Thursday, May 28, 2009

Spirituality of Adoption - Baptist's Children Home 2000

Baptist Children’s Home Adoption Conference
Herron, Illinois
26 February 2000
The Spirituality of Adoption
Fr. Tom Brosnan

First I’d like to thank Carla Monroe and the committee who organized this conference for their invitation to join you today. It is always an honor to be asked to speak about such an important topic. First, a disclaimer. I am not an adoption expert. I do not work in the filed of adoption. I am not a social worker or psychologist. My only worthwhile credentials in this regard is the fact that I know about adoption from personal experience as an adopted person. This means I come to the topic with a bias. But if I make you think a bit differently about the complicated business of adoption, then I think I’ll have done my part and fulfilled my obligation as your guest speaking on the experience of adoption as one born from the heart.

My topic today is the spirituality of adoption. Spirituality can have a whole host of meanings and incarnations. From the practices of organized religion to New Age fringe- type rites and rituals, spirituality is a broad word covering a whole galaxy of beliefs and practices. For me spirituality is more a verb than a noun, more journey than state of being – the pilgrimage of each individual in the course of a lifetime. And as G.K. Chesterton once put it: “all journeys are about coming home.” Spirituality in adoption is the work of belonging, the experience of yearning for home while remaining present in the here and now. Adoption is the lived experience – the sacrament, if you will – of belonging in two places at the same time. But, instead of long explanations and definitions, let me throw out some images that have made an impression on me over the years and when viewed together might better present my understanding of what the adoption experience means for all members of the triad: birth parent, adoptive parent and adoptee. So, sit back and doze off if you feel the need to. Be open to the things in each story that touch your heart – they all have to do with those themes of loss and belonging and identity; what you miss in one you’ll catch in another.

I’m thinking of one of my favorite movies from a few years back the Italian movie Cinema Paradiso. About a man’s remembrance of growing up in a small Sicilian town and how the local projectionist at the movie house becomes like a father to him. When the boy grows into a young man, the old man – despite his attachment to the boy -- knows the best way to love this boy is to make him leave this town that has no future for him. On the day the boy is going off to Rome while waiting for the train, the old man whispers in his ear: “Promise me,” he says. “Promise me you’ll never come back. And he doesn’t come back even to visit his aging mother even though he has become a famous movie director and could easily hop on a plane for a few hours to visit now and again. But when the old man dies, his mother’s voice on the answering machine she simply says the day and time for the funeral and she knows her son will return for the old man. Then a really beautiful scene: the mother is sitting in a rocker crocheting; the camera focuses on her hands as her fingers nimbly handle the needles; we hear a car pull up outside; the camera remains focused on the crocheting; the woman stops; the car door slams; she gets up to go see and the yarn catches to her dress, and as she moves toward the door, toward the moment of reunion, the thread unravels and then stops and in that cinematic simplicity when the yarn stops unraveling that mother and son have embraced after so many years.

Remember Bart Giomotti the commissioner of baseball a few years back who died rather young? You might also remember that before Bart Giomotti was commissioner of baseball he was the president of Yale University. And before he was president of Yale University, he was of all things a medieval scholar. Medieval literature and baseball certainly don’t seem related. But to Giomotti they were. He wrote once about the myth of baseball – how it’s all about coming home. How the player gets up to bat and his one goal is to make contact with the ball, run the bases – and return to home plate. Giomotti suggested that this is a metaphor for the meaning of human life – it’s all about coming home, about immersing oneself in the game, about traveling the bases, about ending up at the place from where you started. And isn’t that the theme of the great American contribution to the literature of myth. Isn’t that what The Wizard of Oz is all about? Now Dorothy, the good witch. You had the power to go home all the time -- you don’t need me or the wizard. Just click your ruby slippers together and say: there’s no place like home. When Dorothy opens her eyes again, she’s back in Kansas -- in her adoptive home with Auntie Em. But first she had to have gone on the adventure, or she never would have known that there’s no place like home.

“We shall not cease from exploration,” TS Eliot says, “and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive at where we started and know the place for the first time.” Back in the sixteenth century mystic Teresa of Avila claimed divine visions and ecstasies and could be said to know a thing or two about spirituality. But for all her out-of-body experiences and sojourns into divine sublimity she always argued that true holiness puts your feet firmly on the ground. When asked how a person might achieve what she did or gain the joy of ecstasy, Teresa did not prescribe a schedule of prayer or a routine of fast. Instead Teresa said: “For never, however exalted the soul may be, is anything else more fitting that self-knowledge.”

And then there’s the final scene in Steven Spielberg’s movie Empire of the Sun about a British boy being raised in Shanghai when the Japanese invade. He gets separated from his parents and ends up in a POW camp as he grows into adolescence. At the end of the war after he has traversed what seems to be the width of China, exhausted and traumatized he is placed with other British children in a reunification camp. The Red Cross has gathered groups of children together, parents come desperately hoping to find their lost children. The boy stands in the middle of the group worn and seemingly catatonic. He does not blink. His parents haven’t seen him in four years. He has grown. His father looks at him but passes him by. His mother does the same. But then comes back and recognition sets in. She embraces her son and the camera, that instrument of revelations, focuses in on the boy's eyes. They do not blink they are dazed and dreamy. Then in the warmth of his mother's embrace ever so slowly he lets down his guard and closes his eyes. I often think of this image at funerals when we say that ancient prayer not always used anymore: Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord. Rest is a reward, true rest only comes when one feels at home. I don’t think I ever understood those words until I saw that movie.

Can I ever be grateful enough, I wonder, to Superman? It was my favorite TV series growing up. Although my parents and I never talked about adoption (they didn’t tell me till I was 12) I knew since I was about 5. I wonder if watching Superman reinforced my suspicions? I knew we were very much alike. I felt like Superman – not strong – but never quite fitting in, not sure where I belonged. Before dinner I’d turn on the TV and watch Superman reruns, always hoping -- in those days before VCRs -- that they’d play my favorite episode, that first episode, when the infant Superman drops from the sky and is found in the fields by the kindly Kents. In the more recent movies Superman’s origins are delved into in more detail and take on biblical proportion. Penny Partridge, an adoptee who writes some powerful poetry about the adoption experience writes about Superman the movie. “They got it right,” Penny writes, “when they had him leave home after high school and/ not showing up at the Daily Planet until he is thirty/ ready to lead his double life quite admirably after what we’d call a search/ which looks on the screen like a trip to the frozen far north where he sees and hears his own Marlon the Godfather -- now more like God the Father -- where he sees and hears his own white-haired birthfather -- who acknowledges him.”

As a priest I have to preach all the time and the readings that we must preach about are set in annual cycles. For many years one of the days I’d hate to preach was the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. I hated to because it never made any sense to me -- until I reconnected with Superman. It’s the same story-line, isn’t it? Mark’s gospel begins with the baptism of Jesus as an adult. We don’t know anything about his origins or his first thirty years at least from Mark. “And a voice was heard from the heavens,” Mark writes. “You are my beloved son. On you my favor rests.” Now I said heresy because there was an early heresy held by a group labeled the adoptionists who based on Mark’s gospel believed that Jesus was God’s son by adoption. In other words they didn’t believe that he was divine by nature, they disclaimed the virginal conception. The early church condemned this thinking insisting that Jesus was divine by nature conceived of the Holy Sprit and not simply adopted at baptism as the Son of God. Now it’s interesting that Mark differs from Matthew by one word. Matthew has it that the voice from heaven says “This is my beloved son,” as if the voice were speaking to the crowds. But Mark is more intimate and seems to speak directly to Jesus: “You are my beloved son.” Was the voice acknowledging Jesus. Did Jesus need to be acknowledge as all of us do, especially those of us so unsure of our origins, some of us never really connecting to our birth, imagining we were dropped from the sky somehow, alien and alienated, sacraments of not belonging? We all need to be acknowledged – we all need to hear the truth of our origins especially those of us whose origins are a bit murky, especially those of us whose births are labeled illicit, born outside the law.

In 1984 after I was a priest for only 3 years I was asked by my bishop to go to Korea and study the language and culture in order to work with the many Korean immigrants in New York. I immediately said yes. I had studied Asian history and Mandarin Chinese in college. I went to Korea over the course of six years and in New York lived and worked with the Korean Catholic community, being for fifteen years the only Anglo in largest Korean Catholic parish in the U.S. My friends and classmates would ask me how I could do it -- as if I were making some giant sacrifice. But I really never felt it as such -- being the only one of my kind, I think I didn’t feel it because I had grown accustomed to feeling at home in places I didn’t belong. I think that’s the experience of the adopted. We adapt to places where we don’t belong -- it is the essence of the adopted experience.

But it was in Korea where I made up my mind to to search for my family of origin, my birthparents. The language was incredibly difficult and the culture so totally different that the feelings of being different, being on the outside made me quite aware that this had been my experience of life. It took a journey to Korea to finally get me in touch with those feelings. When I returned to New York I was 31 and up until then if anyone asked me if I would want to find my birth parents I would have flat out said no, of course not. Searching brought out immense guilt feelings toward my adoptive parents. Feelings of disloyalty and rejection, though I don’t think anyone could have objectively judged me so. Part of the problem for me was the secrecy that surrounded adoption for my parents and me. After I found and told my adoptive parents, after the initial tears, only then did my parents start to talk about their experience, of what it felt like going to the adoption agency, the things they had to do, the play they had to enact in order to meet others’ expectations. Finding my birth family really opened the door to my adoptive parents. Every adoptee I’ve talked with about searching has had similar feelings. Many wait, consciously wait till their parents have died before they begin to search. Help came when I joined ALMA (the Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association) -- in those days the only adoption support group around. And its founder adoptee Florence Fisher and her fiery insistence that you – you -- shouting at us adoptees -- you have a fundamental right to know where you came from, from whom you were born, who are your brothers and sisters, your grandparents, your heritage and history. I never thought I had a right. I still must fight within myself to acknowledge emancipation. The law and popular culture still refer to me as an adopted child. When I told my story at a parish once an elderly woman came forward. She was ninety-two and introduced herself (in a whisper of course) Hello father, I’m an adopted child. Searching for what is yours is not an act of rebellion or disloyalty. It is an acknowledgement of truth. As the line in that wonderful film Secrets & Lies put it: “You really can miss what you never had.” You really do belong in two different families – you may not belong in the same way, but your place in both is for certain.

That reminds me of another aspect of what I think is an integral part of all spiritual journeys even if only understood as symbolic attachments – and that’s the phenomenon of names.

Names are a big part of identity. If you’ve read Betty Jean Lifton’s most recent book The Journey of the Adopted Self she tells the fascinating story of the psychologist Erik Erikson, who confided in her his own journey. “Erikson’s mother, a Danish Jew, never told Erik the true story of his origins, wanting him to believe that her husband, the pediatrician Theodor Homberger, was his father. As a boy growing up ‘blond, blue-eyed and flagrantly tall’ in Germany, Erik thought it strange that his father was short and dark. He was acutely aware that he was referred to as a goy in his father’s temple, while to his schoolmates he was a Jew. He thought of himself as a ‘foundling.” Erik was in the Black Forest with his parents watching an old peasant woman milk a cow. She looked up and said, “Do you know who your father is?” He was taken by surprise. It was the first time anyone said such a thing to him. He knew she must have noticed how different he looked from his father. Like Oedipus, he rushed to his mother to ask her for the truth, but was given a half-truth. She admitted he had been adopted by Homberger, who she married on the day Erik turned three. She spoke vaguely about having been abandoned by her former Danish-Jewish husband in Copenhagen while she was pregnant, and going to Germany to give birth. Seeing her discomfort, and responding to his own anxiety, Erikson submerged his need to know more about his father at that time. In his adolescence he would ear rumors that his father was not his mother’s former husband, but rather a Danish aristocrat whose name her brothers had sworn never to reveal. When Erik journeyed to America he renamed himself on his application for citizenship, calling himself Erik Erikson. He had settled to create himself. He of course as every college student knows developed the theory of identity development, known as the father of the identity-crisis. What is little known is his own personal investment in such a model.

Perhaps the most famous adoptee in history had a thing about names. The story of Moses is a familiar one, but sometimes familiarity clouds our perceptions to just what is going on. The name Moses, scholars tells us, either comes from the Hebrew meaning to draw out (as in being drawn from the water) as in being adopted by pharaoh’s daughter. Or it comes from the Egyptian, being just a suffix of a long-lost fuller name which Hebrew editors, perhaps embarrassed by its possible meaning, erased along the way. Moses could very ell be the ending of such a name as Thutmose meaning son of the god Tut; or Ramses, a contraction of Ra-moses, meaning son of the god Ra. But its through the gift of names that Moses true identity is finally revealed and his destiny embraced. When Moses approached the burning bush after hearing the divine voice call his name, Moses asks Who are you? And the voice reveals: I am the God of your fathers. There’s a pause in the text at this point and for me as an adoptee I wonder what went through the adopted Moses’ mind. After being raised as an Egyptian, after killing the Egyptian when he saw him beating the Hebrew, after running away to this far away place. What went through Moses’ mind at that moment. I am the God of your fathers, the voice says. But which father, Moses might have wondered. Are you the god of my Egyptian father or my Hebrew father? Then in that moment of divine revelation, two truths are revealed: God’s identity and the true identity of Moses. I am the god of your fathers, the God of Abraham of Isaac of Jacob. In this twofold revelation both God’s identity and Moses identity are revealed. One cannot stand without the other. Moses identity as a Hebrew raised Egyptian is integral to the revelation on which all of western civilization hinges. That’s how important names can be.

Names are clues to identity, mirrors of inner attributes. I named you for my brother my mother told me when I finally met her in 1984 as we ate lunch in a restaurant on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the cement for which her husband -- not my father -- had poured before he was tragically killed in an auto accident. She had married him within a year of giving birth to me. She said she had told him about me and my father though I wonder if she could have, having kept it a secret from virtually everyone else. My mother met my father while he was studying at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. My father was deported back to Canada because he was found to be working while on a student visa. My mother, pregnant and confused and desperate, went to Toronto to tell him and ask him to marry. He says he cannot. He says it has a lot to do with religion. (Later I think it must have something to do with class also). She’s Catholic. He’s Protestant. She goes to New York City and through her brother’s connections ends up in a Catholic maternity home, giving birth to me on January 10, 1953 at the Misericordia Hospital then located on 86th Street off York Avenue in Manhattan. She relinquished me to the closed adoption system through the Catholic Home Bureau and after six months in foster care I was placed with my adoptive parents and raised in Brooklyn. I named you for my brother, my mother tells me as we’re eating lunch. He was a priest too, you know. I know I say. I visited his grave at Georgetown University and met his friend Father Dineen who showed me old photographs – the first time I had ever seen anyone related to me by blood. The first time till now – sitting across from this woman -- my mother --from whom I had entered the world.

One of the first things my mother asked me when I first met her: Did you know you were born at Misericordia Hospital? Is it still there? she asks. No, I say. They moved it to the Bronx. Misericordia means mercy in Latin. But it’s etymology betrays a deeper meaning: heart misery. Your conference theme is born from the heart. Mercy is born of heart misery – it’s the ability to empathize with the misery of another it’s the capacity to walk in another’s shoes. The ability to connect with the loss in another’s life. I’d like to suggest to you today that that’s what the spirituality of adoption is all about the shared experience of loss and not belonging by each member of the triad. The ability to make losses into gains, the miseries of the heart into joy through that quality we call mercy. To understand that nurture always builds on nature that the intercourse between heredity and environment is what the art of adoption is all about/. Love, genuine love does not seek to eradicate biology. It doesn’t need to.

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