“Wow! This is just like a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving,” Alejo marveled as he watched me roll pie crust for our annual pecan pie experiment. This year the kids and I chose to add chocolate chips to the recipe. Certainly chocolate had the potential of turning the pie making ritual into a tasty experiment, but a Norman Rockwell picture? “Well, what is a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving anyway?” I wondered privately.
I had not anticipated sharing Thanksgiving with Alejo and his 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, this year. However, since Alejo’s wife had decided not to share Thanksgiving with them, my brother wondered if Alejo and Jessica could join our family. At first I felt annoyed that they had invited themselves and intruded on our personal family time. “Why, we hardly ever spend time with the college girls any more,” I grumbled. Did we really want to divide our attention with a person we hadn’t seen in years? Then the Holy Spirit started to soften our hearts. Alejo had chosen our family’s Thanksgiving for his daughter. They planned on driving 10 hours to feast with us, a Norman Rockwell Family. I was humbled.
A “Norman Rockwell Family?” I kept musing. Just what is that? I understand the difficult marital situation of my brother’s friend, therefore, I recognized that he craved the stability of my 22-years-long marriage and the 11 children born of it. In the words of Robert A. M. Stern, the New York-based international architect, “Rockwell’s art mirrors our world — or at least an ideal, slightly lost version of that world…. Mom and apple pie are very good institutions, and so was Rockwell’s America.” Alejo believed that about my family. He even thought the annual pecan pie experiment would have a flakey crust and not stick to the pan. Alejo projected onto my family what he would like it to be. As Rockwell wrote, he “excludes the sordid and ugly” from his pictures. By his pilgrimage to my home, Alejo was trying to give his daughter an “ideal” family experience.
Sadly for Alejo, he doesn’t understand that the animating aspect of our family life is The Holy Family. Almost 15 years ago we prayed a simple prayer from a child’s religion book. It was, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph please make us a holy family.” What began as a one-week activity has become part of our nightly prayer ritual. We pray every night during grace, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph please make us a holy family. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph please make us a holy family. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph please make us a holy family.” Yes we repeat the prayer three times. Then we pray one or more Hail Marys for various intentions. We pray for the sick, the deceased, the end to abortion, the Bosnian babies, and for all children of war. Finally we eat! Sometimes it is difficult to say the prayers. Preparing dinner for 13 people and getting it on the table takes heroic effort by all family members. Sometimes squabbles ensue. “It’s your turn to get the water!” “No! I got them last night. I’m doing napkins!” At times the toddler is screaming and I’m shaking a three year old off my leg while nursing an infant and stirring gravy. Still, we pray. Yes, we pray to be a holy family. In a way we are a Norman Rockwell Family when we pray together. After all, he painted families praying together. He even painted one in 1942 called Freedom to Worship.
However, it is not in the Norman Rockwell moments of our days when we progress swiftly along the path of holiness. Our family times of tramping through the woods, making music, rolling Russian Teacakes, and cheering VaTech to victory celebrate our holy family. Becoming a holy family requires frequent self-offering. Rockwell never painted a mom tearing the house apart looking for keys or a dad cleaning a carpet at 3:00 AM after a stomach erupted violently Easter Eve. Norman Rockwell intentionally painted what he perceived as uplifting. Mounds of laundry covering a table littered with day old dishes inspire revulsion in most. However, what patience it requires to endure such an experience because mom is very pregnant and dad is harried from earning a living! What joy erupts when the children secretly return the kitchen to immaculate order! Only the Holy Spirit captures that image, perfects it, and imprints it in eternity where all acts of love linger. It is the holy family prototype. It is the Trinity.
Alejo idealizes my family, but he doesn’t want to live as my family lives. He is a good person, however he told me he isn’t “big” into religion. Without our Catholic faith, my family wouldn’t be. Through a holy priest, Fr. Jay Scott Newman, Pope John Paul II inspired my husband to convert to Catholicism. My husband has become a holy father who devotes his entire life to his family for love of God. He embraces his vocation by working hard and creatively to support us. He leads by example through weekly Mass attendance, weekly adoration for many years, and through the simplicity of virtuous living. Right now, at 10:00 PM, after tucking the little ones in bed, another Norman Rockwell image, he is watching EWTN.
Because we are Catholic, we are open to life. My husband’s and my married love is exclusive. However, our love is inclusive which is why we have welcomed 11 children into our family and embrace — in spite of initial misgivings — all who have a need for love during a lonely holiday. The popes have said that the best gift you can give your child is a sibling. Truly our family bears witness to that axiom. The family is the “School of Love” wrote Pope John Paul II. Within our family we do forgive each other for such offenses as clogging the toilet with a deodorant stick or trashing the playroom — again. We rarely have bickering, I am convinced, because our home school, “Holy Family Academy,” provided hours of opportunity to work together and come to know one another. We are trying to live St. Paul’s words to “bear with one another patiently”. We want to live in peace. We want to attain heaven individually, of course, but as a family. Therefore, we pray: “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph please make us a holy family.” Three times we pray those words. Three.
Perhaps Alejandro understood our family better than I thought. An authentic family, of the type Norman Rockwell painted, is a holy family. A holy family is one modeled after The Holy Family to do God’s will. A holy family transmits physical life and assists God in creation. God always delights in Man. So did Norman Rockwell. He said, “Commonplaces never become tiresome. It is we who become tired when we cease to be curious and appreciative.”
When I gave birth to Annaliese Joy, my 11th child, my children gathered from around the state to marvel at their newborn sister. My Clemson University student drove several hours to visit her sister in the hospital. The teenagers missed school so they could be the first to see Annaliese. Even three-year-old Luke exclaimed with pure joy and deep feeling, “I love her!” One year later, two year old Grace is a little mother to her toddling sister. There is no jealousy in a holy family, only love.
A holy family is the incarnation of the Trinity in a profound way. It is founded upon the sacraments, so that Pope John Paul II could proclaim in Familiaris Consortio (n.17), “Family become what you are!” He loved families intimately because, upon losing his own mother at a tender age, the Blessed Mother supernaturally adopted him into the Holy Family. (His motto was “Toto Tuus”–everything for you, Mary). He enfleshed for his flock the Vatican Council’s teaching which calls the family, “the intimate community of life and love” (n.48). He was a faithful son to his mother Mary and brother Jesus.
The sacred duty of parents in a holy family is to transmit the faith that has been handed down by the apostles. Parents are the first Gospel their children will ever read. Therefore, parents must read the Gospel and pray. For this reason, my husband took the words of Fr. Newman seriously. Fr. Newman emphasized that fathers are the head of the household and profoundly responsible for the souls of their respective wives and children. My husband heeded that call 13 years ago. I feel certain St. Joseph, his role model, held him close in prayer. After all, St. Joseph loved and protected Jesus and his mother Mary from his conception, during their flight into Egypt, and throughout his childhood. St. Joseph raised a man who fulfilled God’s will perfectly. Would that all holy fathers raised their children so they would drain the cup when God offered it.
As a mother striving to raise children for heaven, I am loath to describe myself as a holy mother. One thing I know, God is using my family to perfect me in holiness. I read a book called He Leadeth Me by Fr. Walter Ciszek. I joke that God may be leading Fr. Ciszek, however “He Draggeth Me”! I willingly allow myself to be dragged, however. I could have chosen not to mother a large family. But, I heard God’s call in my heart to strive toward being a holy family. Year after year, for 20 years, I have said, “This is my body, given up for you, my God”. The fruit of the Holy Trinity is Love. The fruit of a holy family many times is children: love incarnated. I pray St. Augustine’s words, “you have made us for yourself, oh my God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” My fiat: “Here I am, Lord, take and use me.”
Norman Rockwell painted the “Marriage License” for the 6/11/55 cover of The Saturday Evening Post. Such a painting reveals the societal relevance of the sacred love between man and woman. Marriage was instituted by God to bear and nurture children. It is a preeminent sign of love in the world, therefore, a holy family sanctifies its members while they live out 1Corinthians 13. The angels do not want to hear a cacophony of hatred within a household. I often remind my children, “You will have the family you create. What kind of a family do you want to live in?” “Family become what you are!”
At some level Norman Rockwell understood the sacred nature of family life since he did portray families in religious settings. Without knowing it, Alejo deeply yearns for a holy family whose love lingers for eternity, not a family trapped on a Norman Rockwell canvas. In some small way I hope our family provided succor to him and inspired him to search for the truth inherent in family life. St. Augustine provides inspiration by recording in his Confessions how he searched for God everywhere outside himself, but God was within Him. God dwelt in his soul. He prays:
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
A blessed Thanksgiving, which mirrors yet perfects the Norman Rockwell thanksgiving painting, would be one where Alejo, his wife, and their daughter celebrated their sacred, permanent relationship, which, with God’s grace and much prayer, can bear all things.
This Thanksgiving our Chocolate Pecan Pie experiment was devoured. It received rave reviews. More importantly, I pray that the Holy Family was honored by Alejo and Jessica’s presence at our Thanksgiving dinner table.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph please make us a Holy Family.”
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph please make us a Holy Family.”
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph please make us a Holy Family.”
Editor’s note: this was originally published on CE on Dec 18, 2008 as “A Holy Family: More than a Norman Rockwell Painting”.