I was lingering in a church after a funeral Mass one recent Saturday afternoon. An…
Anxious about holiday gatherings? Lessons from Scripture can help
Do you number yourself among those who approach family holiday gatherings with sadness rather than joy? For survivors of family abuse or dysfunction, the holiday season can promise more hurt than hope. Thankfully, tucked into Scripture are spiritual and practical tips to guide Catholics through troubled family encounters, especially through the pressures of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
Tip No. 1: Surrender expectations
Scott Weeman, founder of Catholic in Recovery and author of “The Twelve Steps and the Seven Sacraments” (Ave Maria, $15.95), is part of a family tree impacted by addiction. While in active addiction himself, Weeman responded to his family much the way Zechariah responded to Gabriel’s message, by harboring resentment that God’s plan was not his. Through recovery, however, Weeman has discovered the joy, as Mary did in the Annunciation, of receiving others as they are.
“I would say that my relationship with my family of origin has been complicated by personal trauma and a lot of selfishness, dishonesty and manipulation, both on my part and the part of others.” One year, he says, “I was uninvited to our family Christmas, because I wasn’t sober.”
His father and stepmother still came to visit him at his home. At the time, he resented being left out. Now that he has been in recovery for a decade, he looks back and sees how surrender brought peace. “I can look back and see that was an act of love, that they came to see me and maintained boundaries.
“Now I understand that opportunity to gather as a family is such a gift, and it’s also a gift that can be unappreciated if you’re putting heavy expectations on other people or what the day should look like,” he adds.
Tip No. 2: Serve others
When Mary, newly expecting God’s son, rushed to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth, she gave family trauma survivors another example of how to handle holiday pressures: service to others. This approach resonates with both Marge Steinhage Fenelon and Jim Wahlberg, two Catholic authors who have experienced holidays made painful by difficult family relationships.
Fenelon is the author of “Forgiving Mother: A Marian Novena of Healing and Peace” (Servant, $14.99). She grew up with an emotionally volatile mother. Whether she was a child at home or bringing her own children to visit their grandmother, Fenelon says, “We would try to have a meal or plan to have Christmas together or Thanksgiving. She would pick a fight. There would be screaming and yelling, and she would walk out.”
Wahlberg, the author of “The Big Hustle: A Boston Street Kid’s Story of Addiction and Redemption” (OSV, $27.95), has his own shadowed memories of the holidays. His family was impacted by poverty and his father’s drinking and gambling.
One Christmas, Wahlberg was 13 and already well into his own alcoholism. “I was living in a foster home and got arrested on Christmas Eve.”
He was visiting his own parents for the holiday, and he went out and got blackout drunk. Waking up, he says, “I go home, and the cops are in front of my house. I remember being woken up on Christmas morning to a very angry dad. ‘Get your gifts and get out.’ I ruined their Christmas.”
Just like Mary did in service to Elizabeth, both Wahlberg and Fenelon now rely on their faith to help them focus not on old pains but on Christ in others.
Tip No. 3: Trust in God
Meanwhile, back in Nazareth, Joseph was ready to divorce a mysteriously pregnant fiancée when God sent the Angel Gabriel to him in a dream, telling him not to be afraid. Joseph set aside his doubts and listened to God’s voice.
Sonja Corbitt, author of “Exalted: How the Power of the Magnificat Can Transform Us” (Ave Maria Press, $16.95), can relate. She grew up in a family terrorized by her father’s self-centered rage. When the holidays come around, she says, “I don’t gather with my father at all, because he is so toxic for my kids and our family.”
Corbitt likewise has cultivated a habit of seeking God’s guidance so she can be at peace with her father. By practicing lectio divina, praying the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, and enriching her life with the sacraments, she can experience healing and share that healing with others through her evangelization work.
Tip No. 4: Expect the unexpected
Wounded adults often go home for the holidays hoping to find welcome — only to find rejection. Similarly, the Holy Family returned to Joseph’s hometown to discover his kin had no place for them. In the shelter of a stable, honored only by strange shepherds and foreign Magi, the Holy Family received provision and shelter outside of those God had first called to love them.
God helps survivors of family trauma and dysfunction do likewise. Fenelon, Corbitt, Weeman and Wahlberg all share that they have had positive experiences seeking therapy for mental health issues regarding their families of origin. Fenelon also says working with a spiritual director has been instrumental in her healing.
As recovering addicts, both Weeman and Wahlberg give much credit to fellowship with others in recovery, such as through Alcoholics Anonymous and Catholic in Recovery. Wahlberg is quick to point out that many AA groups hold special 24-hour meetings on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve to help their members receive the relational support they may not receive from family.
Another source of support as we head into difficult family events? Weeman suggests inviting God into those gatherings. “Having some kind of sacramental reminder, some outward expression of an inward grace — a Rosary we keep accessible, something that is close to us — can remind us of God’s presence.”
Tip No. 5: Dream
Sadly, in some cases, God may ask us to walk away from events or relationships that may cause further harm, either to us or our children. How to discern? St. Joseph serves as a guide. He kept himself open to God’s leading, so that he was ready to lead the Holy Family into Egypt when the place that used to be home became dangerous.
Regarding individual events where we might find ourselves triggered to behave in unhealthy ways, Wahlberg talks about the role of spiritual fitness and self-awareness in discerning when to step away from a situation. “For me, I have to know what is good for me. I had to know, if I felt uncomfortable, that it was OK for me to leave.”
As for giving ourselves permission to decline events that may not be safe for us, Scott Weeman adds: “This is a season where we make a lot of commitments. We want to be predictable, reliable, but if the commitments we make aren’t consistent with where we want to be, then taking space is something we shouldn’t have to apologize for.”
Sonja Corbitt had the decision made for her regarding her relationship with her father. Besides holiday texts and cards, she says, “He has no other contact with me or my husband and kids by his own decision, and I admit that is a relief.
“If you need time away, years, from gathering with your family to heal before you can tolerate what goes on, then take all the time you need,” Corbitt says. “Once we have healed, we can love them without judgment, without fear and without being hurt. That is true freedom in Christ.”
Erin McCole Cupp is a wife, mother, and lay Dominican who writes and talks as much as she can about God’s power to heal and redeem even the worst of sinners. Her book “The Broken Grown-up’s Guide to Joyful Family Life” is to be released by OSV in Spring 2021.