For a few years now the family has known that Grandma has cancer. When it was discovered the doctors gave her a few months. Although she’s still almost as spirited as ever it’s become obvious this last year that she won’t be with us much longer. It seems as though the extended farewell has given the family a chance to reflect more intentionally on our inheritance. In fact, we’ve decided to gather next summer to do just this. I thought that before we consider our specific inheritance, it would be helpful to try and define this word and understand the experience. What follows is my effort to do just that.
Naked we enter the world, and completely exposed we desperately need a dwelling place. The sheer fact that some of us have survived the labour of childbirth indicates that a dwelling place is available, that it sits in wait of children to swaddle. At birth, we receive a dual gift from God: a beginning and the means to make new beginnings. This dual gift is the condition of life. As St. Augustine writes, “that there be a beginning, man was created before whom there was nobody.”
This dual gift consists of one’s family, tradition, and heritage, the (inherited) components of a newborn’s dwelling place. Inheritance is something which we are given, something which we did not create nor control. Faith is necessary because of this inherited vulnerability. Such faith does not comfort or appease vulnerability but simply makes it more acute. Insofar as life is a gift, faith is unavoidable.
This is not simply a story of dependence, however: within this dual gift is a dual movement. On the one hand, the gift comes to us from a source that transcends our own efforts. The first movement then is the movement of the gift towards us, or, in religious language, the movement of God. On the other hand, the gift must be received. Therefore, the second movement is the reception of God’s work. Within the giving of the gift, we receive this ability—the ability to receive it. This idea is actually very basic: when I teach my child how to walk, for example, he gains the ability to walk by receiving my lessons. Just as a parent teaches a child to walk, therefore, the gift enables us to take the first step, to embrace what has been given.
Embracing this gift does not mean that we adhere to everything our inheritance teaches us. It could be the case that the parent’s lessons are outdated, inadequate, or harmful and, therefore, should be adopted or rejected. Nevertheless, one’s gift must be taken up, because without facing one’s heritage one not only remains naked—uncertain of who they are or where they come from—but also remains blind to this nakedness. By ignoring a harmful element of our inherited identity, the fact that our father was an alcoholic, for example, we risk allowing the disease to destroy life without one even realizing what is happening. On a more positive note consider the blessings an inheritance can offer: how wonderful it is to discover that one has inherited an ear for music, for example. The point being that children must take up and grapple with their inheritance or risk hampering freedom and life—the very reason we were given the inheritance in the first place. When we fail to grapple with our inheritance, even when that inheritance is tainted by sin, we risk missing the opportunity to mature, to learn, and to grow. In other words, ignoring the gift is a rejection of freedom and life.
A similar double movement, as described above, is evident in the gospels. Forgiveness, Christ teaches, is available to all. Accepting this gift, letting Christ into your hearts, as they say, requires confession. Such an action, however, is made possible only because of the availability of forgiveness. Similarly, in the evangelical tradition, one often hears talk of accepting Christ and his love into one’s heart. Christ’s love is unconditional, available to all, and because of this unconditionality we are all endowed with the capacity of accepting the life he offers. Here then, like the example of the gift of a home, we can see the double movement of God’s love which is the source of all gifts.
Meeting together as a family, to grapple with our inheritance: to learn, to listen, and to teach, creates the possibility for love’s double movement to be felt in our hearts and among our relationships. Hope resides in the tension embedded in God’s gift of life—the tension some call love.