Not that long ago, I met an Anglican woman who told me that at every service she attends, when the sign of peace is passed, she always shakes the hand of a solitary stranger before that of her spouse and children. “I know how awkward it can feel to attend Mass alone,” she says. “I want to make sure they feel included.”
This struck me as a lovely gesture. As a single woman who routinely attends Mass by myself, I’ve never felt awkward during the Sign of Peace. But, I do struggle with solitude and loneliness in other aspects of life. Living in the extremely family-oriented US Midwest, I sometimes feel like an oddball among many of the people in my town. As such, I appreciate any gesture – from a stranger helping me put air into my tires to an acquaintance that calls me up out of the blue and invites me out for a cup of coffee – that reminds me I belong.
Though I revel in the freedom that comes with my unmarried, childfree state, while I cherish my numerous friends, I frequently struggle with the painful knowledge that I am not the top priority in anyone’s life, just as no one else is the top priority in mine. And, after attending this Sunday’s liturgy – the Feast of the Holy Family and listening to the priest extol the virtues of the traditional family in his homily, I did feel a certain pang. It sometimes seems that on this holy day, Mary, Joseph and Jesus are held up as a certain kind of ideal…a model I cannot hope to imitate.
The old saying is that blood is thicker than water. Given that I have no siblings or close cousins as well as no spouse or children…I’m in trouble if that statement is true. But my experience is that all too often, it is not true. The families we are born into are the first setting where we learn how to love. Unfortunately, they are also the first setting in which we learn how to hate. Most adults I know describe growing up with some degree of dysfunction in their original families. There’s almost always some estrangement, or animosity, or mismatch of values, or unresolved trauma; there’s almost always a pattern of unhealthy communication styles, or prejudices, or destructive habits that have been learned.
The term “chosen family” has been bandied about in recent years to refer to certain friendships that are so close and solid that they have developed the same degree of intimacy, trust, and loyalty that one would hope for in a strong familial bond. While, like most neologisms, this one might inspire skepticism on the part of some who hear it, in my own life I have come to find that it is true.
No, not every passing acquaintance can become like the siblings I never had; most of my friends, no matter how loving, are not people I’d expect to be there for me in my worst moments. But I am fortunate to have found a few good people who remind me that all of the warmth, care, and compassion I need is readily available. Loneliness – while inevitable in the lives of us all – is ultimately not what God wants for us.
When two people get married, they are choosing to form a family. If they don’t know it at the time of marriage, they usually learn quite quickly that they also need other close companions to walk with on the journey. When a woman or man takes vows and voluntarily enters a community with others who have done the same, they are choosing to be part of a family. For those of us who – whether voluntarily or not – are leading single lives, we often need to be creative about where we turn to for support. I have recently realized how fortunate I am that, while not the top priority in anyone’s life, I am an integral member of a complex ecosystem of care. This system involves friends, acquaintances, certain blood relatives, mentors, professional colleagues, a spiritual director, current students, former students, a young woman who has become my legal ward, and occasionally strangers. It is a system in which every day I feel called to give and receive love.
“Happy families are all alike,” says Tolstoy at the beginning of Anna Karenina. “But every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. In my experience, this is not true. Obviously, the line between “happy” and “unhappy” is not always so clear – no one is happy all the time, and with the exception of those in states of constant physical or emotional suffering, few people never experience at least some happiness. And there are actually many different ways to lead a happy life in the company of others.
In a similar way, not all holy families are alike. Some of the holiest families I’ve seen do not look like the traditional model on the Christmas card. And indeed, Mary was no 1950’s housewife. She was a vulnerable young woman who chose to place all her trust in God and become the mother of Jesus – not knowing what awful consequences she might face, but choosing to place all her trust in God. While many fathers take pleasure in noting their children’s physical resemblance to themselves, this was not a pleasure experienced by Joseph, who chose to marry a pregnant woman and love a child not biologically related to him. And Jesus, we believe, is the Divine Word incarnate – God who chose to come into the world at a particular time and place, born to a particular family. The Holy Family is a chosen family.
May those who are so fortunate as to have strong bonds of trust and love with the families they were born into delight in the strength of those bonds. To those of you for whom family relationships are more complicated, I pray for healing, hope, and an ability to cope with disappointment while finding others who, though no substitute for a parent or sibling’s absence, might recognize you and offer you love. To all of us, I pray for the chance to find ourselves part of a full ecosystem of care. Blood is often not thicker than water. There are many kinds of holy families.