In the book I shared the story of how for over 30 years I had gained wonderful comfort by spending quiet, contemplative time sitting down front on the right side at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in the Chicago Loop and staring at the beautiful statue which was directly in front of me only a few feet away. I thought it was Jesus holding a little child and I assumed the context was when he had scolded his disciples and had instructed them to “bring the little children to me” (Matthew 19:14).
Why did this statue mean so much to me? I am the third of four children. My mother had endured a very troubled life and, before I was born, she had been hospitalized many times in a psychiatric unit which involved “shock therapy” (electric convulsive therapy, known commonly as ECT’s). Compared to my father, she was very emotionally cold and distant to her children, at least she was to me. I had a conversation with my mother when I was in my 40’s when I told her that her critical cold nature had hurt me greatly and her response totally took me by surprise. She first apologized and then said, “you may have noticed there are no pictures of me snuggling with you or even holding you warmly” to which I immediately concurred.
Then the surprise came. She told me how one day she came home from the hospital and “I knew I was cured of my depression, and indeed, I never had another psych hospitalization again.” Me: “Wow, that’s amazing, what happened?” She: “I saw you, my three-year-old little Stevie, standing by your toy chest, and I walked over and picked you up and hugged you for the first time. That feeling to me meant I was healed!” I was aghast. Had my mother really told me that for the first three years of my life she had never hugged me, not even once? Yes, she had indeed said exactly that. And had she told me that her first hug of me was confirmation to her that she was psychiatrically healed? Yes, she had said that too.
To say these revelations were significant for me would be the understatement of the century. The implications of “my first mother-hug” stunned me and led to not a few sessions with my own therapist as I navigated the pain that divorce had brought to me. Feeling abandoned has been my greatest wound as an adult. Hospitals hire surrogate baby holders to come hold infants in the nursery where the mother has died or is not available. The first three years of an infant’s life are crucial for bonding between mother/child and creating safety for the child. I see this so strongly played out in how my first grandchild, Aria Marie, is being held and loved and snuggled on by her mother Juliana and her grandma, my wife Miran!
This statue at St. Peter’s had played a huge role in the healing of my “abandonment wound.” The Catholics reading this now already know what I am going to reveal. Miran accompanied me to mass at St. Peter’s a few years ago and I was excited to show her my source of healing: “Honey, here’s the statue of Jesus holding the child that helped me so much” to which she said, “Sweetheart, that is NOT Jesus holding a child, that is Joseph holding Jesus.”
Of course! It made perfect sense! Immediately, my mind ran back decades to when my father had held me tenderly, he being a big-time hugger and very affectionate with his kids. One memory of his warmth to me took place also down front in a church building, also on the right side! When I was a little child, I had laid down in the pew and put my head on my daddy’s knee while he patted my head and stroked my hair throughout the church service.
The Merton Prayer always evokes my healing memory of being held by my earthly father, which always leads me to enjoy being held by my Heavenly Father who has promised to be “ever with me and will never leave me to face my perils alone.” The blessings of having very deep wounds healed had come to me from an inanimate marble statue, without my even knowing who was holding whom!
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