But he said in reply to the one who told him, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.”
Matthew 12: 48-50
At the literal level, Jesus’ words today are among the most difficult in the gospel to appreciate. To our ears the words sound highly depreciative. In response to being told that his mother and brothers are outside asking to speak to him, Jesus seems to deny any filial and family relationship and duty to them. Yet, despite appearances, Jesus’ words and spiritual stance here is vital for a deepening of our transcendent life.
Who are we at the core of our being? Many years ago a, then, young woman who was taking one of our classes in formation wrote a poem in which she spoke of herself in the image of an apple with a rotten core. Over time, she revealed how from a very young age she had been abused by an uncle, who was a pastor in a pentecostal church. The result of the abuse, as well as the rejection she felt from her family, especially the sense of emotional abandonment by her mother left her feeling as if below the surface she was nothing, and a damaged nothing at that. Yet, despite it all, she had a powerful desire to know God and to serve God.
Although, she had, through good therapy and counseling, come to recognize and express the ways she had been harmed and the persons who had done so, she still maintained this sense that at her core she herself was rotten. Yet over time, she did occasionally come to touch the core in her that was inviolate, that belonged only to her and to God and which no one was capable of tainting. When she could, even for a moment, touch her own Divine core, she would occasionally have a new perspective even on her family. She could recognize their own brokenness and the resultant incapacity to love that was their affliction.
She could begin to remember the ways in which her father tried to protect her and care for her. She could see in retrospect that her mother’s sufferings were so great that she was not really able to care for children. Yet, all of this was often momentary and sporadic. There was no total conversion of consciousness, but there were real moments of prayer and of a sense, which could then never be totally forgotten, of her own value.
In our psychological age we tend to think that most deeply we are the result of our upbringing. As a result, we tend to look for the person to blame for our sufferings and limits, somehow mistakenly believing that to find the specifics of how our parents and others failed us will provide the key to unlock our emotional and spiritual struggles. In today’s gospel, however, Jesus tells us that the only potential for reformation and transformation lies in the present moment. Our deepest business lies not in untangling past relationships but rather in attending to the call of the present moment, of “being about the Father’s business” in the present. It is safe to say that Jesus would, in time, give his full attention to his mother and his brothers. But he recognized that the call of the Father is first to be with the here and now, both within ourselves and in the situation. Instead of trying to find an explanation of what we are going through, we are rather just to be present to it and live it. In so doing, we bring our whole selves to those who are appealing to us to be with and for them just as we are. If we are sad, if we are struggling, if we are joyous we are to learn to be and to offer who we are without diverting our attention from the needs of the others to ourselves.
One of the central paradoxes of Buddhism is that the bare attention of the meditative mind changes the psyche by not trying to change anything at all. The steady application of the meditative posture, like the steadiness of an attuned parent, allows something inherent in the mind’s potential to emerge, and it emerges naturally if left alone properly in a good enough way. When the Dalai Lama summarized his scholarly teachings on Buddhist thought with the paradoxical injunction “Transform your thoughts but remain as you are,” he was pointing to this phenomenon. The thoughts he was after are rooted in the way we seek relief by finding someone or something to blame. The trauma within prompts us to search for a culprit, and we all too often attack ourselves or our loved ones in an attempt to eradicate the problem. This splitting of the self against itself or against its world only perpetuates suffering. The Buddha’s method was to do something out of the ordinary, to make his mind like that of a mother: the most taken-for-granted person in our world but the missing ingredient in his. Adopting this stance creates room for a transformation that is waiting to happen, one that cannot occur unless one’s inner environment is recalibrated in a specific way.
Mark Epstein, The Trauma of Everyday Life, p. 29