Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Spiritual nags

Gentlemen readers may skip this post if they wish; I'm talking to my fellow Catholic and Christian women about a spiritual problem some women sometimes have.

Not long ago during a conversation Thad and I were having, he paid me an unusual compliment. What it amounted to was this: he was expressing his appreciation that I tend to avoid being a spiritual nag (which was my term, not his, but it's pretty much what he was expressing). At least, I've learned to avoid it...

What is a spiritual nag, and why is it good not to be one?

In order to talk about what a spiritual nag is, we first have to talk about what one is not. And to talk about that, we have to talk about the family as the domestic church, and the husband and father as the ordinary spiritual head of that domestic church. Ordinarily in a Christian family, the husband is the primary leader of the family's spiritual health and well being within the home (just as the pastor or minister is the leader within the church community). This does not mean that the husband and father lords it over his family or directs all of their activities in the spiritual realm with no input, but it does mean that ultimately he has the decision-making abilities.

It's important to note that a wife and mother is not being a spiritual nag if she has by necessity adopted the role of spiritual leader of the domestic church--that is, if she must perform this role because her husband refuses to do so or can't be the spiritual head of the family. This might happen if the husband is not a Christian or no longer practices the faith, or if he simply neglects not only his own prayer life and spiritual development but that of his family as well. In such cases the wife and mother must step in and lead her children in prayer, instruct them in the faith, take them to church, and otherwise direct their spiritual lives.

A wife and mother is also not being a spiritual nag if her husband needs her for some good reason to take charge in this area of family life. Perhaps her religious education is significantly better than his while he is still learning, or perhaps he is temporarily away from the family due to military service or some other important cause; there could be many situations in which a wife must act as the family's spiritual head by her husband's express wish.

Being a spiritual nag is a different sort of thing altogether, and though I may not express it all that well, I think it's worth a shot. A spiritual nag is a woman who insists on treating her husband like a spiritual infant, even if he's quite mature in the faith. She sets the family's prayer schedule, considers it her job to arrange for Mass or worship services as well as any additional church activities, and regularly signs her family up for parish or community service opportunities without even asking her husband whether or not he wants to participate in those opportunities. She is completely in charge of the family's Confession schedule. She decides which devotions the family will adopt and when they will say the prayers relating to those devotions. She unilaterally plans everything from the family's Lenten sacrifices, prayers, and spiritual readings to the family's Advent activities. She often seems to have a "Let's do it all!" mindset which crowds in as many devotional habits, prayers, and practices as possible; she has been known to call her husband at work to remind him to say the Divine Mercy chaplet at 3 p.m. or to let him know that the new course of spiritual DVDs she has ordered from her favorite religious bookstore have arrived and will be started that evening as soon as he's home from work.

And if her husband, or, indeed, any member of the family objects to the frenetic schedule of home-based devotions or parish-centered activities, she is quite likely to be either offended or sad, and to remind the objector that she only wishes to get them all to Heaven...

Now, there is nothing wrong with a wife approaching her husband with Lenten plans or Advent ideas or even a suggestion about the family's general prayer life. The difference with a spiritual nag approach is that the spiritual nag isn't presenting ideas or suggestions; she has already decided that the family will do X, whatever X is, and that they will add it to A through W which they are already doing (and she's considering Y for later...). She is not, in other words, even in her heart, willing to let her husband be the spiritual head of the family; even if he kindly and thoughtfully expresses the notion that getting involved in a new weekly hour-long committment at church may be more than the family can handle at the moment (considering the baby, the toddler, the other children, and the six other hour-long weekly parish activities the family is already signed up for), she is not going to listen, because doing all these things, to her, means taking the faith seriously and trying to be holy. Theoretically she may tell herself that her husband is in charge, but in actual fact, she is afraid that letting him use his "veto" power will mean that the family's total spiritual life will dwindle down to Mass on Sunday and a "Hail Mary" prayed before the children go to bed--and that's nowhere near enough to prove that one is really trying to be holy!

I may have expressed this with a bit of gentle humor (at least, I hope that gentle humor rather than harsh sarcasm is the tone here; tone is just so hard to convey). But the point I'd like to make is that unless our husbands truly are incapable of being the spiritual heads of our families, we're supposed to let them be. Does it mean we never suggest a prayer habit, devotional practice, or church activity? Of course not. Does it mean we listen, though, to their honest thoughts about these things, remembering that each individual person's prayer life is different, and that the challenge as a family is to foster both opportunities for family prayer and spiritual habits and private, individual ones? Does it mean that we respect our husbands' wishes when it comes to family prayer time? I think we should--if we don't want to be spiritual nags. :)


priest's wife said...

very interesting- one thing to develop- how does a homeschooling-type mom avoid making these spiritual activities decisions when dear husband is always working?

but I knew I wanted my husband to be the spiritual head of the household- so I married a future priest! ;)

Rebecca in ID said...

I'm just it really super rare for the dynamic to be the opposite? For the husband to be super-ultra pious, and however many devotions his family does, it doesn't quite live up to his standards of holiness? Maybe it is very rare, but I wonder what the woman's role is in that case, since he is the spiritual head of the family.

Kate said...

I am one of those Rebecca in ID is talking about. My husband is far more religious than I am. I go along to get along, if you know what I mean. You'd not be able to see the difference because outwardly I seem to be of a similar mind. My constant doubts and the sense of climbing a sheer cliff spiritually make this whole enterprise a challenge. So, I help teach religious ed. in my autistic son's class, so that I can help manage his behavior and handle his toileting issues without tripping the sex abuse regulations in place. Our pastor volunteered us for the St. Vincent de Paul Society but I stopped going because I was turned off by the need of clients to jump through all sorts of hoops to prove their worthiness of any aid and assistance they needed and the conference and deanery's president's sitting on money instead of using it. I spoke my piece, was pretty much frowned on by the rest of group (because they've always done it this way) and let it go. Our pastor since then has been better about "volunteering" me or my spouse for other endeavors without asking first. Otherwise, I stay out of any and all liturgical ministries because I am entirely sick of the gender issues and other Trad/nonTrad issues that are part and parcel of these things. So otherwise, I simply go to Mass, and mostly focus on keeping my autistic son as little disruptive as possible (which can be challenging because certain songs or parts of Mass can really set him off because of sensory overload). Plus I keep messing up with the whole new translation thing, am having trouble reading and following along so I don't screw up while keeping my little guy in line and please my spouse and those around me at the same time. So because I can't do both, I've given up on actually responding right now because I don't want to disrupt the flow of things, and I can't manage my child and read the missal at the same time. Something has to give. So I have given up and in. Believe me, this has only worsened the difficulties I've managed to keep inside and to myself. So, yes my husband is the leader, sometimes the spiritual nag too, and I simply go along to keep the peace. It's been at least ten years of spiritual drought and darkness (basically a complete absence of any feeling or sense of divine presence). Right now, it's all just words, intellect and will that even keeps me going to church right now. I have no problem teaching religious ed. because I know my job is to echo Church teaching, faith and tradition and leave my own at the door when and if it differs (which it doesn't). My father gave me the best marriage advice ever: Don't nag. So I don't. Ever. My husband can and sometimes does. I simply choose to work with it and go with the flow. It's as simple and as difficult as that.

Anyhow, that's just my take.


Charlotte said...

Too many spiritual nags out there in the Catholic blogosphere, that's for sure!

Patrick said...

While I agree that the man is generally supposed to be the spiritual head of the household, I've observed that Irish Catholic extended families tend toward matriarchy: there is generally a great aunt Marie or Kathleen who is informally the "head" of an extended clan. "Family business" doesn't, in other words, get done unless this particular great aunt has agreed to it or not opposed it.

Perhaps this is just a holdover from the ethnic neighborhoods of the 1950s: still, I see my sister (age 32) quickly becoming the "great aunt Marie" of twenty years hence.