Dear Souls & Hearts Community,
Over the last four weekly reflections, we’ve been discussing parents, and in particular unexpressed parental love, parents who implicitly deny any wrongdoing in raising their children, parents who avoid their own shame (using their children in the process), and parents who don’t love their children.
Those weekly reflections raise a question. Why? Why does God allow for so much bad parenting to happen? Isn’t God supposed to love us? Why does he allow abuse, neglect, and so many lesser parental failures to harm little, defenseless, children? Why?
And why does God allow earthly parents not only to perpetrate harm (sometimes grievous harm) on their children — not only when He knows the effects in the natural realm, but also when He knows the impact on those children’s God images, how they come to understand Him as Father? Episodes 23-29 of the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast review the many ways that harmful parental experiences distort our understanding of God as Father at an experiential level.
Underneath the atheism of so many nonbelievers lies so much injury from natural parents, which contributes to a repudiation of God’s existence — the rejection of God as Father. Why does God permit that? What good could there possibly be in allowing parents to harm and even traumatize their children?
Today, we are going to address that question in a straightforward, direct way. We are going to avoid using words like “mystery” and “inscrutable” and “acceptance” and “others’ free will” and “humility” and “offer it up…” Those who have experienced trauma can often find such language dismissive and unhelpful – they often want a much more honest and engaged discussion, not spiritual bypassing. That honest and forthright discussion is exactly what I want to provide you in this week’s reflection.
Underestimating two important realities…
Catholics generally underestimate two important realities.
First, Catholics greatly underestimate how much impact parents have on their children. Parents have an almost indescribably powerful impact on the formation of their children, both in the natural realm and in the spiritual realm. Even with recent advances in awareness of the wide-ranging impact of early childhood experiences, we grossly underestimate how much formative power parents have. Catholics still say things like, “Well that [insert whatever negative event] happened so early in her life, that she won’t remember it.” Nonsense.
Second, Catholics wildly underestimate how much transformation can happen in their human and spiritual formation. So many Catholics do not see how radically different their lives could be if they overcame the natural and spiritual impediments to their formation. Their lack of hope consigns them to accept, however grudgingly, their current situation as more or less permanent, “just the cross I have to bear,” even when their current situation can be radically transformed.
One can understand the reasons for this lack of confidence in the possibility of radical transformation. It has an intellectual pedigree. Freud believed in psychic determinism – the idea that previous events and experiences determine what one does and doesn’t do; Watson and Skinner were psychologists whose behavioral psychology was dominated by a philosophy of physical determinism. There is no room for free will in these deterministic models. And these forms of determinism have had detrimental effects in individuals and our culture, including the fostering of victim mentality.
And the more potent of these two underestimated realities, the impact of parents on formation, and the radical power of transformation is the latter. The radical power of transformation trumps the impact of parents on formation. I have seen this as a clinician in the last two decades time after time. I often use the analogy of a line, going back to the formula y = mx + b, which you may or may not remember from your junior high mathematics classes.
The formula for a line his two important variables: 1) the intercept, the noted by b, which corresponds to your family environment, including the experiences from the parents you were given; and 2) the slope, denoted by m, which represents your decisions and choices over time. Over time, the slope (m) – representing your freely willed choices, has so much more influence than your starting point (b) in determining where you wind up (denoted by y) over time (denoted by x).
The reason that is not so widely known or accepted is that so few Catholics, proportionally speaking, have a significantly positive slope. We do not have (relatively speaking) that many examples of people who radically overcame disadvantageous families of origin. Many people do not have the experience of relationship with someone who has undergone a radical transformation and that contributes to an assumption that it is impossible. But that radical transformation is promised to us in the Gospel.
Who is your Mama? Who is your Daddy?
I have made the point in previous weekly reflections that our primary parents are God the Father, and the Blessed Virgin Mary, our Mother. Our natural parents, our earthly parents run a distant second. In fact, there is a greater distance between our spiritual parents and our natural parents than there is between our natural parents and whoever babysat us when we were growing up. I mean that. And we need our spiritual parents far, far more than we need our natural parents.
Before time began, God knew every mistake your natural parents would make, every inadequacy in the way they related with you, every lack of attunement, every sin they would commit. And He had a plan – a plan in his Providence that would make greater good come from every one of your parents’ missteps than if your parents had been perfect.
Remember, our God is a jealous God (see Deuteronomy 5:9; 6:15) — He does not want His role as your primary Father usurped by your secondary father, your natural father. There is no way that your natural parents could provide you anything like what God the Father and Mary our Mother can give to you – and there’s so much parenting that they were not supposed to provide, as it was reserved for God and Mary. As powerful as your natural parents’ impact on your human formation and development is, it is dwarfed by the potential for transformation offered by your spiritual parents.
But here’s the kicker: we have to let God the Father and Mary our Mother love us, we have to let them re-parent us.The wounds and the injuries and the unresolved traumas from our natural parents are experiential. Those wounds, injuries, and unresolved parental traumas can be healed by the experience of love from God the Father and Mary our spiritual Mother. If we allow God to be our primary Father and Mary to be our primary Mother, we will get all the re-parenting we need – and not just in the spiritual realm, but in the natural realm as well.
Secular approaches to re-parenting
This need for re-parenting has been recognized by many mental health professionals for decades. There has been an intuitive knowing that we need more parenting, different parenting, better parenting. This Wikipedia article briefly recounts the history of re-parenting in psychotherapy over the last 50 years.
Most recently, the Ideal Parent Figure (IPF) protocol has been popularized by Daniel Brown and David Elliott. In essence, the protocol invites the client to imagine perfect parents, parents who can attune and understand his or her needs in an exquisitely sensitive and accurate way. Then, the client goes through painful memories, substituting his or her idealized parents for his or her natural parents, and imagining how the idealized parents would have handled negative situations differently. This is believed to have a healing effect.
The Psychotherapy.net article by Heather Clague, MD titled “Imagining the Way to Self-Compassion Using the Ideal Parent Figure Protocol” gives a good summary of the Ideal Parent Figure protocol. Preliminary pilot study here suggests that it has impressive potential for helping to resolve complex PTSD. For the more daring, you can check out this 11-minute video of Daniel Brown demonstrating the Ideal Parent Figure Protocol. I find the use of the chimes and gongs and background music very distracting, but this video gives a very good representation of what the process looks like. Be warned, however – the experiential exercise could be activating for some Catholics and personally, I find it a little creepy and weird. Nevertheless, there may well be some value in hearing Daniel Brown’s attributes of a perfect father and a perfect mother.
The psychological advantage of being Catholic…
My question about the Ideal Parental Figure Protocol is this: Why do we Catholics need to imagine perfect parents when we already have them in God the Father and Mary our Mother?
We do not have to do this work in our imagination. We Catholics have a huge advantage over non-Catholics in that we already believe in a perfect Father and a perfect Mother. We do not have to make them up in fantasy, we do not have to just imagine them. And moreover, we are supposed to be re-parented by our primary parents. Let me make that case in four points.
- We are supposed to accept and embrace God as our Father and let Him love and heal us. God reveals himself as our Father repeatedly in Scripture. Here are just a few examples:
- 1 John 3:1 See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.
- Matthew 6:6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
- Matthew 6:26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
- Matthew 10:29-31 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.
- Luke 12:32 Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
- When Jesus taught us to pray, the opening words to address God were: “Our Father…” (see Matthew 6:9)
- And there are many, many more occurrences in the Bible where God describes himself as our Father and in the Catholic Catechism of the Catholic Church (see paragraphs 2279 to 2793)
- We are supposed to accept and embrace Mary as our spiritual Mother. For centuries, the Church has taught us the Mary is not only the Mother of God, but she is our Mother as well. As Grace MacKinnon wrote in her online article, Mary is Our Mother, Looking first at Scripture, the principal basis for the doctrine of Mary as Spiritual Mother of all humanity is found in the Gospel of John. In this scene, Mary is at Calvary at the foot of the Cross with John, the beloved disciple. John tells us, “When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold your mother‘” (John 19: 26-27). Throughout the Church’s history, numerous popes, theologians, and writers have confirmed their belief that here John is symbolic of all humanity. In other words, that Jesus from the Cross gave His Mother to every human person for all time.
- We are supposed to join the Holy Family and live family life with Jesus, our Brother. Time and time again, in Scripture and in the Catechism, we learn that Jesus is indeed our brother. Not in some abstract, metaphorical sense. In a real sense. In the most real sense.
- Mark 3:34-35 And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”
- John 20:17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
- Romans 8:29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
- Hebrews 2: 11-12 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 469 The Church thus confesses that Jesus is inseparably true God and true man. He is truly the Son of God who, without ceasing to be God and Lord, became a man and our brother.
- We are supposed to be like little children. In episode 30 (“How Small and Childlike are We Supposed to Be?) and episode 35 (“Being Both Big and Small”) of the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast, I emphasize how important it is for us to be very, very small children, very little children of God and Mary. Much younger than we generally imagine. And again, we are taught in so many ways that we must be little:
- Matthew 19:14 Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”
- Matthew 18:3 [Jesus] said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
How do we embrace our identity as a son or daughter of God and Mary?
We embrace our identity as a child of God and a child of Mary primarily through prayer and the sacraments. We need the lived experience of intimate relationship to correct the negative, distorting, experiences of the limited parenting we received from our secondary parents, our natural parents. And I’m not talking about the automatic, mindless recitation of vocal prayers. I’m talking about prayer as entering into the Father-child or Mother-child relationship. It means overcoming the deficits and the distortions in our natural, human formation, to free us to more deeply connect in intimacy with God and Mary.
We need to accept the love of God our Father and Mary our Mother and that’s hard. The difficulty in accepting love was the central focus of my last Interior Integration for Catholics podcast episode, number 96, titled I Am a Rock: How Trauma Hardens us Against Being Loved. So many times, we have parts that would rather our God be our “co-pilot,” our second-in-command, subordinate to us, rather than our Father.
Embracing God’s fatherhood, and Mary’s motherhood is what the Resilient Catholics Community is all about. It’s all about overcoming the natural-level human formation issues that can hinder us from a deeper, more intimate and personal relationship with God and Mary. If you find these weekly reflections thought-provoking and helpful, check out our RCC landing page and come join us in the adventure of the RCC.
Written resources to help us accept and embrace God as our Father and Mary as our Mother
Below are the best written resources I’ve been able to find to help people with the conceptual aspects of more deeply entering in to your identity as a son or daughter of God and Mary.
Personal Prayer: A Guide for Receiving the Father’s Love by Fr. Thomas Acklin, OSB and Fr. Boniface Hicks, OSB – this is an amazing book for those who want guidance in personal prayer, written by spiritual directors who are masters of the interior life.
My Ideal: Jesus Son of Mary by Fr. Emile Neubert – this little volume contains so many gems of wisdom about how Mary is our primary Mother, our spiritual Mother.
Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence by Fr. Jean Baptiste Saint Jure, SJ and St. Claude de la Columbiere, SJ – this thin volume expresses in such clear terms God’s fatherly love for each of us.
The Way of Trust and Love by Fr. Jacques Philippe – in this thin book, Fr. Philippe introduces us to spiritual childhood as understood by the Doctor of the Church, St. Therese of Lisieux.
Spiritual Childhood by Fr. Vernon Johnson — this is a much more developed and complete understanding of spiritual childhood as understood by the Little Flour, St. Therese of Lisieux.
Life of the Beloved by Fr. Henri Nouwen — this volume lays out how much God loves each of us, considering each of us His “beloved.”
Why Does God Permit Evil? By Dom Bruno Webb – this book has been the best explanation of the coexistence of evil and God’s providence that I have ever encountered
Romans 5:20 …where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.
So, to go back to our original question, Why? Why did God allow parents’ mistakes, sins, dysfunction, even abuse and neglect? Because he can use all of those to draw us nearer to him. So often I have seen that the more substandard the natural parenting, the greater the hunger for God as Father and Mary as Mother. So many times, if the earthly parents would have done a better job, there would not have been as much motivation to find God the Father and Mary our Mother. With bad natural parenting, Romans 8:28 still applies: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. God only allowed the bad things in the parenting to happen in order to draw greater good from them, good that would not have been otherwise possible. It takes the virtue of faith to believe that, and many do not have that faith because they have not sought it.
Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,
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