Tag Archives: family life

Setting the Table for All

GraceGrace Mariette Agolia

Undergraduate Fellow

Contact Author

I love sharing meals with other people, especially around the dinner table with my family.  In this sense, family, while including the biological, extends beyond that to a spiritual communion of persons, who express vulnerability by welcoming each other to the table, preparing a place for each person, serving each person, and embracing each other as he or she is in God.  You behold the body before you, you receive it, and you give of yourself in return.  It is both a physical and spiritual act.  I learned this experience of family in a special way during my time this past summer at a L’Arche home.

L’Arche is an international organization founded by Jean Vanier through which people with and without intellectual disabilities share life in community, build mutually transforming relationships, celebrate the dignity of each human person, and make known each other’s gifts by working together to build a better world. [1]

At tvince4he beginning and end of each dinner meal at L’Arche, we pray together.  We thank God for the gifts of family, friends, and food before we eat, and afterwards, we light a candle and pass it around to each person at the table as they express gratitude for certain experiences of the day and name their prayer intentions.  We conclude by joining hands to say the “Our Father.”  In gathering together around the table, we share our joys and sorrows, and we acknowledge each other’s dignity as persons created in the image of God.  The meal is not only about the food shared but also about the humanity shared with each other in kinship, where those at the margins are brought to the center.

Especially in a world where many are afraid to confront Lazarus begging for scraps at the table of plenty, this understanding of family where all, especially those on the margins of society, are welcomed at the table is essential for us to encounter God in human relationships.  We are to come to the feast of heaven and earth exactly as we are in God, and we are to embrace the dignity of all persons at the table, regardless of condition or ability.  For people with disabilities, this can be difficult because much of the non-acceptance that they face in society happens because others are not willing to incur a cost to themselves in trying to go beyond their fear in an attempt to understand.  Much of the disabling part is actually a social construction – the terrible feeling of isolation that results when other people, who do not understand because they are afraid, treat people with disabilities in a different way that can be demeaning.

Persons with disabilities are human beings.  Their experience of disability is a very particular type of challenge that they face in their daily lives.  It informs their experience as human beings, but it no way defines who they are.  Like every other human being, they seek love, they seek acceptance, they seek friendship, they seek communion.  Like all people, they must be offered a place at the table, where the human heart is called to relationship, to “a communion of hearts, which is the to-and-fro of love.” [2]

According to theologian Henri Nouwen:

[H]aving a meal is more than eating and drinking [to stay alive]. It is celebrating the gifts of life we share. A meal together is one of the most intimate and sacred human events. Around the table we become vulnerable, filling one another’s plates and cups and encouraging one another to eat and drink. Much more happens at a meal than satisfying hunger and quenching thirst. Around the table we become family, friends, community, yes, a body. That is why it is so important to ‘set’ the table. Flowers, candles, colorful napkins all help us to say to one another, “This is a very special time for us, let’s enjoy it!”  [3]

At L’Arche, we take great care in preparing and setting the table for each meal, ensuring that we have the right lastsuppernumber of places for all the people coming to dinner and that we can accommodate specific dietary needs.  Likewise, at Mass, it is so important to set a place for each person at the table, to invite them, to welcome them because that is true meaning of community.  We are to enjoy the beautiful presence of each other, of God coming into our midst.

This is part of the reason why I enjoyed attending Mass with the L’Arche core members.  They sat right in front at church, participating as fully and joyfully as they could using their gifts, and the whole parish community was so accepting of them as persons, which is a recognition that goes beyond merely accommodating a physical disability.  The accommodation needs to become a spiritual one for both persons in the relationship in order to bring them together, not just as one simply helping the other but as both mutually benefiting and being transformed by the interaction.

As Hauerwas and Vanier wrote,

“The Word became flesh to bring people together, to break down the walls of fear and hatred that separate people.  That’s the vision of the incarnation – to bring people together.  In his prayer for unity Jesus prayed that we might all become one.  We have this incredible vision of peacemaking, two thousand years in the making.” [4]

We are called to break down barriers of misunderstanding that separate us by giving and receiving the kiss of peace each day, and especially so during a family meal by taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing the bread that sustains all.

Sometimes, we have experiences of disruptive meals because of hostility and unreconciled differences among persons.  Those meals often go unfinished, with one person leaving in anger, the food wasted, the other sinking at the table, either no longer hungry, or eating in a futile attempt to fill the emotional emptiness.  Or there is an awkward silence as we cover ourselves by focusing on our food, anxious to get the meal over with so that we can escape the embarrassing situation.  There is no giving or receiving; only fear, and the walls go up.  We are left alone in isolation, in a division that threatens community.  This happens all too often in family life.  Some of us grow up not being able to be vulnerable, and it affects our relationships with other people.

When we are unable to accept the limitations of others, it is often because we are unable to accept our own.  For many of us, it is difficult “to accept our limits and our handicaps as well as our gifts and capacities.  We feel that if others see us as we really are they might reject us.  So we cover our weaknesses.” [5] Each of us has a strong desire to be valued and regarded as a person of worth, and when we discover those things which inhibit us from aspiring to our full potential or those things that are looked down upon by others, we want to hide them so that we may be accepted.  It is hard to expose our true selves because we run the risk of being rejected and hurt.  To give of oneself freely and to be accepting of another comes at a cost, but the rewards reaped can be great when love is returned.

When we accept each other as we are with all our weaknesses and strengths, and continuously come together to partake of the same meal, we grow together on our journey to God. When one gives to another, he or she allows the gift to be received, creating areas of inner spiritual growth.

For Jean Vanier, accompaniment is very much a part of life at L’Arche, but it is ultimately at the heart of all human growth. [6] We are to assume dispositions of humility and mercy for each other, so that we may walk together on this journey, encouraging the other to grow in loving relationship.  This mutual trust and belonging in communion is the “to-and-fro” movement of love between two people where each one gives and each one receives.  Communion is not a stagnant reality; it is continuously growing and deepening but “can turn sour if one person tries to possess the other, thus preventing growth.” [7] Both are enabled in freedom because they are allowed to be themselves.  As we partake of the meal together, we accompany each other in our spiritual journeys to union with God, which involves forgiveness and growth in understanding of each other.

In acknowledging and accepting each other’s vulnerability, we participate in this “to-and-fro of love,” a communion of hearts, where vulnerability and tenderness abounds.  By sharing the same meal and being incorporated into Christ’s loving act of self-gift, we are called to do the same in our lives when we are sent forth into the world after Mass.  We become a living body, unified in love through vulnerability in relationships.

By emphasizing relationships as brothers and sisters in Christ, L’Arche identifies itself as not just a service provider but also as a Christian community.  It is not just assistants caring for persons with disabilities; it is persons with disabilities caring for assistants as well.  The relationship is mutually beneficial and transforming, where both are called to vulnerability and to an ever-deeper love.  This is the nature of self-giving love that is intrinsic to family life.  There must be a selfless desire to give, and a humility to receive, both of which require vulnerability.  The love of husband and wife, the love of mother and father for their children, the love of siblings, the love of children for their parents, especially as they grow older and in turn, now need their children’s care.  We are formed in this love at Mass, at the Eucharistic table, and leaving, our lives become “Eucharistized,” as we share meals at our own family tables in our homes, welcoming all and preparing a place for all, especially those on the margins.

Gratitude is a fruit of this vulnerability of persons gathered together around the table.  Just as one core member at L’Arche expressed that his vision of heaven would be like the “First Thanksgiving,” pointing to a depiction of the Last Supper on the wall above the dining room table, we are called to enact each meal as a sacrifice of thanksgiving, honoring God and those human beings around us with sacred dignity.  We are called to give of ourselves in relationships of humble service and gratitude, as an offering of self-gift modeled on that of Jesus’ own gift on the cross.  Our hospitality to each other is a genuine example of how we should emulate Christ’s vulnerability in our lives.  In coming to the table, we do run the risk of allowing ourselves to be changed.  But unless we are transformed in love, how will we ever be able to kiss the crosses of others?  Our hearts become both the table and the altar where we encounter others and experience the person of Christ, who implores us to do this in his memory.



[1] I participated in the Summer Service Learning Program offered through the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns.  The theme of this year’s immersion experience was “Kinship at the Margins.”

[2] Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, p. 63

[3] Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved

[4] Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World:  The Prophetic Witness of Weakness

[5] Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, p. 100

[6] Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, p. 130

[7] Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, p. 28

Families Are Pumpkiny

MLewisMadeline Lewis ’17

Theology and English

Undergraduate Fellow, Center for Liturgy

Recently, my family and I attempted to go to the pumpkin patch together. Because, you know, it’s autumn, and picking out pumpkins is a nice family ritual. I’d like to be able to report that we all bundled up in perfectly unplanned matching plaid flannels, took family pictures where everyone looked photogenic and no one blinked, and then sipped apple cider and talked about how much we love each other. And I’m sure this is what would have happened, had it not been for the unfortunate minor detail that we actually never made it to the pumpkin patch in the first place. Because actually, despite my mother’s loving and adamant efforts to corral us all into a Perfect Family Memory, we never made it further than a couple of minutes away from campus.


Here’s what actually happened: after coming to terms with the difficulty of making my college schedule and that of my two high school brothers fit harmoniously, we settled for a Saturday morning excursion to the South Bend Farmer’s Market rather than a further-away bona fide pumpkin patch. But the funny thing is, we never actually made it to the Farmer’s Market, either. What we actually did was far more mundane: we ended up waiting for an hour for my brother to finish taking the SAT, listening to my younger brother rant about how icky he thinks girls are, and slowly watching the clock tick tirelessly into what would have been our pumpkin picking time. When my family dropped me off back at campus, I felt woefully pumpkin-less, and more than a little miffed at the “waste” of what could have been an otherwise productive morning.

Though I admit I was a tad miffed, I certainly wasn’t surprised. How often it is, in families, that things don’t go as planned. Being part of a family means that we find ourselves bound to others: we are messy, others are messy, and the result is, unsurprisingly, messy. We plan for a nice dinner out and then hungriness turns to grumpiness. We plan to be out the door by a certain time and then forgetfulness turns to tardiness. We plan to keep the house clean all week and cleanliness turns to dirtiness. I was miffed, but not surprised, that we seemed to miss the mark that Saturday morning.

When I was little, I used to watch wide-eyed as my dad scooped out the insides of our pumpkins in order to ready them for carving. I would watch as he lovingly spooned out the stringy, gooey, sloppy seed bits in order to help the glow of the candlelight shine clearly through. I always stared with wonder at the clumpy pile that would build up as the pumpkins were emptied out. It seems to me that families can be, at times, quite pumpkiny. There is gooeyness and stringiness to our family relationships, all sort of sloppy seed bits that we find in heaping spoonfuls. And yet, it is precisely in the sheer wondrous existence of the family that we find ourselves emptied out lovingly by the Father, and spooned out ourselves in the long process of becoming less clumpy and more able to glow.


I was thinking about the particularly pumpkiny clumpiness of family when a friend shared with me a delightful excerpt from G.K. Chesterton’s Blatchford Controversies. In this excerpt, Chesterton talks of the miracle that pumpkins remain in existence as pumpkins. While we may wish for our pumpkins to be magically transformed into fairytale coaches, Chesterton reminds us that it is no less magical that they should remain their pumpkin selves: after all, they are held into existence wondrously by the Father who loves all things into existence:

“Christianity holds that the world and its repetition came by will or Love as children are begotten by a father, and therefore that other and different things might come by it. Briefly, it believes that a God who could do anything so extraordinary as making pumpkins go on being pumpkins. (…) If you do not think it extraordinary that a pumpkin is always a pumpkin, think again. You have not yet even begun philosophy. You have not even seen a pumpkin.”

Perhaps, in Chesterton’s words, we may not only learn to see pumpkins clearly, but also the great wonder that is the family, for in these words we are reminded of a God who does extraordinary things, and who holds all things into existence lovingly. This is a God who dwells with us as we learn to dwell with each other: and it doesn’t matter if we are a little bit messy, a tad bit pumpkiny. Seeing the family with this sort of vision means that it doesn’t matter that we didn’t make it to the pumpkin patch that Saturday morning. What matters is the way it is simply magical to be called to love humans that we haven’t handpicked ourselves: the way that God has designed our existence to be fundamentally in relation to others, the exact particularly pumpkiny others that He has chosen to play a role in both our glowing and clumpy moments. In the end, to measure the wonder of the family by a fairytale picture of perfection would be to miss the miracle: simply that we exist together, held together and related to each other by the love of the Father.

Follow Madeline on Twitter @madlew4

Family Prayer and Ignatian Contemplation

Fred and Lisa Everett

Co-Directors, Office of Family Life
Diocese of Ft. Wayne-South Bend

This is the first of two videos from Fred and Lisa Everett, offering insights on building up a life of prayer within families. In this installment, the Everetts encourage an Ignatian approach to family prayer, reflecting on the stories of the Gospels in a way that engages and speaks to the imaginations of children.

The Intimacy of Love: On the Holy Family

John C. Cavadini, Ph.D.

McGrath-Cavadini Director, Institute for Church Life
Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame



In all the traditional icons of the Nativity, St. Joseph is depicted in the lower left hand corner of the picture, usually in green (I think), conversing with an old man. The seemingly wise old man represents the devil, who is trying to persuade Joseph that such a thing as a virginal conception and birth is absurd. The mystery of St. Joseph and his marriage to the Blessed Mother is also part of the Nativity tradition. It’s why the Feast of the Holy Family falls within the Octave of Christmas. The marriage of Joseph and Mary is a true marriage, where everything is writ large and invested with the most beautiful secrets of trust and love. These are represented in the icon by the panel with Joseph and the old man. Joseph received his own annunciation but unlike Mary’s, no permission is asked of him, though they are betrothed. Number one cause of possible resentment. Then the seemingly absolute contradiction of “conception/birth” and “virginal.” These very hard “secrets” were, according to St. Ignatius of Antioch, hidden from the Prince of this World from eternity. Here he is, tempting Joseph, sure that these things cannot happen. Since he is so convinced, it is proof that these are mysteries of profound love. The devil does not believe in love. It is “hidden” from him.

Wouldn’t this be the supreme challenge to a marriage? Requiring not just Mary to hold these things in her heart, but Joseph to believe what the angel has revealed and to accept that it is a fait accompli and that Mary has a higher allegiance? And yet, in his trust in God Joseph reveals he has a higher allegiance too. Their shared higher allegiance, exchanged over the sharing of the most intimate secrets proper only to husband and wife, define them as husband and wife; and in their shared love and trust, the “secrets” hidden from all eternity remain hidden, as marital intimacy, until “the hour has come” and Jesus, nourished by sharing in this gift of intimacy as a child, must, like all children, grow up and be Himself, and so the Word boldly spoke forth all that was in His heart from the Father. Yet a non-docetic Christology must hold that in some way these secrets were imparted to Him through the sacrament — and I use the word advisedly — of the bound hearts of Joseph and Mary. This marriage, we can see in the icon above, was not exempt from all of the trials that all married couples endure, but absorbed in love.

But the devil never understands this intimacy; the devil sees only pragmatic alliances, and so is always resolved on intruding and trying to convince spouses that what happiness they have shared is an illusion, that the reality is the difficulties and not the joys. He is trying to convince Joseph that the cracks of darkness in the icon that show the cave and represent death, is the truth, and not the offspring of light that already sets the darkness into relief.  Yet we who see the icon know the truth, the light shined in the darkness and “the darkness has not overcome” the true Light that enlightens every person who comes into the world.

Benedictine Spirituality as Integral to Liturgical Formation

The Notre Dame Center for Liturgy is pleased to make available a series by Prof. Maxwell Johnson, of the University of Notre Dame’s theology department, on Benedictine Spirituality.  This is part of our new initiative in liturgical spirituality.  In coming months, these videos will also be included in an ICL Conversation, with additional reading in Benedictine theology.