We are alive because of our ancestors, that “great cloud of witnesses” mentioned in the letter to the Hebrews (12:1). Our grandmothers and grandfathers struggled, grieved, celebrated, and endured, and we can live our lives in ways that honor their memories. We can imagine that our ancestors would want their descendants to live good, fruitful, and meaningful lives. This is especially true for those who are wise and well and in loving relationship with us. They are allies for our creative unfolding and can offer guidance and wisdom.
Living in a loving, ethical way aligned with our gifts and service to a world in need is a profound way to honor the memory of our ancestors and let that love be channeled. We often have healing work to do with some of our ancestors: As we know through the field of epigenetics, traumas are carried down through the generations. Numbers even mentions how the sins of the parents are laid upon the children, even in “the third and the fourth generation” (14:18).
Part of this healing work is to bring our family secrets out of shame and hiding. As we bring what is unconscious to consciousness, learn to speak truth to others, release the hold of compulsions on our lives, and nourish our minds with education and our bodies through exquisite care, we are doing the hard work of fulfilling the ancestral birthright we carry.
The more we work to heal the wounds we carry and those carried by our ancestors, the freer we become to live into the fullness we were created to be. When we choose the path that is life-giving, rather than destructive to ourselves and others, we elevate their memory.
My maternal grandmother, Faith, died when I was 24 with my grandfather by her side tending to all her needs. Pancreatic cancer ate away at her body. Before she got married, she was a teacher: She gave up that career to become a wife and mother of three children, the oldest of whom was my mother, and eventually worked in my grandfather’s business. Whenever she told stories of her days teaching, I sensed deep regret and great longing.
My paternal grandmother, Erika, I met only once. When I was 6 months old, my family flew to Vienna to be with her as she lay dying, also of pancreatic cancer. Before she married, she was a dancer, a dream she also gave up for marriage and children.
Soon after starting my ancestral work, I became keenly aware of the profound limitations on my grandmothers’ lives because of the era in which they lived. Slowly I began to see how my own work as teacher and writer/artist was, in a way, an offering back to them. I could embody a freedom they were not able to. I often dedicate my work to their memory as a way of honoring what they endured in life to bring me into existence. It was a revelation to see how clearly my own calling is woven into the callings of my foremothers.
In her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (Mariner Books), Alice Walker writes, “And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see: or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read.” This was distinctly my experience of being handed the creative sparks that seeded my own passions in life.
Looking at my calling in this context widens the horizons of who I am. When I craft my life so as to nurture my creativity, it is because I have the time, the means, and the support to do so. It is a privilege, one my ancestors did not have. I owe it to my foremothers. I owe it to myself. I owe it to the other women and men in my life whom I am blessed to encounter.
Whether you are living into the fullness of your calling, doing work to support those in great need, or simply living as ethically as you can, all these actions embody your ancestral connections. You are already an extension of your forebearers in body and spirit, so your actions will inevitably ripple back to them. Making this relationship conscious and intentional helps to amplify the impact. You can dedicate an action to the ancestors in general or focus on someone specific, the way I do with my grandmothers and my livelihood through teaching and creative work.
We see this reality in both our blood ancestors as well as our spiritual ones. If we follow the Christian tradition, we can see Jesus as the fulfilment of all that came before him. Every generation that follows is called to live out the dream that Jesus proclaimed, a world where all those on the margins are welcome into the center, a place where we visit those in prison, care for the sick, and feed the hungry. We embody those dreams as much as we can and we leave them as a legacy for those who follow.
In Another Way: Living and Leading Change on Purpose (Chalice Press), Stephen Lewis writes about Jesus’ genealogy in the Gospel of Luke:
If you want to understand Jesus and his purpose you must understand the lineage from which he emerged. . . . Remembering and reclaiming the ancient knowledge, power, pride, authority, and legacy of his people fueled his public service on behalf of the dispossessed.
This is a beautiful way to imagine Jesus’ sense of calling in his life as profoundly connected to his lineage in the same way that ours is. We carry on the work of our ancestors and our spiritual teachers. Our calling in life is not the individual call of a single lifetime but ripples across the generations. A whole lineage of people before us worked with God to create a better world for their children.
Listen to the stories
If you have living ancestors, listen to the stories of their lives. Ask about both the joys as well as the struggles. Notice if you can see any patterns in your own life that reflect these. If you have no living ancestors, you can take a DNA test to find the places your ancestors were from. Even wider cultural stories such as world wars and times of famine or disease can give you insight into what your ancestors had to deal with.
Remember your mortality
In the Christian monastic tradition, starting with the desert mothers and fathers, we find the practice of memento mori, remembering daily that you will one day die. Mortality can be a gift when it leads us to cherish our lives even more. When we awaken each day and remember that this is grace, that our lives are freely given to us, we can savor the goodness of each moment with more depth and delight. When we realize that our time is limited, we need to make choices about what to embrace and what to release. Let this wisdom illumine your way forward in life and help you make choices about how to direct your life energy.
Dedicate loving action
Our daily choices and actions have an impact on our immediate circles and on the future. What we choose to validate by how we respond to life witnesses to a particular way of being. That can support and reinforce others making similar choices. Living with integrity and love is challenging at times. Include in your daily prayers a desire to consecrate any kindness, care, or loving acts to your ancestors for whom this might have been a struggle. Let their wounds be transformed into grace for the world. Let their love pour forth.
This article also appears in the May 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 5, pages 15-16). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Unsplash/Roman Kraft