Thursday, May 28, 2009

Spiritual Transformation - Traverse City 1997

6th Biennial Conference on Open Adoption
Transforming Open Adoption

April 24-26, 1997
Traverse City, Michigan

Spiritual Transformation
Rev. Thomas F. Brosnan

My name is Tom Brosnan. I've been an adoptee all my life, save for the first six months. And I'm a reunited adoptee for the past 12 years. I'm also a Catholic priest, which I suppose is why Jim has assigned me the topic of Spiritual Transformation, which others might call conversion. But, actually, Jim has not made such a good choice since I'm not what you might call a spiritual person. Permit me to confess that I am pious only by profession. As I struggled to prepare this presentation I came to realize that I am likewise little transformed -- I am quite unconverted -- regarding certain dispositions of character. I'm not a very good example of a born-again anything.

I say this because the word conversion, if we take its Latin root, means to turn around, or to go back. In my Latin dictionary it even says that, in certain passages of Cicero, one form of the verb can actually mean to live. Conversion can mean that we continue to view the same landscape we've always viewed, but now from a different perspective, as if someone has moved our interior camera. Conversion means not only to change direction, but to deliberately go back on the road you've already travelled.

Here's an example of what I mean. No doubt you saw on TV some two years ago that Hugh O'Connor, the adopted son of the actor Carol O'Connor, committed suicide after battling drug addiction, and how Carol O'Connor fought valiantly to catch and help convict the drug dealer who sold his son drugs. A few months ago I came across a release in the Catholic News Service reporting an odd event that took place at the Church of Santa Susanna in Rome. The church has an American priest as pastor, serving the English-speaking community of Rome; but it's also home to a monastery of Italian nuns. The nuns had called the police and asked them to remove the cremated ashes that the American priest had entombed above a side altar in the church. The ashes were those of Hugh O'Connor. It seems that in 1962, after eleven years of marriage and no children, Carol O'Connor and his wife decided to adopt. At the time O'Connor was filming Cleopatra in Rome, and he and his wife regularly attended the English services at Santa Susanna. They approached the American pastor and told him of their desire to adopt. The priest, it seems, arranged for a private adoption. Mrs. O'Connor was quoted in the news item as saying that Hugh was "a gift, a wonderful gift to them." Their decision to entomb his ashes in Santa Susanna was an act of conversion, a returning of their son Hugh to the place where they had first met him. Although it remains unclear why the nuns objected to the burial, it is clear that the O'Connors were expressing their deeply-felt gratitude in this beautiful gesture on behalf of their son.

Bart Giomotti, the now-deceased, one-time Commissioner of Baseball once said: life is a lot like baseball -- you want to end up right where you started. A more mundane take, perhaps, on that poignantly poetic insight of T.S. Eliot: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive at where we started, and know the place for the first time."

In this sense my decision to search for the parents who gave me birth is a conversion story -- I was seeking to return to the place from where I started. But that was only the beginning of my conversion. Now, in the middle of my life, I still remain unconverted in regard to three powerful emotions surrounding my adoptive life: shame, rage, and the burden of indebtedness.

I know that I was always ashamed of being adopted. I recall with embarrassment going on a weekend retreat in my sophomore year in high school; one of those experiences where about fifty of us were thrown together in close quarters, deprived of sleep, encouraged to trust each other, reveal ourselves, tell our secrets. Near the end of the retreat I had come to realize that the one, deep, dark secret that I had never told anyone -- that I was adopted -- I should reveal to my roommate Larry. I cannot explain how difficult it was to bring myself to tell Larry I was adopted. I couldn't sleep, I broke out in sweats, I had no appetite. When I finally worked up the courage to let out my terrible secret, I felt the rush of shame burn my face and steal my breath. Larry, though, was not particularly impressed. Even today I still feel the blood rush to my face when I tell someone I am adopted, and feel a certain empathy with AA members, though they never have to give their last names. Why is that I wonder? Why does an adopted person often feel shame about being adopted -- or am I projecting here? Then, at least, why do I? Is it because I have subconsciously absorbed the shame my adopted parents experienced over their infertility? Or is it because I have incorporated into my psyche, despite the efforts of sealed records, society's judgment upon me as illegitimate, a bastard, not able to fully present myself as others do who are born according to the law? Or is it simply the concretization of what some define as shame -- seeing myself as a mistake, or to paraphrase the neo-Darwinists, a not-so-glorious accident?

And the rage. I have often told the story of how I could have killed the nun who sat across from me at the agency from which I was adopted as she asked me in condescending tones: Why would you want to know your mother's name, wasn't your adoption a good one? Or anger about my parents' silence concerning adoption, telling me when I was twelve and never discussing it again till I found my birth mother at 32. Or even just last week when I my mother asked what kind of conference I'd be attending. "It's the Open Adoption Conference," I tell her. And she tells me that she can't understand why anyone would want to adopt if everyone knew each other; as if to say if it were open back then, we wouldn't have adopted you. I feel that familiar rage burn all the way from my gut to the back of my throat, but my mother is feeble now and confined to a wheelchair, an effective antidote to a raging tantrum I might have had at an earlier time.

About a year and a half ago my mother fell down the stairs and has not walked since. Such incidents require action. As an only child I feel responsible to make sure the house will be comfortable for my parents. Moving the bedroom downstairs, putting in a handicapped bathroom, renovating an old house. I stay with my parents at nights to see that they get adjusted. It's then I notice my father's forgetfulness is worse than I first expected. He begins to sit up all night, then he tries to leave the house in the middle of the night in his pajamas, but cannot figure out the new lock I put on the door. He begins to pull my mother's hair, she is screaming and crying, waking me in the middle of the night. I begin to spend every night with them, leaving at dawn to drive back across the city for morning Mass. Finally I decide that I cannot handle my father's Alzheimer's any longer, and place him in a home. Now, these months later, my mother misses him, and she forgets those difficult months we endured. I feel angry. My friend tells me she understands -- her parents were the same. "But you have eight brothers and sisters," I say. "Well," she says, "I still understand." I feel like I'm a slave of sorts, an indentured servant. I am angry that many years ago, when I was thirteen, I tried to leave home to go to a high school seminary so I could become a foreign missionary and live in far-away China. My parents, of course, said no. Last year, during my father's worst period at home, my bishop offers me a parish -- in the eyes of many, a significant promotion. I tell him, "Thanks, but it would just be impossible at the moment." Irrationally, I feel my parents' illness and dependency to be deliberate. I tell myself I am paying back a debt.

So, as you see, I am need of conversion, of a transformation. I need to retrace my path and return to a place where shame converts to self-respect; rage recedes and a bit of peace is found; indebtedness converts to gratitude. The key to unlock the conversion, I have to come to believe, is forgiveness.

But I cannot do it alone. I need help. I need allies, guides for the journey, patron saints, if you will; heroes, who though far from perfect, have made valiant progress across the seas of interior conversion. But I do not choose my heroes lightly. My heroes would have to know the affliction of shame, and the heat of rage, and the burden of indebtedness. Like Mark Twain's penetrating line in his favorite work, Joan of Arc, when Joan places her banner in the sanctuary of the Cathedral at Rheims where the dauphin is about to be crowned king, and a jealous noble demands to know what right her banner has to stand in that sacred space. "It has bourne the pain," Joan says, "it has earned the honor." My heroes have bourne the pain; they, too, have earned the honor. They are my heroes because they are so human and fault-filled; but somehow, through a trick of grace perhaps, they have converted their shame to respect; their rage into a semblance of inner peace, their indebtedness to gratitude. Where they have gone, I hope to follow; how they have journeyed, I hope to imitate.

So I'd like to share with you the stories of four of my heroes, and how they became my heroes precisely because they are so ordinary. Conversion stories, you see, are really paradigms for cowards. And as a coward, I want to share with you how they have wrestled with shame and anger and indebtedness. How forgiveness enables them to experience those two meanings of conversion I had mentioned at the start -- to turn around and to live.

Onesimus is a little-known New Testament figure who appears in St. Paul's short letter to Philemon. Philemon was a Christian, baptized by Paul himself, and also a slave owner. Onesimus was Philemon's slave. It seems that Onesimus might have stolen something from his master and then run-away. If caught, Onesimus could have faced death as his punishment. But Onesimus was a smart fellow -- he ran to Paul, his master's good friend. There he endeared himself to Paul and was eventually baptized. No doubt Onesimus felt shame over his slave status, but willingly returned to his master at Paul's request, with Paul's letter imploring Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as a brother in the faith. It is unfortunate that there is no record in the New Testament of the events that followed Onesimus' return, but legend has it that Philemon freed Onesimus who went on to become the Bishop of Edessa, an important See in the ancient world. Onesimus was also declared a saint, an obscure saint to be sure, unknown to most, while I, perhaps I alone, celebrate his feast day on February 11th. Onesimus is my hero for two reasons: first, because he had the courage to run away; and second, because he had the courage to return. I think he could only have achieved his first conversion by overcoming his shame at being a slave; and his second by forgiving Philemon.

Hero #2 is St. Patrick. Patrick is well-known, but his origins, like mine, are a bit obscure. As you may know Patrick was not Irish. He was born in the fourth century in Roman Britain, or perhaps, in Roman Brittany, to a well-to-do family, his father was a deacon, his grandfather a priest (these were the days, God grant they return, before the imposition of clerical celibacy). At sixteen he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and enslaved in Ireland. He spent the next six years as a slave-shepherd in Ireland. It was a hard life, though he says in his Confession that it was there, alone in the Irish hills, that he came to know God. Patrick finally escaped, and when secure in his native place, freely decided to become a priest and return to the very people that had first enslaved him to live and work the rest of his life. Patrick's anger, his righteous anger at the Irish, was converted into a fierce devotion that still lays claim to the Irish these 1500 years later.

My third hero would be little known by many, and probably unknown to me, if it weren't for an unusual incident that occurred about six years ago when Cardinal O'Connor, the Archbishop of New York, ordered his vicar general to visit the graveyard that stands next to New York's original St. Patrick's Cathedral -- the Old St. Patrick's, as it's called --in New York's Little Italy. There he was to identify the grave of a certain man who died in the mid-nineteenth century. Then he was to exhume the body and have scientific confirmation as to the man's identity. Once confirmed the body would be placed in a more suitable coffin, taken to the new St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue where the body would be re-interred in the crypt underneath the main altar reserved for the Archbishops and Cardinals of New York. Today if you visit St. Patrick's Cathedral and walk behind the main altar and look down into the crypt you will see the names of those buried there chiseled on bronze plaques. There are only a few names: Archbishop John Hughes who built the cathedral, Cardinal McCloskey, the first American Cardinal, Cardinal Spellman, referred to in his day as the American pope, the humble Cardinal Cooke a Bronx native. And then on the last plaque you would see the name, Pierre Toussaint. Not a cardinal, not even a priest, but a one-time hairdresser, an adoptive father, born a slave in his native Haiti in the later part of the eighteenth century, an immigrant, and hopefully through the prayers of many, soon to be declared blessed, a title attesting that he practiced heroic virtue and deserving to be honored as a Servant of God.

Pierre Toussaint was born a slave in Haiti on the plantation of a French family called Berard. Fearing a slave rebellion the Berards emigrated to New York in 1787, bringing their 21 year old slave Pierre with them. Once here Pierre was apprenticed to a well known New York hairdresser whose clientele included many of the well-to-do in post colonial New York. When Pierre's master returned to Haiti to secure his investments, he fell ill and died. One day his wife, Madame Berard, handed her slave Pierre a velvet bag containing fine jewelry. Confessing she was penniless, she ordered Pierre to sell the jewelry, and that after he had accomplished that mission, she would free him. Several days later Pierre came back to Mme. Berard with two packages. Opening the first she found the money she said she needed. In the second she found the velvet bag of jewelry she had asked him to sell. "Where did you get this money?" she demanded. Pierre explained it was the money he had saved working as a hairdresser. From then on Pierre instructed all merchants to give him any bills for the Berards. He would then hand them to Mme. Berard only after they were marked Paid. He consistently refused Mme. Berard's offers to free him, legally remaining her family's slave until her death.

For the next 19 years Toussaint supported the Berard family with his earnings as a hairdresser. To spare his mistress the humiliation of begging from her slave, he simply turned his earnings over to her. And now, listen to this, a night did not pass that Pierre Toussaint did not put on his valet uniform after a long day's work to serve his owner's family a meal for which he himself had paid.

Pierre's hairdressing abilities became quite in demand and he used the extra money he earned to buy the freedom of many slaves. Upon Mme. Berard's death he was declared a free man. He then married, and he and his wife adopted his deceased sister's daughter. When the then Archbishop of New York asked Catholics for donations to begin the construction of the new St. Patrick's Cathedral, Toussaint led the list of contributors. On the day of the Cathedral's commemoration he and his wife came to the doors of the church only to be told by an usher that no blacks would be permitted to enter. When asked in retrospect how he felt that day, Toussaint said that he had learned something when very young, as a slave in Haiti, that when he felt the rage swell up within him, he should bite his tongue. He practiced this antidote to anger all his life, and was happy to say he was getting better at it as time went on. At least it enabled him to turn away from the church that day maintaining his self-respect, despite the shame that society had long tried to induce in him -- though I'm sure he must have been tasting a lot of blood.

As you may have noticed, my heroes were all slaves for part of their lives. I maintain that adoptive experience resonates with slave experience despite the objections of others (adoptees included) who say I am being melodramatic about how adoption is analogous to slavery in its effects on a person's subjective view of self. I think the feeling that you have been cheated of something -- perhaps the right to choose for yourself -- has little to do with one's adoptive parents, but a lot to do with the institution of adoption. Adoption laws are really commodity laws, and even the new Catholic Book of Blessings which has a "Blessing for Parents and an Adopted Child" speaks of an adopted child as if he were a new Chevy or Cherokee van. There's no acknowledgment of loss, no appreciation of the importance of kinship ties. Of course adoptive parents are not slave owners, and their intentions in adopting are utterly different form the intentions of bygone slave owners. But from the point of view of the adoptee I really do believe that closed adoption to be similar to the experience of the slave block.

Despite accounts of instantaneous conversions and bolts of lightening, deep conversions -- the ones that stick -- take time, I think. That's why Madeleine Albright, our Secretary of State, is not one of my heroes -- at least not yet. On February 5th Madeleine Albright told the New York Times: "I think my father and mother were the bravest people alive...they dealt with the most difficult decision anyone could make. I am incredibly grateful to them, and beyond measure." Of course, you know she is referring to her parents' decision to convert from Judaism to Catholicism, so as to protect themselves and their children from the looming Fascist threat. I take Madeleine Albright at her word, that is, literally, when she says she is "incredibly grateful." It is incredible for me to believe that she is really grateful. It is unbelievable for me to think that, on some level, she would not be very angry at her parents' deception. A deception that grew over the years, creating stories of Catholic childhoods that never happened. I think Albright is caught in the old Catch-22 rut that we adoptees often find ourselves in. We must say we are grateful, "incredibly grateful," immeasurably grateful, boundlessly grateful -- for to do anything less would be to have to confront the fact that we might not be grateful at all -- to confront the fact that we're too angry to be grateful. So we fake it, we force the smile and are exuberant with praise and thanksgiving. We don't say what we feel because we are deathly afraid to be perceived as thankless -- others might see us, we suspect, for the ungrateful bastards we fear to be. A forced gratitude, I think, is nothing more than the indebtedness of a servant -- or a slave.

But, my heroes, Onesimus and Patrick and Pierre Toussaint, overcame that trap, they discovered true gratitude by way of forgiveness. But genuine forgiveness first acknowledges the loss and hurt already endured. For the adopted this step -- the acknowledgment that a hurt was caused, that a wound was inflicted -- is often overlooked. It is even denied by the adopted themselves. But unless acknowledgment of the wound that causes the shame and the anger be acknowledged, no genuine forgiveness can ensue; we end up silently carrying grudges, which weighs us down like a sack of potatoes or some awkward cross-beam we've ordered ourselves to carry. My heroes are heroes because they do not deny the truth. Truth, then forgiveness -- this is the conversion, the transformation sorely needed in the world of adoption.

Ah, but if you were listening carefully, you would remember that I mentioned I had four heroes, but have only mentioned three. Number 4 is still living, he is no saint, I don't think he would want to be. I confess I do not know much about him, discovering him only a few weeks ago when I heard his best selling book, Angela's Ashes, had won the Pulitzer. Frank McCourt, now in his sixties, writes his memoir, his first book, and it's an overnight sensation. A young parishioner of mine gave it to me to read because Frank McCourt used to teach at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, where many of my younger parishioners attended over the years. John, this parishioner of mine, came up to me after Mass rather excited, and says: "Father, this guy was my teacher, and he wrote this book, and I read it, and I know you'd like it." "Why would I like it?" I ask. "Because it's about what you like," he says, "What's that," I ask. "It's about religion, sex and mystery," he says.

Now I have to fill you in here. The young man was referring to a sermon I gave once during Advent when the biblical readings center on the virginal conception of Jesus. Partly to catch these young people's attention, and partly to maintain my own, I told them the story of how Ireland boasts the greatest writers in the English language. I told them that years ago a group of Irish writers pooled their thoughts together in order to come up with a formula for writing a successful story. And how they decided that every good story, like life itself, has three important ingredients: religion, sex, and mystery. Well, this formula seeped down into the schools of Ireland and one day in a high school classroom the teacher told her students that the secret of a good story, like life itself, is that it incorporates these three ingredients of religion, sex and mystery. "Now class, " she said, "I want you all to write a story about religion, sex and mystery. Ready. begin!" Well, three minutes haven't even passed when the teacher looks up and sees Sean Carmody gazing out the window. "Sean," she yells, "Why aren't you writing your story?" "Because I've finished," Sean says. "Finished?" she says. "How could you be finished writing an entire story about religion, sex and mystery in only a few minutes?" "Stand up, and read us what you've wrote." Sean stands up, clears his throat and reads: "My God, she's pregnant, who did it?"

The ingredients of a good story is a lot like life, and is especially a lot like an adoptee's life.

Well my young parishioner was absolutely right. I loved Frank McCourt's memoir about being born in Brooklyn during the Depression, his father's alcoholism, having to move back to Ireland where they lived in squalor and poverty, and his dream to return one day to America. And, for sure, my young parishioner was also correct in saying that the story was indeed about religion, and sex, and mystery.

So Frank McCourt is now one of my heroes because I know from his writing that he knows how shame feels -- a shame he knew growing up in the lanes of Limerick and walking barefoot to school, following his unsuspecting mother as she went to beg for bread. Frank McCourt also knew rage, especially when he slapped his mother across the face, for all the times she gave herself to his filthy uncle, whom they were beholden to for a place to stay. And the rage he knew at the father who drank away the little money they might have had. Frank McCourt's story is a story about exile and return, and in this sense it is an adoptee's story, it's about coming home and it's about realizing that all the experiences along the way have made you into who you are. "All the way to heaven is heaven," St. Catherine of Sienna said long ago. If you don't learn at least a little about it here on earth, you're never goin' to recognize it when you arrive.

The last scene in the story takes place at the end of his voyage back to America aboard a small freighter at the age of twenty-one. For some unexplained reason the freighter is not permitted to dock in New York Harbor but must travel up the Hudson to anchor off, of all places, Poughkeepsie. A small boat comes and brings Frank and a few others to join some women who've been drinking and partying while their husbands are off hunting. One of the women seduces Frank-- takes him right into a bedroom, right there in Poughkeepsie, of all places, with a priest outside the door wondering what the hell's goin' on in there. "...and the whole inside of me is gone into her," Frank McCourt writes, "and she collapses on me and tells me I'm wonderful -- and would I ever consider settling in Poughkeepsie." Frank McCourt's first night in America, is literally and figuratively, his release from the hypocrisy and poverty of Ireland.

The reason Frank McCourt is a hero to me is because he tells his story -- his harsh, dreadful story, with a tenderness and compassion I want to know first hand. There is no bitterness in his voice -- and that is so refreshing, so attractive -- especially to me, who sees himself so often as the victim, taking bitterness for granted.

My heroes teach me that once we learn to forgive, nothing is impossible. Forgiveness allows us to be -- not incredibly grateful -- but genuinely grateful for literally anything. Like the last words of George Bernanos' great novel The Diary of a Country Priest, we understand that indeed "All is grace."

Back on the freighter waiting to pull anchor and head back to the City, Frank is joined by the Wireless Officer. "My God," the officer says, "that was a lovely night Frank. Isn't this a great country altogether?" "'Tis," Frank says, "(It) 'tis."

Through acknowledging the truth of loss and exercising forgiveness, my heroes promise me that shame can be transformed into self-respect; rage recast into a semblance of peace; and indebtedness converted to gratitude. This is why I want to convert, why I want to be transformed. I believe that's essentially what each of us wants and what is so sorely needed in the ongoing practice of adoption.

Besides, there are always delightful surprises awaiting the converted: Onesimus, after all, became the Bishop of Edessa; Patrick, the apostle to Ireland; Pierre Toussaint now lies in the company of Cardinals; and, who knows, for you and me -- the delightful surprise of a Poughkeepsie or two at the end of our journeys of return.

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