Stephen Colbert and Process Theology
"Her favorite memory of prayer was a young mother tucking in her children.
We were the light of her life and she let us know it until the end. "
-- Stephen Colbert on his mother
"She made a very loving home for us. No fight between siblings could ever end without hugs and kisses, though hugs never needed a reason in her house. Singing and dancing were encouraged except at the dinner table."
"She was fun. She knew more than her share of tragedy, losing her brother and her hustand and three of her sons. But her love of her family and her faith in God somehow gave her the strength not only to go on but to love life without bitterness and to instill in all of us a gratitude for every day we have together."
The image -- and it is but an image -- the image under which the operative growth
of God's nature is best conceived, is that of a tender care that nothing be lost.
-- Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality
was his mother.
in the upper room,
breakfast in the barn.
Before the Passover Feast,
a feeding trough.
And here, the altar
of Earth, fair linens
of hay and seed.
Before his cry,
Before his sweat
Before his offering,
Before the breaking
of bread and death,
the breaking of her
body in birth.
Before the offering
of the cup,
the offering of her
Before his blood,
And by her body and blood
alone, his body and blood
and whole human being.
The wise ones knelt
to hear the woman’s word
Holding up her sacred child,
her spark of God in the form of a babe,
“Receive and let
your hearts be healed
and your lives be filled
with love, for
This is my body,
This is my blood.”
From Accidental Wisdom by Alla Renée Bozarth, iUniverse 2003
and This is My Body~ Praying for Earth, Prayers from the Heart
by Alla Renée Bozarth, iUniverse 2004. All rights reserved.
Tucking children into bed is one of the most sacred things we ever do. Mothers do it frequently and God does it all the time. It's a way of saying "I love you. I want you to be happy all the time. I cannot keep you from suffering but I will always be with you. I will always listen and care. You are the light of my life."
Even if we aren't mothers we can tuck others into bed: our parents, our friends, and strangers. We can do it physically by pulling sheets over their bodies when they are sick or weary or dying; and we can do it spiritually by listening to them and caring for them, by sharing in their experiences and letting them be the light of our lives.
We may not fold sheets but but we create a fold in our hearts for them. It is a deep listening, a feeling of the feelings of others, a receptivity and empathy, a cosmic companionship.
Many people believe that God is the light of our lives. If God is love then this is true. But it is also true that we are the light of God's life.
God does not and cannot prevent all suffering, but God will be with us all the time as our companion. As we imagine Mary looking at Jesus, let us also imagine God looking at us. There's a distance, but there is also a rapport. Jesus becomes Jesus through his relationship with Mary and she becomes herself through her relationship with him. It's a covenant.
For my part, I am helped in all of this by Stephen Colbert's description of his mother Lorna:
She was fun. She knew more than her share of tragedy, losing her brother and her husband and three of her sons. But her love of her family and her faith in God somehow gave her the strength not only to go on but to love life without bitterness and to instill in all of us a gratitude for every day we have together.
I like to imagine Mary, the mother of Jesus, as Lorna-like in a certain way. I know that she knew more than her share of tragedy, and that she lost at least one of her sons. I also know that her faith in God, if not also a love of her family, gave her strength. The New Testament says as much. I don't know much more about her, but I find it plausible, maybe even probable, that she could have fun -- and maybe even be fun -- on occasion and that instilled a sense of gratitude in people. At least so I hope. And in this and other ways, Mary is, for me, a window to God. I think that the Deep Listening at the heart of the universe is also a Deep Calling and that we are beckoned by this calling not only to be good people, but also to enjoy life and the sacrament of each present moment.
Like a loving parent, God wants us to love life and be happy. Why would God not want these things? Why would God lure the universe into life and then prefer that creatures not enjoy it?
That's why God sent Jesus. This does not mean that Jesus dwelt with God in a heavenly domain before he was born. It means that God beckoned him to be a light for the world, help us understand that we can be lights to one another, and he responded.
At some point in his twenties Jesus felt drawn to this possibility of mutual enlightenment and called it the Kingdom of God. It is that state of affairs when the will of God is done on earth as it is in heaven, such that we live in authentic community with one another (and so we add today) the rest of creation.
We might also speak of this kingdom as the Justice of Pure Grace, because when this state arrives, no one is left behind. This justice is not about retaliation but rather forgiveness. It is about people not going to bed hungry or angry.
I think of Stephen Colbert's description of Lorna, his mother:
She made a very loving home for us. No fight between siblings could ever end without hugs and kisses, though hugs never needed a reason in her house
Is there something in the universe that is in the business of homemaking? Is there some force, some power, seeks to turn every house into a home, where hugs come freely, and no one needs to go to bed angry? Isn't this what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God?
I think Mary would have understood all of this. She was such a ponderer:
But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)
She was a very strong woman, too, not prone to false modesty:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant, For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed. (Like 1: 46)
And of course, like all mothers, she was physically strong. In giving birth to Jesus and her other children, she knew what most mothers have known in giving birth: part of your body breaks in the birthing process. And then later, when your children suffer, part your heart breaks, too.
Just as mother's know physical pain, so God knows it. Our greed, our hatred, our callousness -- there is so much breaking in God's body, We break each other and we break God. God's power is to endure the breaking and to care for us, always, no matter what the heartbreak.
There is an impulse within us to tuck our children into bed. Christians believe that this impulse is in God, too. It an impulse to protect, to nurture, to offer someone the deepest gift of all: infinite vulnerability, infinite tenderness. This vulnerability is the most powerful form of power. Jesus revealed this power on the cross, when he absorbed the sufferings of others and refused to retaliate with violence. But before Jesus was born, Mary knew this power. Jesus didn't just get his power from God, he also got it from Mary.
An Episcopal priest, Teri Daily,. tells us that we are all Mary. Or, as she puts it, we are all Mothers of God. Perhaps this is part of what it means to be made in God's image. It is to be made in the image of Mary: that is, in the image of a Mother who cares for others with a tender care that nothing be lost.
Perhaps you will also enjoy:
The Space within the Trinity
My Mother Joy
On Being Ninety-Five: Virginia McDaniel
Can Relationships Improve After Death?
The Art of Savoring
Every Parent Deserves a Nobel Prize
Replanting Yourself in Beauty
Trust in Beauty
Stephen Colbert and his Mom
"If you watch this show and you like this show, that's because of everybody who works here, and I'm lucky to be one of them. But when you watch this show and you also like me, that's because of my mom.So before we start the show again I'd like to tell you a little bit about her.
She was born just a little ways from here in Larchmont, New York, on Chattsworth Avenue in 1920, the same week that women got the right to vote. She spent her summers in the Adirondacks with her older sister Colleen and her younger brother Ed, who called her Snodgrass.
She met my father James at age 12 at Cotillion, and she liked him, but she didn't want him to know how much, so she would make her friends ride their bikes all the way across town just to pass by his house, but then she would never look to see if she if he was in the front yard, which of course drove her friends crazy and evidently she also drove my father crazy because they were married and promptly had eleven children.
She made a very loving home for us. No fight between siblings could ever end without hugs and kisses, though hugs never needed a reason in her house. Singing and dancing were encouraged except at the dinner table. She had trained to be an actress when she was younger and she would teach us how to do stage falls by pretending to faint on the kitchen floor.
She was fun. She knew more than her share of tragedy, losing her brother and her hustand and three of her sons. But her love of her family and her faith in God somehow gave her the strength not only to go on but to love life without bitterness and to instill in all of us a gratitude for every day we have together. And I know that it may sound greedy to want more days with a person who lived so long but the fact that my mother was 92 does not diminish it only magnifies the enormity of a room whose doors has now quietly shut.
In her last days my mother occasionally became confused. And to try to ground her we asked simple questions like what's your favorite color and what's your favorite song, and she couldn't answer these. But when asked what her favorite prayer she immediately recited Child's Prayer in German, that used to say to my eldest brothers and sisters at bedtime when they lived in Munich in the 1940's.
Her favorite memory of prayer was a young mother tucking in her children. We were the light of her life and she let us know it until the end. And that's it. Thank you for listening."
I am sure he's right. If we like Stephen Colbert it has a lot to do with his mom. At least this is what we process theologians believe. We do not believe in self-contained people who are composed only of their decisions and feelings but not of other people and the natural world. Instead we see individuals as inwardly composed not only of their feelings about other people and the natural world, but also of the other people and natural world themselves. We call it compound or multi-compositional individuality.
I have a process-oriented colleague in China who offers the more mellifluous phrase eco-self. Her name is Luo Meifen. She drew the diagram on the left as an illustration. As she explains, an eco-self has internal boundaries but it is also composed of the essences of other people. In her diagram you can see the leaf which says "sisters" and "brothers" and "mother" and "father." Her point is that they are part of the self of the individual. I think Stephen Colbert knows this. His mother, as alive and as deceased, is very much part of his eco-self.
Buddhists add a temporal dimension to this. They say that the eco-self is different at each moment and also that, consciously if not unconsciously, the eco-self inherits memories not only from this life but also from previous lives. Process thinkers influenced by the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead say this, too.
Buddhists also add an ethical dimension. They say that we should approach all living beings as if they were our mother, because in some previous lifetime they were. Maybe this is part of the reason why, in hearing about Lorna Colbert, we feel connected to her. Who wouldn't want a mother who teaches you how to love life without bitterness, even in the face of tragedy. Are there any more important lessons?
We are connected to Stephen, too. No, we are not celebrities, but we are all sons and daughters, every one of us. At one stage we were infants held in someone's arms. Yes, some of us have mixed feelings about our parents. We feel that we were abused or at least confused by them.
Maybe they were confused, too. At least this is what the Buddhists say. They say that people fall short of their better selves, not because they are hateful, but because they suffer from inner pain and confusion. How to respond? Buddhists say it's alright to be angry, but if we cling to anger it turns into resentment and burns us up. It harms them, too. When it comes to healing from emotional wounds, forgiveness works getter. Jesus would understand.
In any case we share with Stephen the common experience of being held us in someone's arms as infants and then parented for many years thereafter. they parent us in the memories we have of them in the past, the examples they set, and in relationships that continue in the present, which may well be different from those in the past. And if the memories are bad we learn to turn bitterness into sweet wine. We find the space within the Trinity, all beings included, including, of course, our parents.
And, perhaps needless to say, we are parents to our parents, too. Process theologians tell us that at every moment of our lives we are being created by people who influence us and that we are creating ourselves in our response to them. Self-creativity and other-creativity are not separate. Lorna Colbert was creating herself at age 92 as she responded to Stephen, telling him she looked forward to his next show. I bet she is creating herself right now as she teaches the Lord a song or two.
There's a relational beauty in all of this. We are not and never have been skin-enapsulated egos cut off from the world by the boundaries of our skin. Our parents are inside our souls even as they are outside our bodies, and we are in their souls, too. And always it is a process. Who among us has fully learned how to be a son or daughter?
I have a friend who watched Stephen Colbert's memorialization of his mother and lamented that his mother died early and he had no memories of her. He wished he had memories he lacked. Somehow he trusts that she is known by someone, somewhere, even as she is not known by him? Not just known but loved!
Is there a Deep Memory in which all people and their experiences are remembered today as if they were yesterday? Process theologians tell us that there is. This Deep Memory is God. They say that all that happens in the world, moment by moment, is taken into God's ongoing life and cherished it forevermore. And they add that as all that happens is taken into God's life, the good that has been done is given back to the world in seeds of hope and creativity. Our task is to water the plants.
Of course many of us hope that death is not the end of the journey. Some process theologians -- I am among them -- offer support by proposing that the stream of experiences constituting a soul is not identical with the brain, such that the journey of a soul might continue after death until wholeness is realized. They add that God never gives up on anybody, not in this life or the next. They speak of God's continuing presence in a person's life as a lure toward wholeness and vitality, in this life and whatever lives come after that. They then add that wholeness and vitality of one person cannot be separated from that of others. Before death and after death relationships can grow in love on both sides.
As sons and daughters, one way that we can add to the lives of our parents, once deceased, is by memorializing them, celebrating the goodness that they embodied in their lives and added to the world, no matter how small or large, and forgiving whatever harm they caused.
We honor our parents by being honorable in our memories of them. We honor them by remembering the beauty of their lives and wishing them well. We honor them by continuing to be in relationship with them in whatever ways are possible for us. We honor them by praying for them and by holding them in the light of God's love.
It is possible and perhaps likely that they are praying for us, too. The Catholic tradition says that we can pray for the dead and that they can pray for us, too. It sounds like Lorna Colbert had a head start on this. In telling her son to go on to New York because she couldn't wait to watch the show, I hear a prayer for his well-being. She is saying: "You live your life. I am with you. I love you." And in memorializing her, I think he responded to her prayer, quite beautifully.
A last thought. Lorna Colbert lived her life with faith in God. Is it possible that the yearning of her heart -- and that of our hearts, too -- is not only for harmony with our children, our parents, our friends, and the natural world? Might we seek a harmony with the Harmony of Harmonies, understood as the deepest love of all.
Can this love be felt as a Father or Mother? Is there an intimacy that cannot be fully satisfied by relations with any finite being, not even children at the bedside or husband? Are we mothered forth and fathered forth by something so mysterious that language falls away.
If this is true, then honoring our parents is one way of honoring something so deep, so wise, so infinite that names fall away, and all that we can ever really say is Thank You. Perhaps this Thank You opens us into a space so wide and wondrous that a single name can't hold it.
Maybe this is the space within the Trinity. Yes, maybe it is.