Praying with and for the Ancestors

During the season of Lent (which started this year on February 18), I have been trying to be intentional about offer thanks for my ancestors. I know that some members of my family (as well as non-family readers of this blog) might find that idea just a bit odd. What could it mean to pray with and for the ancestors?  I admit that it is easier to say what it doesn’t mean on the face of it than it is to say (with appropriate care) what it might mean as a religious practice.

Many years ago, when our daughter Bethany was a small child (ca. 1998-1999), for several weeks she emulated something she saw in a Disney movie about a Chinese girl. Like Mulan, Bethany prayed to the ancestors. I don’t recall the actual words she used, but like “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. . .” her prayer had a simple poetic rhyme to it.

Because I had not seen the Disney movie, I wasn’t sure what she had in mind. I chose not to make a big deal of it. I simply kissed her good night and trusted that it was simply a passing phase. And after a few weeks, she started praying a different prayer, one that she probably had been taught in the Roberts Park United Methodist Church Sunday School or at the University Heights United Methodist pre-school that she was attending at the time.

Years later, when she was a teenager, Bethany felt embarrassed about the fact that she had “prayed to the ancestors.”  When she asked me “why did you let me do that,” I responded by saying, “Well, to begin with I didn’t know what you were referring to [meaning the movie about the Chinese girl “Mulan”], but I suppose that I also thought that you were cute.”  (My memory is that she was fairly earnest about it.) I went on to say that in addition to those reasons, “I was also puzzled about what it might mean to pray for the ancestors” — which is what I initially took her to be doing.

Because my father, Billy Cartwright, had died shortly before this incident took place, I recall thinking about this in relation to the hymn “Faith of Our Fathers.” As it happened, the Sunday immediately following Daddy’s funeral, the congregation at First UMC in Fort Smith Arkansas sang that hymn. I remember standing in the pew and realizing (for the first time) that this old hymn, which I had sung many times over the years, now registered in a new way for me. The faith of “our fathers” — the ancestors in the Christian faith — now was a phrase in which I mentally included my own father.

Several years ago when I was invited to make a presentation for the congregation of the Church of the Servant King in Eugene, Oregon, I recalled this incident and cast the presentation as a kind of prayer of thanksgiving for my ancestors. On that occasion, I recalled the fact that my immigrant ancestors faced many struggles, and like me, they no doubt wondered at times about how God could be involved providentially in human affairs, particularly when things seemed to be going awry.

Earlier this month, I took some time to watch a few minutes of “Mulan” on Netflix just to see what it was that had captured Bethany’s attention almost 17 years ago.  Here is what I discovered:  Mulan is an assertive teenager who is dealing with the collective expectations of her community. I can imagine Bethany being attracted to the assertiveness of this cartoon character who is trying to juggle all the expectations of her family and village. Early in the film, she offers a prayer that begins in a sing-song voice.  Shortly, the other girls and women of the community join her in this song-prayer.

“Ancestors, hear my plea, help me not to make a fool of me. And to not aggrieve my family, and to keep my father standing tall. . . . Please bring honor to all.”

Although I am sure that there is much in the movie that is a caricature of traditional Chinese sensibilities, from what I understand, the practice of praying to the ancestors is primarily about venerating the dead, not worship as such (although I know some folks who would not concede that distinction). The assumption is that the ancestors are in a position to change the fortune of those in the present who pray for those who have died but in some sense have a continued existence.

I think most Americans of my parents’ generation probably would say that it is a worthy thing to do cultivate a sense of kinship. Certainly, values like filial piety, family loyalty, and respect for the family lineage are positive traits. At the same time, American culture is strongly marked by individualistic habits of mind.  So if someone doesn’t bother to put flowers on the grave of the parents and grandparents on Memorial Day (or ever), no one may ever know that this omission has occurred. In sum: I think there is probably greater danger that Americans are likely to forget our ancestors than there is that we would be found guilty of “ancestor worship.”

According to Christine Kenneally, the author of wonderful book The Invisible History of the Human Race (Viking, 2014), the practice of having surnames started in China about 5,000 years ago. The practice of using surnames like “Cartwright” began around 700 years ago in England, but such occupationally-based surnames did not become hereditary until the 15th century and Scots-Irish surnames names like “McDaniel” did not begin to be passed down from one generation to the next for another hundred years or so. (Kenneally, page 192). For all practical purposes, this means that the maximum length of memory in Anglo-European cultures for respectfully recalling our ancestors less than 600 years old.

I don’t think I am likely to be able to develop the kind of memory that would be able to recall the lives of all of my direct ancestors, but less the various branches. What I can do, I believe, is be grateful for the long line of people who came before me. Some of my ancestors were Christians. And therefore, I can (metaphorically speaking at least) take my place alongside my forbears and offer a prayer of thanks to God for having made it possible for us to come thus far in our journey as a family of immigrants.

In that sense, I would dare to pray with my ancestors.  In another sense, I also feel compelled to offer thanks for my ancestors knowing that someday Bethany and her siblings will also find themselves remembering me — as one who has died, and therefore has taken his own place –in the company of “the ancestors.”

Please note: I have scheduled this blog post to be published on March 22. On that day, Mary and I will still be in Belgium visiting our youngest daughter, Bethany, who is studying in Brussels. God willing, I expect to resume blogposts before the end of March, but depending on workload I may not get back to posting questions for the week until after Easter.

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About mcartwright1957

I am a member of the senior administrative team at the University of Indianapolis where I have served since 1996. I am married to Mary Wilder Cartwright. We are the parents of four children: Hannah, Erin, James, and Bethany. I currently live in Nashville, IN.
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1 Response to Praying with and for the Ancestors

  1. At the time that I was writing this post about “Praying for the Ancestors,” I had mislaid a quotation that I had intended to use to clarify that Westerners misunderstand some aspects of Chinese reverence for “the ancestors.” Christine Kenneally quotes one researcher who explains that what “westerners sometimes misunderstand” as “the Chinese as worshipping their ancestors” actually is “really a deep cultureal feeling that if you are not connected to your descendants, your ancestors, and your siblings, you’r not. . .it’s like you’re not whole.” (The Invisible History, 32).

    The point of this observation, of course, is quite simply that many Asian genealogies are descendancy based, as opposed to ours, which are ascendancy based, the difference being that we put ourselves in the spotlight.” (Kenneally, 31) As the author goes on to discuss, we can always let go of this kind of “personal presentism” but to do so requires that we get rid of the vain notion that “now is more important than then.


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