Domestic Church: The Secret of a Happy Family

Mary Ann Budnik
From the Jul/Aug 2011 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine

C.S. Lewis jerks us back to reality with this reminder: “God cannot give us happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.” An anonymous writer further explains, “No one is born happy. Happiness is something that comes to you. It is brought about by inner productiveness and meaning found in a great life-task.” The “great life-task” of parents is to raise our children to be saints. It is in the pursuit of this goal that we discover happiness.

Happy Families Live the Four S’s. They Are:

  1. Striving daily to live the will of God;
  2. 2. Struggling to grow in virtues;
  3. Suffering with acceptance; and
  4. Sacrificing for family and strangers alike

Striving Daily to Live the Will of God

To be happy, we have to know why we were created and how to fulfill the purpose of our existence. Despite media propaganda, we were created solely to become saints, not corporate giants or sports stars. Our purpose in life is to grow in holiness by knowing, loving, and serving God in this world so that we can be happy with Him forever in eternity (Catechism, no. 1721). Likewise, if our children are to be happy, they have to have the same purpose and goal.

When our souls are in harmony with the will of God, there is peace and happiness. For those who balk at the will of God, there is nothing but dissension and turmoil for themselves and those around them. An unhappy person is a self-centered person rather than a God-centered person.

The Necessity of Developing Virtues

“Happiness should be considered as something which involves developing all of men’s potentialities to the greatest possible level,” Professor Altarejos of the University of Navarre writes. We develop our potentialities by acquiring virtues. Virtues are simply good habits, whereas bad habits are vices. Virtues expand our human potential, perfect our personality, and help us to live more easily an upright Christian life. It’s usually a lack of virtue, such as
pride, selfishness, intemperance, bad temper, lack of self-control or jealousy on some family member’s part that causes the arguments or problems in a family.

“When we develop virtues, our intellect . . . motivates us to seek true perfection,” continues Altarejos. “Virtues make us more perfect on a human level. They strengthen our intellect and will. Virtues also give us self-assurance because we see the improvement in our lives and those of others we feel secure and can act without doubting. It’s easier for us to do good things because they are a natural part of our lives. In this way the intellect and will are free to apply themselves to other things in greater depth so as to achieve greater efficiency. Without having to devote a great deal of thought and struggle, we can act, react, and decide positively. . . . Virtue allows us to do things with satisfaction, with pleasure.”

There are four cardinal virtues: prudence (sound judgment), justice (giving each his or her due), fortitude (toughness), and temperance (self-control). On these hinge a total of 274 virtues. It takes a lifetime of struggle to cultivate all of these virtues!

Wendy Leifeld, author of Mothers of the Saints, found that cultivating virtues in their children ranked second only to providing religious instruction for mothers of saints. “Motherhood was much more than I had previously suspected,” she writes. “More important, for one thing. These mothers [of saints] really made a difference in their kids’ future ability to do God’s will. Maybe I could too. Maybe I could act as if God wanted my kids to be saints. In that case, I was going to have to take the job more seriously. . . . Working with my children’s pride or selfishness, their reluctance to help one another, or their eagerness to fight took a lot of time and energy, but I found it was the heart of mothering. . . . I saw that it was vitally important that my children care about those who are less fortunate than themselves. They need to learn to give. . . . Christian charity and works of mercy must become an established part of my life and that of my children.”

We are all born with a mixture of good and bad tendencies. Virtues are developed by witnessing them in the lives of others, imitating people who live them, and practicing the good habits over and over in our own lives until they become a part of us. St. Thomas More wrote: “Children should have honorable people for parents, since in this way, to speak metaphorically, a seedbed of good nature and virtue is secretly fostered in these children [from the time] they are born.” Our personal struggle to grow in the virtues goes hand-in-hand with cultivating these virtues in our children. They need to see us struggling to overcome our defects such as anger, impatience, gossiping, intemperance in food and drink, selfishness, laziness, irritability, envy, and so on.

It’s helpful to devise a plan on how to tackle our own defects and those of our children. Once we develop a plan, we must be consistent. Why not teach your child to offer his/her struggle to overcome laziness, disorder, anger, selfishness, to the child Jesus? Fr. Jordan Aumann, O.P., cautions that without daily mental prayer, we are not going to be aware of our vices and our need to develop virtues. Likewise, we should include our children and their character formation in our prayers. We need God’s guidance.

Developing virtues takes effort. St. Gregory the Great points out: “There are some who wish to be humble, but without being despised; who wish to be happy with their lot, but without being needy; who wish to be chaste, without mortifying the body; to be patient without suffering. They want both to acquire virtues and to avoid sacrifices those virtues involve: They are soldiers who flee the battlefield and try to win the war from the comfort of the city.”

The efforts to acquire virtues not only benefits ourselves, it also benefits ourselves, it also benefits society. Leifeld notes, “Historians claim St. Margaret of Scotland’s training of her children produced the best two hundred years of Scottish kings. Alice of Montbar [is] the mother of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and six lesser-known saints.” The Martins gave us the Little Flower. Besides this, Our Lord told St. Catherine: “When perfection is not in the
soul, everything which the soul does for itself and for others is imperfect.” Without virtues, we cannot do any of our work well.

To help our children mature mentally, physically, and spiritually, we should be demanding in a kind way. Assign daily chores to each child and expect all the children to pitch in to run errands, care for the home, and help one another. When we fail to demand of our children, we are stifling their development in good habits as well as retarding their emotional and spiritual growth.

How did the saints learn the virtues? St. John Vianney relates that as a child, he and his sister, Marguerite, had a terrible fight over his rosary. Jean-Marie tugged the rosary free from Marguerite and ran to his mother for support. His mother, after listening to the story of the fight, told him to give the rosary to Marguerite: “Yes, my darling, give it to her for the love of the good God.” Sobbing, he obeyed. His mother was teaching him the virtues
of generosity, obedience, and detachment. She rewarded him with a statue of Our Lady that he loved. The Vianney family also taught the virtue of hospitality by feeding and housing travelers and beggars. The children also learned industriousness while tending sheep and knitting socks for their family.

The parents of the Little Flower, St. Therese, insisted on consistent discipline. Once a decision was made, it was never changed. In addition, the Martin sisters were encouraged to keep track of their good deeds and sacrifices.

St. Monica gives us the example of perseverance, patience, and long-suffering. Her fidelity with the wayward Augustine gave us perhaps the greatest Doctor of the Church.

St. Margaret of Scotland taught her children: “Rather to die a thousand deaths than to commit one mortal sin. To give sovereign honor and absolute adoration to the Most Holy Trinity. To abhor all obscene language and uncleanness. to converse with persons of blameless lives and to follow their judgments and counsels. To be firm, constant, and unchangeable in maintaining the Catholic faith.”

Suffering with a Smile

Pope John Paul II writes: “It is suffering, more than anything else, which clears the way for the grace which transforms human souls” (cf. Heb. 5:7-10). St. Thomas More wrote along this same vein hundreds of years before. In Thomas More—A Portrait of Courage (Princeton, NJ: Scepter, 1995), author Gerard Wegemer explains: “To become a saint in a terribly imperfect world, while being terribly imperfect oneself, is the challenge of every person. So More believed. Such a challenge More knew to involve difficult trials which he saw as the forge needed to fashion genuine strength and refinement of character—a character that would be capable of serving in any and all seasons.”

Besides cheerfully carrying our own daily crosses, our children need to learn the value of suffering in their lives. There will be times when friends desert them, a job may be difficult to find, or the “perfect” spouse eludes them. If we do not teach our children how to handle the disappointments and sufferings of life, when suffering comes, as it comes to everyone, they will try to escape it through drugs, alcohol, premarital sex, divorce, and/or suicide.

To form competent young men and women, it’s important to give our children the necessities, but few luxuries. This will involve suffering for them. The necessities do not include TVs, computer games, stereo sets, personal phones, cars, fad clothing, and summers filled with sports camps, and independent travel (cf. Catechism, no. 1723). St. Thomas More’s father gave him so little money when he attended Oxford that Thomas had to ask for money to get his shoes repaired. In later writings, Thomas “would praise his father’s astuteness in having kept an inexperienced teenager on a tight budget to dispel distraction and discourage vice” (Wegemer, p. 8).

In addition, as painful for us as it is, we must allow our children to handle the consequences of their actions. If we jump in to solve all of their problems, we will cripple them emotionally and impede their growth in the virtue of responsibility.

Sacrificing Ourselves

The final ingredient for happiness in marriage and family life is a spirit of sacrifice and service in the family. Happiness increases to the same extent that the selfishness decreases. Just as Christ came to serve, are we willing to serve those around us? Do we do thoughtful, considerate things for others such as sending a birthday card, or having a Mass offered when a friend’s family member dies? Do we call to check on elderly friends? Do our children cut the lawn or shovel snow for elderly neighbors? When neighbors go on vacation, do they have to pay us to watch their house? Do we bring over a meal for those in mourning, a new mom, or someone who is sick? When was the last nice thing we did for someone other than a family member? Do we live the spiritual and corporal works of mercy? And, do we seek God first (cf. Mt. 6:33) through prayer and the sacraments, so we can serve Him well?

Integrating the 4 S’s into our families guarantees happiness. Why not give it a try?

This article originally appeared in the June 1996 issue of Lay Witness.