Every Generation

In my childhood, it was not unusual to hear someone ask, “Who are your people?” It was a semi-polite, Southernism designed to elicit essential information about a person’s social background. The assumption was that you, at best, could only be an example of your “people.” It ignored the common individualism of the wider culture, preferring the more family or clan-centered existence of an older time. It was possible to be “good people” who had fallen on hard times, just as it was possible to be “bad people” who were flourishing. Good people were always to be preferred.

I am aware of the darker elements of this Southern instinct so foreign to today’s mainstream culture. I am also aware that within it, there is an inescapable part of reality: human beings never enter this world without baggage. The baggage is an inheritance, both cultural and biological that shapes the ground we walk on and the challenges we will inevitably confront. Fr. Alexander Schmemann is reported to have said that the spiritual life consists in “how we deal with what we’ve been dealt.” In some families, it seems that no matter how many times the deck is shuffled, the same hand (or close to it) appears.

The Scriptures are rife with this element of our reality. It is a story of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, tribal destiny and inherited blessings. Two of the gospels give a chapter to rehearse the genealogy of Christ. Modern thought wants to imagine each human being entering the world as a blank slate whose life will be formed and shaped by their desires and choices. This is our imaginative version of freedom and we work to maximize its reality.

Nevertheless, human experience continues to be doggedly familial. Those who do family therapy carefully ask questions about the generations that have gone before. The battles of our lives are not about theory, but the cold hard truth of what has been given to us.

The Scriptures relate the stories of families, including their tragedies and horrific crimes. No Southern novelist ever did more than echo the iconic behaviors of Biblical failure.

This familial treatment is intentional and tracks the truth of our existence. There is never a pain as deep as that inflicted by someone who is supposed to love you.  Such injuries echo through the years and the generations. The face that stares back at us in the mirror is easily a fractal of someone whose actions power our own insanity. We can hate a parent, only to be haunted by their constant presence in us.

This, of course, is only the negative, darker side of things. Blessings echo in us as well. In the delusion of modern individuality we blithely assume that we act alone in all we do. Life is so much more complicated!

What I am certain of, in the midst of all this, is that our struggle against sin and the besetting issues of our lives is never just about ourselves. If we inherit a burden within our life, so our salvation, our struggles with that burden, involve not only ourselves but those who have gone before as well as those who come after. We struggle as the “Whole Adam” (in the phrase of St. Silouan).

There is an Athonite saying: “A monk heals his family for seven generations.” When I first heard this, my thought was, “In which direction?” The answer, I think, is every direction. We are always healing the family tree as we embrace the path of salvation, monk or layman. Our lives are just that connected.

When the Virgin Mary sings her hymn of praise to God, she says, “All generations will call me blessed.” This expresses far more than the sentiment that she will be famous (how shallow). It has echoes of God’s word to Abraham, “In you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). It is in the Offspring of Mary that the word to Abraham is fulfilled. In the Scriptures, God is pleased to be named the “God of Abraham.” That His name is tied to that of a human being brings no offense. Indeed, paradise itself is called the “bosom of Abraham.” It is right and proper that Christians should see the same treatment in the Virgin, the one in whom all these things are fulfilled.

“All generations” is a term that includes everyone – not just those who would come after her. For the salvation of the human race, in all places and at all times, is found only in Jesus, the Offspring of Mary. She is “Theotokos,” the “Birthgiver of God.” Mary is exalted in the bosom of Abraham.

When I look in the mirror these days, I see the unmistakable reflection of my father. No doubt, his reflection is seen elsewhere in my life, both for good and ill. I’m aware that some of my struggles are with “my daddy’s demons.” Of course, my vision is limited to just a few generations. I see my own struggles reflected in the lives of my children (for which I often want to apologize). I do not see the link that runs throughout all generations – throughout all the offspring of Adam – it is too large to grasp. What I do see, however, is the singular moment, the linchpin of all generations that is the Mother of God. In her person we see all generations gathered together. Her “be it unto me according to your word” resounds in the heart of every believer, uniting them to her heart whose flesh unites us to God.

Across the world, the myriad generations of Christians have sung ever since:

My soul doth magnify the Lord.
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

To which we add:

More honorable than cherubim,
And more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim,
Without corruption you gave birth to God the Word,
True Theotokos, we magnify you!

We are her people. Glory to God!

7 comments:

  1. And what we don’t realize when we get married is that we are burdened by the baggage of our spouse’s family. And they by ours. And we are good at pointing out the damage in the other’s family tree. But what a blessing when we humbly recognize our own and kindly take up the collective burden. We can then sing out and call to the mother of God and call her our mother.

  2. Father this post echoed the sentiment of my heart as I was at Vespers last night . Lamentations to the Theotokos followed and I was struck by this stasis (I had to search for it when I got home, it is an Antiochian translation…) Not every translation has this verse, I looked for a while until I located it on the internet.

    “ Adam and Eve came out / to behold the glory / of their own Virgin offspring.
    Blessed be the parents / Joachim and Anna / who for the world bore a daughter”

    Every generation shall call her blessed is every generation indeed! Before and after!

    Blessed Feast.

  3. The question that goes with ‘Who are your people?’ is ‘Where are you from?’ It does not mean ‘Where did you sleep last night’ But ‘ Where are “your people” buried’

  4. My surprise was not in the mirror although I see both my grandmothers there, My surprise is in my mouth –so often I hear myself respond exactly like my mother-in-law, My mother-in-law, the women who was sure I would ruin her son and never seemed to like me. For almost 30 years of my marriage she was my nemesis but time and experience has shown me how much I am very much like her. Although she left her body over 6 years ago I have learned forgiveness and love can reach beyond the grave. Gifts are not always easy to take but I know now that she was a gift to me to grow beyond cynicism and trust in God.

  5. Father, I can SO relate to this one! All of my life I’ve tried very hard to NOT be like my own dad. He was a cruel man, who hurt me, my little brother, and my sweet, loving mother in many ways. I was so afraid that I carried his ‘hate gene’ that I made sure to never have children. The thought of treating a child as I was treated horrified me! As I age, my prayer is, that my mother’s characteristics have lived on more than my dad’s. Mom was Russian Orthodox, dad was Roman Catholic. Back after WWII that was considered to be a, “mixed marriage.” The few times I got to go to church with mom made a life long impression on me, and influence me to this moment. I give thanks and praise and all glory to God, to be a devoted, practicing Greek Orthodox Christian. Forgiving dad for the many pains he inflicted is hard. Still working on it. Glory to God for all things!

  6. Some of my earliest memories are of my mom putting an icon of St. Mary and baby Jesus under my pillow when. I was very sick and she was crying.

    She always said she entrusted us to the Mother of God, and she always loved the Lenten services that pray for the Theotokos’ help. I am blanking on the name right now.

    In middle school, there was a morning I announced to God in my prayers that my requests for family no longer included my dad. I was casting him out of my family in essence. That day I went to my Cathoic grade school and won the raffle that allowed me to take a statue of St. Mary home for the weekend.

    My mom is sick now, I am in the hospital with her. I look at my children and see the thousands and thousands of miles traveled, by mom mom’s family and then her throughout her life, and my dad from his life in India, not to mention on my husbands side from Spain and Portugal, and with Native American family as well in Puerto Rico.

    My son has some modest developmental differences. It has been a challenge in some ways and caused friction between my mother and I, as well as between my mother in law and myself. I have a third child, Lucy Rose, whose arrived largely because my son said he wished there was a baby in the house and because God is good.

    The name Rose was a late pick, the night I went to the hospital. And I had two wonderful, life changing teachers with that in their names, which I realized later. Both were also like moms to me in a way.

    It dawned on me recently that my mom has Rose as well in her life. She was not Baptised until she was 8 and a visiting priest came to Charleston. She and two of her older sisters were Baptised but not submerged. The priest put Holy Water on a Rose and sprinkled them with it.

    I am hopeful. I do think there is a mystery of Salvation across time.

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