Genealogy: My Fathers and Our Father

I’m genealogy crazy, to my wife’s occasional dismay. As of a few years ago, I’d traced most of my ancestral lines back to about 1600, but one particular branch was giving me problems: the Kendalls, the source of my middle name. Two years ago, I discovered my grandmother’s grandfather, Adelbert A. Kendall, but I couldn’t make any further progress on my own. He had been born in 1851 — 150 years short of my personal “goal.”

Eighteen months ago, I found some brothers and sisters of Adelbert and managed to track down two living descendants, Bob and Pat — newfound cousins! Together with two near-descendants, Carl and Gay, we managed to gradually, painstakingly, piece together a mother and father for the family, as well as a probable date of death for the father. Every step required great labor (which I’m tempted to detail, but let’s just leave it at “meticulous”), but we’d found new cousins to join in the search with us.

Then, recently, an unusually distant cousin, Jim, made a riveting discovery: an old genealogy book on had just the breakthrough we were looking for. Indistinct, lacking in details, yet seeming to fit what little data we had, the book set us off on new paths. That led cousin Ken to contact another relative, Georgie. In short, after a long and difficult process, we met with success. There was much rejoicing; though separated by time zones, we celebrated together.
Later that day, Georgie e-mailed us a scan of a typed list she had found that her grandmother had made. It made my heart stop.

Births, marriages, and deaths, dates and place names — it was as complete a genealogical record as one could ask for, going back to Adelbert’s grandparents. It had been sitting in an old file folder in her home for years.

The irony was bitter. The paper had been there the entire time. We could have known the Kendall line immediately — all that labor, made meaningless by the discovery of a piece of typewritten stationery.

I quickly realized how childish that thinking was. God could have revealed this list to us at any time, but would we really have rejoiced then? Would I have ever met and become close to Pat or Bob, Gay or Carl, Ken or Jim or Georgie, without that search for our roots?

No, the past would have stayed dead. I would have dutifully deposited the information into my database — but I would never have known about the grasshopper plagues that Adelbert and his family lived through, when the voracious insects ate not only the crops, but even the wooden handles of household tools. Nor would I have known what he did to support his family, educating himself at night to be able to pass the bar and become a lawyer instead of a simple postmaster. And I never would have learned how my family’s past intersects with America’s history, such as when Adelbert hunted gold in the Black Hills the first spring it was opened up to prospectors, or when he witnessed the bloodbath at Massacre Canyon during the Sioux Wars.

All of this — the joy, the understanding, the love — came through the process of doing the work.

It’s the same with the spiritual life. God could infuse us with spiritual fervor, give us the gifts of the Spirit at all times, and so on. But each moment is precious and needs to be valued for itself, not judged against the completion of a task.

My prayers and studies don’t just inform my relationship with God; they form it. My chasing down blind alleys, staying faithful to proven methods of holiness, trying out new spiritual exercises (new to me, at least) — the point isn’t how holy I’m going to be at some future point, but how holy I’m becoming at those very moments. It’s not the relationship I will have, but the relationship I have right now.

God could solve all of our problems immediately. He could feed the poor, teach the world’s children — even (most miraculous of all) keep my desk clean at work. However, our going through these temporal issues — feeding the poor, teaching the ignorant, and cleaning our desks — has objective value. Or, rather, they have the opportunity for value, if we use our moments in time to touch that which is eternal.

God can do all of our do-ings for us. But only we can be our be-ing. Not even God can be us for us.

Pope John Paul the Great once remarked that when it comes to any academic discipline — physics, history, biology, art — the more we learn, the more we find we have to learn, for each new fact suggests new questions. This is certainly true of genealogy, as each generation back in time doubles the number of lines being studied — each father and mother presents new fathers and mothers of their own.

The same is true in spirituality: The closer we get to God, the more we see faults and imperfections in ourselves that we’d never noticed before — new ways to cleave more closely to Him. The more we understand God’s love for us, the more it becomes a mystery. And the more we accept God as our true Father and embrace that relationship, the deeper the wonder that He embraces it, too.


Eric Pavlat is a convert from Unitarian Universalism who entered the Church in 1996. He lives in Maryland with his wife and six children. He is also a perpetually professed Lay Dominican in St. Pius V Pro-Chapter, located in Catonsville, MD. He founded Democrats for Life of Maryland, Inc., in 2004, served one term as president, and stayed on the board of directors until 2010. He now considers himself more a Distributist than anything else. Eric teaches 10th grade honors and special education students in English literature, composition, and grammar at his alma mater, Parkdale High School.

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