The downside of familiarity

Published July 4, 2021, 12:07 AM

by Fr. Rolando V. De La Rosa, OP


Fr. Rolando V. dela Rosa, O.P.

George Burns once remarked that happiness is having a large, caring, close-knit family, residing far away from him. One wife said something similar when asked how she and her husband stayed married for 50 years: “We seldom see each other.” Like them, many people think that familiarity poisons a relationship. Thus, the common saying: “Familiarity breeds contempt,” or its more cynical version: “Familiarity breeds attempt.”

Familiarity can indeed weaken a relationship because it sucks out the element of mystery and surprise. When a couple becomes too comfortable and too secure with the way they know each other, excitement wanes and boredom sets in. As E.W. Howe writes: “Everything ceases to be wonderful the moment we get used to it.” When a couple get used to each other; they usually take each other for granted.

The first symptom of this is the deterioration of the quality of their conversation. Notice how a couple choose their words for fear of offending those they know least, but they don’t hesitate to say insulting or hurtful words to those they know best — their spouses and children.

This can also happen to the way we relate with God. God can become too familiar for comfort. In today’s gospel reading, the people in the town where Jesus grew up reject Him because they know Him too well (Mark 6:1-6).  They think they have Him all figured out, and refuse to acknowledge that He can be more than what they think of Him. Their familiarity with Him hindered their faith. The gospel adds a sad note: “Jesus could perform only few miracles there” (Mark 6:5).

When we become too familiar with God, we limit what He can do for us within the ambit of our expectations.

In the Old Testament, the Jews considered God as someone absolutely transcendent, someone they could never become familiar with.  They even refused to pronounce His name for fear of disrespecting or misusing it. But today, many Christians casually address God as “Papa Jesus” or “Iyong nasa itaas.” In movies, actors usually use the words, “Oh My God!” or “Jesus Christ!” as a curse or an expression of surprise or disgust.

There was a time when, as a sign of reverence, everyone went to Mass impeccably dressed. Today, many people attend Sunday Mass in their shorts, sandals, or in very casual or skimpy attire. On weekdays, some joggers would enter the Church still dripping with sweat, rushing to the altar to receive Holy Communion.

Several decades ago, people lined up to confess before receiving Holy Communion. Today almost all Mass goers line up for Holy Communion but very few go to confession. This might be because people have become holier than earlier Catholics, but it might also be a symptom of our overfamiliarity with God. Knowing Him too well as a forgiving God, we ignore His commandments and the effects of sin in our lives. We rationalize and say: “Jesus loves me. He will understand.”

All of us want to be more intimate with God. But we must take care not to deflate Him to make Him more accessible in time of need, but easily disposable in time of plenty. God is not someone who is at our beck and call, always willing to go the extra mile, always giving and forgiving, and never demanding anything in return. Over-familiarity with God bleeds Him dry of His sacredness and divinity.

Authentic faith allows God to confound our expectations. The ordinary and unforeseen events that happen in our lives, whether joyful or disturbing, are God’s signals of transcendence. They de-familiarize what we know about Him, bringing us to the limits of our own understanding, challenging us to go deeper into His unspeakable mystery.