My Mother, Myself, in an Anxious Climate

April 25, 2014

My mother writes in her autobiography that during her college years she began to experience anxiety, fear, and what is known as scrupulosity, a sort of spiritual Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Coming out of a home where the expression of love for her was thin and unconvincing, she was afraid that even God could not love her without serious performance of perfection. At the same time, she was suffering from clinical anxiety and developing phobias. (One notable fear was of going to the dentist, after a disastrous 2.5 hour tooth extraction when she was 20. To her credit, she made sure we four kids had a healthy relationship with dentistry!) Mom once told me that when I was a toddler, the doorbell rang, and she fearfully hid with me behind an inner door until the visitor left. She struggled with anxiety her whole life. Sometimes it was under control; other times it was carried to the point of agoraphobia. What set it off could be anything, including a difficult or confrontive conversation.

It wasn’t until I left home for college and started interacting with fearless, crazy Stanford classmates that I realized how clouded my experience was by my mother’s anxiety. The way to deal with it was to order your world so thoroughly as to leave nothing to chance. And so, we always knew in advance what we were having for dinner on any given night; where the closest bathroom was; where we would be going to Mass that Sunday (a requirement whenever we were on vacation); and how many hours of sleep we would get. Consequently, as a college freshman, my world was what some would call highly disciplined, but really it was a way of assuaging my inherited anxiety: Up at 5:30 for a quiet time with God, 6:30 grooming, 7:10 breakfast, 7:30 on the bike to get to 8:00 a.m. class. Back to my room for lunch and study all afternoon, dinner promptly at 5:30, and after more studying, to bed by 9:30 p.m. Trust me, I was a bore of a roommate!

But my greatest anxiety came in trying to earn the love and respect of my mother, which seemed irreparably lost when I gave my life to Christ the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. After attending a life-changing prayer meeting the night before, I shared with Mom that I was a follower of Jesus—I probably said, “I am a Jesus-person now”—and she laughed in disbelief and walked out of the room, unwilling to talk about it. She thought it was a phase I would grow out of, and there certainly was no category within her Catholic experience to process it, even though my initial spiritual nurture as a Jesus-person was in a parish lectio divina group. Her reaction at the time closed a door, and for the next ten years at least, the subject of spirituality was closed to us. A tough time for me, as I was discerning a call to the ministry and pursuing ordination within the PC(USA).

However, my need for Mom’s love and respect was so intertwined in my spiritual life as to make it very difficult for me, in my 20s and 30s, to truly receive the love of God as affection. God loved me because he had to, but not because he wanted to . . . and that pretty much summed up my struggles within Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle. Nevertheless, my mom’s was not the last word, and through the patient, gracious good example of many members of the Christian community, not to mention my husband’s incredible encouragement over our entire marriage, I learned how “to be anxious for nothing” (Philippians 3:4-6). God provided me with other “mothers,” my mother-in-law Eleanor being the primary, and, after her death in 1998, mother figures among my friends, colleagues, and parishioners to show the calm way of trusting God. They all helped me to receive what God had so richly given—willingly and lavishly, according to Ephesians 1—and to know without doubt the height and depth of God’s love.

The Catholic tradition often refers to Mother Church. On any given Sunday morning, we are sisters and brothers in need of the demonstrative love of our Savior and Shepherd, Jesus Christ. It has been my experience that the fellowship of Christian disciples, “mother church” if you will, has been doing the healing, remedial work in me, and now I think even through me.

In the end, I can only be sad for the joys my mom was unable to experience, for the burdens of worry she carried needlessly, and for the relational blockages that resulted from sheltering herself from risk. Her neighbor told me my illness this year pretty much drove Mom to distraction: “I don’t think Mary is taking this cancer seriously.” The comment made me laugh because it was so typical, even as I silently protested. With that in mind, then, you can understand why we picked the following Scripture for her memorial service:

But now, thus says the Lord,
            who created you, O Jacob, and formed you, O Israel:
Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
            I have called you by name: you are mine.
When you pass through the water, I will be with you;
            in the rivers you shall not drown.

When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned;
            the flames shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord, your God,
            the Holy One of Israel, your savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in return for you.
Because you are precious in my eyes
            and glorious, and because I love you.  (Isaiah 43:1-4a)





4 Responses to “My Mother, Myself, in an Anxious Climate”

  1. emd5542 Says:

    Dear Mary, thank you for continuing this mode of travel for us as you work to somehow reconnect with your mother in this way. My brain seems to be in a slow gear this morning so I’m not grasping your mother’s response to your becoming a follower of Jesus in high school. Was it that she never received Christ as her personal Lord and Savior but relied on Roman Catholic doctrine for her faith or that she couldn’t grasp your growth in believing/receiving independently, or that a believer’s walk with Jesus isn’t discussed in polite conversation, or was she just being unkind in that moment, or something else associated with her personality and relationship with you? That just glared out at me. At any rate, how blessed you were that God led you to wonderful Christians, including Andy, who loved you and stood patiently with you to correct your vision and hearing. I am grateful for your sharing and your wisdom and discernment therein. Always in Resurrection Joy, Eleanor

  2. emd5542 Says:

    And I love that Isaiah passage and the associated hymn, “How Firm a Foundation.”

  3. Lynnie Morgan Says:

    Oh Mary. This made me cry, and I do not cry easily. Thank you for being so open and vunerable with you self and in your writings. You express what so many of us can not!

  4. wh Says:

    Vortexes require mitigators and so your mother found your father. Wise choice there. As his sister, I wondered what prepared him to be strong. But, apparently he was not strong enough.

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