My call to honor my middle name, Arthur: My father’s questing life never attained satisfaction. He died in desolation, isolation and loss. He seemed to eventually attain a kind of stoic cynicism. In his questing, his search for meaning or success, he hurt others, especially his family — he was a sinful man, with little apparent generosity. A coward, I suppose. Naively, he gave his young adulthood to the Nazis.
I am called to honor this man. He was my father. I never could condemn him — even when, during my childhood, he did some terrible things. One telling of my life would closely resemble his. A part of my motivation to find meaning has been, ironically perhaps, to transcend his legacy of failure, to avoid an end resembling his bitter end.
Yet, in recent days I have felt a call to greater intimacy with him — I am called to redeem him, perhaps. I think of the visitation of the sins of the fathers upon the children and subsequent generations — at least one of my own children has thought of Arthur more than once as the source of a legacy of suffering.
Jesus called us to take up our cross if we truly love him. He called us to enter into communion with him, even unto death. Sometimes I ask the question, “What is my cross?”, as if I needed to go seeking! At least one is right here in the heritage I am replaying, as are perhaps my children to varying degrees. I feel called to consciously embrace this heritage, a source of suffering to be embraced as an act of voluntary redemptive purgation.
Such purgation may also serve as penance for others: “horizontally,” for those in this world, known and unknown. But also “vertically” as in prayers and penance for souls in purgatory. Most importantly, might I not do penance on behalf of all ancestors who contributed somehow to my own legacy? I think of the grandfather I never met (Grannie’s husband), who wrought much evil. Lust and sloth may well have been his besetting sins. My role is surely not to condemn him, especially since I know nothing of the state of his soul at the moment of his last gasp several decades ago.
As I recall my visit to that sixteenth century church in Bad Zwischenahn near Oldenburg , it was the Thirteenth Station of the Cross that bore the family name Ahrens.. XIII is the taking down of Jesus from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. My Spiritual Journey with Jesus is a little Dominican devotional booklet for the Way of the Cross. In the meditation on XIII, it is stated that they placed Him first in his mother’s arms. The booklet relates this to Mary’s fiat, “as though even then she wanted to give expression to what she now experiences.” “In the Mystery of the Redemption, Grace — the gift of God Himself — is interwoven with a price paid by the human heart.” We think of Simeon’s prophecy that a sword would pierce her heart, “so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” I’m brought back to me commitment to follow her example as the “bondsman of the Lord”.
As so many others, I have a legacy of family suffering, with both perpetrators and victims, inheriting and contributing to that legacy in their turns. Yet I must never lose sight of the most obvious connections between any consequences I and my family experience today and my own prior misdeeds.
I often feel alienated by much of the popular fussing about instances of suffering. One often hears the question, “Why do the innocent suffer?” uttered as a loud wail with no apparent response. I feel alienated from this complaint for several reasons. Some are metaphysical or theological, and I won’t go into them here. But, in my own recent life, I am moved to accept suffering as a just payment for my own sins. Or, going beyond that, I think of the visitation of punishment upon me for the sins of my forefathers. Perhaps I feel sceptical of the assumption that neither of these sources is present in the lives or heritage of presumed innocent victims. Furthermore, why should we assume that suffering is inherently evil? — Is suffering not often a source of great instruction in the spiritual life?
Yet, as I have entered into this awareness of my own responsibility in recent years, I have tended to set aside as if resolved my own very real status as a victim within my own life. I bear deep and ineradicable scars of early childhood emotional abuse — I was neglected and traumatized to a point that left me numbed to pain, my own and that of others. I was left with a serious deficit in my ability to open myself to love, or even to hate, anger and other natural emotions. It is even possible that I developed as an intellectual partly in response to the deficits in my emotional development. Most of the damage was done well before my conscious memories. I have always clearly stood in need of both God the Father and Christ the Redeemer. Now, I desperately need the Holy Spirit to guide me on the final stage of my journey, along with the maternal embrace of my Blessed Mother.
A postscript to this post added on December 21, 2022: I just read a short entry in Wikipedia about Bad Zwischenahn, the idyllic village I visited more than 30 years ago. The church was St. Johannes Kirche, whose oldest section dates back to the twelfth century. But the town was also home to the largest Luftwaffe base in northern Germany, source of many bombing raids on England and the Netherlands. It was also home of a notorious mental hospital where hundreds of people were deliberately starved to death under the Nazis’ eugenics policy. Heritage!