Religious Community -- A Family?

With 34 nieces and nephews and, at last count, 81 grandnephews and nieces, I believe I have some credentials for reflecting on 'family'. This reality became more pointed for me recently when I viewed a documentary which told of the fascinating inner dynamics of the Rockefeller family over four generations: from old John D. to the present members represents enormous change, but also a single dynamic story.

In the literature on religious communities the theme of community-as-family recurs frequently. In some communities the rhetoric is more prominent than in others, for sure, but in some form or other the notion appears in just about all.

The fact that it is so wide-spread must surely indicate that it is reflective of a fairly profound level of a community's life, one to which we must attend if we are to think wisely and act responsibly on our mission as religious men and women. What realities does this rhetoric point us to? What expectations are we appropriately crystalizing when we use it? And what mis-understandings are we potentially bringing upon ourselves by not being clear just what we intend by describing a community in those terms?

A metaphor

Sometimes we have to begin with the obvious, because it is so easy to miss it. In this instance the obvious is that when we use the language of family to refer to religious men and women we are in the realm of metaphor. To put it bluntly: a group of religious is simply not a family. There are no children here; there is no reproduction taking place; there are no common genes or blood-lines.

Once we remind ourselves of these obvious things, the hunt is on. Because 'family' is a metaphor, it is inherently polyvalent. Its meaning, and our intentions in employing it in our conversation, are subject to interpretation and choice and varying purposes. We are using a word to point to something that is not directly named, and it becomes all-important to be clear about what we are pointing at. And why.

As I listen to what religious are calling for when they use the image of their community as a family, I find many of the realities of a real biological family quickly falling away, being replaced by some vague --- and timeless --- ideals of warmth and intimacy, if not a kind of camaraderie. When people in a religious community ask that their life be more that of a family, it seems that they may actually be looking for acceptance and mutuality and inclusion --- qualities of any genuine adult relationship, not necessarily familial ones.

My observation of the life of my own family over more than 70 years raises up some features that are not usually brought up to the screen in conversations among religious about their community. I am not proposing my biological family as some ideal typology to be laid on all families. But perhaps by pulling up some of its features we can see the pitfalls of using 'family' to describe a religious community. A metaphor necessarily focuses on some aspect of comparison between two diverse realities, but when the concrete givenness of one of them is so ignored as to drastically distort its reality the usage can become quite problematical.

Family is Intergenerational

My biological family, like yours, involves more than one generation. And usually two of them, sometimes three, or even four, occupy the stage called 'family' at one time. There are some who have begotten others. Differences are focused not only on age but also on generation; not just young-old but father-son, grandmother-granddaughter. Differences in generation add a whole other layer of expectations beyond those merely of age, as significant as those are. My grandmother was not just any old 69-year-old woman telling me a thing or two at the tender age of 16; she had carried and birthed my mother --- who herself was not just any other 47-year-old woman.

Religious men and women, we must assume, were more or less adults when they joined the brother- or sisterhood. They were not born there. The men or women who entered long before them did not beget them, nor will they themselves beget those who arrive much later than they. Religious life is not inter-generational.

It remains true that some are older and some younger, of course. There are layers of life experience which some possess that others will never own in the same way. But none is parent and none is off-sprung. When religious speak of inter-generational issues in the community, they are really speaking of inter-chronological ones, and that is something quite other.

Now older religious may have integrated their long experience and become genuinely wise. They may also have lived quite unreflective lives and learned little or nothing. (I remember well the passion in a younger religious' voice when he said, "I'm tired of having to listen to pious exhortations about our life from people who haven't read a book in forty years!") Younger members, on the other hand, may have maturity beyond their chronological years and be quite attuned and capable of finding the wheat within the tares, ready to learn from wise elders. They can also be so convinced that they have all the answers in their brave new world that they can see only tares in the thoughts and behavior of older men and women. Integrity and wisdom are not the property of chronology but of extremely fine, costly attentiveness to the mix of pain and joy, failure and modest achievement, that characterize most of life. Some men or women may have 'lived through' the 60s without ever living them, and some who would claim to be living 'in' the 2000s are merely projecting their fantasies onto what is actually transpiring around them.

In a sense, then, the issue is neither inter-generational nor some abstracted chronological difference. It is the tension between people who are wrestling with the issues of maturation and integration of their experience, no matter what their chronological age, and those who apparently are unaware that such issues even exist.

Family members move -- and move on

Another feature of families: because they are living entities embracing different generations and continuing over time, real families change their expectations as different members move into or out of different phases of their lives. Expectations which are quite reasonable or even essential to the family's well-being at one period would be totally inappropriate at another. If some members continue to demand the same expectations of others after such a change has taken place, the demand is experienced as oppressive.

At one time my parents and we five kids all expected to be at the dinner table together every night. We all could go to the same Sunday Mass. As each of us grew and moved on in life, those expectations were no longer viable. I watched my siblings marry and raise four different families and marveled at the ways the single tree had sprung 'branches', each of which was generating its own customs and expectations. Habits that characterized one sibling's way of organizing their own family's life would have been totally alien to that of another. We were all still 'family' and yet practices were becoming quite differentiated. Each sibling was negotiating the process of generating a common life with a partner bringing into the mix a set of expectations from another family heritage, and each negotiation was producing a completely new Gestalt or package, never experienced in either of the originating clans. Some of my niblets have even become Republicans. . . .

Career changes introduced yet further shifts of expectation. Once one branch lives in Philadelphia and another moves to Florida, you can't be family in the way you used to be. Rituals which were weekly or even daily occurrences must be replaced by others which are annual or even -- think of total-family reunions -- occur once in a decade. And those rituals don't merely cease to be at close intervals, they also have to be planned. And scheduled. Their occurrence is in tension with the demands of all the other 'memberships' each of these branches -- and their individual members -- find enriching in their lives. Is being at Uncle Ned's retirement party automatically more important than Sarah's violin recital? Healthy families usually adopt a mantra which suits reality and doesn't make them any less a family: "we just can't expect everyone to make the (wedding? baptism? concert? You fill in the blank); they'd be here if they could."

Adult re-negotiation -- or ideological warfare?

Real inter-generational families re-negotiate shifting priorities again and again over time. It's an adult-to-adult process in which there are no abstract, pre-situational absolutes. How one family resolves the issue of participation in Grandma's 80th birthday is not the answer for another facing what appears to be the same question.

It's about give-and-take; having general principles and boundaries whose relative power and legitimacy only the people within that family can judge; it's about respecting others' integrity as they reach different outcomes in applying them. And it can be about feeling disappointed that they made the choice they did, but continuing to love them.

All too often I have seen religious take what a family would consider matter for such respectful negotiation and frame it in terms of 'principles of religious life' -- which are actually ideological cudgels for beating one another up. "You don't value community; your ministry always comes first!" "We used to have community, now you're just doing your own thing!" "You pay more attention to your lay friends than you do to the members of this community!" "Are we a community of religious or a bunch of diocesan priests?"

In each of the polarities the absolutized option being rejected is not simply voiced; it can be all but hissed. The very vehemence of the voice should make one suspicious that something else is going on here.

'Family' is culturally constructed

My family is not all families. Expectations in an Irish-American Philadelphia family of the 40s were very different from those of Italian-American families on the other side of the same town, as some of my nephews and nieces have had to learn through their marriages. (My mother's Philadelphia cousin was shocked to discover that in her husband's southern Indiana clan Sunday meant presence at her mother-in-law's dinner table, even if that meant rushing madly back from a Notre Dame football game all the way up in South Bend. No exceptions. And precisely at 5:00pm.)

When religious use the analog of family to explain their expectations of community, they need to be clear with one another just what cultural model they are using. Once you begin to take that conversation seriously, you discover that even with members from the same national origin the gathered body is a mix of very different family cultures. No one outside the mix should presume to resolve their differences around issues such as: presence or absence at community exercises; the regularity of those exercises; openness to relationships with lay friends; or bringing 'outsiders' into community prayer or meals or recreation. Or a host of other questions the adult members of a family have to work out for themselves. And they are never resolved 'once and for all'. The full incorporation of each new member introduces a new claim for subtle -- or even dramatic -- shifts. Pilgrim people, you know. We have not here a lasting city, perhaps only a camper that gives us the security of a set place for the night before moving on.

The analog of family may have 'worked' in the days when an agricultural people were so tied to a single plot of land that the tasks and relationships and routines and rituals were scripted for survival. For some communities it may work today. If it does, I suspect its success is due to the human and spiritual development of the adults who are working at it, not to some a-temporal model of 'family'.

George B. Wilson, S.J., is an ecclesiologist who does church organizational consulting with Management Design Institute in Cincinnati. E-mail: