Saturday, January 24, 2009

"That Utterly Profound 'In-Loveness'"

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)


Anonymous said...

I think it's unhelpful to rely on stale, lazy neo-Freudian theories of sexual development, including the overbearing mother meme. It's odd when the Vatican suddenly opts for it in justifying the exclusion of gay folk from orders and religious life, and it's just as odd when gay folk imply it of opponents in turn.

One of the strongest weapons against that Vatican exclusion is its anomalous reliance on theories of sexual development it has rather steadfastly avoided embracing over many decades.

Freud appear to have had problems with women, and much of his work has borne misogynistic fruit (however unintended). Freudian theories of sexual development - which have oozed into popular culture in further debased form - should be discounted with silos of salt.

Michael J. Bayly said...


I think one can acknowledge the reality of overbearing mothers and not have it be dismissed as a "neo-Freudian theory."

The idea of the masculine and feminine energies having shadow sides pre-dates Freud. His own issues with women may well have made his work misogynistic, but that's not to say that what he was observing and experiencing should be totally discounted and dismissed.

I actually think both Freud and the Vatican are onto something when they talk about gay men often having overbearing mothers and distant fathers . . . BUT not in the way they think.

Such behavior on the part of the parents doesn't "cause" their offspring to be gay. Rather, I've heard it discussed that many of these mothers sensed that there was something different about their son - as did the fathers. In response, many of these mothers became over-protective and many of the fathers became stand-offish toward their "different" sons (and perhaps vice versa with their "different" daughters).

Thus the behavior of the parents was a response to the emerging homosexuality of their offspring, not a instigator of this emergence.

It's also important to remember that all this type of (in our eyes today) dysfunctional behavior took place in past times when society and the church were not at all open to accepting gay people. For some, this may not not excuse the reaction of the parents of gay people, but it certainly is helpful in explaining it.

Anyway, I find all this very interesting. And it's not about embracing Freudian theories but reexamining the original data, if you like, with contemporary eyes and a willingness to listen to the experiences of all involved in these types of situations - something that (from my, albeit, limited reading) Freud did not do, stuck as he was (and as you yourself acknowledge) in his own issues with women.