of our siblings have experienced hardship, loss, pain. We know both the “for better” and the “for worse.”
My wife and I have lost our fathers. Our mothers are on solitary journeys after so many years of walking hand in hand with another. My mother sometimes remembers my name, and sometimes asks me to remind her of it. She who gave birth to eight children and raised seven to adulthood now lives in a kind of timeless present.
A font of a mother’s love and wisdom who shepherded her teeming brood from grammar school to high school and beyond, she now listens quietly to our stories, watches as our conga line wends around the tables groaning with platters of appetizers and desserts, thinking thoughts we cannot share. Yet still she is a loving center.
My family is a study in diversity, and our dad rejoiced in it. Whatever our path — journalist or musician, manager or church worker — he delighted in us all. I’d like to think he saw us with the eyes of God, recognizing in each of us a bit of himself, yet delighting more in the new and unexpected discoveries that were truly our own.
Pope Francis, again writing in “Amoris Laetitia,” says “all family life is a ‘shepherding’ in mercy. Each of us, by our love and care, leaves a mark on the life of others.” My parents were such shepherds, and they have left their mark on us.
Now we shepherd each other. We listen to our stories of joy and heartbreak, we embrace our moments together, we offer support where we can. Time’s tide carries us relentlessly forward, but there are those moments, like that swaying dance on a clear California evening, when we are bound to each other by shared joy and celebration, and we see each other perhaps as God sees us, manifestations of a love that is greater than us all.
Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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