By Fr. Ron Rolheiser
When I was in elementary school, we were made to memorize a number of poems by William Blake. We didn't understand them, but they had a wonderful jingle to them, were easy to commit to memory, and remain branded inside me to this day.
One of those was a piece entitled “Infant Sorrow.”
My mother groaned! my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I leapt:
Helpless, naked, piping loud,
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
Struggling in my father’s hands,
Striving against my swaddling bands,
Bound and weary I thought best
To sulk upon my mother’s breast.
Whole books on anthropology, psychology and spirituality could be written on this poem: our struggle for our father's blessing, our ambivalence in separating from our mothers, the constriction this creates in our hearts, our inevitable slide into depression as adults and the impact this has on our spiritual lives.
The poem came back to me several years ago after preaching a homily. The Gospel for that Sunday was the story of Jesus' baptism. As Jesus’ head breaks the water, the heavens open, and the Father's voice is heard to say: "This is my beloved, in whom I am well-pleased!"
The point I made in my homily was that, when we were baptized, the Father spoke the same words over each of us. Those should have been safe words; they weren't.
Immediately after the service a young man affronted me, agitated and upset about my homily. He shared that he was out of prison on bail, awaiting sentencing. He had come to Mass that Sunday to try to ready himself to face what awaited him, but the service had the opposite effect.
He said he hated my homily because it wasn't true. Nobody had ever been pleased by what he had done, least of all his father. This young man had not been blessed by his own father.
Like the narrator in the Blake poem, he was "struggling" in his father's hands. His own father, unlike God the Father, had either not been present enough to him and truly interested in him, or he had been unable to take delight in his son's person and energy so as to give him the assurance that he was neither a threat nor a disappointment.
In essence, this son had never been a major source of joy to his father, and that is a real absence that wounds.
Absence of delight
Hunger for our father's blessing is perhaps the deepest hunger in our world today. That's especially evident whenever the phrase is spoken aloud to a group, especially to a group of men.
The absence of the father's blessing is mostly felt inchoately. It’s a thirst, a constriction of the heart, an absence of delight and a sense of never quite measuring up. This often finds expression in anger, distrust of authority and a low-grade depression that often drives persons into various combinations of despair, obsession for achievement and sex as a panacea.
It can also have a negative impact on people religiously. There's an axiom in Freudian thought that suggests that most anger directed at institutionalized religion is anger directed at our own father or the father-figures in our life.
That helps explain why so many people who have had little or no meaningful relationship to organized religion are angry at religion and the churches.
Christian spirituality teaches us that we receive by giving. We attain things by giving them away, as the famous Prayer of St. Francis puts it.
We cannot make ourselves happy, but we can help make others happy. We cannot force anyone to bless us, but we can bless others. Wholeness and happiness lie there. When we act like God, we get to feel like God — and God never suffers from anger and low-grade depression.
Posted June 26, 2013