In Memory of Mom: The Day Jesus Told Mary to Go to Hell

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Now, you may be thinking that I’m just trying to hook you in with a provocative title — and you would be partially right. But I hope you’ll read on.

My mother would have been 93 today if she was still alive. And I would have visited her gravesite in Statesville, but I can never find her stone in that massive sea. So I thought I would honor her this way. She gave me much and there was much that I needed that she never gave me. But she always wanted me to pursue my dreams. What better gift can a child receive than that?

Most of us owe a lot to our mothers for their caring and for their suffering, for bringing us into the world, and so much more. When I think of Jesus’ mother, Mary, I suspect that Jesus owed her more than most. It could not have been easy raising the Son of God. Freud didn’t do mothers any favors by shining a light on how crucial the first few months and years of life are for the fragile psyches of children. But Mary knew it 1900 years earlier. Wouldn’t you try to be the most perfect mother in the world, knowing how much was riding on it, as Mary must have known? She deserves all of the veneration, and then some, as seen in the hundreds, if not thousands, of beautiful paintings and sculptures of Madonna and Child.

Even with all that we owe our mothers, however, they are not to be worshipped. We owe them a return on their investment of love, for sure. But we don’t owe them our lives.

Obviously, Jesus did not say the words, “Mom, go to hell.” But that was the gist of what he said to her one day, if we take the scripture literally, as well as symbolically. Jesus was out healing and teaching, and it had been a long day, maybe without time to eat or drink or rest. The crowds were immense. People of every walk in life, rich and poor, were drawn to Jesus by his message and by his personality — he was someone that could be trusted. He walked the talk, and they loved him. But Mary led Jesus’s siblings on a different mission that day — they wanted to save him. Save him from what, you may ask? Well, save Jesus from himself, evidently. They were afraid that Jesus was losing his mind — that he was “beside of himself,” in the Greek translation of the text (Mark 3:32-35). These days, we would be more blunt: he’s insane, or he’s lost his mind, or he’s gone crazy.

Because of the crowds, though, Mary could not reach her son. So word was passed from one pilgrim to another, and finally, word got to Jesus: “Your mother and brothers are outside.”

Jesus, at this point, might have said something deferential, like, “Tell my mother I’ll be home for supper,” or “Let’s catch up with each other on the Sabbath — I’m just fine. Don’t worry.” But no, Jesus was a bit of smart ass. What he said exactly was this — a riddle. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Ouch! Not what a worried mother would want to hear just then. And then, this — driving a stake deeper into Mary’s heart: “Here (pointing to the crowd) are my mother and brothers.” Double ouch!

I know some mothers and you do too, I’m sure, that if their sons or daughters talked to them that way, there would be words — and not nice ones — exchanged. I’ve seen some mothers sulk for days for much less, and I’ve seen some mothers threaten their sons or daughters with all sorts of retaliation for such disrespectful speeches. And Jesus said this in public. Was that any way to talk to the Mother of God?

Of course, Jesus wasn’t meaning Mary any disrespect, but he clearly was keeping his biological family responsibilities squarely in proportion to his spiritual family responsibilities. It’s a good lesson to us, because we sometimes confuse the two. Sometimes, even, our biological families and our spiritual families cannot co-exist. It can be a problem that way.

My own son, when he was 21, told me to go to hell. I didn’t like it, but I knew we had come to a point in our relationship, where it was time to put me in my place. I had become overbearing, implying that I didn’t trust him and his decision-making. And it was true — in that moment, I didn’t. The father part of me was terribly hurt and upset at being told where to go; but the therapist in me was silently cheering him on. He was well on his way to finding himself, and he needed, for awhile, to go his own way.

Eventually, we repaired the breach, and I’m so proud of who he became and is still becoming. It’s the privilege of a lifetime to watch our sons and daughters grow and develop into sensitive, caring, passionate human beings who are making the planet a better place to live.

As Jesus hung on the Cross, breathing his last, his mind was clear enough to ask one of the disciples to look after Mary when he was gone. He loved her and she loved Jesus. And we who follow him are so much better for it — for the way they clarified their relationship with each other and with us. We are Jesus’s “mothers and brothers” and sisters and fathers and sons and daughters and uncles and aunts. We who follow the way of Jesus are one universal family.

WHY AFFAIRS?

affairsMarried partners who have, at some point, participated in an affair is a phenomenon that is now a common part of our cultural landscape. Some estimate that only as low as 26% of Americans have had affairs while being married. Others estimate — when all kinds of “strayings” are included, from online relationships to the use of escorts and the regular use of pornography — that as many as 75% of married women and men have participated in extramarital sexual activity at some point along the way. So how come?

Something that happens with a great deal of frequency across the cultural spectrum of committed relationships must be important, in any number of ways. From a depth psychological perspective, the question needs to be asked: “What is the soul looking for in a marriage where one or both partners go astray?” This question avoids the too-easy kind of moralizing heard from pulpits or from a variety of cultural or sociological perspectives. A sociological analysis might, for instance, look at the pressures modern day marriages face: two-career income families that are stretched beyond thin, the demands of balancing devotion to the company versus devotion to one’s family, or the ways in which many families today are now child-centered rather than being centered on the ongoing development and maintenance of the health of a marriage. And this is only a very partial analysis.

But the soul-question lingers, partly because sociological pressures and other pressures will not simply go away or change. The momentum of history and the values of the larger culture are firmly in place. We can rely, however, on what people report in their closely held stories about their secret relationships. In my own listening to these stories during the 30 years of my practice of psychotherapy, I hear one particular, recurring theme, from both women and men in affairs.

That recurring theme is the theme of “aliveness.” People in affairs universally, it seems, feel incredibly alive. And they don’t primarily mean that they feel alive to sex. In fact, most often — and this is true as much or more in stories I hear from men — the aliveness to which they are referring is the kind of aliveness that they feel when they have someone who listens to and understands them and accepts them. It is this kind of aliveness that seems to create a kind of glue in affairs that is difficult to resist or to leave when that time comes. They picture returning to a dead marriage or a functional life devoid of feeling and meaning or returning to simply pushing the same rock up the same hill every day as in the Greek myth of Sysiphus. I can hear the protests of those who might judge such a simplification of the soul of affairs: “Oh yeah! Easy for someone to feel acceptance from someone they rendezvous with on occasion without any responsibilities or expectations of accountability?” And those protestors are right! The problem, though, is that the needs of the soul will not simply go away or return to the repressed land of psyche — without meaningful connections with others, we are all vulnerable to the allure of an affair.

Quite often, I get to be an honored witness to those courageous and determined couples who decide to transcend the violation of fidelity in order to make a new life for themselves — one that includes the needs of the soul. When they decide to do so, they are in for a lot of work as they heal what has been torn asunder. I am in awe of this process and the sorrow and suffering that has to be worked through inevitably. But for all of those who act on their fantasies of having an affair, I still worry as much or more about those who never act but only fantasize, maybe feeling guilty or ashamed or maybe even just incredibly frustrated by a life wrapped in the trappings of duty and conventionality. Where do they find solace for the yearning of soul? Where do they find support for the call to “be alive?” Life is short, as they say, and it’s certainly not a dress rehearsal. So where are the priests, shamans, and cultural commentators who will show us the way to transform marriage into the amazing mystery of a lifetime that it can and should ultimately be?

Knowing God, Knowing Ourselves — Is There a Relationship?

The LabyrinthWho looks outside, dreams.

Who looks inside, awakens.

                                     Carl Gustav Jung

In the ancient wisdom tradition of the early church, it was an accepted fact: we dream in order to know God. How, then, is this ancient tradition connected to the contemporary idea: we dream in order to know ourselves?

This, I think, is a great question for our consideration. It addresses the criticism of some who see working with dreams as simply a form of navel-gazing, a merely selfish — while entertaining — enterprise. While others, such as those involved in Christian dreamwork circles, see dreams as a way to bridge “knowing the self” and “knowing God.” We can, they claim, do both — and do so with curiosity, increasing skillfulness, humility, reverence, and even entertainment as well!

Death, for example, is a familiar theme in both religious practices and depth psychological ways of viewing the life of the soul. “Dying daily” to sinfulness and selfish-attachments is not just the perview of Christians seeking to become closer to God. For death, symbolically, speaks to multiple ways in which our ego-centered lives are confronted by the challenges of growth and openness to change — always a blend of hope and new life mixed with suffering and angst. We can literally “die” inside, for example, if we stubbornly resist adjusting to changing circumstances — classically exhibited in cases of delayed adult maturity or in cases of dependency on substances rather than relying on building healthier means of coping. “Letting go and letting God,” a slogan made famous by the Alcoholics Anonymous movement, embodies the reality that growth and change involve both dying to self and walking more intimately with the Divine.

So, while experiences of death in a dream — of either ourselves or others — can be deeply disturbing on the face of things, depth psychology and dreamwork open the way for seeing God’s hidden hand at work shaping our souls. Death can be seen as a metaphor or symbol, rather than as a conrete fact.

For example, a recent conversation between me and my wife centered around the death of beloved “parts of me” in a dream that I had the night before. It turned out that both of us were holding fears within us about impending changes in our lives and how those changes — which both of us wanted and desired — felt somewhat threatening at a personal level. Our discussion did not absolutely resolve the “threats,” but by allowing the metaphor of death a legitimate voice, we were able to experience a greater sense of mutual support, understanding, and energy for facing into the changes.

In the Christian tradition, the Celebrant at the Lord’s Table calls out to us in the name of Jesus Christ: “Come, die with me. Come die with me, so that you might really taste life and live fully!” And the promise is that, in dying to ego-centeredness, we will find both more of God and more of our authentic selves at the same time. Spiritually then, death is not necessarily a tombstone blocking our paths. It may be, instead, a potential warning, or an invitation to grow, or a mirror that shows us truths about our struggles, or even a spirit-guide who leads us onward towards a life of Resurrection, of hope, of faithfulness, and of vitality.

Amen