Smoke Alarms and Watchtowers

The smoke detector in my kitchen is ridiculously sensitive. Over the years, it has been a source of steady annoyance to me and of ongoing amusement for my guests. Take a roast out of the oven – smoke alarm. Fry some bacon – smoke alarm. Even a simple slice of toast will send it screaming. I keep a fly swatter hanging nearby, not because I get flies in the house, but to wave briskly in front of the smoke alarm, hoping to appease its wrath. Sometimes the only option is to reach up, rip it from the wall, and remove the battery until the cooking is over. It is at that point that my guests usually laugh as they hear me say something like, “I hate you! But you’ll probably save my life someday…”

I’ve come to learn that God has also wired our brains with a smoke alarm system: the amygdala. Each side of our brain has a tiny, almond-shaped bundle of neurons designed (among other functions) to set off a swift and strong reaction to threats. For example, I remember the time as a child that I was digging for night crawlers. I began feeling my whole body vibrating heard a deep throbbing hum. I paused in perplexion. Then I felt a sting – and had an immediate realization that I had just dug up an entire nest of ground wasps! My “fight or flight” response flashed like lightning, and I ran a 100-yard dash that could rival any Olympic athlete. Thanks to my brain working the way God designed it to, I escaped with only two small stings. It could have been much worse.

We humans, together with other animals, are hardwired with survival instincts. Our amygdala sends swift messages to other parts of the brain and body. We receive a rush of stress hormones that bolster us for battle.

This instinctive response can save our lives, but it can also yield a daily dose of anxiety, spiritual unrest, and torment. Unfortunately, some of us (myself included) have an internal smoke alarm much more like the one in my kitchen – set off by the smallest stimuli, and disruptive of daily life. Everyday encounters can trigger an overreaction in me. An unexpected interruption or an unreasonable request can bring out the worst in my behaviors – just ask my staff or volunteers! I find myself feeling threatened when there is no actual threat. It’s just the toaster.

Having our internal smoke alarm go off frequently makes it quite challenging to abide in love and truth. Just as cooking in the kitchen becomes much less focused or relaxed so long as the alarm is blaring, so also with our daily life. When our brain is on “high alert” we will find it quite challenging to think clearly, to be tender-hearted and vulnerable, to connect with others, to trust, to have fun, to be spontaneous, or to love our neighbor as ourselves.

I first encountered the analogy of a “smoke alarm” in the writings of Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk. The image immediately resonated with my experience – both in my kitchen and in my daily life. Van der Kolk has dedicated his life to studying and treating the crippling effects of trauma – part of the human experience that is far more commonplace than we realize.

In a truly traumatizing situation, we find ourselves helpless or powerless to do anything. Neither “fight” nor “flight” will save us. We instinctively revert to the “freeze” response and shut down. But our brains can keep producing stress hormones, even years after the threat has passed. This shows up in various undesired symptoms: high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, irritability, peevishness, headaches, muscle tension, nightmares, etc. Hence the title of Dr. Van der Kolk’s book: The Body Keeps the Score.

It is tempting at times to wish away all these unpleasant experiences. Can’t I just take a pill for it? Sometimes we do indeed need to take medications to keep our symptoms under control. But the symptoms (unpleasant as they are) can actually become our greatest allies. They are like the bread crumbs that allowed Hansel and Gretel to find their way back home.

That is where “The Watchtower” comes in – no, not the monthly publication of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but another part of the brain: our medial prefrontal cortex. It is the part of our brain that allows us to survey the scene from above, like a calm and curious observer. In relation to our “smoke alarm,” our “watchtower” can tell us calmly and serenely, “Not a fire – just the toaster.”

In an ideal world, we grow up in a safe, secure, and nurturing environment. We find our physical and spiritual and emotional needs well cared for. Our brain easily forms neural pathways between our “watchtower” and our “smoke alarm.” False alarms still happen, but are then much less common, and we are able to recognize them quickly and calmly.  That is the ideal. In reality, for many of us, these neural connections literally do not yet exist, or are underdeveloped.

Thankfully, there is good news from brain science. The newest research backs up what we already know from our Christian Faith: we are capable of changing our habits and growing in virtue. In scientific terms, this involves (literally) rewiring our brain – forming new neural pathways. Throughout our life, our brain remains “plastic” – able to be reshaped. This best happens when we follow Jesus’ advice and become like little children (Matthew 18:3). In this case, it means rekindling some of those childlike qualities: wonder, awe, curiosity, eagerness to learn, and a willingness to make plenty of mistakes along the way.

Think of little children learning to walk and talk. We do not scold them when they stumble or fall. We do not berate them because they mispronounce a word. Quite the opposite – we find it cute and endearing, and cheer them on. Our steady encouragement and affirmation keeps motivating them to take the next step and learn the next word. All the while their brain’s “watchtower” is fully active – noticing everything with the utmost curiosity, making new connections every single day.

We tend to be hard on ourselves, to criticize, or to shame ourselves, thinking, “Why do I have to be this way??” Instead, with encouragement from God and others, we can learn to “just notice that” within ourselves, without criticizing or condemning. We can say, “Yup, there goes the smoke alarm again” and calmly inquire why it is going off. Even when it is not a fire, it is possibly something that needs our attention. From that calm and childlike wonder and awareness, we are then free to make a rational choice of what we will do. As this space of freedom and spontaneity grows within us, little by little, we can learn to abide in love and truth.

The Conversion of St. Monica

Monica is an immensely popular saint, particularly among those who fret about the sins and sufferings of their adult children.  Many a mother has fantasized, “If only I could be like Monica…If only I could pray hard enough and shed enough tears to convert my children as she converted Augustine…” In our age of addictions, no wonder she is so popular!

But perhaps she is popular for the wrong reasons. I am convinced that, if we knew her whole story, we would discover a major conversion of her own. Her son Augustine wrote his Confessions, in which he tells one of the most stunning conversion stories of all time. He periodically alludes to his childhood and his parents. Knowing what we know today about sexual addiction and addictions in general, it’s not hard to start connecting the dots. I think Monica’s greatest victory was not the deathbed conversion of her pagan husband Patricius, nor even the tear-filled conversion of her son Augustine. No, her greatest victory was her own recovery from codependency.

Consider the legendary words of the bishop St. Ambrose, when she entreated him with tears about the sins of her son Augustine: “Speak less to Augustine about God and more to God about Augustine.” Wow. I can relate. It is not uncommon for a priest to hear something like this: “Father, you need to help me to fix my children!” Well okay, they don’t usually put it that bluntly. But many mothers and fathers feel like their personal self-worth is on the line. If their children sin or fail, they themselves are failures. That’s a lie.

It is one thing to grieve over the sins of our loved ones. Destructive behaviors are sad indeed. It is another thing to feel personally responsible. The apostle Paul reminds us that each disciple must carry his own load (Galatians 6:5). We cannot fix other people’s problems or manage their lives.

Trying to do so leads to an array of unhealthy and destructive behaviors: perfectionism, judgmental or self-righteous attitudes, bitterness, resentment, depression, hopelessness, avoidance of conflict, self-loathing, self-punishment, manipulative comments, shaming or blaming postures, trying to “fix” others, unsolicited advice, and the like. All the while one ignores the pain and grief of one’s own heart.

These “codependent” attitudes easily thrive in homes where addictions dominate. Monica was married to an addicted husband and reared an addicted son. It is not a stretch to imagine her battling with codependency on her path to sainthood.

In our pornographic culture, I have had conversations now with hundreds of men who have a wound of sexual addiction, whose behaviors are very much like those of Augustine and his father Patricius. Some of those men, like Augustine, have found liberation and peace as they walk the path of recovery. As they heal, they get in touch with their father wounds. Often, their fathers were like Patricius – unfaithful to their mothers, verbally or physically abusive, alcoholic, absent, etc. Recovering addicts begin to realize that their unwanted behaviors are not the real problem; they are only the tip of the iceberg. Lurking beneath are old and unhealed wounds. As prevalent as father wounds are, I am finding it a nearly universal truth that where there is a sexual addiction, there is an unhealed mother wound. I definitely see mother wounds in Augustine’s story.

Let’s tread carefully here. Acknowledging these wounds is not about casting blame on father or mother for the sins of their children. No one gets into an addiction without himself choosing or agreeing at some point along the way. The great Jimmy Buffet teaches us that we are ultimately responsible for our own sins. Additionally, sometimes children are blocked from receiving what they really need for reasons that are not the fault of the parents.

In Monica’s case, it’s not hard to imagine her playing the victim card, casting herself as a silent (or not-so-silent) martyr, subtly manipulating or shaming as she tries to guilt her husband and her son into doing the right thing. As I hear of the deathbed conversion of Patricius, I wonder just how much joy and liberation he felt in his baptism, versus a reluctant agreement mainly to appease Monica. God knows the truth.

Filling in the blanks, I think Monica’s conversion story goes something like this:

Monica is mired in misery, abused and betrayed by her husband and repeatedly wounded by the wanderings of her son. Probably the abuse and mistreatment began with her own father, and she learned how to cope from her own codependent mother. Like so many in her shoes, she fantasizes about how blessed her life would be if only her husband or her son would change. She is hyper-aware of their behaviors and constantly tries to manage the damage. Eventually, she learns to stop lecturing or shaming or manipulating. She heeds the godly advice of Ambrose and talks more to God about Augustine. She talks to God more and more often. Augustine doesn’t seem to change. She harbors a good deal of bitterness against the men in her life, yes, even against God. She won’t admit that, because good Christian women don’t get angry, certainly not at God! Still, she meditates often on the sufferings of Christ and of his mother Mary. She is often moved to tears – sometimes without knowing why. Finally, like the weeping women of Jerusalem, she learns that Jesus wants her to weep for herself (Luke 23:28). She realizes that, when Jesus weeps over the destruction of Jerusalem, he is weeping also for the ruins of Monica’s heart, so often trampled down by others, so often neglected and ignored by herself. She starts learning that God is big enough to handle Augustine’s problems – far better than she can. She learns to surrender and to live in the present moment. Little by little, her heart, numb for decades, begins to thaw. She trembles and gasps and sobs as she feels God attuning her to the swirling anger and torrential sadness of her own heart. But she finally believes that her heart matters and that those who mourn are truly blessed. She lets it happen. Like King David in the Psalms, she pours out her heart to God – all of it. She surrenders all in faith. She begins discovering an unfettered joy and peace, even as she sheds more tears than ever. She is finally free.

It could have happened that way. God knows the truth.

Untying Knots with Mary

Over the last two weeks, I have reflected on the need to unlearn what we have learned and to be disentangled from unholy agreements. Today I would like to reflect on the assistance we can find by turning to our blessed mother Mary as we seek full freedom in Christ.

Mary is sometimes referred to as the “Undoer of Knots” – a devotion popularized by Jorge Mario Bergoglio (better known as Pope Francis). In 1986, Bergoglio spent a few months in Germany. He never finished his doctoral thesis, but he found himself captivated by  an image of Mary in the church of Saint Peter in Augsburg. The painting is the work of Johann Georg Schmidtner (completed around 1700).  It depicts one angel feeding a knot-laden ribbon into Mary’s capable hands. Beneath her calm and persistent gaze, we see the other end of the ribbon passing back down, knot free, into the hands of another angel. Bergoglio took his newfound devotion back to Argentina. With his papacy, it has spread throughout the world.

Its popularity is not a surprise. The image speaks so readily and so deeply to the human heart. Children instinctively bring their tangles and knots to their mother, often in frustration and exasperation. Under her calming and soothing gaze, what had seemed overwhelming and impossible becomes livable and manageable. They find that she has eased their agitation and restored their hope.

This childlike need for soothing and calming does not go away when we enter adulthood. We get just as tired and just as agitated. We have our “meltdowns” and frustrations and tantrums. We are merely much better at hiding and pretending and denying our need for help. If anything, the tangles and knots we experience in adult life are far more complex and scary!

The idea of Mary as one who unties knots is actually an ancient one. Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, writing about A.D. 180,  describes Mary as the New Eve who unties the knot wrought by our first mother: “And thus also it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” Just as Eve became the mother of all the living, so is Mary now the mother of all those who are alive in Christ as members of His Body.

Jesus knew our lifelong need for a spiritual mother, and so He gave Mary to each of us when He died on the Cross: “When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple there whom He loved, He said to His mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then He said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home” (John 19:26-27). If you read John’s Gospel carefully, you will note that the name “John” is never given. Rather, he uses “beloved disciple” or “the disciple whom he loved.” This allows each of us to put ourselves into that identity as a beloved disciple. When Jesus gives Mary as a mother, he is not creating a mother-son relationship between Mary and John only, meant to last merely a couple of decades. In that case, why bother to record the conversation? If ever there was a dying man whose last words are charged with meaning and intentionality, it is the eternal Son of God who died on the Cross for us! He wills us to receive and be received by Mary as our mother. We need her motherly care as we grow into our identity in Christ.

Although Schmidtner’s painting is beautiful, I chose instead to share this less-known icon written by Alfred Rebhan. It speaks powerfully to my heart. Living now by faith in Christ Jesus, we are one with him. The life we live now is not our own (Galatians 2:20); we literally become Christ. His Father is now Our Father. His mother Mary is now our mother. When we need a soothing and calming mother who can aid us, she is there, just like the Virgin in this icon, placing her gentle and encouraging hand on our shoulder as we (one with Christ) find the freedom to face our knots and untie them.

That has certainly been my story – especially during the last couple of years of my life, which have been truly transformational. Devotion to Mary has been at the center of that conversion. I sought her aid in my desire to untie one or two frustrating knots. Little did I realize that I would need to face a massive tangle of interconnected knots, long ago buried and forgotten in the basement of my heart: including lies, unholy agreements, unhealed wounds, and much more. Little by little, I have been learning to be open and receptive like the Christ Child – who emptied himself completely and let himself depend upon His heavenly Father and upon Mary His mother. Apart from Christ (and apart from his blessed mother) I am powerless to disentangle these knots. But one with Him, close to His blessed mother and close to other members of His Body, I am finding the freedom and peace I need to proceed and persevere.