December 22, 2015

Fr. René Butler: Principles for Family Life

The Holy Family In honor of the upcoming Feast of the Holy Family, we present to you Father René Butler's insightful reflection for families, "Principles for Family Life": 

Fr. René Butler

It’s easy to imagine the life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. All we have to do is picture the perfect family: never a cross word, no signs of impatience… None of the unpleasant things that are part of the life of most families.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a beautiful theology of the family. But it isn’t theology that makes family life good. Of course what the Catechism teaches is true. Family prayer is important. But healthy common sense is what families need, an understanding of what it takes to live together.

What follows is a talk I have given to members of religious communities, but the principles apply to family life too. There are eight principles, each with consequences.

PRINCIPLE 1 – Snowflake principle: People are like snowflakes, no two are alike.

Consequence: I cannot be what I am not. I can admire others without having to become like them. I can accept myself with my imperfections. That door swings both ways: I can accept others with their imperfections. If persons X, Y, Z can’t be X, Y, Z, who are they supposed to be?

Other consequence: Not to be used as an excuse. I still need to work on my faults.

PRINCIPLE 2 – Elbows and toes: You can’t rub elbows with the same people day in and day out without sometimes stepping on each others toes.

Consequence: Expect and accept the occasional tension. Be realistic.

PRINCIPLE 3 – Hello, I’m nobody!
I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you -- Nobody -- Too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise -- you know!
How dreary -- to be -- Somebody!
How public -- like a Frog --
To tell one's name -- the livelong June --
To an admiring Bog!
-- Emily Dickinson
Consequence: We need a sense of humor about others and about ourselves.

Other consequence: Believe it or not, the universe doesn’t revolve around me; you either. I’m OK, you’re OK.

PRINCIPLE 4 – Remember to forget. The story is told that Clara Barton, on being reminded by someone of an offense she had suffered years before, replied, “I distinctly remember forgetting that.”

Consequence: The burden of resentment usually weighs me down more than the person who offended me in the first place.

PRINCIPLE 5 – “Of course.” We all know what people are like and how people behave. E.g.: Of course people talk about me behind my back.

Consequence: Anticipate and live with certain universal behaviors, bad days, etc.

PRINCIPLE 6 – Avoid Funagalo language. (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, p. 21.) "They taught us Funagalo, which is the language used for giving orders underground [in the mines]. It is a strange language.... It is a language which is good for telling people what to do. There are many words for push, take, shove, carry, load, and no words for love, or happiness, or the sounds which birds make in the morning.")

Consequence: share more than work-related ideas and plans, but love of arts, etc. Anything that brings light into your life. Even – why not? – faith.

PRINCIPLE 7 – Everyone needs a home In “The Death of the Hired Man” (Robert Frost), the wife of a farmer tells her husband that a former worker has returned. The farmer doesn’t want him. The conversation continues as follows:
Wife: He has come home to die.
Husband: Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.
Wife: I should have called it, something you somehow haven’t to deserve.
Consequence: Difference between a house and a home.

PRINCIPLE 8 – Somebody’s got to do it. There are things that I can't or won't do that need doing, maybe by people very different from me, whether I like them or not.

Consequence: Be supportive, don’t get in the way.


Family life needs, more than anything else, acceptance. The starting point is to recognize how deeply we are accepted and loved by God. If we can then learn to accept and love ourselves and others as we and they are accepted and loved by God, our families will be transformed.

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