One of the topics not discussed much (even among the Orthodox) is the phenomenon of “mixed families.” I’m not sure if that is the right term, but it’s one I’m using. Among converts to Orthodoxy, many are the only Orthodox in their extended family. Occasionally a husband or wife enters the Church without the other, even though this is discouraged to some extent. Harder still, parents convert while children having already reached adulthood choose not to follow. They have their own lives to live and are working out their own salvation. Holidays make these strains all the more apparent and difficult.
It is not just a convert phenomenon. Many Orthodox families have had children marry outside the faith, or convert to another Church, again leaving the phenomenon of “mixed families.” And, of course, it’s never simple. This is family and the question to love and accept (on some level) is not and cannot be a question.
It is a stronger issue in Orthodoxy (and in Catholicism, I’m sure) since communion is not open outside the Church. Among Protestants, that a sister married a Methodist may be bothersome (depending on what kind of Protestant you are), but not an issue to complicate communion. In the modern ecumenical world, one Protestantism is about the same as another (at least when it comes to sacraments).
In my own family, our journey to Orthodoxy was accompanied by four children, two of them teenagers at the time, two younger. The teenagers could clearly have chosen to do other than they did. That prospect was a frightening thought. Admittedly we sent our children to Orthodox retreats and took them to Orthodox parishes to visit as often as possible for almost four years before we converted. As it turned out (going as slowly as we were), my wife’s younger brother and family converted before we did. Our children entered the Church with us and have made their own home here. Two daughters are married to priests.
I had the privilege of Chrismating my parents at age 80 and take great comfort in the pastoral care they have received in their parish and the Orthodox life they have taken up with due diligence.
I was once told a proverb by a Greek priest, “A monk saves his family for seven generations.” I have no idea what that means. When I first heard it I wondered, “In which direction,” meaning, “For seven generations past or to come?” Of course proverbs are interesting, but are only proverbs.
But hidden in heart of this one is the fact that family is far deeper than the modern world would like us to think. Your mother is not just the owner of the womb you dwelt in for 9 months or so. I shudder when I hear a father referred to as a “sperm donor.” Our culture is not only crude but profoundly deluded.
Flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone, refers not just to Adam and Eve, and married couples thereafter, it most certainly refers to the family, who are indeed, “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” We are connected to one another in ways far deeper than we usually contemplate in our lonely, mobile culture.
In Serbian Orthodoxy, individuals do not so much celebrate their own nameday, but their family’s name day, their “Slava.” It marks the day (with a patron saint) of the family’s acceptance of the Orthodox faith. It is probably hard for even other Orthodox to understand how strongly this family tie is among the Serbs.
But there is a tie that transcends flesh and bone, or at least includes it and goes beyond it. As Fr. Thomas Hopko has noted on several occasions (that I have heard), saints have a way of “clustering.” It takes little more than a cursory glance at the lives of saints to find examples of such clusters. St. Basil the Great – both of his parents are saints, as well as sisters and brothers – they were simply a holy family. Those who are unfamiliar with the Tradition that surrounds Holy Scripture remain unaware of just how “clustered” was the holiness of Christ’s own family. Joachim and Anne (parents of the Virgin Mary), Joseph, his “brothers” – but these are known to most. But with a bit of research you find familial relationships running even to some of the twelve.
I am not certain about the effect of a monk, but it is sufficient to say that a single Savior, can save his family (the human family) to all generations.
But I am also well aware of how connected we remain to one another. My exposure to Church (both the Baptist Church of my childhood and the Anglican Church of my teenage and adult years) were the result of my older brother. He remains an Episcopalian, but ever a close spiritual friend.
What I am personally convinced of, is that I bear my family within me in some sense (not that I can quite explain it). I know that when I enter the altar and pray, I pray for them, remember them, and bear them with me. I could not stand where I stand as if I had been created there on the spot. I have a history and offer it up to God with all that I am. If there is saving grace in such an act, God knows, but it cannot be that prayer is ever without benefit.
For the same reason I pray for my family in generations past. God alone knows how I am marked and shaped by choices they themselves made. We do not stand alone.
This imagery could easily be extended beyond flesh and blood or simply brought back to our remembrance that we are all of one blood. We live in times in which family grows easily complicated. It cannot be uncomplicated by being less united to God. For only confusion lies outside our union with God. But we do well to remember the whole of our family and that of others. We make pilgrimage to God and there are others we would have with us. May God hear our prayers as we carry them in our hearts and bring us all to His heavenly Kingdom. And may I never forget that I need the prayers of my family probably far more than they need mine.