St. Monica can teach us a few things about navigating tricky family relationships.
Have you wanted to pull your hair out after a conversation at a family reunion? Sometimes donating a kidney to a stranger seems much easier than keeping up the small talk with your brother-in-law. Maybe he’s a nice enough person, but you just don’t agree on much. And if your faith is important to you, but it’s not to him, that just adds to the layers of frustration all around.
This came up in the Gospel reading from a couple of Sundays ago. Jesus talks about how he has come to set the world on fire, and that fire will cause division in families. A father will be divided against his son, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law. If Jesus brought it up, you know the challenge is real.
So what to do about it? Today is the feast of St. Monica. Her mother-in-law and her husband were not Christian, shared a fiery temper, and were not happy with her Christian way of life. On top of that, her mother-in-law lived with them, keeping the situation tense on all sides. Looking at St. Monica’s life gives some insight into how to navigate tricky family relationships with grace.
The first step in any difficult relationship situation is the following classic and often-given advice:
1Pray for them
St. Monica’s prayers helped convert her husband at the end of his life, her mother-in-law, and her son, the future St. Augustine. If the only prayer you can pray is “Please, God, help them find you,” then that’s a good start. But try to go further. “God, show me how to love X.” Ask for the grace to know how to interact with X in a loving way. If he or she has legitimately hurt you in the past, then you’ll probably also need to pray for the grace to forgive him/her. All in all, that can add up to a lot of praying and a lot of saying the same kinds of prayers over and over again. But Jesus says “ask and it will be given to you.” So, we might as well take Him up on it.
2Seek advice from someone you trust
Monica asked priests about her struggles with her family, and their advice and reassurance gave her hope and helped her persevere. If you can find a priest or religious sister near you who has some availability, ask to set up an appointment for spiritual guidance. Or if you know someone you want advice from who lives far away, ask if they have some time for a phone conversation. A listening ear and some words of reassurance go a long way. One note to keep in mind, make sure that you’re truly seeking advice and not just looking for a way to gossip or get sympathy. Keep details to a minimum, and don’t vent to just anybody — choose who and where you ask for advice carefully.
3Lastly, keep up the relationship
This last step is the hardest to put into practice. St. Monica tried severing ties with her son once, as she was so angry at him for some of his beliefs. But she ended up reaching back out to him and they continued staying in touch. She also lived with her husband and mother-in-law until their deaths. Keeping up the relationship will mean different things depending on how far away you live from family. It might mean a few intentional phone calls throughout the year, or getting together in person when you’d rather do anything but that. Regardless, putting forth some effort is necessary to keep a relationship alive. And hopefully, those prayers and perseverance will show some fruit down the line.
St. Monica, through your intercession, help us love our family members who don’t share our faith!