There is a new word and a new idea in science: epigenetics. It is the study of how the environment and experience alters our body – and alters it in a way such that it becomes part of our genetic legacy. It is, to the mind of some, a genetic form of inherited sin. That’s more than I know, and more than I care to say. But it is an occasion for thought. We read:
The LORD is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation.’ (Num. 14:18)
My own understanding of this verse, read through the lens of Christ, is not that God is punishing the children for the sins of their fathers, but that our actions have consequences, most of which are unintentional, and that those consequences go on for generations.
My paternal great grandfather lost a farm in 1928. I have various anecdotes surrounding it. My father said that my great grand never did any work after that, but sat on the porch and let his adult son do the work. That adult son was my grandfather. He worked hard as a sharecropper, the poorest kind of farming.
Later, my father (who began work in the cotton fields at age 4) came back from the war and was advised by his father not to go to college: “All the jobs will be gone by then.” My father followed the advice. It was a decision that did not go down well with my mother who never forgot it or ceased to mention it. It became part of our family lore.
I grew up with some sense of family failure, an echo of the farming crisis of 1928. It has created, at certain times in my life, anxieties (even panic), and any number of other decisions that were related to the ripples set out in that fateful year (which was probably a consequence of some other long ago event).
I write this as a 63-year-old man who has the leisure and spiritual discipline of looking back in order to see the way forward. It is an examination that looks at the sins (wounds) of the generations that went before me.
We cannot repent for the sins of our parents or the generations that went before. We have no share in any guilt of that sort. But we bear the weight of their consequences in a thousand-thousand different ways that we neither fathom nor ken. It is only with passing years and reflection that I can see many things that were far too close at the time to be understood.
There is, however, a “repentance” of sorts that does address both their sins and ours. I once heard it said that a monk “saves his family for seven generations.” I wondered at the time which direction it was describing. For what it’s worth, I think it is both. And it’s not just monks.
When we come face-to-face with the shame and sin of our ancestors, it does little good to blame. For though it may not have begun with us, it now lives with us. I think we are given the grace to see and understand these things for the sole purpose of engaging them and finding the way to healing. This is slow, sometimes quite tedious, and I’ll be writing more about it in future posts.
I will return to my autobiographical example (and my face flushes red as I dare talk about this). My early “career” path was as an Episcopal priest. Some short while after seminary, my older brother asked me, “How does it feel to have the most socially acceptable job in Southern society?” I smiled. Some deep part of me, the part of me that lost a farm, became a sharecropper and didn’t go to college, felt very good about it indeed. But that “feeling good” was only an echo of generational sin. I certainly tried to attend to it in different ways. I did not experience it as a “thing” (at least not most of the time). There was, though, a residual pool of shame that could always be wounded and wanted deeply to “succeed.”
When I wrestled with my conversion to Orthodoxy, a very silent part of the matter was the abandonment of that success and status. A friend who was an Episcopal priest in another state converted to Orthodoxy. His bishop (I was told) sneered and said, “Well, I hope he enjoys bowling.” This is an upper-class mockery of a blue-collar sport: “Gentlemen do not bowl.” Of course, that bishop was by no means a necessary exemplar of his denomination, but his words found an easy affirmation in my inner world. “I’m headed back to the farm.”
What I would observe, however, is that refusing to convert to the truth of Orthodoxy because I had to prove my family’s shame to be unfounded, would have been a devastating sin, one that could continue to echo into the future. But, having said “no” to that path, required that I eventually come face-to-face with an unspoken shame. My parents, interestingly, gave me their blessing as I converted, and followed me some eight years later, being received into the Church at age 79.
I have little doubt that my brothers would tell this story in a different manner. We are all affected by the same waves, but they may doubtless strike us in a variety of ways. I know what took place within my own life.
Repentance (metanoia) means a “change of mind” (nous). That is not simply a change in thinking, gathering and holding new opinions. It means going into the nous and, through prayer and confession, “bearing a little shame,” finding peace and integrity of soul. The mystery of this in our lives clearly reaches forward to the generations to come. The family story has been changed. I think, too, quite mysteriously, this reaches backwards. It plays a part in “re-writing” history, declaring that the consequences of some fixed event are not themselves a fixed event.
Christ dies for our sins – for the sins of the whole world. He does this in the middle of history. He does not do it at the end, nor at the beginning (even though we must say that the Crucified Christ is truly the Alpha and the Omega). But He does this in the middle. His healing and forgiveness reach all the way back to Adam, and reach forward to the very last human being. Christ’s genealogy, recorded in the gospels, is itself a redemption of one entire line of humanity, a story that is a collection of sinners, adulterers, murderers, righteous and unrighteous. It is the story of the whole human race in miniature.
St. Maximus the Confessor said that a human being is a “microcosm” (a “tiny universe”). Each of us endures the consequences of the Fall, in very concrete and particular ways. We are a microcataclysm. But, by grace, we are united to the consequences of the Cross, gathering all that has come before us into the fiery side of Christ, and giving light to all who will come after us.
And that is our joy and our gladness – without shame or fear.