I hesitated before I wrote “My Daddy’s Demon,” as a title for this article – I mean no disrespect for my father. But it is a reference to my own life, for as I’ve grown older, I discover that the things I wrestle with are not very different than those with which my father wrestled. Perhaps his father wrestled with them as well.
Recently I wrote that “we are all connected.” This is true for people in general, even more so for the Church, and profoundly so for families. Some years ago I heard a series of lectures by Fr. Thomas Hopko on Sin: Primordial, Generational, Personal. The lectures were a look at the patternings of sin – and even more profoundly – the deep connection that sin has in the lives of people. Orthodoxy has not usually spoken of “original sin,” the idea of inherited guilt from the sin of Adam and Eve. But it has not ignored the fact that sin and brokenness has a profound inherited aspect. It is almost always the case that a sexual abuser was himself a victim of sexual abuse. Sin and brokenness have a very deep, connected character. We are rarely, if ever, “original” in our choices of sin. Somebody taught us!
The prophet Ezekiel, speaking God’s words, rebukes the children of Israel for saying, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth have been set on edge.” God tells Israel that their troubles are not inherited, but of their own making. However, this is not the same thing as rebuking the concept.
I live in a culture that has issues regarding race relations. Those issues are not something I created – I inherited them. My mother’s grandfather was a slave owner, as was his father before him. I have been told he was “kind.” But it makes little difference. My ancestors helped create a cruel world whose consequences continue in my life and the lives of countless people around me. And it does little good to plead that it was my ancestors and not me. I am in my position and others are in theirs in many respects as a result of ancestors. We didn’t create the world – but we still have to live in it.
Few things in human existence better illustrate the “connectedness” of our lives than our relationship with family. We are the physical inheritors of our ancestors – my recent heart attack likely has far more relation with my inherited existence than with my environment. My heart is no less inherited than the shape of my nose. But our inheritance extends far beyond hearts and noses: character, proclivities (for good or ill) and a host of other “psychological” issues are far more related to inheritance than to upbringing (and the ones who raise us are themselves victims of the same proclivities).
There is an Orthodox folk saying, “A monk saves his family for seven generations.” I’ve often wondered whether that is seven generations into the future or into the past (or equally divided). In my own life, as I have struggled with the issues that confronted me, it seems clear that they are not entirely new. My “demons” are pretty much my father’s “demons.” It is also the case that the quotation marks might not need to be there.
Secular culture with its psychology of the individual would chalk all of this up to genetics and environment – for it refuses to recognize that there might be connections that go beyond such influences.
But I have lived for too many years in community – generally the community of a parish. The connections between people, between priest and people, between the living and the departed, between saints and sinners, between men and angels – all profoundly characterize the life of the parish. They are often ignored, not because they are hard to see, but because we wear cultural blinders that make them hard to perceive.
All of life is a sacrament, which is to say that things coinhere. We participate in the lives of those around us. Our health and our sickness are shared. Healing and forgiveness are never merely individual. There are such things as national sins.
In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the murderer Raskolnikov is counseled by the prostitute, Sonya:
Go at once, this very minute, stand at the cross-roads, bow down, first kiss the earth which you have defiled, and then bow down to all the world and say to all men aloud, ‘I am a murderer!’ Then God will send you life again. Will you go, will you go? (Chapter 30)
We need to understand that every person around us and the earth as well is our salvation. Christ confronted my father’s demons (and therefore mine) and defeated them. My victory is my connection in Christ.