My Daddy’s Demon

273321_596414365_7329258_n[1]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.





  1. Thank you for this post, Father.

    Not only does our connectedness, especially with our family, give us problems with sin, but; I think, it can work for the good too. It is as if our sinful thoughts and attitudes, even our habits, bleed out into the surrounding world. But do not our virtues do likewise? And is this not the “Christian struggle”?

    It is my hope that the generational sins, that I have so much trouble with and pass down to my children, can be reversed as I grow in the virtues and learn to pass that down too. Our connectedness is thus also our great hope.

    My Orthodox faith makes this possible. Thank God for his Church that makes it possible for me to change. And to change my world.

    I think that it was St. Seraphim that said: ” be at peace and you will draw all men to you.” It is my daily struggle to be at peace.

  2. Kev,
    You are absolutely right. The monk saving his family is just one small example in the folklore of the Church. I did not mention, but could have, that my parents became Orthodox Christians at 79 years of age. It’s not that this was somehow the apex of the spiritual life, but is a sacramental expression of a journey they had begun years before. They did not become active in the Church because of me (or solely because of me). I became active in the Church because of an older brother. That activity became priesthood, and later Orthodox priesthood. But my brother’s family are all extremely active in the Episcopal Church, and they are profoundly part of my parent’s story as well.

    Fr. Hopko has noted that “saints tend to cluster” in families. That, of course, dooms my offspring, unless they can attain to such sanctity that it rescues my sorry soul.

    But, I think I could have gone much further with this article. Salvation, I believe, is as much a corporate matter as a personal matter. Indeed, the personal only takes place in the context of the corporate.

    I recall writing: “The Church is what salvation looks like.”

  3. Kev,
    If I may, a small footnote: St Seraphim of Sarov said:” Acquier spirit of peace and thousands around you will be saved” There are of course different translations, this one seems closer to the original.

  4. Lena,
    Could you post St. Seraphim’s quote in the Russian? I would like to have it (and learn it).

  5. Dear Fr Stephen,
    Thank you for calling attention to the generational aspects of sin – and, by extension, the need for generational healing.
    I especially liked your inference that we cannot comfort ourselves with the notion that our forebears were not all bad (ie the slave owner was “kind”).
    In Australia we have as a nation said “sorry” to our indigenous peoples for their sufferings since colonisation. There is power in taking responsibility in this way and I decided to try it out in a personal way. With certain men of my acquaintance (ie men who could be expected to have some understanding) I have apologised, deeply and sincerely (and with tears) for listening to the serpent in the garden, eating of the fruit and giving it to Adam. I am so sorry! So very, very sorry!
    I am wondering what would happen if a man could say back to me with equal sincerity, ‘I’m so sorry I let you listen and eat of the fruit’. The healing of the battle of the sexes (Genesis 3:15)?
    I do enjoy your posts! Thank you.

  6. Excellent post…thank you Fr. At 73, I at times have to fight and wrestle against the “images that come into my mind” usually when I am resting in a semi-conscious state or sleeping. My Fr confessor noted to me that the closer we get to the Lord the battle intensifies. The Jesus Prayer and the sword of the Spirit(in bringing that image to Christ)defeats these images.

  7. Dear Father Stephen,
    Here is the quote in Russian:
    Стяжи дух мирен и вокруг тебя спасутся тысячи.
    My attempt of phonetical transliteration:
    Styazhi dukh miren I vokrug tebya spasutsya tysyachi.
    The verb “стяжи” (стяжать) is of old times, rarely used in modern language and has meaning of working to come to possession of something, collecting, gathering, storing something over time. Looks like “acquire” is very good fit here.
    As many people know (without my help) this quote of St Seraphim was relayed by Motovilov, so there are slightly different wordings exist in Russian, which doesn’t change meaning.
    St Seraphim is one of especially beloved saints (I’m one of that crowd ) his memory is celebrated on July 19 as well as January 2 (new calendar; in Russia,accordingly, 13 days later )
    Asking your blessing, dear Father

  8. How true, Father Stephen.

    And about the quote from Russian, that Lena reminded us of (“Acquire the spirit of peace and thousands around you will be saved”): I do not know very much about it, but I have seen it translated in Romanian (“Dobândeşte pacea şi mii de oameni din jurul tău se vor mântui.”). I think the translation in English Lena gave sounds good (at least for simple me).

    Glory to God for all things.

  9. Thank you, Father, for your thought provoking article. I would say only that there are many people, Orthodox and not, who have been sinned against in their childhood, and who strive with all their hearts that by God’s grace these propensities not be passed on to their children. It is hard work, because children must be brought up to love and respect their grandparents and to visit them. Circumspection is needed at all times, and prayer, and wisdom. But by God’s grace, a cycle is broken and health begins.

  10. You spoke some truths that we aften ignore Father, and it can heal to have the right type of awareness of this connectedness (even the sinful one) – as long as we relentlessly remember to reach out to those things to com; even when we come to an understanding of why it is we have cultivated certain tyrannical passions rather than others due to ‘generational’ or family influences.

  11. This is so interesting, and moving. I think of how depth psychologists also experience unconscious transference of issues. I read a case study of a woman who kept a very hard secret for a long time. Her son was born with chronic constipation (excuse the odd topic for a theological and pastoral blog). No medical cause was found for his suffering. Some years later, his mother had a breakthrough in her analysis and was able to pour out everything to her analyst. It was the first time she ever told anyone. That night her son’s issues cleared up and never returned.

    I also think of, I think it was Winnicott, who gave an example of a child who came to see him and said ‘I’m here because my mommy’s stomach hurts’.

    Children can be very perceptive!

  12. The Lord make his face to shine on you and your Daddy, Fr. Stephen.

  13. This is one of the things I love about the Church. Without going into confessional detail….My family has been plagued with sexual sins, and their attendant psychological consequences, for several generations, of which I am the latest.

    Without going into too much detail, but to outline the generational situation for the sake of my anecdote: my Dad was the product of adultery. When he was three years old, his half-brother (10 years old at the time) shot and killed my dad’s father, and his mother took the blame for it and did some time in prison as a result. After this, my dad’s mother and her children moved to a different state. This, plus the social constructs in place at the time, guaranteed that he was cut off from his dad’s family entirely.

    The whole situation was horribly tragic, and there were several other sins involved along the way, which have affected our family, both immediate and distant, in a variety of interlocking ways. (Note: there was also a good deal of sin in my mother’s family, too, which continued and meshed with all of this…but that’s not the focus of this story, so I’ll pass over it for now.)

    Some time after my reception into the Church, I began to realize much of what is noted in this article, and so made confession for the “sins of my fathers”. I didn’t do this as a confession of my own guilt, but rather as a full confession of my own sinfulness — and the generations situation(s) that contributed to that (without diminishing my own culpability, of course). Also, in retrospect, I recall that I forgot to mention several of the particular sins that cropped up along the way…(I’ll have to go back and hit those…)

    But I digress. The story continues that, shortly after making this confession, not only was I relieved of a burden of my own and set on the path to healing (although it’s still an uphill battle…), but our entire family was set on the same path. (This is nothing other than the working of God, because I didn’t tell anyone about my confession except, of course, my confessor.)

    About a month later, I got a call from my mother saying that Dad’s dad’s side of the family had located him, and he was to meet with them. Now, he has been looking for them for years, but somewhat trepidatiously, not knowing how they would think of or treat him. Turns out, however, that they had been looking for him as well. Also turns out, that he has a sister he didn’t know he had. 🙂 They found him through a series of “coincidences” that, to our minds, could’t have been anything but the hand of God at work.

    With much (joyfully!) tearful conversation, he has been welcomed into the larger family as a full member, and much much healing has taken place on both sides, and in my dad’s (and my!) mind and spirits.

    I cannot say for certain that this healing was a direct result or “reward” (if any gift of God’s mercy can be called such) for my having confessed these things. However, I do not believe much in coincidences, either, and the timing was just too perfect for me to think that the two events were unconnected in God’s grace.

    This is also an indicator to me that the confession I made is tied up with the healing we received: the wounds and proclivities and situations created by the things I didn’t confess have not (yet!) been healed. Only the situation that I did confess. Now I must repent and pray for the sins of my mother’s family, and also the things I accidentally omitted regarding my father’s side. There is much healing that remains to bed done. Thank you, Father, for the reminder! 🙂

    Glory to Jesus Christ!

  14. Farther Stephen, are you familiar with the work of your brother in Christ, Fr. Moses Berry?

  15. Jacob,
    I think that you just enter your email in the subscribe box. Unless “follow” is something other than “subscribe.” If there’s something I don’t have, let me know, and I’ll let my web manager know.

  16. I know Fr. Moses and have read at least one of his books. A very blessed man.

  17. Steve –

    Your story about confessing the sins of previous generations is quite amazing on many levels. So often people become stuck in hurt, anger and resentment over the sins of parents of other ancestors; occasionally we forgive… but to actually confess their sins?!

    What a beautiful and cleansing thing to do for yourself and them. We can never receive too much grace and this process has opened the doors to more and more… Thank you for sharing this.

  18. Glory to be to the Healer of all…

    When I did that, I was thinking primarily of the Holy Prophet, Daniel, who, though blameless in his own right (as far as we can tell), but enslaved, castrated, and betrayed on every side (much the same position we find ourselves in due to the sins of our fathers — except we are often far from blameless!), chose to confess the sins of his nation as his own. See Daniel chapter 9, particularly verse 20, “And while I was speaking, and praying, and confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel, and presenting my supplication before the LORD my God for the holy mountain of my God…”

  19. The reason I ask about Fr. Moses is because his work deals with healing the big ancestral curse of this land. I wrote about it on Monomakhos.

    Anybody close to Ash Grove, Mo needs to trek on over and find out what its all about.

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