That our lives touch and are touched by those around us cannot be denied. That even applies to a hermit I once crossed paths with at the Catholic Worker farm in Tivoli, New York.
He would quietly appear late in the evening in the kitchen where some of us would be finishing preparing the baking for the next day, or some such task. Without a word he would collect the supplies he needed to sustain himself and return to his cabin in the woods as silently as he had come, maybe even with a loaf of our fresh bread.
Over the span of years each of us is given, it is possible for each one of us to be held by, walk hand-in-hand with and then likely hold as many as seven generations of family members, friends and folk we come in contact with.
My grandmother who was born in 1876 held me as an infant. She knew my name and I came to know and love my Dede. At four or five years of age, I even have a vague memory of seeing old soldiers sunning themselves at a retirement home at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. They probably stretched the timeline of people I encountered by another 20 years.
On the other side of the continuum, our family has moved a further three generations on. Somehow I am amazingly, already, at least so it seems to me, a great grand uncle. Given current life expectancies, my seeing a seventh generation of my family is an odds-on proposition. Does this very concrete and personal link to a timeline of well over two centuries of people who will have known me carry any obligations with it?
On Monday, my Aunt Dorothy wrote from her home in Cutbank, Montana, not far from the twin Glacier and Waterton national parks. She still prefers a card and stamped envelope over the less-tactile convenience of email. Her whole adult life as a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondolet has been spent in service. She started as an elementary school teacher, taught at a school for the deaf, was dean of liberal arts at Avila University in Kansas City, Missouri, and now at 86 is doing parish work on the north side of the Diocese of Helena, Montana.
The Diocese of Helena is the home diocese of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen. My aunt sent along a picture of her and Archbishop Hunthausen taken last spring as he, now 91, celebrated his 50th anniversary as a bishop. As archbishop of Seattle, Washington, he gained notoriety as an outspoken social justice and anti-war advocate. His opposition to nuclear weapons even led him to withhold the taxes on half of his $10,000-a-year salary in protest. The IRS had to garnish his modest income to recover the taxes.
Hunthausen’s stands were a key catalyst leading to the U.S. Bishop’s 1983 peace pastoral statement condemning nuclear deterrence as a permanent state of international relations. However these positions provoked a strong conservative backlash. The archbishop is most likely remembered for the hot water he got into with the Vatican over issues such as permitting girls to serve on the alter during Mass, allowing a service in his Seattle cathedral for gay parishioners and questioning the church’s denial of ordination to women.
The well-known quote attributed to the Great Law of the Iroquois offers that “In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation … even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.”
Consciously or just intuitively understood, lives given in service to others, lives able to risk confronting uncomfortable truths such as those exemplified by Archbishop Hunthausen and my aunt ultimately take concern for future generations to heart. A myriad of issues before Yukoners today demand the same consideration be seriously given even to the seventh generation.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.