Monday, November 8, 2010

Family Resemblance

My recent Irish odyssey started simply enough.  I ran across The Riches of the Rosary by Father Gabriel Harty, the the Irish Rosary Priest. 

Harty is my maiden name, and it's a small clan and my family one of the smaller branches of it.  At one point in  the not terribly distant past, my forebears left Ireland for better chances in newer places, departing, it is said, from Antrim to London, and from there to Jamaica, New Zealand and Australia, with a small contingent landing first in Kingston, then Ohio, then Alabama, and eventually in north Florida, all in a matter of a few generations.  I think it goes without saying that that much mobility is an indication that things weren't going all that well for them--contented, successful people tend to stay put, not roam the world over.  Along the way, they abandoned more than homeland.   At least some of my ancestors moved from Rome to Lambeth--my great grandfather was an Anglican missionary in the Caribbean.  

 I devoured Father Harty's book but uncharacteristically, neglected to Google the author.  The jacket cover gave his birthdate as 1921.   I commended my appreciation for him and his work to the Blessed Mother, and let it go at that. Simple math told me the odds were that I held in my hands all the communication I would ever have from this gentle Dominican who has such wonderful things to say about the rosary I was coming to love.

Never play the odds with Mary.   I eventually had occasion to do that Internet search, looking for a particular quotation from his book to fill out a project.  Not only did I find the quote, I found Father Harty's blog, and discovered that, at 89, he is alive and well, living in Dublin.  I watched a video from a retreat he had given and heard him introduce himself: "I am Father Gabriel Harty...that's H A R T Y. "  How many times I've spelled my name with just such emphasis!  Kinsman or no, I felt an immediate connection.

Coming from the tag end of a withering family tree, there's something wonderful about knowing one might have kin, however distant and unknown.  There's just something nice about being part of a family.  I'd run across the Harty name only once before, on my first trip to Ireland.  Sitting in a pub, reading the daily paper, I came across a story of a roguish Irish con man who'd escaped from jail and was making his way across the country being sheltered by kindly women taken in my his charms.  His name?  Harty.   It confirmed my lingering suspicions that, while all other Irish might be descended from kings, my particular branch sprang solely from rascals. 

However, having encountered another potential kinsman of better pedigree, I sent Father Gabriel an e-mail, and was rewarded by a response almost immediately.  We struck up a friendship.  He sent a slim volume of his family story; I dispatched a rosary to him.  And I asked, with some reluctance, whether my indulgent husband would sanction a trip to Ireland in October instead of our usual trip to Colorado in search of fall leaves.  Despite the fact that we had visited Ireland in February, he agreed.  We met Father Harty in Lurgan, where he was visiting a family friend, and spent two lovely days sharing time and stories and a mass.  Kin or not by blood, I claimed him for my own the moment we met.

It wasn't until I got home and looked at the photos that my husband took of us that I realized blood kin we might be indeed.  Same mouth, same nose, same chin, same smile.  His hands are big, just like my dad's, just like mine.  I neglected to check to see whether the nail on the middle finger of his right hand is flat and grows down, but it wouldn't surprise me.  The inescapable effects of DNA passed across time and generations....inherited characteristics.  The things that mark us a relations, as sprung from the same stock, sharing, in some distant past, the same great-great-grandfather.

DNA.  Information in chemical form.  Instructions, recipes, details made of of protons, neutrons and electrons.  Language, written not on paper but in atomic particles.   My smile, my nose, my fingernail, all the result of a particular configuration of molecules, the configuration of bases that make the particular pattern of my genetic complement.  The mechanism by which the physical me is me.  Information set in molecules, made up of atoms that are made up, mostly, of empty space and charges and forces that are both real and beyond complete description and that never the less make me a real and substantive person with a very real and distinctive appearance.  An appearance shared by a man with the same last name living an ocean away.

DNA is, after all, one of the languages of God.  Out of nothingness (without form and void...empty space), God spoke and the created world came into being in all its particulars.  In the wonderful complexity of biology, He speaks still and again, connecting me Himself and with my kin by His very words, in those DNA sequences that gave me my dad's chin and nose and eyes and the flush from my mother's neck when she got angry, and, I am told, my grandmother's stubborn and willful personality.  I had thought my smile my own, but I guess not really. 

God speaks and I come into being.  He speaks through DNA and my form takes shape.  He speaks His Word, made flesh, and my soul comes alive and I come to know not only who God is but who and what I am created to be. 

The DNA in my cells shapes and forms my physical life,  the resemblance to my father, my brother, my long lost relative in a drawing room in Lurgan.  It's only when I step back and look at myself in that photo, side by side with Father Gabriel, that the family resemblance takes shape and I realize where I came from and how we are connected one to the other. 

God speaks, and I come into being.  God and  His Word, His Son, and the Spirit that proceeds from Them create and shape and mold my soul, my self, at my conception, at my conversion, at my daily waking, at every mass, in every prayer, in every devotion, with every grace.

 And, thanks be to God, He speaks still, and He speaks always.  I am, at every level, the result of the language that God speaks.  When I  step back and look at my image next to that of my Kin, I realize--with great joy and gratitude-- that the family resemblance is becoming noticeable.   I know where I am from and how I am connected, one to the Other.  I am, after all, part of the family.

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