I have been giving considerable thought to fraternity for the last few weeks. My older brother recently turned 60, and my younger brother recently was hospitalized with a serious case of pneumonia complicated by a lung infection. During this time, he survived an NDE (near death experience).
When I learned how serious his condition was, I began to ponder what I would say if he had not survived. I began to ponder what I would say in a sermon. Ponderous thoughts.
Ponderous thoughts balanced by humorous stories. People often said to me, “You and your brothers are so much alike. You look alike and even sound alike.” My response was always, “I hope so. We have the same parents.” We all enjoyed a brief moment of levity.
Dictionaries offer several definitions for the word, brother, including one who shares a common ancestry, allegiance, character, or purpose with another. A member of a fraternity, trade union, or panel of judges on a court constitutes one’s brother. We use the word in religious and ethnic settings, and sometimes utter it to express exasperation. The primary definition, however, is a male who has the same parents as another or one parent in common with another. The word comes to us from about the 12th century. The Old English word was broþor, from Proto-Germanic brothar. The Romans and Greeks spoke the words frater and phrátēr.
Ancient literature is replete with stories of brothers. Egyptians had Anpu and Bata, and the Romans, Romulus and Remus. Antigone is Sophocles’ tragedy about the brothers Eteocles and Polynices. Israel offers three tales in Genesis: Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, and Joseph and his brothers, followed by Exodus’ Moses and Aaron. In addition to Andrew and Simon, and the sons of Zebedee, James and John, Jesus’ close disciples, Martha and Mary had a brother named Lazarus.
Famous brothers include the Wright, Kennedy, Grimm, Marx and Sullivan. Christian tradition offers us Cosmas and Damian, Cyril and Methodius among others.
What establish us as brothers are not only our common parents, but also our shared experiences within that particular family. Like other siblings, we experienced certain customs, traditions, celebrations and tragedies, but only in the way our family could. We remember what it was like to open presents on Christmas morning in our pajamas. Our later Christmases were marked by attending Mass at St. John’s, mom cooking breakfast, breaking oplatki and exchanging gifts before visiting aunts and cousins in the afternoon. We remember what it was like to play football with our dad and ride in the back of his Chevy pickup to a baseball game, buy baseball cards and chocolate pop at Shaffer’s Market, listen to Polkas on the weekend, and dance the Polonaise with the Krakowiaki at the PNA. And to think my father preserved these historic family moments on his Bell and Howell 8 mm camera.
When dad was healing from surgery on his varicose veins, he read his Douay-Rheims Bible. Ecclesiastes 3 begins, “All things have their season, and in their times all things pass under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.” We remember planting, weeding, harvesting and canning tomatoes and peppers. We remember celebrating First Communions, Confirmations and graduations, our parents 25th and 50th Wedding Anniversaries, our grandfather’s funeral, and our cousins’ weddings. As adults, we remember our father’s sudden death and mom’s extended, painful struggle with amyloidosis and multiple myeloma.
Our parents are now gone, but our relationship has not changed dramatically. Although we live hundreds of miles apart, we maintain regular contact via phone, skype and text. We celebrate one another’s successes and comfort one another in sickness or sadness. Ours is a unique fraternity for we are bonded closer than most siblings are. I know this because of the feedback from in-laws and others.
I have renewed my efforts to call my brothers once a week. We share news about our gardens, trips or meeting someone from Monaca at a gas station in Arkansas. I sometimes have a question about electrical wiring or a chemical compound. There are other times when we mail one another cards or hand-written letters. My older brother sends me Coca-Cola bottle tops and newspaper articles. Most often, we close our conversations and letters expressing our love and prayers for one another.
It would be very easy to slip into a routine relationship with my brothers. What keeps me from slipping is experience. Throughout my decades in pastoral ministry, life revealed to me many ordinary, unimpressive, distant sibling relationships. I see these at funerals where the living express regret for not spending enough time with the dead. When I would ask family members to share memories, these siblings do not share anything beyond childhood or anything at all because they do not foster fraternal or familial relationships.
With God’s gracious aid, I am certain that we will have fraternal memories to share with others. I am comfortable with my brothers sharing anything embarrassing or enlightening stories about my life. The Good Lord knows that there are more embarrassing than enlightening moments to share.
I blog to share my thoughts and insights regarding Scripture or ministry. Most of my blogs are my sermons or Sunday school lessons. My audience knows that I often end with a few challenging questions to consider. I call them life applications. So, here goes. When did I last call or write my siblings? Call them as soon as you finish reading this paragraph. Share some news with them. Ask about their lives, the people in their lives, their interests or illnesses. Express sorrow, joy, gratitude and love. For this, you will have no regret.