A selection of finalists for the 2008 Archibald Prize is currently on display in Port Macquarie. Included is the 2008 winner of the prestigious Archibald Prize, Del Kathryn Barton’s “You Are What is Most Beautiful About Me: A Self Portrait with Kell and Arella.”
About her winning work, Barton says:
This painting celebrates the love I have for my two children and how my relationship with them has radically informed and indeed transformed my understanding of who I am. The title of the work – you are what is most beautiful about me – alludes to that utterly profound ‘in-loveness’ that all mothers have for their children. Both my children have taken my world by storm and very little compares to the devotion I feel for them both. The intensity of this emotion is not something that I could have prepared myself for. The alchemy of life offered forth from my inhabitable woman’s body is perhaps the greatest gift of my life.
I think Barton’s powerful words also describe God’s love for humanity. The Christian tradition, after all, tells us that we are “children of God.” Unlike some religious folks, I have no problem imaging God as “mother.” Indeed, I resonate with the words attributed to Pope John Paul I: “God is both father and mother – but more mother than father.”
I am also mindful of the Roman Catholic understanding of church as “Mother Church.” Yet this seems to me to be a very different kind of mother than that described so beautifully by Del Kathryn Barton. “Mother Church” has always seemed to me to be insecure, smothering, and overly controlling – qualities more reflective, I’d say, of the mothering experienced by many of the men in charge of the church, than of other more healthy expressions and experiences of mothering.*
I think one hallmark of good psychological and spiritual health is an openness to growth and change. (I recall how the Desert Fathers and Mothers understood sin primarily as the refusal to grow!) Barton seems to me to be a very healthy individual and mother. I’d even go so far to say that I believe she has a truer sense and thus a more truthful articulation of what it means to be a mother than do the clerics of the Roman church. Her observation, for instance, of “that utterly profound ‘in-loveness’ that all mothers have for their children” is simply wonderful and beautiful.
It’s an “in-loveness” that, like any authentic love, opens all those involved to radical transformation. Thus Barton can say that “my relationship with [my children] has radically informed and indeed transformed my understanding of who I am.” Here again is another significant difference between a real mother’s awareness of what it means to be a mother, and the Church’s. We only need to observe the Church’s (lack of) understanding and treatment of its female and gay “children” to realize the profound lack of relationship it has with these groups and its utter unwillingness to have its self-understanding and teachings informed and transformed by them or by any healthy and respectful relationship with them.
It’s all very tragic and dysfunctional, wouldn’t you say?
* Such negative qualities represent the shadow side of feminine energy. Sadly, these qualities have been embodied for generations by some women, more often than not out of sheer frustration and despair at the oppression of patriarchy and the shadow side of masculine energy – conquest and domination. I don’t think it’s an over-generalization to say that many “mama’s boys” from these same generations became priests, and that many of these, in turn, perpetuated this unhealthy expression of mothering through their fixation on a warped understanding of “mother church.” It’s an understanding that, sadly, has been almost deified – and certainly codified into the church’s self-understanding.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Voices of Parental Authority and Wisdom
The Bishops’ “Guidelines” – A Parent’s Response
Catholic Rainbow (Australian) Parents
Grandma Knows Best
Elizabeth Johnson and Images of God (Part 1)
Elizabeth Johnson and Images of God (Part 2)