As in life, we all need rules in our homes. Everything and everyone would decend into chaos without them. So, as parents, we discern the best rules and routines to establish in our family life. No doubt we come up with good ones that serve admirable purposes. But it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that there is one rule that should govern and give meaning to all others — the rule of charity.
Love. “For the greatest of these is love,” writes the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. One of the reasons we establish rules in our households is to support the development of virtue in all its members. However, it is impossible to truly develop any other virtue without love. For as St. Paul says earlier in that same passage, though I may do any number of worthy things “but have not love, I am nothing.”
I recently came across these words of St. Vicent de Paul:
“Charity is certainly greater than any rule. Moreover, all rules must lead to charity.” (Epistle 2546)
I sat with these words for a moment, contemplating their relevance to my family’s life. Most of our rules and routines at home stem from a spirit of love. In fact, because we love our children we establish rules that will move them toward truth, goodness, and beauty. But I realize that in the middle of enforcing rules and the disciplining that comes when they are broken, I can often find myself removed from (dare I say in conflict with) the loving intentions that birthed the rules from the beginning.
I bet you can relate. I know I’m not the only parent who loses patience or perspective in a moment of stress or exhaustion. I’m sure I’m not the first person to color with irony at the elavation of my voice as I declare, “STOP YELLING AT YOUR BROTHER!!” Fail. Sigh. We’ve all been there. But I think that St. Vicent’s words speak to something deeper, something more than our failure to discipline with love and gentleness in any given moment of tension.
He is warning us not to lose sight of love. His words caution us against letting any other good intentions or activities supplant the rule of charity in our homes and lives. When we have forgotten that every action of our day should be oriented toward loving God and loving others, then (as St. Paul says) all our rules and activities have become meaningless. Nothing.
Tragically, this is a common occurance in families — yes, even Christian families. For it is easy to maintain routines and rules, at the expense of love. Families keep up busy daily and weekly schedules without pause, moving all members from activity to activity while someone in the lot is going through personal crisis. The warning signs are all there, but we pay more attention to the broken rules than to the broken person whose behavior is broadcasting the SOS.
It’s not easy to “drop everything” for the love and well-being of another. It is not convienent. So we often focus on maintaining the status quo. Rather then let all of the rules and routines serve the purposes of love, we can become the slaves of rules and routines at the expense of loving God and our families. Unfortunately, we often don’t recognize this mistake soon enough.
We may realize that charity has lost her rule only when tensions in our marriage become a threat of divorce, or the “teenage angst” is now full-blown and serious depression, or the sibling rivalry turns to deep resentment. When we have cultivated rules and routines instead of love in the culture of our homes, then the fruit of those rules (or our failure to keep them) is the harvest we will reap.
If we ever find ourselves in such a place, there are avenues of mercy, grace and restoration. But I personally pray that I never need such a drastic wake-up call to re-orient my family culture to the service of love. I pray God gives me the humillity and the vision to see the little ways that I get off track, so that I may quickly right my course and let the rule of charity reign above all in the daily rhythms of my domestic church.
Copyright 2017 Jessica Ptomey