43 People Walk Into a Tent. . .

Here's a math game to keep our skills sharp over the summer.
Read through the numbers below and try to guess the pattern:
  • 50 years of marriage
  • 1 miscarriage
  • 2 children gone home to the Lord
  • 6 surviving children with their respective . . .
  • 6 spouses
  • 23 grandchildren
  • 1 brave new grandson-in-law
  • 1 even braver boyfriend
  • 4 guests including . . .
  • 3 priests
  • 45 holes of golf
  • 1 giant tent rental
  • 2 outdoor masses under the giant tent
  • 41 questions in Family Jeopardy
  • 4 events in Cousin Olympics
  • 0 trips to the emergency room (though we came close, thanks to a rotted board full of rusty nails and a shattered patio table)
  • 27 meals
  • 9 days of family togetherness
The pattern is PRAYER. Here's how. . .

From June 28 to July 6, my family gathered for our 18th annual Family Week celebration. The numbers above provide a glimpse into the phenomenon. My parents know only too well how multiple family obligations can complicate Christmas travels, so they operate under a no-pressure holiday season policy: anyone is welcome, but no one is compelled to travel to Wisconsin in December. But come July, we are ALL IN.

Most Of Us
All families have their quirks, triumphs, tragedies, miracles, and failings. My family is pretty intense, so our highs and lows can be dramatic. In some cases--such as the fabled Hooters incident--one child's tragedy is simultaneously a parent's triumph. Our family has its share--and perhaps more than its share--of astonishing tales, both heartbreaking and heartwarming. With all of the strong personalities involved in the family mix, sometimes it's a wonder we get along. (And found people to marry us.)

Mom and Dad Head-to-Head in Family Jeopardy
Rather than just saying my family has strong personalities, though, let me tell you a story: When I was in grade school, our family moved from Wisconsin to Ohio. Packing up the boxes before the move, half of us children were working for my dad, and the other half for my mom. My dad, efficient as a tornado, was tearing through items in the attic, loading us up with things either to trash or to pack--roughly a 7:1 trash-to-pack ratio. Mom's team, on the other hand, was lined up alongside the trash cans on the side of the house, gathering up Dad's jetsam and dutifully presenting it to Mom for reevaluation. One simple shoebox brought the whole assembly line to a halt: in that shoebox, which Dad had sent out to the trash, were Mom's wedding shoes, delicate and white, with only one day's wear. A terrifying silence fell over the 2700 block of Princeton Road as the shoebox was carried back to Dad by the woman who had worn them on January 25, 1964. The silence was finally broken when both shoes were thrown at my dad with the cry, "It was a sorry day I wore these!"

Moments like these have dotted the fifty-year landscape of my parents' rock-solid marriage. There have also been many miracles, like the time a tangled rosary saved my dad from a potentially fatal traffic accident. And the three miracles that are my brother's youngest children, none of whom would have survived without emergency post-natal surgery or months of extensive blood treatment during my sister-in-law's high-risk pregnancies.

Family Week drew to a close on Sunday, July 6th, my sister's birthday. My sister, Catherine, better known as "Bee," would have turned 48 this year. Because Bee died of neuroblastoma when she was only four, we shared stories about her as our way of celebrating. My mom told us about the night Bee sneaked out of the house after dark. There were no outdoor lights, so my parents and grandparents searched for her in the black night, frantically calling her name. Mischievous but never really naughty, Bee stood in the shadows of the back yard, listening to the adults call her name. After a while, when she felt like it, she spoke up nonchalantly to the adult who had unknowingly stepped within arm's reach: "Hi, Grandpa."

Another sibling, my brother Mark, has also passed away. He died in 2007, at the age of 49--an unexpectedly ripe, old age for a boy who had been born with severe mental disabilities. "He won't live past the age of 18," doctors had told my parents. The doctors hadn't counted on Mark's strong personality. Though Mark's unexplained brain damage allowed him the mental capacity of a six-month-old child, he learned some sign language, had clear preferences in music (he hated opera), and became a favorite among his wonderful caretakers in the facility where he lived.

Thoughts of Bee and Mark helped me to reflect on this year's Family Week experience. I thought about the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Lazarus dies and is "carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham"; the rich man also dies, "suffering torment" in eternal flame. The rich man calls out to Father Abraham, knowing that Lazarus can help him now, can quench his thirst, if it be God's will. That particular story ends badly for the rich man, of course, but the parable reminds me that our family members who have died are still available to us. They are still part of our family: we keep them in our thoughts and conversations; we ask for their help, their prayers. If Christ has conquered death, then death is no stumbling block for us. We keep our family members close, whether or not they remain with us here. We know death has not separated us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:38-39), nor from the loving prayers of Bee and Mark.

My mom and dad gave our whole family a great gift: they taught us how to pray. We prayed at meals, at bedtime, and whenever we heard a siren. We prayed the rosary. We went to church every weekend. We prayed at tense moments: when fighting grew chaotic, Mom would holler above the noise: "LET US SPEAK OF THE CHRIST CHILD!" We are strong-willed, flawed human beings, but we pray. I am convinced that this instinct to pray--an instinct cultivated by my parents through God's grace--has helped us remain conscious of our dependence on God.

God is all about relationship. A Trinity of three Persons, God IS eternal relationship. And God is always already in relationship with each of us. Adults who teach children to pray cultivate the relationship God already has with every child. 

Prayer is a deep and intimate encounter with that personal relationship.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes St. Augustine when discussing prayer: "Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God's thirst with ours. God thirsts that we might thirst for Him." Probably we all have experiences with the ups and downs of family reunions. They can be tense, expensive, or boring. They can be exciting, consoling, and energizing. Deep down, we always crave family, because human life is all about relationship. Our ultimate relationship, the one that brings all our other relationships into one, is our relationship with God. The God who made us with plans of fullness and hope. The God who is always forgiving, always perfect, always loving. When our families pray, we grow closer and closer to that perfect love.

How does your family pray?