This got me thinking about the whole concept of “Mother Church” and my own Mum (pictured at right) and the relationship we share. It’s a relationship that I can honestly (and gratefully) say is very “meaningful” – and one that, accordingly, the institutional church could learn from.
First, this “Mother Church” business. As I’ve noted previously, the figure of “Mother Church” has always seemed to me to be insecure, smothering, and overly controlling – qualities more reflective, I believe, of the mothering experienced by many of the men in charge of the church, than of other more healthy expressions and experiences of mothering.
Such negative qualities represent the shadow side of the feminine energy force. 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 the masculine energy force – a shadow side manifested in attitudes and actions of 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.
And now for something more meaningful. I’m going to share a very special memory I have of my mother. It’s to do with a time when she beautifully embodied what I’ve since come to understand as good psychological and spiritual health, i.e., a trusting openness to questions and situations that while challenging and uncomfortable, may well serve to help us discover something more about God's loving presence within the complex reality of human life.
It was sometime in the late 1970s. My brothers and I were finishing our homework at the kitchen table of our home in Gunnedah as Mum worked nearby preparing dinner. Dad would soon be home from work and in a short time we’d be sharing our evening meal together – Mum, Dad, my two brothers, and I. A small TV on a corner shelf was broadcasting the 6:00 o’clock (Australian) national news, and the story being highlighted caught my attention immediately. A gay rights event had taken place in Sydney earlier that day, and the news report was showing a “kiss-in” involving a number of male couples. Various people passing by were interviewed, and what I remember most about their responses was the overwhelming sense of disgust that they conveyed.
Now, as a child I had quite a distinct awareness that I was different from other boys. The things that interested my brothers and other boys my age, weren’t of interest to me. Furthermore, I was very much drawn to certain male pop stars and male figures on TV that other boys I knew simply weren’t attracted to in the least. As a result, I had learned at an early age to censor myself when it came to many of the things that interested and excited me. With guardedness, however, comes a certain heightened awareness, and I was very much aware that stories like the one on the news that night made me uncomfortable; made me nervous. If my family or people I knew were to ever find out about my “different” thoughts and interests, would they convey the same disgust that was being depicted on our kitchen TV? Perhaps “nervous” wasn’t the right word to describe what I was feeling. No, I was scared. But I was also intensely curious, as with a dread fascination I sought to discern my mother’s reaction to what we were watching.
Mum’s response was not what I expected. They say things are terribly distorted when living in the closet, and so maybe I really did think that my Mum would ridicule or denounce the kissing men on the TV screen. I've since become much more aware of my mother’s loving interest in people’s stories and journeys; in the many and varied ways that people, couples, and families struggle along together in order to reach states of well-being and deepest truth. Mum’s response to what we were seeing on the telly was decidedly non-judgmental. I’m not sure if she even said anything. It was more of a quiet gesture, an expression – one that conveyed an openness to the complexities of life, and the reality that the answers to all sorts of things – including what we were viewing on TV – are still unfolding.
In retrospect, it was exactly what a deep part of me needed to have acknowledged and validated. And who better than my Mum to do this? It seems obvious, but I’m well aware that not all gay people receive this kind of loving guidance and support from their parents. I remain incredibly grateful that I did receive such guidance and support.
Openness, Trust, and Nurturance
In time, I became more aware of this quality of openness in both my parents. I think it’s always been there to some extent. How it came to be is, of course, a story that only they can tell. What I can confidently say – and I can thank my Catholic theological education for this – is that this quality of openness that I recognize in my parents embodies for them (and for others too, I’ve discovered) a trust that God – or, in other words, love – is capable of being present and active in all aspects of life. It’s also a quality that, thankfully, protects against narrow and exclusionary expressions of religion (including, sadly, certain expressions of Roman Catholicism), while emphasizing and inspiring the inclusive love of God that is at the heart of the life and “good news” of Jesus. That’s how this quality of openness certainly worked for my family. And, again, I’m deeply grateful for this.
In short, my Mum’s response to the news story about the Sydney “kiss-in,” served – no doubt unbeknownst to her at the time – to keep the windows of possibility open for this frightened and hesitant little gay boy. And through these windows nurturing rays of hope shone. I am a better, more lovingly aware gay man for such nurturance. And, in large measure, I have my Mum and Dad to thank for that.
Now if only “Mother Church” could learn a thing or two from my Mum!
Above: Mum, preparing a pavlova in the kitchen
of our Gunnedah home - January 1987.
of our Gunnedah home - January 1987.
To read my 1996 "coming out" letter to my parents – and their response to it, click here.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
• A Mother’s Day Prayer
• Happy Birthday, Mum!
• Congratulations, Mum and Dad!
• One of These Boys . . .
• A Lesson from Play School
• Catholic Rainbow (Australian) Parents
• In the Footsteps of Spring
• The Origins of Mother’s Day
Image 1: Mum – January 2010.
Image 2: The Bayly family – January 1984. (From left: me, my older brother Chris, Mum, Dad, and my younger brother Tim.)
Image 3: Mum and Dad – January 2010.