It’s All in the Family

Fr. Thomas Hopko has observed on occasion that many times saints of the Church are found in “clusters,” particularly in clusters of a single family. Thus it is that within St. Basil the Great’s family, his brothers, Gregory of Nyssa and Simeon, as well as his sister Macrina, and his mother are all saints of the Church (did I leave any out?). At one point, during the history of Orthodox Britain, there were 28 canonized saints in one royal family (times change).

Such examples can be multiplied throughout the centuries. There are stories of those who came from terrible backgrounds (St. Moses of the Desert Fathers was a former thief and brigand). But there is this other phenomenon of holy families. The 5th of September commemorates Sts. Zachariah and Elizabeth, the parents of St. John the Baptist. Of course, related to them are St. Mary the Theotokos as well as her parents, St. Joachim and Anna. We could add St. Joseph the Bethrothed as well as his children Sts. James and Simeon.

Within the Orthodox Church in America it is well known that Matushka Juliana Schmemann, wife of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, is the direct descendant of St. Juliana of Lazarevo. A dear friend of mine, a priest, is good friends with the grandson of St. John Kochurov. Such connections can be multiplied many times over in the life of the Church.

Such “clusters” of saints are not always the result of centuries of holy ancestry. St. Gregory Nazianzus’ family, which number more than one saint, was the scion of a father who had been a pagan priest before his conversion to Christianity. Christ’s own geneology includes saints as well as adulterers, murderers and harlots.

But what do such clusters mean for us?

First, I would think, it means that our own efforts towards godly living and godly children are not without reward – though God is sovereign in all things – it does not hurt to strive to be godly and to raise our children in all godliness. In the marriage service of the Church it says: “the prayers of parents are the foundations of a home.” The daily prayers for my children, their spouses, and my grandchildren are time well spent.

It also seems to me that there is a mystery involved within all of this. We do not exist as entirely discrete individuals. Our lives are deeply enmeshed within the lives of those closest to us – particularly those of our own flesh and blood. This is very much in contradiction to the claims of modernity – which have striven to make the family of little consequence. We separate ourselves from parents and grandparents as a normal course of economic mobility. Extended family becomes restricted to special holidays (if that). The bonds of family are not only stretched, they are broken.

This is not normal and it is destructive to the well-being of humanity.

I can think of a thousand exceptions to this observation – and yet I know it is true. I am my father’s son, and despite the fact that we live 5 hours apart, I see his face in the mirror every morning. I hear his voice coming out of my own chest. Many of the demons that I face are demons he faced long before me.

I have been deeply blessed that within the extended Protestant family that was the heritage of both myself and my wife, we now number:

My parents as Orthodox (received at age 79). May my mother’s memory be eternal.

My children. Two daughters who are the wives of priests. A son with an Orthodox wife and a daughter engaged to an Orthodox young man.

My wife’s youngest brother, who with his wife and 5 children faithfully uphold the Orthodox faith.

And more who are in the grace of God and whose end is known only unto Him.

What I do know, is that the actions of my own life and its decisions have not been without effect. God has done things that I could not have imagined.

And this is the very nature of grace. Who can describe the effects of grace or predict its consequences. We can give ourselves over to the life of grace and trust that God is a good God and will do good to all whom we love.

What more can we do?

I carry the whole of my family as a treasure in my heart. Wherever I go, whatever I do, they are with me. As I stand in the altar before God and offer prayer, they are with me. Sometimes as I wrestle with sin, they are with me as well. Nothing is wasted. God is a good God and loves mankind. He saves us not merely on an individual basis (who then could be saved?) but extends His grace to the most extreme limits that we might rejoice with the most extreme rejoicing. Glory to God who has given us grace and made of the human race the recipients of His great mercy!

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





20 responses to “It’s All in the Family”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Fabio Leite, Ζωντανό Ιστολόγιο. Ζωντανό Ιστολόγιο said: It’s All in the Family: Fr. Thomas Hopko has observed on occasion that many times saints of the Church are found i… […]

  2. elizabeth Avatar

    you did leave out the deacon St. Theosebia, wife of Gregory of Nyssa


  3. Chris Avatar


    Unfortunately once family ties are broken by distance (economic mobility) it is very hard to put the pieces back together again.

    One would think that praying for your immediately family would be a no brainer. How easily that we get caught up in the hustle & bustle of of our own lives that we would forget to pray for our own family.

    Once again I humbled by my own failures! But God is great and through His mercies I will rebound and keep moving forward.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you for this beautiful post, Fr. Stephen! Such an encouragement to pray (and to keep praying!) for my family, I so needed! Especially this at the end: ‘Nothing is wasted. God is a good God and loves mankind. He saves us not merely on an individual basis (who then could be saved?) but extends His grace to the most extreme limits that we might rejoice with the most extreme rejoicing.’

    Glory to God for All Things!!!

  5. Prudence True Avatar

    The Orthodox family extends beyond the roots of our heritage to all Orthodox Christians everywhere. I’m blessed with the fullness of an immediate and extended family of Orthodox Christians by birth. The sense of dedication to the Faith is runs deeply within my family for some reason, and has for generations.

    But there is great joy we all have with the sharing of Orthodoxy and witnessing the growth of the Orthodox faith here in America. Orthodoxy is a family in itself, and I think this is something those from varied backgrounds perceive when they enter the church for the first time.

  6. Yannis Avatar

    gah! and thank you F.Stephen 🙂

  7. Elizabeth Avatar

    You left out St. Macrina the Elder! St. Macrina was the daughter of wealthy parents and lived in the third century at Neocaesarea in Pontus, Asia Minor. In her childhood she was acquainted with St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (St. Gregory the Wonderworker), first bishop of her native town. When this venerable doctor arrived in the territory, it was said, there were only seventeen Christians in the town of Neo-Caesarea; when he died, there were only seventeen pagans. As he died between 270 and 275, St. Macrina must have been born before 270. It was the faith of this ardent apostle that became the way of life for her family.

    She and her husband were staunch Christians and endured a great deal of persecution because of their faith in Christ Jesus. Macrina and her husband learned the high price of being true to their Christian beliefs. At one period, during the Diocletian persecution, probably the first decade of the 4th century, Macrina fled from her native town with her husband, Basil. They suffered in exile in the wooded hills of Pontus, on the shores of the Black Sea, for seven years. Somehow they managed to escape their persecutors. They were often without food and feared capture, but they would not give up their faith. Instead, they patiently waited and prayed for the persecution to end. They hunted for food and ate the wild vegetation and somehow survived. By God’ providence, goats descended from the mountains and offered themselves to them and so they were nourished. They had to endure many privations. Later, during another persecution, their property was seized by agents of the emperor, and they lived in almost total destitution. They were left with nothing but their faith and trust in God’s care for them.When the persecution ended, they were honored as confessors of the faith, a much revered title among the Christians of that time. She was thus a confessor of the Faith during the last violent storm that burst over the early Church.

    It was St. Macrina and her husband who founded the faith of the family and passed it on as a splendid treasure to her children and grandchildren. That faith was born of suffering and persecution. Through it they succeeded in rearing up one of the most saintly families in Cappadocia and, perhaps, in Christendom. She must have passed on this faith to her son, Basil the elder, in a very impressionable way because as history shows us Basil and his wife lived very saintly lives and gave birth to ten children, four of whom, would later also become saints of the Church. On the intellectual and religious training of St. Basil and his elder brothers and sisters, St. Macrina exercised a great influence, implanting in their minds those seeds of piety and that ardent desire for Christisn perfection which were later to attain so glorious a growth. It was at his grandmother’s knee that Basil received his first instructions in the Christian faith, and it was from her that he and his family were nourished in that Christian discipline that made them saints. As an adult, St. Basil the Great praised his grandmother for all the good she had done for him. He especially thanked her openly for having taught him to love the Christian faith from the time he was very small. Macrina was known to have treasured and read the writings of Gregory the Wonderworker, and it was the fire and zeal of his writings that was passed on to Basil, and his brothers and sisters.

    St. Macrina survived her husband but the exact year of each of their deaths is not recorded. They both died peacefully in the fourth century. It is believed that St. Macrina died around 340.

    Macrina was known for her great sense of justice and the faith with which she and her husband endured their sufferings during the persecutions under Galerius and Diocletian. Macrina’s strength of character and faithfulness to the Christian way of life is shown to us not through biography, but by the example of her children and grandchildren. St. Macrina was a loving grandmother. She made Christianity beautiful to Basil and the rest of her family because she really lived what she talked about. Today we honor this rather obscure woman because, her goodness and holiness of life gave birth to that same goodness and holiness in her children and grandchildren.
    Her grandchildren included St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Macrina the Younger, and St. Peter of Sebaste. There were two or three other grandchildren who were glorified, also, but their names are lost to most records.
    St. Basil the Elder was her son (and this was her husband’s name, also), and St. Emmelia (Emily) was her daughter-in-law! What a family!

  8. Elizabeth Avatar

    St. Naucratius was the other brother – so there were 5 saints among St. Macrina the Elder’s grandchildren!

    Sorry! I had forgotten!

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    Elizabeth – thanks for the additions. I was away from my sources when I wrote the piece and could not remember all of the names of that marvelously holy family.

  10. Dean Arnold Avatar
    Dean Arnold

    God is so good to give you children who are all faithful to the Lord. We are blessed to be under a Dean who passes muster on that qualification for elder.

    Raising godly kids is a lost art. Or science. Or is it either? One of these days, I would like to see a blog post on how that is done. A pretty controversial topic, though.

  11. Yannis Avatar

    Best done by not mentioning God at all, in my opinion.

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dean, it starts with the parents living an obvious Chrisitan life. Persecutions or not we live in an era that dilutes (intentionally) the parental role and resonsibility. It should be taught in the parishes in both word and deed what is required to be an adult in Christian terms and make it something to which our children aspire.

    We need schools so that our children’s way of thinking can be formed in such a manner that they can resist the temptations of the modern world and learn a life of virtue so that our boys will grow into men, not simpering children in adult bodies and our girls will become women not imitation men or worse.

    But of course that would require a greater level of committment on our part than is usual. Even in Marina’s time such dedication and love was unusual though.

  13. Jeremiah Avatar

    This is just the reminder I need. Before discovering Orthodoxy (or rather being discovered) my prayer life had dwindled to near nothing. I endeavor to pray the “We” and “Us” in the Orthodox prayers, as if my family were standing with me. I am even learning to pray for departed family, especially my father, some of whose demons I find myself struggling against. Because of the pseudo-christian hypocrisy I grew up with, I pray the more earnestly for mercy. Sometimes I see the scene in my mind of Aaron bringing the censor out amongst the Children of Israel when the plague was slaying them for their wickedness. The plague stopped at the censor. So I feel like the sins of my fathers being visited on my family need to stop at me (so to speak).
    I can at least affirm that my family claimed to be believers in Christ, and therefore I have that as a foundation. My desire to see my children follow Jesus with all their hearts.
    Thank God for His Church.
    This post helps to renew my hopes that by joining myself to Christ in His Church, that my wife will desire the fullness of communion that Orthodoxy has to offer. My children are far more ready to embrace it, but they feel a loyalty to their mommy that they believe would be betrayed by following Orthodoxy wholeheartedly.
    Pray for me, and pray for my family. I hope to have such a testimony of grace in my family, when I have lived a few more decades.

  14. Barbara Avatar

    Dear Michael,

    It’s been my experience as a Christian educator (for 25 years – K-12 and Post Secondary) and a Christian parent (for 21 years) that right thinking/behaving is not a comprehensive path to inspiring a love for God that nurtures a holy life. In fact, it leads more directly (when relied on as a panacea) to a moral piety divorced from knowing and loving God, which then often results in despair or rebellion when the ideals of right thinking/behaving don’t translate into real life – either observed or suffered.

    I’m intrigued with Yannis’ comment and agree that talking about God is dangerous (not impossible or unnecessary, but very difficult). Tell us more, Yannis. I worry sometimes when I see Protestant Evangelical concepts of worldview and lifeview being incorporated into Holy Orthodoxy. Our culture is so prone to living in words in our heads…

  15. Yannis Avatar

    My idea is simple really – its based on the fact that any conventional teaching on God is based on the preesntation of God as a concept. And in that case as you actually say (and your experience shows), young people will eventually react in a million ways – because anyone can react to a concept in a million ways.

    In my experience the things that really matter are two: storytelling and praying/meditating. These are the kind of teachings that speak directly to the heart and are understood without requiring the conceptual apparatus.

    A myth is by default something that isn’t factually “real” – even though its more real than the real, because it speaks of the inward landscape of the Perceiver inside of each person. Scripture as a story is a great such tool, as are the Greek myths, as are Zen stories, as are Christs parables.

    Meditation/prayer – and i mean the contemplative type, that focuses the mind on deep breathing from the abdomen and on the words of the prayer exclusively and does not present itself as a petition to a higher power somewhere in the universe, but on the focusing of the Higher Power inside of the person taht performs it, is readily understood by anyone, including children past a certain age. People actually becoming aware of the heart, their perceiving faculty is the most important thing i can think of. A precursor of contemplative prayer is working on simple repetitive tasks – like gardening and other such – that can be done by children: laborare est orare (work is prayer).

    Other than that, simply participating in the Orthodox services themselves, without explanations but with leaving children to soak on the suchness of the worship, icons, candles, chanting, incence etc is an absolutely direct and great way to teach. I for example have very fond memories of the church in Greece where i grew up, even though i ddn’t always “get it”.

    Its also great to teach by example – ie for the parents to live the religious life in an alive manner; this alone can teach nearly everything without a single word because a child can always refer back to the aura of the parent. If that aura exhumed humility, kindness and love, i doubt that there can be a better lesson for a child – its the kind of lesson that will be effetive for life. If it exhumes compromise, conventional piety and secret inner desperation, children pick up such things pretty quickly, and distance themselves in desbelief eventually, because they always refer back to the uneasiness of the relationship of their parent with the spiritual.

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    OK to make myself clear:

    1. Pray oneself on a regular basis, especially for your children–Orthodox prayers from prayer books.
    2. Participate in the Divine Services on a regular basis, teaching them the responses and, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer so that they can participate in the Liturgy.
    3. Give Alms–personally where possible (not just through one’s parish)
    4. Live a life of virtue and practice Repentance, especially with one’s children
    5. Invite them into your life, make them present in the Church when you are.
    6. Call them to a higer life as well as demonstrating it.
    7. Answer all questions they have about anything as fully and as openly as possible from an Orthodox Christian perspective.
    8. Discrusive, diadatic, moralism is not anywhere close to what I mean, but Yannis without proper direction in discernment, some of the things you suggest can get folks into real trouble, real quick.

  17. Barbara Avatar

    Thank you, Yannis!

  18. Yannis Avatar

    Indeed Michael, you are right.

    On the other hand, judging from myself, people are convinced of things when they have weighted them in their heads and lives and after having struggled with them, they become personally convinced.

    I pesonally happen to consider doubt and non-linearity in the journey of faith essential. I only adapt something when it has proven its truth and value for me personally and it has become part of the experience.

    In general, judging from conversations i have with people of my environment, friends, colleagues and relatives, many people refrain from joining the spiritual path because they feel that they are given many concepts to accept forthwith, and they are not entirely sure what is the point behind them. The only solution i have personally found is for direct experience that depends more on the intuition of each person than on words.

    In the Brothers Karamazov, elder Zoshima mentions that all is needed is “…to plant a seed in people’s heart, a seed that will show them the light in the abyss of their sin…”. For me, knowledge conquered is not the same as knowledge given.

  19. Yannis Avatar

    And you are most welcome Barbara.

  20. yeamlak fitur Avatar
    yeamlak fitur

    Abuna Tekle Haimanot an Ethiopian Saint, of Ethiopian Orthodox church and the only officially known and commemorated outside Ethiopia (Rome, France and Egypt) besides St. (Aba) Moses; came also from church loving parents and family as his gedle explains. He is the only Saint seen with wings on all His icons.

    Abuna Tekle Haimanot’s father was a priest (Saga Ab) himself, and his mother (Agzahara or Sarah) loved the church and the poor and they thought Saint Tekle all church teachings and prayers growing up.

    Abuna Tekle built the biggest monastery (Debre Libanos) in Ethiopia. He Baptized many people including Kings and Queens.

    On his commemoration when his gedle is read in church we always hear about his God Loving family.

    Thank you Father.

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