Thursday, May 28, 2009

Is There Something Spiritual about Adoption - Traverse City 2001

8th Biennial Conference on Open Adoption
Open Adoption as a Countercultural Relationship
Traverse City, MI
2-5 May 2001
Is There Something Spiritual about Adoption?
Tom Brosnan, Randy Severson, Sharon Roszia

Here’s the quick answer to the question Is there something spiritual about adoption? Well, is the pope Catholic? Does a bear shit in the woods?
Of course there is something spiritual about adoption. For me doing theology was an eye opener, discovering that the events of salvation history from my tradition gave voice to the events of my personal history concerning adoption.

Part I: Relinquishment and its Effects
Relinquishment is paralleled by what Christian theology terms Original Sin. Here’s what John Henry Cardinal Newman said envisioning the effect of Original Sin:
“Did I see a boy of good make and mind, with the tokens 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.” [Apologia Pro Vita Sua]

And Pope John Paul II wrote that Original Sin, above all, is an attempt “to abolish fatherhood.” [Crossing the Threshold of Hope]

Identity issues are at the core of both Christian theology and adoption. G.K. Chesterton would say that the result of Original Sin is simply that “whatever I am, I am not myself.” [Orthodoxy]

Those of you who have listened to me before heard the next quote a lot – from the Jesuit John Courtney Murray, perhaps the most noted American theologian of the last century: “The complete loss of one’s identity is, with all propriety of theological definition, hell. In diminished forms it is insanity.”

Part II: Paradox
But paradox is present here. The loss suffered through Original Sin is seen as necessary if one is to receive the sublime fulfillment that paradoxically only such a loss could engender. For Christian theology the fault of Adam is called happy in the Easter Exultet because from such a loss comes Christ the Savior. On a personal level the loss evinced experientially in loneliness and alienation has a comfort about it as well. Malcolm Muggeridge, the British journalist who came to Christianity rather late in life would have this to say about feelings of alone-ness:
“The sense of being a stranger, which first came to me at the very beginning of my life, I have never quite lost, however engulfed I might be, at particular times in earthly pursuits…For me there has always been – and I count it the greatest of all blessings – a window never finally blacked out, a light never finally extinguished. Days or weeks or months might pass. Would it never return – the lostness? I strain my ears to hear it, like distant music; my eyes to see it, a very bright light very faraway. Has it gone forever? And then – the relief. Like slipping away from a sleeping embrace, silently shutting a door behind one, tiptoeing off in the gray light of dawn – a stranger again. The only ultimate disaster that can befall us, I have come to realize, is to feel ourselves at home here on earth. As long as we are aliens we cannot forget our true homeland…” [Jesus Rediscovered]

Or the hope expressed by the poet laureate of the United States, Stanley Kunitz:
“Since that first morning when I crawled
into the world, a naked grubby thing,
and found the world unkind,
my dearest faith has been that this
is but a trial: I shall be changed.”

Loss gives birth to hope. And I believe that’s what the prospect of search does in the salvation history, if you will, of the adopted. Just the idea of search. Just the process. The outcome is at first wholly unimportant.

Part III: Search and Reunion
Perhaps the greatest Catholic theologian of the last century Hans Urs von Balthasar would redefine religion through a simple etymological shift. Most claim that the word religion comes from the Latin religio meaning a set of rules for living a pious life. Von Balthasar suggested that religion could also be said to be derived from the Latin word religare meaning to tie back again. He redefined religion as “the reuniting of previously separated parts.” Someone told me that the word yoga is from the Sanskrit meaning to join.

This is the distinction that we make, I believe, when we use the words religion and spirituality in contradistinction. By religion we tend to mean that set of rules and rituals which an adherent follows. Spirituality seems to be concerned with that experience of union, of communion, of reunion. Thus, the search for one’s origins becomes for the adopted a holy endeavor, a spiritual pilgrimage. G.K. Chesterton once again would describe a kind of spiritual geography saying that “self is more distant than any star.” [Orthodoxy]

Searching or seeking the unknown is virtually primordial in the human being. St. Augustine would talk about it when he talked about the meaning of the Trinity, which he came to believe is imprinted in some mysterious way on our very humanity. “The impulse present in our seeing goes out beyond the seeker, and hovers, as it were, unable to rest in any other goal until what is sought has been found and the seeker is united with it. This impulse, or search, does not seem to be love, which we have for known things, ‘since it is an effort toward the unknown. Yet it has a quality cognate to love’s. It can be called an act of will, for the seeker wills to find it, and if something knowable is being sought, then the seeker has a will to know. If that seeking is urgent and focused, it is called studious – our term for those wanting to master knowledge. So an impulse of some kind precedes the mind’s generative act, and through this will to seek and find knowledge, the knowledge itself comes to birth.”

Cardinal Ratzinger, responding to the advances of reproductive technologies back in 1988 wrote that “it is through the secure and recognized relationship to his own parents that the child can discover his own identity and achieve his own proper human development.” [Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin]

Part IV: Paradox -- sex and spirit
Our second paradox regarding search and reunion throws us back to the foundation of adoption experience. I remember the first time I heard Randy present at a conference. I was shocked but glad to hear him talk of the beginnings of the adoption experience in the back seat of a car with steamy windows. Sex, at least up until now, is the beginning of the adoption experience. It’s about what happens when you do it -- and what doesn’t happen when you do it.

On the way here I saw the latest issue of Newsweek with the cover story on what is being called nuerotheology. Through cat scans and the like it shows that the meditative practices of Catholic nuns and Buddhist monks produce a discernable effect in the brain making dull that area of the brain they call the Orientation Association Area. The OAA orients us in space, keeping track of which way is up or down, forward or behind, helping us judge distances and angles. Structures in this part of the brain must constantly generate a clear, consistent awareness of the physical limits of the self in order for us to function without always stumbling and collapsing.” [Exploring the Biology of Religious Experience” Rich Heffern, NCR 4/20/01]
This means, scientists say, that the boundary line that we use to separate us from everything else is turned off through deep meditative practices, giving the person the feeling that he is literally apart of the universe.

In his book God Won’t Go Away, Andrew Newberg believes ‘that the neurological machinery of transcendence may have arisen from the neural circuitry that evolved for mating and sexual experience.’ Mystics use words like bliss, rapture, ecstasy, exaltation. It’s no accident that this is also the language of sexual arousal. Scientists think the quiescent and limbic systems evolved partly to link sexual activity to the pleasurable experience of orgasm, with obvious evolutionary benefits. Sex and prayer are obviously not the same experience…but mystical prayer and sexual bliss use similar neural pathways.” [NCR]

Sex and the spirit have always been two sides of the same coin. Perhaps, because they are so close, they both suffered from religious extremism. “What is original in Augustine,” Garry Wills wrote in his new biography Saint Augustine, “what sets him apart from most earlier theologians, is his claim that sex would have occurred in Eden if there had been no fall of man (others said that with no death in Eden there was no need to keep the race going by procreation). Sex was part of the good human nature created by God…Jesus had semen and could have procreated if he wanted to…Augustine agrees with Julian that a Christ without virility would be a Christ without virtue (virilitas/voluntas) the question was not of capacity but of choice.” Newberg says that “God (is) seeking to be known within our bodies, those same bodies so denigrated by the old dualistic religious view that severed spirit from matter.”

The search for transcendence and the confrontation with immanence may be what is happening when the OAA shuts down. But we know it really doesn’t shut down, so it must be diverting its activity elsewhere – perhaps within. Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit scientist and paleontologist was considered a mystic too. He wrote of an experience he had once while praying.
“And so, for the first time in my life perhaps (although I am supposed to meditate everyday!) I took the lamp and, leaving the zone of everyday occupations and relationships where everything seems clear, I went down into my inmost self, to the deep abyss whence I feel dimly that my power of action emanates…I became aware of losing myself. At each step of the descent a new person was disclosed within me of whose name I was no longer sure, and who no longer obeyed me. And when I had to stop my exploration because the path faded from beneath my steps, I found a bottomless abyss at my feet…And if someone saved me, it was hearing the voice of the Gospel…speaking to me from the depth of the night: ‘ego sum, nolo timere (It is I, be not afraid).’” [The Divine Milieu]
Michael Persinger of Laurentian University in Canada speculates that our left temporal lobe maintains our sense of self. When that (left) region is stimulated but the right stays quiescent, the left interprets this (quiescence or no-presence) as a sensed presence, as the self departing from the body, or of God.” I wonder if he read Teilhard?

In the nineteenth century Sir Charles Sherrington described this Orientation Association Area with the word proprioception what most ordinary people called “the sixth sense.” The sixth sense can refer to e.s.p. or to proprioception. And that’s why I like the movie The Sixth Sense so much because it is really a movie about coming to one’s senses, accepting the truth, seeing the obvious. It’s the story about truth vs. illusion and how our journeys are all about coming out of the shadows and into the truth. John Henry Newman’s epitaph is apropos here: “ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem (out of the shadows and fantasies and into the truth).”

Perhaps the adopted are sacraments of the human condition, having suffered loss through relinquishment and always in search of what seems unknown so that they may be united with it – but really it will be a reuniting of previously separated parts, but we have forgotten. When religion or spirituality gets too esoteric and flighty, or when the adopted experience is so far removed from the human condition, insinuating that we have been dropped by stalk or surrogate court into the laps of adoptive parents. We are beings with no history – myths, devoid of sex. Then true religion can offer us solace. Take Moses for instance. The great revelation of the Book of Exodus (Book of Names in Hebrew) is that of the Divine Name. This revelation given to Moses from the burning bush stands at the center of Judeo-Christian history. Yet I would like to point out that there were two revelations given in that episode and the more basic one had to do with Moses’ identity. When Moses asks of the divine presence: Who are you? the voice responds “I am the God of your father.” Every adoptee, I would suggest, hearing those words might wonder, as I believe Moses must have: Which father? Are you the God of my Egyptian father or my Hebrew father? And then the great revelation: “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.” Moses is identified as a Hebrew. Then and only then can he hear the divine name and embrace the destiny of leading his people to freedom and the Promised Land. The search for the imminent self, not the transcendent experience God, is then the primary imperative. Or to put it another way in the words of the great 16th century Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila, who had visions and heard voices. Her nuns asked her to teach them how they too could achieve such mystical heights, but the wise Teresa would only offer the truth: “For never, never,” she insisted, “no matter how exalted the soul may be is anything else more fitting than self knowledge.”

The spirituality of adoption is all about the search for self which, I hope to have pointed out, is itself the greatest spiritual pilgrimage a person (whether adopted or not) could ever undertake.

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