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The Hope of the Domestic Church

August 17, 2021


This piece on the domestic church first appeared in the Winter 2020 Hope issue of Evangelization & Culture, the quarterly journal of the Word on Fire Institute. Learn more and become a member today to read more pieces like this.

Thus, without exception, all the world works for the little girl hope.

All that we do we do for children. 

And it’s the children who make it all get done.

All that we do.

As if they led us by the hand. 

Thus all that we do, everything that everyone does is done for the sake of the little girl hope. 

—Charles Péguy, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, trans. D.L. Schindler (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1996)

“It must be comforting to weather the pandemic with a toddler in the house,” a friend said to me recently. And she’s right. It has been. 

My youngest child, Hildegard, is barely two years old and loves to dance with her big sisters. Upon hearing music she’ll eagerly grab a hand and twirl as her strawberry blonde curls bounce around her tiny shoulders, squeals of glee erupting from her laughing mouth. The worries and cares of this difficult season that send me into panic attacks don’t bother her a bit. She moves through life with absolute confidence that, as Lady Julian of Norwich said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” 

As my toddler’s confident playfulness has warmed my heart during dark hours, I’ve thought of how she personifies the virtue of hope as it’s described in Charles Péguy’s incredible poem The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, published in 1911. Péguy was a French poet and essayist; he was killed in World War I on the first day of the battle of the Marne. Portal reads almost like a theological treatise about the virtue of hope expressed in moving poetry, and many of its images of hope are inspired by Péguy’s family life and fatherhood. 

In Portal, Péguy describes the virtue of hope as “this little girl hope.” “And yet it’s this little girl who will endure worlds. / This little girl, nothing at all. / She alone, carrying the others, who will cross worlds past.” Hope is the tiny child that walks between her older sisters, Faith and Charity. She appears small but is powerful enough to propel the other virtues forward. She is the driving force behind them:

It’s she, the little one, who carries them all.

Because Faith sees only what is.

But she, she sees what will be.

Charity loves only what is.

But she, she loves what will be. 

This “little girl hope” who walks alongside her sisters is an active virtue, a virtue in motion on the road of Christian faith. 

Every Christian lives on this road of the “not yet” in “the absence of fulfillment and the orientation toward fulfillment,” as twentieth-century Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper describes it in Faith, Hope, Love. In the book, he explains the concept of the status viatoris, “the condition or state of being on the way.” This condition is the pilgrim nature of the Christian life, a life moving toward something not yet fulfilled. A distinction should be made between the natural hope we experience as human beings as we look toward desires we would want to be fulfilled and the supernatural hope that is only possible through God’s grace. Natural hope points us toward a future goal—perhaps worthy employment to support our family, good health for our bodies, or another temporal good—but the fulfillment of those desires will eventually pass away. Supernatural hope given to us through supernatural grace draws us out of ourselves toward a goal that will not pass away: the beatific vision. 

Like the “little girl hope” of Péguy’s poem, my two-year-old daughter is a personification of the virtue of hope to my troubled mind. But in the same way, the family—or as Lumen Gentium beautifully describes it, “the domestic church”—is a defiantly hopeful symbol to our troubled world. There is a tendency to despair over the overwhelming problems we face, such as political strife, religious persecution, abortion, and warfare, which cause great suffering across the globe and appear only to be worsening. We see these looming problems motivate decisions about family life in groups like the BirthStrikers, a movement of women who refuse to start families because they think the pain the world will inflict on their children would be too great to bear. A culture of despair sees family life as either the project of delusion or of selfishness. To intentionally start a family in this broken world seems as strange as my toddler confidently dancing her way through a pandemic. But while we may be tempted to see joyful hope as merely the naïveté of a wide-eyed little girl, hope is not a denial of the reality of pain and suffering in the world. Hope looks beyond present grief to the reality of the Resurrection. This is why family life is a calling that transcends the present darkness and reaches toward eternal life.

Cultivating family life, the domestic church, means living in hope. It is a project in which each day is lived for tomorrow. Raising children is never stagnant work. As parents, we are constantly teaching our children not merely what they need for today but what they need for tomorrow. We equip them for the road ahead, praying that their destination is paradise. On difficult days, after little sleep, thankless tasks, and sibling bickering, I often imagine Christmas morning when my children are grown. Perhaps my youngest is eagerly awaiting her two big sisters’ return from college. Maybe my firstborn son brings a wife and child. What bliss if all these years of formation, guidance through conflict, and practice in patience could result in beautiful lifelong relationships. Will my children stay up late talking into the night, treasuring time together? After we return from Christmas Mass, will they take over the preparation of their favorite recipes, making a mess of the kitchen with joyful laughter? The work of caring for small children is done in light of the future, but all of my dreams for their future on earth are but a shadow of what they are designed for in heaven. 

And yet even desires for family life fall short of true hope if they do not draw us out of ourselves toward the love of God and his plan for the faithful. Like any beautiful and good desire, if twisted by selfishness, family life can become an idol. Rather than properly ordering us toward our heavenly goal, it can become a warped pursuit resulting in the commodification of children. If instead of unique souls stamped with the divine image of God we view children as trophies for our holiness or little soldiers we are conscripting for battle in the culture wars, we fail to live out the true virtue of hope in our domestic church.

Hope is the virtue embodied by the domestic church because it is the essential virtue of what it means to be a creature made in the image of God and ordered toward eternity. This is the identity that we learn in the home, what the Catechism calls “the first school of Christian life.” Hope motivates our work within the domestic church for this life and the next. Any parent can understand how their children motivate their natural hope in their commitment to sacrifice in order to create a temporal home of safety, beauty, community, and growth. But the family also orients us to love beyond the four walls of our homes. The family motivates our participation in God’s redemption of the world. Our children call us to action. Even those who are not parents recognize how the existence of children motivates living in active hope. 

One of the most disturbing films I have ever seen is Children of Men, which is based on P.D. James’ dystopian novel. It is a story of a world in which mass infertility has robbed the entire human population of children, and humanity is a dying race. When I watched the film several years ago, it triggered a visceral reaction. I fought waves of nausea while watching the movie’s muted colors, dark filters, and depiction of complete despair. A world without children is a world in which there is nothing to live for. Elementary schools shut down, then middle schools, then high schools. What need for museums when there will be no one to see the exhibits? What need to create when there is no one to enjoy it? Why develop scientific advancements when they will benefit no one? Why philosophize when there will be no one to pass on our wisdom? The result is a world in total collapse and completely devoid of hope. But then, against all odds, a woman falls pregnant. And in a movingly incarnational moment, a child’s cry piercing the darkness for the first time in decades causes the world to fall silent at the sound. Guns are lowered, hands reach out to touch the miraculous tiny foot of an infant, onlookers drop to their knees in awe. It is the voice of hope.

As disturbing as the premise of the film is—a world suffering infertility—it’s perhaps more upsetting to consider the pursuit of affluence and convenience over the sacrifice and beauty of the domestic church. Pope Francis, in a homily from 2019, critiqued the culture of intentional childlessness, saying, “This is the drama of today: houses full of things but empty of children.” Such an attitude is opposed to the pilgrim life of the Church. It is a form of despair that denies the final end of man, replacing our destiny in eternity for the comforts of the world. If hope is intimately connected to our desires, then directing our lives toward the cultivation of possessions and affluence rather than the love of infinitely more precious human beings reveals small-souled desires rather than the longing for the fulfillment of the great plans God has for us. In an address in 2005 Pope Benedict XVI said, “Christ did not promise an easy life. Those who desire comforts have dialed the wrong number. Rather, he shows us the way to great things, the good, towards an authentic human life.” And his inspiring words have been paraphrased into the popular quote: “We were not made for comfort. We were made for greatness.” The supernatural gift of hope calls us to something greater than the limp desires of a consumerist world. This virtue leads us onward to heaven, just as Péguy’s little child does as she leads her sisters by the hand.

The domestic church is a defiantly hopeful symbol of this orientation toward eternity. It says in the face of these dark times, “There will be a tomorrow, and I will work to make it more beautiful by the grace of God.” 

But in addition to being a symbol of hope, the domestic church is also a source of hope. The family is the future of the whole Church. Both lay people and those called to religious vocations begin their life of faith in the family. And each family is called to the practice of hospitality so it can minister to the rest of the Church. The Catechism reminds us, “The doors of homes, the ‘domestic churches,’ and of the great family which is the Church must be open to all of them. No one is without a family in this world: the Church is a home and family for everyone, especially those who ‘labor and are heavy laden.’” Catholic families are a microcosm of the Church as a whole, a sign of the reality of faith, hope, and sacrificial love that forms our souls. And as such, the domestic church should have open doors—providing companionship along this pilgrim life of faith to those who would otherwise walk alone and cultivating hope in the hearts of the weary.

Nourishing the domestic church is the difficult work that is done for the love of our children. In Portal, Charles Péguy claims that all the work that is done on earth is done for the sake of children. He offers a beautiful image of a father, hard at work in the woods during a bitterly cold winter. His young family at home gives meaning to his work and strengthens him to persevere: 

But would the father have the heart to work if he didn’t have his children.

If it weren’t for the sake of his children . . .

All of a sudden he thinks about his wife who stayed at home . . . 

And about his children who are peaceful and safe at home.

Who are playing and having fun right now in front of the fire. 

As this hardworking father is strengthened by the knowledge that his children are safe at home, the Church is strengthened by the existence of Catholic families. 

Caryll Houselander, a British spiritual writer, reminds us in her moving work The Reed of God that Christ wants to be found by us in our families. “We know by faith that Christ is in our own family; it is He whom we foster in our children. When you tell your child a story, when you play a game with your little son, you tell a story, you play a game with the Christ Child.” And we know our Lord is hope incarnate. According to Pieper, “the only answer” for man’s situation is hope. The only answer to our condition is our living hope, Jesus Christ. The domestic church is an incarnational symbol of hope made flesh, designed to reflect the Holy Family and educate us in sacrificial love. We cultivate it, guard it, and are called to action by it because at the center of it all is the Christ Child. He is the one at home before our hearths as we toil on, like the French father of Péguy’s poem. He is the one offering us the supernatural grace we need to have the virtue of hope. He is the one who takes us by the hand, leading us on this pilgrim journey and speaking hope to our weary souls, saying, “Take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33). Any home where the domestic church becomes his throne will call out to a weary Church and the despairing world with the voice of hope and life.

All that we do we do for children.

And it’s the children who make it all get done. 

All that we do. 

As if they led us by the hand.