Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Spirituality of Adoption - Traverse City 1995

5th Biennial Conference on Open Adoption
The Spirit of Open Adoption
Traverse City, MI
May 2-6, 1995

The Spirituality of Adoption
Tom Brosnan

Part I

This presentation is entitled "The Spirituality of Adoption". I will attempt to explain through fiction, history, and personal experience what I understand spirituality and adoption to mean. I will suggest that unauthentic spirituality, based on the mode of thought called Dualism, has resulted in the unhealthy practice of closed adoption. And I hope to conclude with my idea of what an authentic spirituality of adoption might mean.

By way of introduction my name is Tom Brosnan. I am a Roman Catholic Priest from the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, where I presently live and work with Korean Catholics. I was adopted at six months of age, after being in a foster home since birth. Ten years ago, at 32, I searched and found my birth mother and her six other children. I have also found the man I believe to be my birth father, though he has denied it. This part of my story remains unresolved. My adoptive parents are still alive. We were one of those families who never spoke of adoption after my parents disclosed the secret to me when I was 12 years old (though I knew since I was 5).

Let me begin with something that happened to me about a year ago when my adoptive father had to undergo surgery. As we were about to leave the hospital the nurse gave me papers to sign where the doctor had written some instructions for administering medication. Later, at home, I gave the papers to my mother. Her eyes immediately traveled to the bottom of the page. She said in a tone of voice that I can never describe but know so well, that voice which always seemed to say: 'please, don't ask any questions, it just hurts me to think about it.' "Whose signature is this?"she asks. "It's mine," I say. "I'd never know it," she says. "I can make out the Thomas but the Brosnan is all scribbled." I sat there on the sofa next to her, my heart in my throat. I was 41 years old, though I felt I was 12 again. 'She's right,' I thought, 'I've been hiding my name all these years.' I felt incredibly guilty, like I had disavowed my parent's love. I was an ungrateful child, I was once again a bastard in both senses of the word. I hated feeling this way and immediately my mind sought ways to appease. I thought 'yes, tomorrow I could begin the process of changing my signature - the bankbooks, the credit cards, the city registry where clergy sign for the recording of weddings, the church accounts.' Then I thought: but this is my signature. But then I realized that if it were really mine, I wouldn't be calculating how to change it to please my mother. I just let her comment pass unanswered and explained the doctor's instruction, noticing his completely undecipherable signature.

A signature, of course, is a symbol for the name, and the name is in turn a symbol of the person. When I met my birthmother she told me that she had named me for her brother Tom, who coincidentally had also been a priest. But coincidences are strange and mysterious things. I was thinking of this a few weeks ago, the Sunday after Easter when we read at Mass the story of when the Risen Jesus appeared to the disciples, but Thomas was absent. It's from his refusal to believe the story he is told by the others that he is forever known as Doubting Thomas. "I'll never believe it," Thomas tells them, "without probing the nailprints in his hands, without putting my finger in the nail-marks and my hand into his side." That story resonates within me. It is a graphic story, it could, I suppose, be considered vulgar, after all to want to probe the wounds of someone else's body... But I think it's meant to be so. Thomas, you see, doesn't want to settle for a belief in ghosts, he's telling the others that if they want to settle for disembodied spirits, that's their business, but he'll have nothing to do with it. When Jesus appears again he indeed invites Thomas to explore his body, 'thrust yours hand into my wound,' Jesus says. "Do not persist in your unbelief, but believe."

Thomas, the one whose faith is born of doubt, demands evidence, not just stories. He wants a 'hands-on' experience. He's tired of believing in ghosts. This Easter I really felt I was properly named, finding affinity with the Doubting Thomas of the gospel. I think it is possible that every adoptee is a doubting Thomas, searching for 'real-life' experience. John Paul II has called the spiritual life the striving to embrace the divine filiation. In this, the very nature of the adopted experience is a spiritual one, because every adoptee desires to embrace real history, that is, a personal history originating in real sexual union between two flesh and blood individuals. Adoptees eventually get tired of fantasies. 'Please, no more ghosts,' we seem to be saying more often these days.

Thomas is, in a sense, a paradigm for what I understand authentic spirituality to mean. Spirituality is a task. It entails an undertaking, a pilgrimage. Spirituality is the journey we make of our lives. The objective of this pilgrimage is union with the divine. It is an adventure into the unknown territory of the holy. And holiness is Other-ness. This pilgrimage is simultaneously awe-filled, yet strangely and distantly familiar. "For now, St. Paul has said, "we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully..."

Spirituality is the work of belonging while somehow suspecting we also belong somewhere else. Philosophers and mystics have attributed this feeling to the fact, that although we are finite beings, living in a finite world, we long for the infinite, and that longing is itself evidence that we already know it in some way. Authentic spirituality strives to keep these two seemingly contradictory realities in balance: the need to be present to the here-and-now all the while suspecting we belong somewhere else. True Spirituality is the striving for union with the creator without divorcing ourselves from our created nature. It is the work of striving for balance, the task is to hold the tension.

Malcolm Muggeridge the British journalist, and socialist turned Christian in old age, had this to say about belonging:
"...the essence of (spirituality) is this sense that man has of not completely belonging here...almost the first thing I can remember as a conscious child," Muggeridge said, "was this feeling that somehow I didn't belong here, that here is not my home. It was only when I began to read Blake and Pascal and Tolstoy, that I understood the relation between (spirituality) and feeling a stranger in a strange land...If I could point to one single basic feeling out of which the structure of my mind and thought and belief grew, it would be this - that I do not belong here...The first thing I concluded about the world - and I pray it may be the last - is that I was a stranger in it..."

If authentic spirituality strives to hold the tension between belonging and feelings of not belonging, the experience of adoption is perhaps its most apt paradigm. Adoption by definition means to choose for - to choose a child for another family. While that family may indeed be beneficial for the child, the act of choosing, by definition, means to give up all other possibilities. Thus, adoption is always based on relinquishment, and relinquishment is, of course, what we want to forget. We tend to see, due to ignorance, propaganda, or deliberate choice, only one side of the coin. The reality is however, that every blessing which adoption may bring is founded on the terror every adoptee always experiences when taken from his mother.

Part II
I'd like to take a few minutes to explore some of the ways that I believe authentic spirituality and healthy adoption have been corrupted by what might be termed dualist thinking. Dualism seeks to reduce reality to an either/or certainty. It cannot deal with the ambivalence created by the two realities of a single phenomenon whether we are talking of nature and grace, matter and spirit, body and soul, thought and being, science and religion, or nature and nurture, heredity and environment. Dualist thinking refuses to acknowledge the importance or goodness of one side of the couplet. Instead of perceiving the interdependency nature and grace, body and soul, matter and spirit, science and religion, nature and nurture, dualism, through an appeal to secrecy, pits one aspect against the other. Thus the conjunction and is dropped and the couplet then reads nature vs.grace, body vs. soul, heredity vs. environment. In dualist thinking it must be either/or; it can never be both/and.

We can see the influence of dualist thinking in the specific history of christian spirituality in what are called the christological controversies. These were debates about the nature of Jesus of Nazareth. The orthodox position maintained that Jesus completely possessed both a divine and a human nature. He was both God and man, fully divine and completely human ("like us in all things but sin", as Catholics pray at Mass). Dualist thought generated many nuanced disagreements with this position. Uncomfortable in trying to hold the tension between what seemed two contradictory statements, the dualists opted for excluding the possibility of Jesus being both. One group, called Docetists, believed that while Jesus was fully divine, he only appeared to be human. This belief is associated with gnosticism as presented in gospels excluded from the Bible. In one such gnostic work the author points out that "Jesus never blinked, and he never left footprints when he walked." Thus, dualism's inability to hold the tension forced a denial of half the truth. The humanity of Jesus was sanitized to the point where all bodily functions became suspect. The world of matter was considered either unimportant or downright evil. It did not take long for this kind of thinking to translate itself into the lives of ordinary people. Here, dualist thinking sought to denigrate the body in order to glorify the soul. Matter was evil, spirit was good.

There are many examples of dualist thinking in christian morality. Origen, brilliant and balanced in so many ways, fell victim to this dualism when he castrated himself to avoid sexual sin. St. Augustine was a Manichee before he became a Christian. The Manichees taught that there was a dualist universe, good created by one god, evil by another. In the 13th century the Albigensians in southern France taught their followers that the material body was the devil's work, and denied belief in a bodily resurrection. And Puritans, the forefathers of American culture, were not named as such because they had any great esteem for the body either. Hawthorne captures the effects of this moral dualism so vividly in The Scarlet Letter. And if you had the opportunity to see the beautiful film a few years ago, Babette's Feast, about a great French chef who finds refuge with religious fundamentalists in a small fishing village in Denmark, you might agree that it is the same theme told again, but now through the metaphor of food and drink.

Dualist thinking, I would suggest, lies at the heart of sealed adoption records. Closed records necessitate secrecy, yet another result of dualist thinking. Gnosticism, what we might define as the religious practice of dualism, is the philosophy of secret knowledge. Simon Weil, a very perceptive observer of life once said: "It is secrecy that is everywhere the sole of is founded upon specialization. It is the condition of all privilege and consequently of all oppression."

The rationale behind sealed records is itself a dualism of sorts. On the one hand, adherents of closed records maintain that heredity has little or no bearing on human development; thus, it does not matter whether a person knows his genetic heritage or not. This argument is based on the long-disproved tenet of dualist thinking that a person is born tabula rasa, a blank slate. Environment will fill up that blank slate, creating the person, if you will, out of nothing.
Linda Cannon Burgess reiterates this in The Art of Adoption:
"Adoptions increased steadily in the 1960's...because psychology emphasized environment rather than child development. Parents saw the erase in their adopted children the hereditary components which, it was assumed, were of dubious quality...the personality and character of their adopted children could be molded and the children would be as if born to them."

On the other hand, it could be argued, that adherents of closed records realize more than anyone else the importance of genetics, for they must employ absolute secrecy in order to ensure that vital information remains hidden, especially from those it purports to protect. This secrecy can so detrimentally affect the person it is keeping the secret from that he will believe anything so as not to question the lies necessary to keep the secret.

When I finished my BA in history I applied to teach in the NYC school system, which required a physical examination from Board of Ed doctors. I remember sitting in front of a doctor who asked me a detailed medical history of my family. Without questioning myself I proceeded to give the medical history of my adoptive family. Years later, after I found my mother, I told my parents this story expecting to make the point that secrecy and sealed records had dangerous results. Instead of seeing the absurdity of my response, my father told me that he heard somewhere that you could get heart disease from working with people with type A personalities. A hallmark of dualism is the willingness to go to extremes to preserve an either/or certainty.

The disavowal of the body, the suppression of the reality of flesh and blood, race and genes, is seldom done in a consciously violent manner. Rather, it is almost always couched in pleasant and even noble terms. A woman who gives away her baby is said to have performed an act of love. The infertile couple have made a great sacrifice and have reached out in selfless love to save a poor waif. The assumption is, of course, that love makes all things right; that, regardless of what you might define love to be, so long as you use the word, there can be no appeal to truth or justice. As Robert Andersen asks in his book Second Choice: "Does this mean that love can eradicate biology?" Dualist thinking answers an unequivocal 'Yes". So ingrained is this dualist thinking that the adopted and their families can easily believe what is obviously absurd to others. Regarding this assault on common sense and proven fact, adopted persons cannot sit on the fence. They will either concur with such theories by their silence, or enter the fray demanding records to be opened, upholding the right to know the truth of their origins. There can be no neutrality here.

But selective blindness is not limited to the adoptee or adoptive parent. Just last week I heard an extraordinary story which I wouldn't have believed if I didn't know the people involved. A young woman in her early twenties, who still lived at home with her parents and older brother, became pregnant by her boyfriend. Her parents did not know she was dating and the young woman could not find the courage to tell her parents she was pregnant. Despite the fact that her mother was a registered nurse the girl managed to keep her pregnancy a total secret until the day she gave birth at full term. Her mother came home to discover her in labor. The young woman kept this a total secret telling absolutely no one. Despite the fact that she worked in a hospital, she sought no medical attention. Concern in the family over her increasing weight was satisfied with explanations of too much stress and diet. My sister, a friend of the young woman's aunt, told me she was swimming with this young woman the day before she gave birth. While pregnant the young woman had continued to wear extra large shirts as she always had done when swimming. Looking back, my sister admitted, the thought of pregnancy occurred to her, but she shut it out of her mind as an impossibility, because she was told that the young woman,an was very shy and had no boyfriend.

What prevents us from seeing the obvious, I would suggest, is the deep need we have of feeling comfortable. Dualist thinking, the appeal to either/or certainty, affords us that protection against the unpleasant, until of course the truth can no longer be contained and it bursts forth, as the gospel records of Jesus' birth: "Mary's confinement," St Luke says, "had come to an end."

On the psychological level dualist thinking results in problems of identity. If the adopted cannot know their genetic identity, their literal birth right, then they must rely only on environmental aspects of their existence to help them understand their place in the scheme of things.

Fr. John Courtney Murray, perhaps the most important American Catholic theologian to date, once wrote the following about the importance of identity:
"Self-understanding is the necessary condition of a sense of self-identity and self-confidence...the peril is great...the complete loss of one's identity, is, with all propriety of theological definition, hell. In diminished forms, it is insanity."

Hell and insanity are the risks we run when we will not permit the truth to be explored. Whenever speaking of this concept I think of the true story a priest once told me when he was visiting a home for emotionally disturbed adolescents in Brooklyn. The priest walked into the home and heard a young man singing the Irish ballad Danny Boy. The young man had his back to the priest. When he had finished, the priest went and patted the young man on the shoulder thanking him for such a beautiful rendition of the song. The boy quickly turned to the priest revealing an Asian face. The priest instinctively laughed: "I'm sorry" he said, "I thought you were Irish." The boys eyes filled with tears, and he angrily responded: "I am Irish, my name's Michael O'Brien."
"The complete loss of one's identity, is, with all propriety of theological definition, hell. In diminished forms it is insanity."

Part III
What then will save us from this hell, this insanity, this dualist dependency on either/or certainty? We need to begin by reminding ourselves and others that as adopted persons we belong in two places. We have two sets of parents, our biological inheritance is not dispensable from the totality of who we are. Indeed the evidence continues to mount regarding the dominant importance of genetics. In one of the Upanishads the mystery of belonging and not belonging is told:
"The father said to his son: 'Place this salt in water and then come to me in the morning.' The son did as he was told. The father said to him: 'My son, bring me the salt which you placed in the water last night.' Looking for it, the son did not find it, for it was completely dissolved. The father said: 'My son, take a sip of the water from the surface. How is it?' 'It is salt.' 'Take a sip from the middle. How is it?' 'It is salt, ' the son said. 'Take a sip from the bottom. How is it?' 'It is salt.' 'Throw it away and come to me,' the father said. The son did as he was told, saying: 'The salt was there all the time.' "

Genes are very small, but they are us. Sometimes the invisible realities of heredity far outweigh in importance the more visible effects of environment. When Michelangelo was asked how he created such beautiful sculptures, he said he did not really create them, he looked at the stone he was about to chisel and determined that his task as an artist was to free the form already present in the stone. Discovery sometimes is more important than invention.

The road to discovery of self is the essence of true spirituality. It is the sacred pilgrimage that each of us takes within. Self-knowledge is essential. But it can be a terrifying experience. St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic talked of 'the dark night of the soul,' which he taught was itself a sign of the divine presence.

Humility is truth. Accepting yourself as you are. At the time of his death Abraham Lincoln believed himself to be illegitimate, his close friend wrote. Lincoln himself had written to his friend about the illegitimacy of his own mother Nancy Hanks and how it had affected him:
"...I'll tell you something," Lincoln wrote, " but keep it a secret while I live. My mother was a bastard, was the daughter of a nobleman so called of Virginia. My mother's mother was poor and credulous...and she was shamefully taken advantage of by the man. My mother inherited his qualities and I hers. All that I am or hope ever to be I got from my mother, God bless her. Did you never notice that bastards are generally smarter, shrewder, and more intellectual than others? Is it because it is stolen?"

Lincoln was correct in claiming that his mother was born illegitimate. Ironically there are some historians who now believe that Abraham Lincoln himself was not the son of Thomas Lincoln, but the result of an affair between his mother and an unidentified man from the South.

Authentic spirituality is equivalent to what the theologian von Balthasar meant by true religion: "the rebonding of previously separated parts." The adopted must face the twofold truth that they truly belong to their adopted families as well as their birth families. Settling for the dualist solution, either this family or that, is not the path toward peace. Rather, the willingness to hold onto this ambivalence is perhaps the key to the ultimate union of body and soul.

Part IV
The role of search and reunion is a hallmark of the spirituality of adoption. Whether reunion is accomplished is not as important as the effort, the willingness to embrace the uncertain, the unknown. It is taking that step into darkness which is the beginning of health, wholeness, integrity, and I would suggest even holiness. In this the adopted are sacraments of everyman's spiritual journey - willing to face the awe‑ful and fearful black hole of inner space.
Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit-mystic-scientist described his experience of the inner journey:
"And so, for the first time in my life perhaps (although I am supposed to meditate every day) 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 depths of the night: 'Ego sum, nolo timere - It is I, be not afraid.'"

Oliver Sacks, the doctor who was the subject of the movie Awakenings, once said that the more he studies the neurological impairments of human beings the more he is convinced that the ODD in nature is the rule rather than the exception. In the program made for PBS entitled A Glorious Accident, six interviews with famous scientists and philosophers explored the basic question of human existence. The title of the series comes from the extended explanation one of the biologists offered for the emergence of man in evolution. Stephen Jay Gould described the many contingencies that had to have occurred for man to emerge. Contingency is rendered accident. This seems to me to be a good example of the present situation some have called existential angst, the fear of non existence, of nothingness beyond this life. It is, I believe, a parallel to the adoptee's often expressed feeling of being a mistake, that he is here simply by chance and not by design. I was trying to accurately translate the title Glorious Accident for a sermon in Korean. The more I thought about it, given the syntactical differences between Korean and English, the more convinced I became that it must be translated as a contingent glory rather than a glorious accident. A matter of semantics? Perhaps, but perhaps evidence that Heisenberg's theory applies to more than physics. You remember, Heisenberg contended that absolute objectivity was impossible. The moment I, as a subject, observe the object, I affect the very thing I observe. Perhaps its the same with understanding our place in the universe, perhaps my perspective makes all the difference in the world - at the least the difference between being a glorious accident and a contingent glory.

Walker Percy in his novel The Moviegoer seems to have touched on this idea. It is a story about a man who is searching for meaning in life. It takes place in 1960 in New Orleans over the course of the week which ends on Ash Wednesday. Near the end of the novel the main character is sitting with a friend in his car in front of a church. He notices a car driven by a black man pull up behind them.
"A florid new Mercury pulls up behind us and a Negro gets out and goes into the church. He is more respectable than respectable; he is more middle-class than one could believe: his Archie More mustache, the way he turns and, seeing us see him, casts a weather eye at the sky; the way he plucks a handkerchief out of his rear pocket with a flurry of his coattail and blows his nose in a magic placative gesture (as if to say) (you see, I have been here before; it is a routine matter)...
...(Later) he has come outside. His forehead is an ambiguous sienna is impossible to be sure that he received ashes. When he gets in his Mercury, he does not leave immediately but sits looking down at something on the seat beside him. A sample case? An insurance manual? I watch him closely in the rearview mirror. It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for one and receiving the other as God's own importunate bonus?
It is impossible to say."

Am I, the relinquished adopted person, a mistake, an accident, or like the main character of a recent novel with adoption themes, The Truth about Marvin Kalish, born to carry on the line that will give the world the Messiah. Delusions of grandeur, or some "dim dazzling trick of grace." Dualism suggests that it can only be delusions of grandeur or God's will. But perhaps it is both. After all, the physicists tells us that light is both wave and particle. Could God be using a trick or two; perhaps the trick is itself a grace. Are contingencies themselves the evidence of the divine presence. Like Walker Percy, I find it impossible to say.

If search and reunion are the hallmarks of adoption spirituality, then courage is its most splendid virtue: courage to search,all the while fearing what that search will bring, but searching nevertheless. I started this talk with reference to my mother choosing my name Thomas. "I named you for my brother," she said. But perhaps in the mysterious workings of providence - the contingencies of life - I have received a wonderful clue to true identity. Perhaps I have become my name - the Doubting Thomas of the gospel who wants a hand-on experience. No more ghosts, but real bodies, with scars that signify real wounds.

In the gospels, whenever Thomas is mentioned by name, he is given the epithet "The Twin", in Greek "Didymus". Since I am an adopted Thomas, always wanting to find out more about who I am, I looked up "Didymus" in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, for the times when "Didymus" appeared. It appears only once, in the Book of Deuteronomy, where it is used not as a name of a person, but as a euphemism for a man's genitals, specifically his testicles, or as the old Catholic translation rendered it, a man's secrets. Thomas, it occurred to me could then be translated as the one with balls. Too graphic? Perhaps. Vulgar? Maybe... but sometimes, in order to fight the influence of dualist thinking that views the body with such abhorrence, we need to exaggerate, so that we might arrive at that proper balance of nature and grace, body and soul, matter and spirit, thought and being, heredity and environment which is at the heart of an authentic spirituality of adoption.

Thank you for your kind attention.

No comments:

Post a Comment