Editor's Note: In reaction to the culture's attacks on the family, some Christians run the risk of romanticizing "the Family." The following is a helpful antidote to "Famiolatry."
And so, said the preacher, 'The Home must be the foundation of our national life. It is there, all said and done, that character is formed. It is there that we appear as we really are. It is there we can fling aside the weary disguises of the outer world and be ourselves. It is there that we retreat from the noise and stress and temptation and dissipation of daily life to seek the sources of fresh strength and renewed purity…' And as he spoke I noticed that all confidence in him had departed from every member of that congregation who was under thirty. They had been listening well up to this point. Now the shufflings and coughings began. Pews creaked; muscles relaxed. The sermon, for all practical purpose, was over; the five minutes for which the preacher continued talking were a total waste of time–at least for most of us.
Whether I wasted them or not is for you to judge. I certainly did not hear any more of the sermon. I was thinking; and the starting point of my thought was the question, "How can he? How can he of all people?" For I knew the preacher's own home pretty well. In fact, I had been lunching there that very day, making a fifth to the Vicar and the Vicar's wife and the son (R. A. F.) (1) and the daughter (A. T. S.), (2) who happened both to be on leave. I could have avoided it, but the girl had whispered to me, "For God's sake stay to lunch if they ask you. It's always a little less frightful when there's a visitor."
Lunch at the vicarage nearly always follows the same pattern. It starts with a desperate attempt on the part of the young people to keep up a bright patter of trivial conversation: trivial not because they are trivially minded (you can have real conservation with them if you get them alone), but because it would never occur to either of them to stay at home anything they were really thinking, unless it is forced out of them by anger. They are talking only to try to keep their parents quiet. They fail. The Vicar, ruthlessly interrupting, cuts in on a quite different subject. He is telling us how to re-educate Germany. He has never been there and seems to know nothing either of German history or the German language. 'But, father,' begins the son, and gets no further. His mother is now talking, though nobody knows exactly when she began. She is in the middle of a complicated story about how badly some neighbour has treated her. Though it goes on a long time, we never learn either how it began or how it ended: it is all middle. 'Mother, that's not quite fair,' says the daughter at last. 'Mrs. Walker never said–" but her father's voice booms in again. He is telling his son about the organization of the R.A.F. So it goes on until either the Vicar or his wife says something so preposterous that the boy or the girl contradicts and insists on making the contradiction heard. The real minds of the young people have at last been called into action. They talk fiercely, quickly, contemptuously. They have facts and logic on their side. There is an answering flare up from the parents. The father storms; the mother is (oh, blessed domestic queen's move!) "hurt"–plays pathos for all she is worth. The daughter becomes ironical. The father and son, elaborately ignoring each other, start talking to me. The lunch party is in ruins.
The memory of that lunch worries me during the last few minutes of the sermon. I am not worried by the fact that the Vicar's practice differs from his precept. That is, no doubt, regrettable, but it is nothing to the purpose. As Dr. Johnson said, precept may be very sincere (and, let us add, very profitable) where practice is very imperfect, (3) and no one but a fool would discount a doctor's warnings about alcoholic poisoning because the doctor himself drank too much. What worries me is the fact that the Vicar is not telling us at all that home life is difficult and has, like every form of life, its own proper temptations and corruptions. He keeps on talking as if "home" were a panacea, a magical charm which of itself was bound to produce happiness and virtue. The trouble is not that he is insincere but that he is a fool. He is not talking from his own experience of family life at all: he is automatically reproducing a sentimental tradition–and it happens to be a false tradition. That is why the congregation have stopped listening to him.
If Christian teachers wish to recall Christian people to domesticity and I, for one, believe that people must be recalled to it–the first necessity is to stop telling lies about home life and to substitute realistic teaching. Perhaps the fundamental principles would be something like this.
1. Since the Fall no organization or way of life whatever has a natural tendency to go right. In the Middle Ages some people thought that if only they entered a religious order they would find themselves automatically becoming holy and happy: the whole native literature of the period echoes with the exposure of that fatal error. In the nineteenth century some people thought that monogamous family life would automatically make them holy and happy; the savage anti-domestic literature of modern times–the Samuel Butlers, the Gosses, the Shaws–delivered the answer. In both cases the "de-bunkers" may have been wrong about principles and may have forgotten the maxim abusus non tollit usum (the abuse does not abolish the use) but in both cases they were pretty right about the matter of fact. Both family life and monastic life were often detestable, and it should be noticed that the serious defenders of both are well aware of the dangers and free of the sentimental illusion. The author of the Imitation of Christ knows (no one better) how easily monastic life goes wrong. Charlotte M. Yonge makes it abundantly clear that domesticity is no passport to heaven on earth but an arduous vocation–a sea full of hidden rocks and perilous ice shores only to be navigated by one who uses a celestial chart. That is the first point on which we must be absolutely clear. The family, like the nation, can be offered to God, can be converted and redeemed, and will then become the channel of particular blessings and graces. But, like everything else that is human, it needs redemption. Unredeemed, it will produce only particular temptations, corruptions, and miseries. Charity begins at home: so does uncharity.
2. By the conversion or sanctification of family life we must be careful to mean something more than the preservation of "love" in the sense of natural affection. Love (in that sense) is not enough. Affection, as distinct from charity, is not a cause of lasting happiness. Left to its natural bent affection [it] becomes in the end greedy, naggingly solicitous, jealous, exacting, timorous. It suffers agony when its object is absent–but is not repaid by any long enjoyment when the object is present. Even at the Vicar's lunch table affection was partly the cause of the quarrel. That son would have borne patiently and humorously from any other old man the silliness which enraged him in his father. It is because he still (in some fashion) "cares" that he is impatient. The Vicar's wife would not be quite that endless whimper of self-pity which she now is if she did not (in a sense) "love" the family: the continued disappointment of her continued and ruthless demand for sympathy, for affection, for appreciation has helped to make her what she is. I do not think this aspect of affection is nearly enough noticed by most popular moralists. The greed to be loved is a fearful thing. Some of those who say (and almost with pride) that they live only for love come, at last, to live in incessant resentment.
3. We must realize the yawning pitfall in that very characteristic of home life which is so often glibly paraded as its principal attraction. "It is there that we appear as we really are: it is there that we can fling aside the disguises and be ourselves." These words, in the Vicar's mouth, were only too true and he showed at the lunch table what they meant. Outside his own house he behaves with ordinary courtesy. He would not have interrupted any other young man as he interrupted his son. He would not, in any other society, have talked confident nonsense about subjects of which he was totally ignorant: or, if he had, he would have accepted correction with good temper. In fact, he values home as the place where he can "be himself" in the sense of trampling on all the restraints which civilized humanity has found indispensable for tolerable social intercourse. And this, I think, is very common. What chiefly distinguishes domestic from public conversation is surely very often simply its downright rudeness. What distinguishes domestic behaviour is often its selfishness, slovenliness, incivility–even brutality. And it will often happen that those who praise home life most loudly are the worst offenders in this respect: they praise it–they are always glad to get home, hate the outer world, can't stand visitors, can't be bothered meeting people, etc.–because the freedoms in which they indulge themselves at home have ended by making them unfit for civilized society. If they practiced elsewhere the only behavior they now find "natural" they would simply be knocked down.
4. How, then, are people to behave at home? If a man can't be comfortable and unguarded, can't take his ease and "be himself" in his own house, where can he? That is, I confess, the trouble. The answer is an alarming one. There is nowhere this side of heaven where one can safely lay the reins on the horse's neck. It will never be lawful simply to "be ourselves" until "ourselves" have become sons of God. It is all there in the hymn– "Christian, seek not yet repose." This does not mean, of course, that there is no difference between home life and general society. It does mean that home life has its own rule of courtesy–a code more intimate, more subtle, more sensitive, and, therefore, in some ways more difficult, than that of the outer world.
5. Finally, must we not teach that if the home is to be a means of grace it must be a place of rules? There cannot be a common life without a regula. The alternative to rule is not freedom but the unconstitutional (and often unconscious) tyranny of the most selfish member.
In a word, must we not either cease to preach domesticity or else begin to preach it seriously? Must we not abandon sentimental eulogies and begin to give practical advice on the high, hard, lovely, and adventurous art of really creating the Christian family?
2 [ Back ] Auxilliary Territorial Service.
3 [ Back ] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. George B. Hill (Oxford, 1934), vol. IV, p. 397.