Ken Novak gave a short but powerful message about the meaning of family during the installation of his wife Amy Novak as president of St. Ambrose University in Davenport. All of us, as the family of God, sharing life at this time in history, will benefit from reflecting on Ken’s message and applying it to the interactions of our daily lives.
He began his message with a vignette about heaven as told by Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a renowned Jewish theologian/philosopher of the 20th century. As the story goes, a faithful and wise rabbi had a vision of going to heaven. Angels escorted him to a big room where he recognized the great sages of the past sitting at a long table reading from the Torah and Talmud and studying. The rabbi did not picture heaven as a place where its inhabitants read and studied all day. God explained, “The sages are not in heaven. Heaven is in the sages.”
The vignette “reminds us that every day what might seem ordinary or mundane or even worrisome is actually a participation in a divine fire burning inside of all of us,” Ken said. “It’s a communion with something much bigger than ourselves. The challenge we have is to tune into that heaven inside of us. Tuning into heaven usually means getting over ourselves. Nothing can humble you as effectively and consistently as being part of a family. Family is something bigger than ourselves. It always is. It draws us out into service, into forgiveness, into a need to create space to hold others. It expands us.”
In our despair, frustration and uncertainty in these challenging times of pandemic and political rivalry, we have forgotten that we are not islands unto ourselves. We cannot go it alone. We need one another and depend on one another. That lesson has become painfully clear during this long drawn-out pandemic; we have learned how much we depend on frontline workers, some of whom, especially healthcare workers, are suffering from exhaustion.
We are members of the family of a God who expects us to treat one another as brothers and sisters who love one another, and that love calls us to make sacrifices for one another — whether of time, treasure or letting go of an opinion that serves ourselves but not others.
St. John Paul II said the Christian family is “called upon to offer everyone a witness of generous and disinterested dedication to social matters, through a ‘preferential option’ for the poor and disadvantaged. Therefore, advancing in its following of the Lord by special love for all the poor, it must have special concern for the hungry, the poor, the old, the sick, drug victims and those who have no family” (“Familiaris Consortio,” 1981).
Ken spoke of his wife’s dedication to faith, family and the St. Ambrose University community she serves. “The reason she comes to work every day is because she sees you as family,” he said. “She has a place for you and for all who care for you inside of her heart. She has expanded a space where the lines of welcome are wide and radical hospitality is practiced often.”
What does it mean to practice radical hospitality? “By acknowledging the face of Christ in our neighbor, true Christian friendship extends God’s radical hospitality in the world,” wrote Noella D’Souza in “The Torch,” Boston College’s Catholic newspaper (2019). How many of us acknowledge the face of Christ in our correspondence on social media, in emails or in letters to the editor? How many of us practice radical hospitality toward someone we know does not share our political views? How many of us show radical hospitality toward people who are different from us?
Pope Francis says in his encyclical letter, “Fratelli Tutti” (2020), “Love also impels us towards universal communion. No one can mature or find fulfilment by withdrawing from others. By its very nature, love calls for growth in openness and the ability to accept others as part of a continuing adventure that makes every periphery converge in a greater sense of mutual belonging. As Jesus told us: ‘You are all brothers’ (Mt 23:8).”
Even on days that do not appear to be made in heaven, “behind the grit and grind of the day is still a spark of something much bigger than ourselves,” Ken said. He feels blessed to share Amy “with the Ambrose family and the Novak family is blessed to welcome more and more into that circle of love. May we all find heaven inside of ourselves.” We are family. Let us widen the circle of love.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor