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 this dangerous world I leapt:
Helpless, naked, piping loud:
Life a fiend hid in a cloud.
Struggling in my father’s hands,
Striving against my swaddling bands,
Bound and weary I thought it 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. Blake captures a lot in very few words, hidden inside some simple rhymes; but, as already confessed; I didn’t have a clue about any of this when I memorized this poem as a child.
The poem came back to me several years ago, after preaching a homily in a church. The Gospel for that Sunday was the story of Jesus’ baptism. The text runs like this: Jesus goes to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. John immerses him in the water, as Jesus re-emerges, his head breaks the water (an image of birth), 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 pretty straightforward: I simply told the congregation that, when we were baptized, the Father spoke the same words over each of us: “This is my beloved, in whom I am well-pleased!” 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. It had increased his anger and agitation, particularly so my homily. Here’s how he expressed his frustration: “I hated your homily because it wasn’t true! Nobody has ever been pleased by what I have done – least of all my own father!”
It’s no accident that this young man was going to prison; he 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 never blessed him, that is, either his father had never 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 to his father. In essence, this son had never been a major source of joy to his father, and that is a real absence that wounds.
Hunger for our father’s blessing is perhaps the deepest hunger in our world today. That’s an adage inside certain spirituality and anthropological circles today and the evidence for its truth is found in the body language in a room whenever the phrase is spoken aloud to a group, especially to a group of men.
And what happens when we aren’t sufficiently blessed by our own fathers? Mostly the effects are under the surface and not attributed to our fathers, unless we reach a certain level of conscious realization of how we are wounded. The absence of the father’s blessing is mostly felt inchoately, 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 in a low-grade depression that often drives persons into various combinations of acedia, obsession for achievement, and sex as a panacea. It can also have a very 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 your own father or the father-figures in your 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.
What’s the solution? How do we get this constriction off our hearts, if we haven’t been sufficiently blessed by our own fathers?
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. Thus, we cannot force anyone to bless us – but we can bless others. Wholeness and happiness lie there. Simply put, when we act like God, we get to feel like God … and God never suffers from anger and low-grade depression.