Thursday, December 27, 2012

Family as model of Church and as sign

I was listening today to a National Public Radio interview with Joel Kotkin, who recently co-authored a study called The Rise of Post-Familialism: Humanity's Future?  I must say, it was a depressing hour.  Kotkin struck me as a statistician and was without bias, but the numbers, the impact, the reasons people gave for not only choosing to be childless but to be family-less: he said at minimum it should give people cause for pause.  Listen to the whole thing, but the upshot was: imagine a society with no aunts, no uncles, no siblings, no cousins, few if any kids to play with nearby, and littered with people who have been so damaged by their experience of family they choose to opt out.  We're all singles together, sort of.  And he points out: we don't need to imagine this: we can see it in Japan, in China, and increasingly in Europe.

The hour focused on the economic impact of such an impending reality, but I immediately thought of the theological impact.  If the family serves, even very imperfectly in this fallen world, as a sign that points to God's desired union with humanity, what happens when we lose yet another sign given us by God?  Do we lose a window, another opportunity to perceive God? 

The understanding of Church as God's Family is indeed part of the text:

Edith Stein, also known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, wrote in her Essays on Woman that every human being has a threefold vocation: a universal vocation as a beloved child of God; a gendered vocation as a son or daughter of God; and an individual vocation (which begins with a call to a state of life, and moves from there: marriage, or consecrated life, or deaconate/priesthood; then perhaps to mother or father, activist, teacher, or other possibilities).[1]  We are all born to God’s family, and called to be family to each other.

The ancient call to be brothers and sisters to each other sounds like a wooden bell in a culture where families are, by definition, broken.  Many have written of the challenge of accepting the Fatherhood of God, in the experience of children with an abusive father.  Or the motherhood of Mary, given all the mixed messages we receive about the value of motherhood.  Part of the prophetism of the body, as John Paul sometimes called it,[2] is the message of the spiritual value of fatherhood and motherhood.  How beautifully we have, body and soul, been created for this gift.  How we are called to participate in the mystery of creation, the intensity of labor, the joy of new life.  When we participate with our vocational call, the path is not made perfectly straight: but there is nothing ultimately to fear. 

One embodiment of the Church that explicitly names the call to be God’s family is the Church in Africa.  John Paul II’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Africa notes the work of the African bishops over four weeks in 1989, and underlines with enthusiasm the synod’s call to image the Church as God’s family: a way of understanding Church and relationships which is culturally derived, but also scriptural and universal.  The Church as God’s family could be profoundly compatible with the purpose behind the images of Church asserted by the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium:   "By her relationship with Christ, the Church is a kind of sacrament or sign of intimate union with God, and of the unity of all mankind."[3]

 Not only did the Synod speak of inculturation, but it also made use of it, taking the Church as God's Family as its guiding idea for the evangelization of Africa. The Synod Fathers acknowledged it as an expression of the Church's nature particularly appropriate for Africa. For this image emphasizes care for others, solidarity, warmth in human relationships, acceptance, dialogue and trust. The new evangelization will thus aim at building up the Church as Family, avoiding all ethnocentrism and excessive particularism, trying instead to encourage reconciliation and true communion…. "It is earnestly to be hoped that theologians in Africa will work out the theology of the Church as Family with all the riches contained in this concept, showing its complementarity with other images of the Church.”[4]

[1] Edith Stein, The Collected Works of Edith Stein, Vol II, Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Discalced Carmelite, trans. Freda Mary Oben (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1987), ch. 2 (especially 57-59).
[2] Man and Woman He Created Them #104.
[3] Lumen Gentium 1.1, cited in Ecclesia in Africa #63.
[4] Ecclesia in Africa #63

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Childbirth as sign: Childbirth "teaches" receptivity to seeing God's work

So much of whether childbirth is an event to survive or an experience that brings you closer to God through your vocation to motherhood involves our response to fear.  Fear of danger is a legitimate reaction, and it can be protective in a helpful way.  Fear of pain is understandable, because it hurts.  But pain does not necessarily mean something is wrong with the birth: it could mean that something is wrong in the way the mother is giving birth (through physical position, or her psychological approach to it).  The key to embracing the present moment is to not be afraid of the typical processes of childbirth.

Comforting a contractionThe opposite of fear is not so much courage, but trust: trust that God is present and will give you what you need in the moment.  De Caussade illustrates this trust—this ceding of control to fully cooperate with God’s will--in evocative language:

"In the state of abandonment the only rule is the duty of the present moment.  In this the soul is light as a feather, liquid as water, simple as a child, active as a ball in receiving and following the inspirations of grace.  Such souls have no more consistence and rigidity than molten metal…so these souls are pliant and easily receptive of any form that God chooses to give them.[1]"

These images are, interestingly, some of the same images used in the Bradley method for relaxing the muscles and allowing the uterus to contract and do its work, unimpeded: imagine yourself as liquid, imagine riding a wave, receive the birth of your child and allow it to happen.  In addition, there is at least one other person there helping you focus on accepting and relaxing  through the contractions: your husband (or birth coach).  His (or her) role in this present moment is to attend to your process of opening up: caressing a brow to release tension, checking the laboring mother for relaxed positioning, maybe physically supporting the woman during contractions if she is laboring standing up, and lots of encouragement. 

To be fully present at the time of giving birth is to move into mystery.  And that does take courage.  But more, it takes trust: trust in someone outside of oneself.  And since our primal relationships--body and soul, mother and child, human to creation--have suffered a felt dissociation as a consequence of original sin, trust requires a radical move to embracing God’s will.  Fear is a potent distraction from the call to trust.

As I said in the first chapter, receptivity in prayer is hard to explain and hard to teach.  But giving birth in this manner “teaches” receptivity to the work of God beautifully.  It is a gift, fiery indeed, but a gift nonetheless: it calls our attention to God.  Childbirth as a bodily sign presents the “law of the gift” in an exquisitely designed manner.

[1] De Caussade, ch 6.  

Friday, November 16, 2012

How is the dying body given in love? Dying as sign

Melciorre Caffa, St. Rose of Lima dying

From the book:
How is the dying body given in love? Many of the themes of the Theology of the Body we have worked with are relevant here: attending to the present moment, disponibilit√©, self-abjection, hospitality, love and tenderness are all part of seeing rightly the given sign of dying, of receiving our true identity from God.  This section will employ a “spiritual seeing,” or better yet, a contemplative attitude throughout.  Perhaps more than any other time in a person’s life, the spiritual aspect is visible (or perhaps we attend death so much more closely we are able to perceive the spiritual).  The “ecstatic” reality of dying, of giving one’s life to God in love, is abundantly witnessed when we know how to perceive God’s presence.

It is important to note that a reading of the spiritual sign of dying—a Theology of the Body ars moriendi if you will--is not prescriptive.  Although I do think there are patterns and common themes within the dying process, every spiritual director knows that the Holy Spirit leads the person in a manner most befitting that person’s particular relationship with God.  If you are dying, you need not be troubled by a mocking scrupulosity that some “stage” has happened or not happened.[1]   For one accompanying the dying, it may be impossible to “plan out” where the person is at: attention to the Holy Spirit in your conversation (or quiet sitting together) is key.  But as Iain Matthew says on John of the Cross: “He gives us the schemas, not to help us predict, but to encourage us to surrender”[2], as evidence that God is indeed working, there are signs to read in the dying process, and the process itself is not meaningless.  The ars moriendi witnesses the movement of healing in God through dying, and while there are moves to encourage and provide space for, we always must remember that healing cannot be plotted.  Healing is its own mystery, coming from the heart of God.  And it always feels, in some real sense, like a surprise, an explosion of grace into time.  It is sensed as the mercy that it is.

[1] This is one of the prominent criticisms of K»ēbler-Ross’s stages, that people may be expected to follow a standardized emotional schema and rushed to move through that, contrary to God’s desire for that person. Any person helping anyone to die should remember that at some level, the person dying knows more about dying than you do.  Guenther, Still Listening, citation pg.
[2] Matthew, 88.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

What does it mean to be human? Look to Christ--not the prevailing "cult of normalcy"

Antonio Ciseri, Ecce Homo
Reynolds offers pointed analysis on the touted benevolence of tolerance and assimilation, which can “[grant] differences a share of the public space only so long as they do not disrupt or cause inconveniences to a dominant group’s way of life.”[1]  That doesn’t mean all tolerance is bad.  But it does mean that when tolerance becomes the prime ethical law, there is an inevitable consequence: toleration is granted by those in power, that is, those who set the identity of the group.  Reynolds doesn’t hold back: “Normalcy operates as a cultural system of social control.  On one account, it is simply a way of ordering and bringing meaning to the everyday world shared by a group.  It is unavoidable and itself good.  There is, however, an insidious undertow that accompanies it, working to draw all into a certain caste or type….To state it plainly, the 'normal’ is relative to a group’s values and aspirations, and conversely so, what is attributed ‘abnormal’ (disease, disability, etc.).”[2]

The cult of normalcy is a real challenge, because we human beings are by nature social beings: we want to belong.  The Theology of the Body audiences are structured on the very idea that “it is not good for man to be alone.”  As such, we are created with a powerful desire to belong to another.  When children are separated from consistent caregivers at a young age, when their belonging is thwarted, the evidence is overwhelming: they do not learn to attach, and they do not thrive.  Basically, they die a slow death less because of lack of food or shelter, and more because they do not belong—the cult of normalcy has made no room for them.  They grow in an environment is not trustworthy, and they respond by withering and dying.[3]  In a (sometimes) less dramatic example, we see the incredible formative influence of peer pressure--and not just in junior high school.  We see the giddy rush to identify ourselves through social networking’s circles, friends, and followers.[4]  We must belong, and crave to find our identity through a social group.

Hauerwas: “Christian humanism is determined by the Father’s sending of the Son to be one of us. So humanism must always begin with Jesus’ humanity. When that isn’t the case…compassion becomes a way to say certain people would be better off dead.”
There is a way to avoid the social temptation to define reality through normative groupings and the extension of tolerance, a way given to us in Scripture and revelation: we can look to how God defines what it means to be human through the revealed humanity of Jesus Christ.  And if one thinks that to speak of impairment and disability makes no sense given the life of Christ, one needs to look more closely at both his ministry and the reality of the incarnation and crucifixion--allowing those realities to inform how we learn to see the present.[5]  It is only then that we can release the impulse to belong from the bondage of the cult of normalcy, and place it where it was meant to be. 

[1] Ibid.
[2] Ibid., 48.
[3] There is a persistent urban legend about a mid-20th century Russian experiment that involved institutionalized infants being raised without any human touch or interaction, and half of the group dying as a result.  The 1998 Human Rights Watch report “Abandoned to the State: Cruelty and Neglect in Russian Orphanages” indicates the fabled “experiment” is uncomfortably close to the ongoing truth for special needs children in institutions: children (and later adults, should they live that long), left in cribs all 24 hours of the day, only fed and changed.  However, the story of the experiment likely came from Harry Harlow’s experiments in social isolation of rhesus monkeys, in which isolation left the young monkeys severely disturbed.  The 1960s studies, which would be considered unethical science today, are used to help understand the experience and behavior of children who have been abused or have suffered neglect.  Harlow HF, Dodsworth RO, Harlow MK. "Total social isolation in monkeys," Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1965.
[4] Google plus, facebook, and Twitter.
[5] To quote Hauerwas: “Christian humanism is determined by the Father’s sending of the Son to be one of us.  So humanism must always begin with Jesus’ humanity.  When that isn’t the case…compassion becomes a way to say certain people would be better off dead.” Hauerwas and Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World: the prophetic witness of weakness, 53.