22 January 2011

The sins of the fathers

...I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me... (Exodus 20:5b) 
I am colour-blind - specifically what is known as red-green colour blind.  I suppose I have the commonest form, deuteranomalous red-green colour blindness (neat big word!).  Because colour-blindness is on the X-chromosome, and because males only have one, this means both my daughters are carriers of the colour-blindness gene (even more interesting, either of them might be a tetrachromat, which sounds pretty cool, thought I don't know what, if any, practical consequences this may have).  Their sons have a 50-50 chance of being colour-blind like me.  My mother was a carrier; at least one of her brothers was colour-blind.  My brother is not colour-blind; I am.

I (probably; theoretically could be Susan, but most likely me) have passed on another dodgy gene to at least one of my children.  Adele is a carrier for the gene causing Tay-Sachs Disease.  This was discovered when she was pregnant with Thea.  Thea's father, Adele's husband Luke, is Jewish.  It turns out that the gene for Tay-Sachs is of higher than average frequency amongst persons of Ashkenazic Jewish descent (gosh, I'm getting to put a lot of links into this one, am I not?).  They were worried lest he also be a carrier.  If Thea were homozygous for the gene, her life expectancy would have been something like four years.  Fortunately, Luke is not a carrier - but Thea may be.

It so happens that persons of French Canadian descent have a higher than average incidence of T-S.

Adele's fortune is probably due to me, therefore.  My paternal grandmother was an Ashkenazi Jew.  My material grandmother was French Canadian (or at least her parents were).

All of which is to say the obvious - that - quite without their having any say in the matter - our children may be the heirs of genetic troubles from their parents, from their parents' parents, from their parents' parents' parents - and so forth.

In - when? I think 1997 - I began to despair of overcoming my tendency to bad temper (putting it mildly).  I was, after all, a Catholic.  If my dates are correct, it was in July or August of 1997 that I went to Father Aquinas McComb at the Newman Centre at the University of Auckland, and asked him about counselling.

I had been receiving the Sacraments of the Catholic Church since 24 December, 1995.  My mind and heart were clearer than they had ever been regarding the truths of the faith - and the reality of my sinful nature, and of my sin.

I think - I do not impute such beliefs to other Protestants - but I think I thought, as a Protestant, that anything like psychological counselling was a sign that one didn't really trust God.  But I knew that the Catholic belief was not that Grace annihilated Nature, but that Grace perfected Nature.

So I asked Father Aquinas for advice about counselling.  I was a little taken aback when what Father Aquinas recommended was not counselling, but what he referred to as a Mass for Healing of the Family Tree.

This is, in origin, an Anglican idea, but it has caught on in the Catholic Church.  Preparation took some time.  I needed to write out something of both my and Susan's family trees - what we knew of them (in Susan's case we knew quite a lot).  I also wrote out a sort of plenary Confession (which Father John Moss did not read - he burned it!).  Sue and I, with Helen, Eddie, and Adele, went to the Mass - Johnny was living the the United States at the time.  But the Mass was offered for several not present.  Our friends the Waldegraves - not yet Catholics at the time - attended with us.

As Susan said, after that "all Hell broke loose."

Perhaps that line is more accurate than it seems.  We did have a burst of new troubles.  It is a long time ago now, and I do not know how long they lasted - not long, I think.  In about October of that year I went to my first Opus Dei retreat, and can scarcely express what that, and all the subsequent, retreats and other ministries from Opus Dei have meant for me.  Susan eventually joined as a member.

My temper?  Well, the John Jensen whose tendency to shoot off is still the same person.  I can only say that if my behaviour had continued after that Mass as it had done for the many years before, I do not know if I would still be married - perhaps not still alive.

All of which is a pretty dramatic way of saying that things have changed, and for the better.

There is obvious truth in the idea that our sins affect our children - and our grandchildren - and so on.  This effect is, in part, purely natural.  Being reared by a blow-top father cannot be good for your own self-control.

There may, however, be a certain preternatural 'genetic inheritance' as well.  I do not know and do not wish at all to claim it.  There have been some who claim that the families who inherited the monasteries that Henry VIII dissolved have been the heirs of some sort of curse, or bad luck, or something.  I do not know and hope and pray that it may not be so - certainly our instinct is to say that those who quite innocently inherited land should not properly suffer for the sins of their ancestors.

I do know one thing, though.  Whatever we have inherited, whether through genetics, through this 'spiritual inheritance,' or by any other means, is a gift from God if we turn to Him in love and thanksgiving:
...And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments." (Exodus 20:6)
and, though we suffer the consequences of some of this inheritance:
...all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)


John from Canada said...

Tay-Sachs and colour-blindness, being genetically recessive traits, probably are more common among French-Canadians and among Ashkenazic Jews because both communities have long traditions of marrying genetically related individuals (basically, they married their relatives). In both cases there were almost certainly very good reasons to do so: preservation of their community in adverse situations. Had they not done so, your ancestors may not have survived at all -- then there would be no you, either. So we inherit not just the sins but all the choices of our fathers and mothers, I think. And while one can think of the sins of the fathers affecting us, one can also think of the faithfulness, the good deeds, the love of the fathers affecting us too.

John Thayer Jensen said...

A reader pointed out (in e-mail) that my understanding of the genetics of the colour-blindness gene is wrong. All my daughters are carriers of colour-blindness. They all receive my X-chromosome, after all. Whether they are also carriers of Tay-Sachs is a chance thing. So I got it wrong :-)


John Thayer Jensen said...

My and Edna's (my first wife's) daughter Kathleen e-mailed me this:

Interesting information on color blindness. In October Josh (your 2nd
grandson) took his drivers permit test, which he passed on the first try. What
he didn't pass was the eye test. So off to the opthamologist we went. He just
missed the threshold of vision that requires him to wear glasses (he's
near-sighted). It also explained his grades as he could suddenly see things he
couldn't see before. To make a short story long (yes, I am a true Jensen/Thayer
in that regard), we discovered that he is red-green color blind.

Just a fascinating little fact.

Alice Gershom said...

My father is red-green colorblind and so is my nephew (my sister's son). There may be others but they never mentioned it. As for Tay-Sachs, we're Ashkenazic Jews but I never remember hearing anything about it and I don't know of anyone in the family who had it, though in the old days these things were often hidden. One of my sons-in-law is French Canadian and they have seven children--one boy red-greeen colorblind, nobody with Tay-Sachs, thanks be to God.

John Thayer Jensen said...


My father is red-green colorblind and so is my nephew (my sister's son).

OK, then if I understand this correctly, it means you yourself are a carrier. Any sons you may have have a 50-50 chance of colour-blindness; any daughters the same chance of being carriers.

Your sister, likewise, is a carrier, of course.

Regarding Tay-Sachs, our daughter was married and was tested I think it must have been some New Jersey state law as it turned out her husband had already been tested years before and was not a carrier.