The I-Thou and Freudian Faith: A Reflection for Mother’s Day

In therapy there is an understanding that when a therapeutic relationship has been established, the client will likely experience transference during which the therapist unconsciously emotionally represents some other individual in the client’s life. The therapist can use this occasion to teach healthy interpersonal dynamics, such as how to express a need or confront when conflict arises. As the therapist grows in care for the client, the therapist may experience counter-transference. This experience of emotionally considering the client as the therapist considers someone else in his or her life is to be guarded against, as it brings the therapist’s personal feelings onto the stage rather than being totally present and open to the client’s own story.

This idea, that the relating which takes place in a relationship and the transferring of those feelings to another object goes beyond Freud’s couch. Richard John Neuhaus relates the classical explanation of it, called the I-you relationship, by Martin Buber: “the I-you relationship between persons carries within it the hint of the I-Thou relationship to the mysterious, to the Divine, to the strange glory.”

In Death on a Friday Afternoon, Neuhaus’ third meditation on the last words of Christ brings the reader to consider Buber’s proposition in light of the magnificent role of mother.

“Of course the child does not come into the world asking questions such as, Why is there something rather than nothing? Or, Why am I rather than someone else where I am? Balthasar writes: “And yet the child is aware, in the first opening of its mind’s eyes. Its ‘I’ awakens in the experience of a ‘Thou’: in its mother’s smile through which it learns that it is contained, affirmed, and loved in a relationship which is incomprehensibly encompassing, already actual, sheltering and nourishing.”

There are those who would like to dismiss psychodynamic theory Freud’s because of Freud’s over-emphasis on sex. Freud saw a dynamic life and key developmental points at the early stages of infancy. As one neo-Freudian psychologist relates more clearly, the infant at first does not distinguish itself from its mother. In time, the child learns to see itself as a self, and mother as and other. Whether he identifies with his mother or determines his sense of self as a contrast to mother, this comes later.

Of greatest importance here is the strange glory of parenthood which can lead a child to its later conception of God and the child’s sense of worth. Neuhaus explains

 “Everything is all right,” says the mother to the child crying in the night, and in that “Everything is all right” the child intuits a grand metaphysical statement about the nature of reality. In trusting the mother’s assurance, the child trusts that the universe is home, that he or she belongs here.”

So if the child is able to be free and secure in its mother’s love, this serves as a model for the later call of faith, to be like a child.

“Truly, I say to You, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus would later say. That turning is conversion, and it is in part a turning back. It is a retrieval of that first awakening to a world when all was miracle and all was play, when all was well in the security of a mother’s love.”

We’re called to experience that same security in God, that all will be well. Yet it is not regression, but rather “a matter of deciding, and deciding again and again.”

There are a thousand other moments between mother and child that serve as model for that child to one day call God Father. The faithfulness of the parents lay the foundation of understanding. As with any foundation, should there be some alien dust specks in the materials, the foundation can still be strong. So we ought not to worry too terribly that we are not perfect, that we fail, time and again, to be the parents we desire to be. In the end, all have fallen short of the glory of God, and parenthood is only a model, only a physical sign of a spiritual reality, that God is the perfect Father, complete in Triune unity, total self-gift.

So while the typical adolescent will wrestle with all the ways his typical parents are no longer a totally secure base but human, full of baggage and full of flaws, this can open the young adult to the reality of God who fills all things. This can help make peace with the absence of the parent, or the flaws of the parent, and aid the forgiveness and healing of broken relationships.

And if that was possibly not enough, for those whose mothers were absent, Our Lady of Guadalupe says, “Do not let anything afflict you and be not afraid of illness or pain. Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Are you not in the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?”

IMG_4670Happy Mother’s Day (almost).


Reflections on Strange Gods, Chapter 6, The Idols of Coolness and Sex

What follows are my reflections on Elizabeth Scalia’s book Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Every Day Life, Chapters 6: The Idols of Coolness and Sex. Click here to read my other reflections on Scalia’s book. There’s more to read than my reflection contains. I highly recommend you check out the book for yourself.

Chapter 6: The Idols of Coolness and Sex.

Oh, to be cool. That word. With tongue-in-cheek Elizabeth Scalia writes this chapter smoothly pulling out cool slang from decades ago, emphasizing, I think, the absurdity of the worship of cool. Coolness, she writes in Chapter 6 of Strange Gods, is about the here and now. The here and now imply, sometimes overtly, a throwing out of traditions, of the old, of the way it used to be done. It is a phenomenon and worth examining our attitude towards the image of cool in our own lives.

I am grateful to acknowledge that I knew a long time ago that cool was beyond me. I looked over during class at the cool kids, preppy, wealthy, stylishly dressed with over-sized Addidas jackets, and boyfriends. I didn’t want to be like them, but I wanted to belong. This is Scalia’s insight, beyond the obsession with throwing off the old, idolatry of coolness is rooted in a desire to belong, to fit in. I wanted that, desperately. Many junior high and high school girls do.

I had individual friendships with older peers, but in their groups I had no place, which I learned time and again. I wanted the attention of boys, but did not get it, until later, when it was consistently boys too old for me, to the grief of my parents. I wanted friends. I prayed for it. I met Nia. Freshman year, sitting in class, “what’s your favorite book” on a getting to know you paper handed out by our teacher. I wrote “Story of a Soul.” I looked over at her’s. She wrote, “the Bible.”

Nia taught me by her example and her confidence that coolness is meaningless. Each person has gifts and something to offer. It’s a shame when people hide it. When I served a year with NET Ministries, we often said a particular teammate had “instant cool.” And indeed he did. There was something about him. We didn’t address it so directly but a handful of others had that quality. Then there was me with my ridiculous, outlandish mingling tricks. Not cool.

Through my brother (in Christ), I learned deeper this distinction. With every bit of energy, he sought to affirm the dignity and goodness of those around him that year. He was the first “cool” person to love me (as a sister). And one day when we both were tired, our differences came out. I knew that the cool and the not-cool were meaningless. They were mere personality differences. We were bonded by Christ.

After NET I met a man, equally uncool, un-smooth, who like me, fit the description of a nerd because we are passionate about something. But he never was afraid of his personality, of his different-ness. He was never ashamed to admit who he was. He was proud of it, too. As an introvert, he did not desire so desperately to fit in. He was happy to be by himself. Nevertheless, he was hardly by himself at school as a likeable band member, handsome, always with a girlfriend. Together we are quite strange, and we hope to raise strange children, children who will know they belong, if only in their strange family, worshiping a God who made us like himself.

We have that power, in this school of love called the family. Richard John Neuhaus relates, “As Martin Buber classically explained, the I-you relationship between persons carries within it the hint of the I-Thou relationship to the mysterious, to the Divine, to the strange glory. Every child who is blessed with a loving mother first discerns in the mother’s smile the presence of a Thou by which the child is encompassed and by which his or her being is secured. ”

What a good thing that would be.