The Wisdom of the Ancestors

The Wisdom of the Ancestors

FROM THE CURATE’S HOUSE — Week by week, the church’s calendar asks to listen to our family tree. Spread throughout every month of the year, we find two hundred and forty men and women named, as well as nine groups of martyrs identified only by the place and era of their witness. Some names are clearly recognisable [ Simon & Jude, Apostles — 28 October ] whilst others are people that we feel we really should know about [ Julian of Norwich, Spiritual Writer, c.1417 — 8 May ]. Some people seem like references to commonly shared British history [ Elizabeth Fry, Prison Reformer, 1845 — 12 October ], whilst others are strangers whose tales lie within reach of living memory [ Janani Luwum, Archbishop of Uganda, 1977 – – 17 February ].

Some call the members of this family tree “saints” and gladly call upon their friendship and guidance. Other branches of the same family tree find that unhelpful, but are still inspired by the inheritance of faithfulness in action. In his introduction to Celebrating the Saints, Robert Atwell points out that whether our forebears in the tradition are companion saints or role models from history, “they challenge us to resurrection now” (his emphasis).

Dogma offends in a post-modern culture. Many of us are deeply uncomfortable with doctrinal absolutes and we have a sense that we need something more than a theoretical knowledge of God. We suspect that an unknown God can neither be trusted, served, nor worshipped. The narratives that lie behind each of those names in our calendar offer us an alternative  – an approach rooted in story, each story telling of genuine, authentic attempts to live as ambassadors of the God who calls his friends to worship him in spirit and in truth.

CS Lewis observed, “how monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints.” The variety of characters, contexts, cultures and calling amongst them all is splendidly idiosyncratic and exotic! Many of the details of these lives, especially the earlier the hero, are gilded and embroidered with legend, but legend taken as metaphor too has its part to play in underscoring those things that the biographers wanted future generations to draw as legacy from these stories.

Jane Howard, of Time magazine, wrote, “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family.  Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” As we enter again the season of remembrance begun with All Saints and All Souls, may her words challenge us to commemorate the tribe to which we belong. There are many resources that help us do this. The excellent Exciting Holiness is a web-based compendium that is free to use, covering each person named in the church’s calendar.

Let us also take time to honour those members of this household of faith whose saintly wisdom and witness is known to us alone, whose chronicles are written only in our lives. I believe that what we become depends on what those who love us teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom, and shaped by the quiet faith of those around us.

“We need to haunt the house of history and listen anew to the ancestors’ wisdom” (Maya Angelou). No tricks, just treats!

Sarah Northall