Fr. Thomas Hopko has observed on occasion that many times saints of the Church are found in “clusters,” particularly in clusters of a single family. Thus it is that within St. Basil the Great’s family, his brothers, Gregory of Nyssa and Simeon, as well as his sister Macrina, and his mother are all saints of the Church (did I leave any out?). At one point, during the history of Orthodox Britain, there were 28 canonized saints in one royal family (times change).
Such examples can be multiplied throughout the centuries. There are stories of those who came from terrible backgrounds (St. Moses of the Desert Fathers was a former thief and brigand). But there is this other phenomenon of holy families. The 5th of September commemorates Sts. Zachariah and Elizabeth, the parents of St. John the Baptist. Of course, related to them are St. Mary the Theotokos as well as her parents, St. Joachim and Anna. We could add St. Joseph the Bethrothed as well as his children Sts. James and Simeon.
Within the Orthodox Church in America it is well known that Matushka Juliana Schmemann, wife of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, is the direct descendant of St. Juliana of Lazarevo. A dear friend of mine, a priest, is good friends with the grandson of St. John Kochurov. Such connections can be multiplied many times over in the life of the Church.
Such “clusters” of saints are not always the result of centuries of holy ancestry. St. Gregory Nazianzus’ family, which number more than one saint, was the scion of a father who had been a pagan priest before his conversion to Christianity. Christ’s own geneology includes saints as well as adulterers, murderers and harlots.
But what do such clusters mean for us?
First, I would think, it means that our own efforts towards godly living and godly children are not without reward – though God is sovereign in all things – it does not hurt to strive to be godly and to raise our children in all godliness. In the marriage service of the Church it says: “the prayers of parents are the foundations of a home.” The daily prayers for my children, their spouses, and my grandchildren are time well spent.
It also seems to me that there is a mystery involved within all of this. We do not exist as entirely discrete individuals. Our lives are deeply enmeshed within the lives of those closest to us – particularly those of our own flesh and blood. This is very much in contradiction to the claims of modernity – which have striven to make the family of little consequence. We separate ourselves from parents and grandparents as a normal course of economic mobility. Extended family becomes restricted to special holidays (if that). The bonds of family are not only stretched, they are broken.
This is not normal and it is destructive to the well-being of humanity.
I can think of a thousand exceptions to this observation – and yet I know it is true. I am my father’s son, and despite the fact that we live 5 hours apart, I see his face in the mirror every morning. I hear his voice coming out of my own chest. Many of the demons that I face are demons he faced long before me.
I have been deeply blessed that within the extended Protestant family that was the heritage of both myself and my wife, we now number:
My parents as Orthodox (received at age 79). May my mother’s memory be eternal.
My children. Two daughters who are the wives of priests. A son with an Orthodox wife and a daughter engaged to an Orthodox young man.
My wife’s youngest brother, who with his wife and 5 children faithfully uphold the Orthodox faith.
And more who are in the grace of God and whose end is known only unto Him.
What I do know, is that the actions of my own life and its decisions have not been without effect. God has done things that I could not have imagined.
And this is the very nature of grace. Who can describe the effects of grace or predict its consequences. We can give ourselves over to the life of grace and trust that God is a good God and will do good to all whom we love.
What more can we do?
I carry the whole of my family as a treasure in my heart. Wherever I go, whatever I do, they are with me. As I stand in the altar before God and offer prayer, they are with me. Sometimes as I wrestle with sin, they are with me as well. Nothing is wasted. God is a good God and loves mankind. He saves us not merely on an individual basis (who then could be saved?) but extends His grace to the most extreme limits that we might rejoice with the most extreme rejoicing. Glory to God who has given us grace and made of the human race the recipients of His great mercy!