Fourth Annual Adoption Unity Gathering
First Unitarian Church
San Francisco, California
21 April 2002
The Spirituality of Adoption
First Unitarian Church
San Francisco, California
21 April 2002
The Spirituality of Adoption
Father Tom Brosnan
“The Spirituality of Adoption” – quite a title for a short sermon. It might make for some academic and theological distinctions, but let me avoid all that and state it simple and plain: the essence of a spirituality of adoption, akin to the constant theme of all great spiritualities, can be summed up in one small but powerful word – Loss. Loss is the theme that runs through the story of adoption from the moment a woman decides she will relinquish her child and thus become a “birth mother”; from the moment the infertile couple give up their hope of having their own biological children and thus become adoptive parents to be; from the moment the new born is taken from his mother’s arms and becomes the relinquished – the one continuing constant throughout the lives of each is loss.
If the spirituality of adoption is indeed the recurring theme of loss in the lives of all members of the triad, it mirrors the great spirituality of loss found in all the great religious traditions and of western civilization in particular. Homer’s Odysseus is the first to experience literal nostalgia. Nostalgia has come to mean a longing for another time, but it really and literally means “the pain for home.” Odysseus aches for Ithaca, his homeland – the symbol for him of all that is good and comforting. His journey back is really the story of all our lives, just as the relinquished and adopted are on the same journey to discover, that is, to re-discover that dimension we call home.
Loss of home is the great theme of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Paradise lost may be the loss of the direct knowledge of the divine, but it’s more profoundly the loss of home. The history of what followed Adam and Eve’s loss of Eden is the story of their descendents’ journey back. In this the adoptee’s sacred journey mirrors the longing of all humanity to reclaim Eden.
Once, in Fordham’s library doing some research, long before I realized how much adoption impacted my life, I came across the following passage which brought me to tears. It’s from John Henry Newman, explaining by analogy to the orphan the burden we bear in our loss of the homeland called Eden: “Did I see a boy of good make and mind,” Newman wrote in his nineteenth century stilted English, “with token on him of a refined nature, cast upon the world without provision, unable to say whence he came, his birth-place or his family connexions, I should conclude that there was some mystery connected with his history, and that he was one of whom, for one cause or other, his parents were ashamed. Thus only should I be able to account for the contrast between the promise and the condition of his being.”
“The complete loss of one’s identity,” John Courtney Murray would write a century later, “is, with all propriety of theological definition, hell. In diminished forms it is insanity.”
The theme repeats in American literature as well. Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and the escaped slave Jim, riding raft down the Mississippi – on pilgrimage so to speak – the orphan in search of home, the slave in search of freedom – the same desire, the same destiny.
When the ache of loss is physically felt it proves -- better than anything else can -- the intimate connection between body and soul. Whatever you might have thought about the adoption theme in the recent film Gosford Park, you might agree with me that the penultimate scene was more than well-played by Helen Mirren whose character had relinquished her newborn decades previous only to have to give him up again without revealing to him (her son) who she really was. Her deep, gut-wrenching, uncontrollable sobbing – all the while trying to stifle the pain, to keep it quiet, to keep it silent, to keep it secret, gives visible expression to the power of loss in the birthmother who relinquishes again and again and again.
But here we are in church seeking the divine providence to lead us to healing this loss. Can we, indeed, find healing here or anywhere? Religion is right to call such healing, salvation. The word “salvation” is, after all, from the Latin salus simply meaning health – implying a desire for the healing of any and all ills. But what is health and healing but a certain wholeness, a unity of body and soul, a balance of temperament, seeing life as an adventure rather than a chore. The root of religion is wholeness of body and soul. The word “religion” means to rebind, to reunite what was previously separated. In this the adoptee’s search for origins is the premier example, the exemplary sacrament if you will, of the need for each and every person, adopted or not, to engage the sacred journey home – to the place of wholeness, of healing.
But there are obstacles on this journey, perilous and formidable obstacles. The state and the church have joined forces over the years to prevent us access to original birth and baptismal certificates. The church and the state insist on keeping secret from me as an adopted person my own given name. Secrecy is an ugly and harmful thing. It is our great enemy. It is, as Simone Weil wrote, the very soul of bureaucracy, the root of all oppression. Yes, the scandals the Catholic Church faces today are about sex – but they’re about secrecy as well. American bishops, who now feel their influence vanishing, could learn something from us in the adoption reform movement who discovered years ago (through the founding efforts of the recently deceased Jean Paton) that there’s a huge difference between secrecy and confidentiality. Not understanding the difference between secrecy and confidentiality, these same bishops still keep secret from us – the adopted – our original names. Women who relinquished babies to adoption, as well as the adopted persons themselves, have a right to privacy from the world. But that confidentiality should not apply to the persons involved in the adoption itself. In other words the church and state, through the institution of adoption, have the right and the responsibility to protect the newly formed family of adoption – but not from the truth about themselves – not by keeping the name given me at birth a secret from me. But this is exactly what the church and state do by sealing original birth and baptismal certificates – keeping names hidden from the eyes of those whose names they are.
You see, in order to keep a secret you eventually have to lie. And one lie leads to another and another and another until, as in my case for example, I was issued an official baptismal certificate stating that I was born to my adoptive parents and baptized in their parish church in June of 1953. All lies. Outright lies that the American Catholic bishops not only permit but insist continue in order to protect the secrecy surrounding my birth. Such lies certainly do me no good by keeping my original name and the names of my birth parents a secret from me. These lies disrespect my birthmother who decided to baptize me – by never allowing her to see the original certificate. For that matter, never permitting her to see any certificate at all (even though there would be nothing on the certificate unknown to her). But they dishonor my adoptive parents as well by having made them participate in the lie in order to become parents. If the church and state only realized that confidentiality and secrecy are two different things it would not have taken my parents and me thirty-three years to sit down and talk about their struggle to become parents and the circumstances of my birth. Secrets are always destructive to families – whatever the secret happens to be.
But even when the secrets and lies are overcome there will still remain the loss. It never completely goes away. But there’s a difference between a scar and an open wound. The experience of profound loss can carve in our hearts a capacity for empathy which in itself serves the needs of others. Loss, dear friends in our family of adoption, can be the very cement of our unity.
My adoptive mother, that is, my mother – died last week after a long extended illness. She had spent ninety-nine percent of her eighty-two years living on the same block in Brooklyn – on her beloved Webster Avenue. She spent nearly seventy of those eighty-two years in the same small row house from which she died last week. My mother told me once that when I was a baby my father went looking for a bigger house. He found one he liked but my mother convinced him to stay right there on Webster Avenue – it was home she said. It’s like my mother took one of those vows of stability that certain monks do, promising to live their entire lives in one place. My mother, I’m sure, needed that familiar anchor, that security of brick and mortar, to help her cope with the losses of her life. When I die I will have considered it the great accomplishment of my life to have been able to allow my mother to die in that very same house, in her home of so many years, amid her familiar things – the things that had, all throughout her life, helped ease the pain of her many losses.
For me the saddest thing regarding her death was when they removed her body from the house the night she died. I wondered as I saw them place her body in the undertaker’s van: Did she, could she, from deep in the valley of shadows, glimpse for one last time the house that she and her parents came to live so long ago, the house where she brought her devoted husband to live their fifty-two years together, the house where they in turn brought me to live? Was she able from that valley of shadows – where many believe the soul lingers for a time within the lifeless body – did she sense that last turn off Webster Avenue? I don’t know if she could, but I could see it for her. I could feel that aching goodbye. And I think I knew what she would have known, felt what she would have felt – because it was the loss that an orphan knows so well. I believe that kind of sharing runs deeper than blood and carves out the riverbed which becomes your entire life.
Salvation – health, healing, wholeness – might not be so easily accessible to those of us who share this triad experience. Bu the loss we share can indeed be the very cement of our unity as families and as a movement. Abolishing secrecy and lies regarding adoption; acknowledging the truth about origins; feeling the pain of the other’s loss – these are the ways we heal.
So my friends, my brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, in our family of adoption, let those open wounds or those long-closed scars of loss remind you and me today that we honor our connections, we honor those who are missing among us today because of secrecy and closed records, because of shame and fear, we honor them and we honor ourselves by acknowledging truth and our inalienable right to seek what was lost to us.
All journeys, G.K. Chesterton once said, are about coming home. By your presence here today you have taken yet one more significant step on that sacred journey we all share – the journey home.
Thank you for your kind attention.