Parents have daily opportunities to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy in their homes. Some of the works of mercy are pretty straight forward, like feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, and visiting the sick, but others, like visiting the imprisoned, and burying the dead, are not so obvious. Could it be that these two are not relevant to our relationships with our children? I suggest that this is not the case and would like to show what these two works of mercy might look like with regard to family life.
One who is imprisoned is one who is cut off from society, one who has suffered a profound attachment rupture and is suffering the excruciating pain of attachment void. Mercifully visiting one in such a state would involve offering comfort and an opportunity to connect or fill the void of loneliness through the senses, hence a “corporal” as opposed to a “spiritual” work of mercy.
Not many of us may have the opportunity to practice this work in an actual prison in the world, but mothers and fathers have numerous opportunities to practice this work in their homes. Sometimes a rupture comes about when parents find it necessary to set limits in order to protect their children physically or spiritually. When this happens, the child may experience a sense of loss, becoming at first angry, and then, as the futility sinks in, sorrowful, grieving the loss of something had or desired, which is usually indicated by the shedding of tears. These tears are the body’s way of cleansing itself of the toxic chemicals that are released when the fight or flight response is triggered. In this case, visiting the imprisoned means providing physical and emotional presence to the child, filling his need for connection with loving eye contact, nurturing touch, soothing voice tones, and active listening. It does not mean imprisoning the child physically or emotionally through disconnection and isolation until he’s ready to visit you with an apology. This is not the picture of a work of mercy, but a work of coercion and manipulation through which is engendered in the child’s soul not charity but resentment. In real life, this is partially why very often prisoners come out of prison more hardened than when they went in.
At other times a child may indicate that he is experiencing an attachment void through boredom, another common problem of the imprisoned. Boredom can occur when a child’s stress level drops below what he is adapted to. The body experiences this drop in stress as a loss of equilibrium. It is unsettling for the child and his first impulse is to go in search of some excitement to restore balance. In this state he is very vulnerable to getting into trouble, or causing a lot of it for others. This in turn makes him vulnerable to having the void deepened through a limit setting rupture. But merciful parents can recognize this condition for what it is and provide a haven for the child in which to come to rest, filling the void with nurturance, resonance, presence. A conversation, a shared snack prepared with love, a game for two, a story, a back rub—all these can help a restless child regain his balance in a wholesome way and draw him out of the prison of idleness.
Another very significant way in which a child may become imprisoned within himself is through the shame that is the terrible consequence of toxic rupture. A toxic rupture occurs when the child experiences himself as rejected by his primary attachment figures (parents, older siblings, extended family members, teachers, coaches, parish priests, etc.) and must retreat to deep within himself to hide what is valuable and vulnerable. This is a prison of abject loneliness where he has locked himself away to defend against the onslaught of an affront to his littleness that is too much to bear. When these kinds of ruptures occur too frequently, a child can soon become imprisoned for life within a dark, small, empty cell that even he eventually forgets. Hidden from the light of day for too long, maturation and development into a healthy, holy adult is stunted. So long as he remains in this prison he will never know joy, peace or love. But a merciful visitation after such a rupture, a humble reconciliation, can free the child from this prison of isolation so that he can re-enter society and grow in knowledge and virtue.
For parents reading this who are just now realizing that their precious child is imprisoned within himself, rest assured, it is not too late to free him. Repeated visitation, and reconciliation can, with time, heal the child’s spirit so that he can emerge once again into the freedom and grace that is the privilege of sons and daughters of God. When parents can confess that it is they who deserve to be punished for their sins against their child, for failing to cherish and respect him in his dignity as a person created in God’s image, they pay the debt for which he has been suffering and free him from it.
The practice of burying the dead in our homes will have to wait for another post. Meanwhile, let us redouble our efforts and resolve to give food and drink to our children with love and generosity; to clothe them with dignity and respect for their individuality; to shelter them with orderliness and care for their littleness; to nurse them to health with patience and gentleness, whether their illness be physical or spiritual; and to visit them promptly and frequently whenever they become imprisoned within a shroud of shame, afraid to live with joy and courage the life you have so generously cooperated in giving them.