Three of my daughters, after Mass, on the feast day of the Immaculate Conception
Recently my husband and I attended a large social event. There was nothing particularly unusual or out of the ordinary about it--there was the typical wide-eyed incredulousness anytime we answered the magic question of how many kids we have, but that's normal. We're used to it, and anyway, my six-months-pregnant belly was squeezed into a non-maternity dress that cut off my circulation. So comments about family size could not be avoided.
Of course at some point I found myself sitting back and considering social dynamics in general. And yes, this is what introverts-who-used-to-be-psychology-majors sit and do at parties. (You are more than welcome to join me sometime, although I must warn you that it will involve alternating between sitting silently, and making occasional and potentially-awkward small talk. But if you are a true student of social science, you will deem it worth it in the end.)
And my super-stealth observations confirmed that people, no matter who or where they are, are searching for connection. The concept of community is of course spoken of regularly in religious contexts, but it also plays an undeniably large (even if subtle) role in other settings too--the workplace, school, anywhere that has people. Because we all have some sort of compulsion to hear someone's story and experience friendship. This can be a major and often elusive challenge, but few ever truly give up--even us introverts (perhaps especially us introverts) need human connection.
So later at home, I found myself reflecting on how very, um, connection-filled and full my own life is--even if it differs dramatically from that of the average 31-year-old woman's, and makes for terribly dull small talk in between bites of hummus. There is of course noise, mess, and a very clear sense of my inability to do things well for longer than about two minutes--but there is a heck of a lot of joy and fun too. And good grief, there is community! Love, friendship, cooperation, shared goals and values. Mealtimes filled with conversation and laughter. A daddy who gives his kids piggyback-rides to bed, even at the end of a long day. Regular instruction in virtue and lots of opportunity for humble "I'm sorry's."
And speaking of community, Saturday was the feast day of the Immaculate Conception, and so we went to Mass. My oldest daughters had new-to-them dresses to wear, and my four big kids eagerly got all the little ones ready, dressed in their finest for the occasion. The kids were ecstatic in the car on the way over--a local bishop would be celebrating the Mass, and there was to be a reception afterwards. And as we joined a full room of fellow parishioners afterwards for food and celebration, it struck me how not only full and rich our home life is, but how positively wonderful our faith community is too. Everywhere we looked there were friends and people who are so very dear to us. My kids have great buddies to play with, even outside of church events. There are families with whom we have dinner and even take vacations.
And I don't take that for granted. At all. Because we don't go to Mass to make friends or to socialize, nor did we become Catholic in order to find people who think like us so we could take a trip together. But God has brought us into contact with some pretty fantastic people (which we could never have foreseen) and we continue to be richly blessed by them. It is a beautiful thing to be connected to so many by such a deep--and eternal--bond, and through whom we are continually encouraged.
This is something that I think the world-at-large craves desperately. True community, purpose, life. You can be in a room with 300 people and feel a tangible emptiness, or you can be with but one other person and feel connection, or sometimes it goes the oppositve way. Because everyone is looking for inclusion and for something around which to center and build community on. Some foundations are sturdier than others. Some are merely superficial.
So as I've been thinking about how genuine community really works, I've decided that it must first and foremost be focused at home--concentrated within the family--and then extend outward to ideally include parish life as well. Of course it's not easy to cultivate this sort of community within our families because there is, frankly, a lot of competition. Outside activities, time-consuming interests, and even the media subtly and easily infiltrate and dominate our world, replacing the natural rhythms of family life--shared meals around the table, praying together, natural conversation--with their own brand of noise and culture. But a flourishing family culture is worth fighting for, in part because strong families make for strong churches.
I read this thought-provoking article yesterday from Archbishop Charles Chaput. The piece ended with:
Nothing is more powerful than the witness of Christian men and women loving God and serving God’s people; working together; and sharing lives of courage, joy, and friendship. In an age of aggressive individualism and the isolation it breeds, the new ecclesial movements offer two absolutely priceless gifts: community and purpose.
Isn't that really it? Can't so much of what we seek be wrapped up in those two words, community and purpose?
Of course regularly attending church will not automatically translate into close friendships. It is an ideal to embrace and a goal worth working towards--especially for Catholics who truly are united in belief and purpose--but there are a lot of other factors at play. Sometimes there are seasons in life that are less conducive to being part of a community, or sometimes there simply aren't people to connect with. And that's okay. God has different things for different people at different times.
And regardless of the externals, the core building block of community (mirroring the Holy Trinity) is that of husband and wife--which naturally extends to children--and so we can strive to create beautiful and genuine connection in our homes. It will be imperfect and loud, chaotic and tense at times, but love is always work, and always in a state of becoming. And this community, rooted in charity and virtue, has the capacity to flourish and nourish, and extend outwards to others.
A full life is not necessarily one with lots of public recognition and accolades, or worldly success, or fascinating stories to tell around the shrimp platter.
Sometimes it is merely living in authentic and loving community--with my own crazy family.