Of Shepherds and Mothers

I find myself reflecting on two parts of Jesus’ metaphor I am the Good shepherd. My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life  – a life that is – not restricted by the limitations imposed by time.

They hear my voice

In John 10, Jesus plays with the metaphors of sheep, shepherd, wolves, hirelings, and sheep pens to explore images of the relationship between God and humanity. Jesus is the true shepherd as contrasted with the hired hand; he is the defender of the sheep against the ravaging wolf; he lies down on the ground to become the gate opening of the sheep pen – through or over which the sheep tramp into the safety of the pen.

Throughout Jesus’ word play of rapidly shifting metaphors there runs, like a continuous heartbeat, the familiar sound of his voice. We hear his voice, not with our ears but in our bodies, in the yearning of our hearts. To borrow from T.S. Elliot for a moment -his is the sound of a voice … not known, because not looked for -but heard, half-heard, in the stillness between two waves of the sea. (Little Gidding)

In 2019, the good shepherd imagery of Jesus in John’s Gospel occurs on the second Sunday in May, otherwise known as Mother’s Day. Whether it’s by design or not, it’s an interesting coincidence that emboldens me to reframe Jesus’ metaphor the good shepherd.

Jesus says I am the good mother; my children hear my voice; I know them and they trust me. I give them eternal life – a life that cannot be measured or restricted by the limitations imposed by time.

We hear Jesus’ voice -the voice heard, and yet not heard, remembered, and yet not looked for but viscerally felt; a voice we trust because it resonates through the finely tuned strings of our memory. For the divine voice first enters our lives through that particular experience with our mothers. Nurture echoes nature. The human bond of mother and child is an echo of the bond between God and humanity. Jesus says I am the good mother, my children hear my voice, I know them, and they trust me.

In John’s story of Jesus, there is no distinction between Jesus and God the Creator; in each, the other finds its own reflection. God the good shepherd enters at first into our human experience as God the good mother. We learn to trust God the good shepherd; the one who calls us each by name, who protects us from danger,  because God has first loved us like a mother with a quality of unconditionality that is breathtaking to contemplate.

Imagine being loved because you are already good-enough? The problem for many of us is not that this reality is not true, but we dare not risk seeing ourselves as God the good mother made us to be. In life we come full circle – God the good shepherd enters our lives as God the good mother, eventually re-emerging at later stages of life into our awareness as God the good shepherd.

Jesus is a voice heard and yet not heard, remembered, and yet not looked for but viscerally felt; a voice we trust because it resonates through the finely tuned strings of our memory.

Donald Winnicott, the renowned 20th-century British pediatrician and psychoanalyst coined the phrase the good-enough mother. Winnicott was a formative influence on my own evolution as a psychotherapist and priest. My own analyst had been analysed by Winnicott himself and he was powerfully present as my analyst and I worked to find the good-enoughness in my experience of life. He was for me in a very real sense a good-enough mother.

By good-enough, Winnicott meant that mothers did not need to be perfect. The mother infant relationship, though vulnerable to mishap is also robust and able to withstand a variety of imperfect conditions. That mothers needed to be good-enough and not perfect, is a reminder for us all that the quest for the perfect in this arena of life is certainly the enemy of the good.

The essence of a good-enough experience of mothering lies in our experience of love that is consistent and unconditional. Some of us may find it difficult to locate the experience of consistent unconditional love within our experience of our biological or adoptive mothers – mothers can’t be perfect. Yet, if we didn’t find the memory of good-enough-ness in our early experience with our mothers, maybe we found it with them at a later stage of life? Countless others have experienced the qualities of good-enough-ness in a devoted teacher or mentor, a grandmother or grandfather, in the compensating love of an aunt or uncle who truly saw us and got us.

Yet an early experience of a disinterested or unavailable mother will leave its mark.  An early experience of the promise of love being restricted by conditions – I will love you only if — is not an uncommon experience. Yet, there are very few people who cannot locate an experience of unconditional love somewhere in their formation as a person.

Jesus says I am the good-enough mother who has no choice; for I cannot -not – love my children.

And I give them eternal life

Jesus says I am the good mother, and I give my children Eternal Life, that is, life that cannot be restricted by the limitations of time.

We live in a period of time between two bookends: the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of the resurrection of the world at the end of time. Because eternal life cannot be restricted by the limitations of time, between the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of a new world we live in eternal life in real time, here and now. Our experience of life is eternal in the sense that our hopes, dreams and tireless collaboration with God have a lasting effect far beyond our time-bound life span. If God is our good mother, then our dream is to work for the building of a society configured by the priorities revealed in the experience of mothering and being mothered. Putting the world to rights begins here and now with you and me.

As a society, we frequently fail the women and men who are responsible for mothering through our failure to promote social and economic policies supportive of family life and child development. In a country that eulogizes mother and apple pie, the US ranks very low down on the scale of nations where public policy concretely supports family life and child development. A society configured by the divine mothering template will take care to ensure maternal and paternal paid leave, supported child care through public pre-school and free kindergarten education. The paradox at the heart of American society concerns the disproportion between our concerns for the unborn and social neglect of the born.

Human mothering and the experience of being mother only needs to be good-enough not perfect.  For some of us, Mother’s Day will be an opportunity to reaffirm the forgiveness of heart that soothes the discordant strings of our early memory. For most of us, Mother’s Day will be an opportunity to express feelings of gratitude for the love our mothers gave us. Whichever maybe the case, for each one of us God as the good mother encourages us to be good-enough mothers to those who trust us to love and care for them. Through the template of motherly love, both in our individual families and in the whole community of wider society, may we be led to the reality of the love with which God loves us.

I am the good shepherd. My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life  – a life that is not restricted by the limitations imposed by time.

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