This week I was fortunate to spend several days learning with and from the Franciscan contemplative and spiritual writer, Richard Rohr. The conversations were riveting, and topics ranged from the spiritual practice of contemplation to the cosmic Christ. Sooner or later, our discussions always came back around to the questions: “What is the role of the church? How does the church transform lives?”
These recurring questions led Richard Rohr to bring up the relationship of a new mother to her baby child. Pediatricians tell us that when a mother nurses her child, two important things occur, one hormonal and the other psychological. Hormonally, oxytocin is released in the mother’s milk and in the mother’s own brain. This is the same swooning hormone released when we fall in love, and the result for the mother and nursing child is similar. Both find themselves awash in feelings of security, acceptance, and mutual love for one another.
Psychologically, the nursing baby experiences reality for the first time as reflected in the face of her mother. The child’s very first impression of the world into which she has been born is encompassed by who she sees gazing down upon her. Psychology Today writer Mark Matousek says, “You learn the world from your mother’s face. The mother’s eyes, especially, are a child’s refuge, the mirror where children confirm their existence. From the doting reflection of its mother’s eyes, a baby draws its earliest, wordless lessons about connection, care, and love.”
Mirroring in infancy and early childhood is the most crucial way that children learn security, emotional wholeness, and empathy for others. It is surely a mark of the image of God in us that we can communicate such things from one generation to another through something as simple as an intentional and loving gaze. This is sublime.
But we also know that the mirroring between mother and child is not always so pastoral or positive. Some people encounter other, insecure or destructive emotions reflected back to them in their earliest days. And others still are left bereft of mirroring altogether, by absent or neglectful parents. In such instances, attachment disorders can manifest, where it is woefully difficult either to receive or extend love.
“Perhaps that is why,” Richard Rohr suggests, “people keep coming to church. They seek mirroring from Mother Church: the gaze of love, acceptance, grace. Even if the church has in the past been abusive in its theology, we still approach it in longing.”
I agree, and I would add that this gives the church its enduring purpose and mission. On some level, all those who walk through the church’s doors are seeking the mirrored reflection of the God, the swooning encounter with the One who holds us securely in the bonds of acceptance and love. As the church, it is our sacred calling to mirror grace to one another, through our preaching, the sacraments, and even our smallest and most incidental interactions with one another. Like a mother’s eyes, the church is called to be the world’s refuge—the embodied and reflected gaze of the One who creates us in love—which forms people in wholeness and empathy with spiritual milk. May it always be so.