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We each have so many relatives, heaven will be one big blast.

November begins with All Saints and All Souls and ends around Thanksgiving, which makes it a good time to reflect on family. No matter how extended our families, most people tend to think of no more than three generations or so. Many could not name their great-great-grandparents; even fewer could go beyond that.

My hobby of royal genealogy has led me to know a great deal more about others' families than I do about my own. It has also prompted me to do some calculations I might otherwise never have made. The results make for an interesting bit of trivia.

Quite evidently, we all have to parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on, each subsequent generation doubling. The sum of that doubling, however, quickly becomes staggering. We all have 512 seventh great-grandparents with a total number of forebears in those 10 generations hitting 1,022. We have 8,388,608 21st-great-grandparents and a total of 16,777,214 forebears in those 24 generations, comfortably more than the combined populations of the cities of New York, Boston, Chicago, Tampa, Washington and the state of Missouri.

With numbers like that representing only a fraction of the guest list, Heaven promises to be quite a party. Since those figures represent parents and grandparents only, factoring in a generous slew of siblings and cousins becomes mind-boggling. Add to all these the throng of unknown intercessors who helped us and the sum is far beyond tabulation. However unfathomably long eternity is, it will apparently begin with a long bout of hugging, kissing and introductions.

I dance comfortably on the Catholic brink of universalism, believing in Hell, but hoping with all my heart to find it empty. Never having been the sort of student to have all assigned papers neatly typed and stored by the end of the first week of the term, I also take delight in the second feast of November, All Souls. I rejoice in the certainty that incompletes may be issued, that makeup exams are more than a faint hope. Besides, I am morally certain I'll want to shower before this party.

We don't know how those incompletes will be removed -- perhaps in one blinding flash -- but we have the consolation of knowing that, mercifully, this is not simply a pass/fail course. No amount of wishing on our part will make the mystery conform to our opinions, but the mystery of cleansing remains, a great and tender mercy. I have buried too many whom death caught terribly unawares, too many it caught seemingly all to aware, not to rejoice in that mystery.

As for Thanksgiving, how many people hate to carve as much as I do? Just think, even in that fractional crowd of 10 million plus, there are bound to be at least 75,684 people who love to carve -- who'll line up for the chance. By the time some of them line up for a second shot, it'll be forever before I ever have to put knife to turkey again.

Benedictine Br. Jerome Leo Hughes is the guestmaster at St. Mary's Monastery in Petersham, Mass.
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Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Nov 20, 1998
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