The First Biennial Conference on Open Adoption Families
June 18-19, 1998
Colorado Springs, Colorado
The Spirituality of Adoption
Father Tom Brosnan
June 18-19, 1998
Colorado Springs, Colorado
The Spirituality of Adoption
Father Tom Brosnan
Spirituality is an attempt to view the world and ourselves in different ways. A spirituality of adoption is an attempt to look at the world through the experience of adoption. The members of the triad offer their experience of life as effected by adoption as a model for others to use by analogy. Coming to conferences like this one is like discovering something that's always been there but we've just never seen it. We can meet the same challenges we face as adoptee, adoptive parent, birth parent in a new light. Our philosophy of life, so to speak, our spirituality determines how we approach those same challenges, but with a fresh outlook.
Two weeks ago the NY Times reported a monumental discovery in the ongoing mystery of the universe: evidence that the mysterious and elusive neutrino does indeed possess mass. Having very little understanding of physics, I do not pretend to understand even a neutrino's worth of science, but the article intrigued me, mainly I think because it was about something so mysterious. It seems that neutrinos are very small and are passing through the universe -- and us -- constantly, but since they were thought until now to be mass-less, they could not collide with anything. Now neutrinos are discovered to possess mass, be it ever so small, and overnight our perception of the universe changes. The neutrino, which was once thought to have little part in the model of the universe, is now believed to be the thing most responsible for making up the bulk of the mass of the entire universe. Tides turn overnight, paradigms shift, our worldview is turned upside down. What is intriguing to me is that this physical discovery enables us to envision things differently -- we begin to see the world and ourselves in brand new ways. We are looking at the same things we've always looked at, but now see them in novel ways. Discovery stokes the imagination and makes us more creative. I am indebted to this discovery, also, because I think adoptee are a lot like neutrinos -- once so elusive, seemingly anchorless, are now seen as possessing mass -- and, in my layman's understanding of such things, they are recognized as possessing substance, they carry more weight, so to speak.
St Augustine, living in the fourth century, certainly didn't know about neutrinos, he didn't even know about gravity, but thought a lot about substance and what makes people tick. Augustine wrote that "a body tends by its weight towards the place proper to it. Weight does not necessarily tend towards the lowest place," Augustine said, "but towards its proper place. Fire tends upwards, stone downwards. By their weight they are moved and seek their proper place. Oil poured over water is borne on the surface of the water, water poured over oil sinks below the oil; it is by their weight that they are moved and seek their proper place. Things out of their place are in motion: they come to their place and are at rest. My love is my weight," Augustine wrote, "wherever I go my love is what brings me there."
A spirituality of adoption is an attempt to make a paradigm of how adoption impacts life and life's choices. If things are drawn to their proper place by their weight, by their loves, their desires and yearnings and appetites -- like neutrinos following their mass -- then the search for their proper place, the search to belong, the quest for identity are the hallmarks of a spirituality of adoption. They presuppose that there is first a displacement, an experience of not-belonging, a discernible absence, a weightlessness of sorts -- all felt until we discover we have mass, our weight drawing us to our proper place, so to speak. I believe that these are discernible marks in the experience of the adopted -- whether they are conscious of it or not.
Many times the adopted, programmed in denial, verbally reject any interest in knowing where they came from or the parents that gave them life. But their actions say just he opposite. I'm thinking here of someone like James Michener who just died after a long prolific career as a writer. Michener's story is a bit bizarre. It seems that for some time he believed he was adopted when in fact he wasn't -- his mother had told him he was because she became pregnant with him as a widow. As a young man, thinking he was adopted, Michener claimed no interest in knowing birth parents. But one doesn't have to be a Freud to wonder what he really believed, writing those thousands and thousands of pages through the years tracing geologic history millennia back into time, telling stories of surveyors searching for the source of rivers, presenting to us heroic characters whose ancestry determined their present predicaments and helped them resolve their dilemmas. Michener might have been in verbal denial -- but his books are monumental testimony to someone obsessed with origins and their meaning.
GK Chesterton said that "all journeys are about coming home." And of course he wasn't speaking specifically about the adopted. It is a universal human trait, discernible in the lower animals through what we call instinct to return to the place of their birth or hatching or spawning. We human beings are it seems more adaptable -- able to make a home virtually anywhere. Immigrants are heroic icons of the ability to leave home and make new ones. Our literature is filled with the stories of leaving home, of exile and the quest to return. Homer's Odyssey is the literal beginning of centuries of literary variations on the same theme. The hero leaves home and is caught in some terrible drama like the Trojan War. He is lost to family and homeland, and struggles to return; usually arriving disguised in order to reclaim what was previously his. Not into ancient Greek literature you say, well then you just need to turn on the TV for the weekend baseball game. Pretend you've just landed from Mars and you're trying to figure out what all these guys are doing down their on that baseball diamond, and why thousands of others are sitting around watching them hit a ball and run around the basses to end up in the same place they started. As an alien you would listen closely and discover that that is precisely the object of the game -- to end where you began -- to start at home base and return to home base. Or as T.S. Eliot would put it: "to arrive at where you started and know the place for the first time." Of course, the runner is not the same person coming into home base as he was leaving it. The in-between is what's all important. In the process of attempting to hit the ball, you transcend something. The end result looks the same -- you're back at home base -- but, in fact, you have lived a lifetime in the process. Life is a lot like baseball, especially the life of an adoptee. It's like Homer's Odyssey too or a medieval knight's pilgrimage to find the Holy Grail. it's Dorothy having to travel all the way to Oz just to discover that there's literally no place like home.
If belonging is one of the goals of a spirituality of adoption, then displacement is the initial experience. Displacement, the feeling of somehow not-belonging, colors an adoption spirituality. In this, it is similar to the spirituality of religious people, of mystics and saints who describe the motivation of their actions as if some memory is calling them back towards an experience of joy they once knew but lost. A pilgrimage back to their Creator. Von Balthasar, perhaps the greatest Catholic theologian of the last few centuries, defined religion as "the reunion of previously separated parts." Although this displacement may indeed be universal, the adopted are symbols of that not-belonging. We have come to our refugee-status early one. We are sacraments, if you will, of those who have lost home and homeland and who are searching for the missing pieces.
I finally realized I was a refugee when I was thirty-one. I mean I had always known on some level (like Michener perhaps) but couldn't articulate it. Guilt over the perceived betrayal of adoptive parents becomes the key issue here. Perhaps this neurotic guilt is directly contingent on the secrecy of the closed adoption system and that open adoption will prove to have redeemed the adopted from this overwhelming obstacle.
At any rate it was when I was thirty-one that the feelings of displacement came to consciousness.
I'm a priest from the diocese of Brooklyn where there are a lot of immigrants from all over. It has been our practice to train priests in Spanish to work with the many immigrants from Latin America. In the early 80's there was an increasingly visible population of Koreans in Queens and, as an experiment of sorts, my bishop asked me if I'd be willing to go to Korea to study the language and culture in order to work with those Korean immigrants in New York. I immediately said yes -- I had always wanted to live in Asia. Korea was then and still is very foreign to westerners. Though it has emerged since the 1988 Olympics as a nation where westerners can find many familiar things, Korean culture and language remain quite different and mysterious to us westerners. During my first few months in Korea I felt this difference keenly. For the first time in my life I could identify those feelings of displacement as something I had always known but had somehow gotten used to. This lonely period for me was a revelation. As I was learning to speak Korean I was also learning to interpret my life through the metaphor of exile, of emigrant, of pilgrim, of sojourner, of searcher. In the ensuing years I adapted to the differences and ended up being the only Anglo living in a Korean household these past ten years. It was only last year that I finally moved from Korea town in Flushing to take a new assignment in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. I realized that as an adoptee I was very good at adapting, learning to feel at home in places I didn't belong. It was after my first three months in Korea back in 1984 that I returned to the U.S. with the clear intention of searching for my birth mother and my kinship connections.
When I was growing up, I seldom thought about being adopted. My parents told me when I was twelve though I remember knowing since I was five. We never talked of it and my only recollections about adoption during adolescence were feelings of embarrassment, no make than shame, whenever the subject came up on a TV show or in passing conversation. If I had been asked if I was interested in finding my birth family I would have said no. But, like Michener and so many others, I diverted the need to know by other pursuits. It happened in high school when we had to take Latin. I discovered I loved to study language and went from Latin to Greek to French. In my high school language was emphasized, and we would study other subjects in the language of choice. My choice was Russian. My teacher was a Ukrainian émigré, who would often call on me to read aloud. He said I had the best accent of all his students. Once he asked me if I were part Slavic. I felt embarrassed because I didn't know what I was -- my adoptive parents were Irish and I identified with Irish only. Languages would continue to seduce me. In college I took Chinese. When in the seminary I spent a summer in the Dominican Republic studying Spanish, and as I mentioned already I went to Korea to study Korean. I think I was searching for myself in languages. When I took French and repeated the phrases I heard on the record, I fanaticized that I was really French. My teachers often said my accent was exceptionally good. I could somehow imitate the sounds I heard better than my classmates. I wonder now, in a fantastic sort of way, whether we adopted are able to imitate foreign sounds, or foreign anything, better than most because we have learned from every early on how to successfully adapt. Or, even more fantastically, the thought occurs to me that maybe the particular phonemes of a language are heard through the womb and stay in bodily memory until sparked by a later encounter. When I searched for my birthfather it was relatively easy because he had a very German name. When I found him he told me that it was really a Germanized form of a rather famous Polish name. He told me that he himself was born in Poland, and that his father, although a Polish citizen, spoke Russian. All those years was I, as Augustine had said, a displaced body, someone out of place and in motion, seeking my proper place, the weight of a lost memory drawing me towards my proper place. Although unconscious of it, I was in search of roots, of origins -- I was already, even if yet undiscovered, a neutrino with mass.
Denial always looms large in spirituality. It's the obstacle that is most difficult to overcome and it’s like a cancer that consumes everything in it path. And its not only confined to the adoptee, but consumes birth parents and adoptive parents as well. I was able to find my birthmother quickly because when I asked my adoptive mother for more information, she gave me the wrong information. It was not intentional, she had just confused some very basic things. My adoptive mother, perhaps because she never talked about it, had come to believe that she adopted me from the Foundling Hospital in New York City. But as it turned out I was adopted from the Catholic Home Bureau. The Foundling, a famous place, that was consistently in the news over the years, had become in my mother's mind the place she went and adopted me from -- though in reality she had never even seen. Denial is a product of trauma and all members of the triad suffer trauma.
Peter and John Courtney Murray
One of the workshops tomorrow is about coincidence in adoption experience. I just had one while preparing this talk this past week. I was simultaneously preparing my sermon for this coming Sunday based on the readings that are pre-set. The gospel story that we'll read in church this Sunday is the one where Jesus takes his disciples on a sojourn to the source of the Jordan River -- a trip back to beginnings it seems -- to a place in modern Israel called Banyas, in Jesus' day called Caesarea Phillippi.
In this beautiful setting amidst the headwaters of the Jordan where he had been baptized, Jesus asks the question which is the hallmark of the spirituality of adoption: "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asks them. The question of identity: Who am I? This is not the place to go into a deep theological discussion about Jesus' intent in asking this question. Suffice it to say that more traditional theologians will avoid controversy and maintain that Jesus asked the question rhetorically -- simply to elicit a response of faith in him as Messiah and God, a response that Peter gives. These theologians avoid the other side of the coin though. they do not want to consider the possibility that the question was not rhetorical -- that Jesus was honestly seeking an answer. After all if Jesus is who Christians claim him to be -- meaning that Joseph was not his father then isn't it possible that Jesus was seeking validation for his suspicions about his own origins. And if Jesus can ask the question and demand an answer, why shouldn't we also conclude then that the question of identity is essential to our humanity. This is why secrecy and closed records in adoption is not only a breach of civil rights -- but an evil, because it deliberately sets out to hinder an individual from pursuing what is innately human -- to know himself through his personal history and kinship connection. "The complete loss of one's identity is with all propriety of theological definition hell in diminished forms it is insanity."
A pilgrimage of the adopted then is a sacrament of everyman's journey toward the place he belongs, pulled by his weight to his proper place. The spirituality of adoption encourages us to accept the proposition that we can and do belong to two families, to two sets of parents, we belong in two places at the same time. The spirituality of adoption teaches us the great truth that adoption is not an either/or proposition, it is both/and. The spirituality of adopted is essentially religious because it encourages us to reunite previously separated parts. Like the mass discovered in neutrinos, the genetic pull in the adopted, is a powerful force that cannot be underestimated without doing severe harm to the individual.