The second round of Integrative Project presentations, in which our graduating Master of Divinity and MA in Theology & Culture students share the projects that serve as a capstone of their time in graduate school, is today, June 25, 1-5 p.m. Here, Martha Wood shares about the process of developing her project, “Attachment in Spiritual Direction: How Our First Relationships Shape Our Search for the God Who Is Love.”
For twelve years of my adult life, I lived in college campus housing and ate cafeteria food. Those years shaped me profoundly in both obvious ways and ways I’m only beginning to identify. For instance, I don’t cook much now because I never had to then; I could always just walk up to food in the cafeteria and eat it. I still expect to smell burnt popcorn whenever a fire alarm goes off. And my calling to be a pastor and spiritual director was sown in the soil of days and months and years lived alongside my college students.
Months before the work on our Integrative Projects officially began, the theology faculty suggested that we review the papers we’d written previously and pay attention to any themes that arose from them: any evidence like bread crumbs trailing us through seminary. I came up with a laundry list of a lot of things I was a little bit interested in. But how to choose just one, or synthesize several into a manageable cluster? It was the same tension I felt my first year in college, enjoying every general education requirement I’d taken but feeling seized by none so thoroughly as to declare a major, until the one day that I was. I was seized, I was called; I was going into ministry. That’s probably a bread crumb.
Here’s another one: years later and years ago, I was seized by this out-of-the-box institution in Seattle. I was living south of Portland and driving up for classes once a week. During my first term, I (a first-year theology student) took a second-year psychology class (Human Growth & Development with Doug Hansen) because it fit my schedule and would count as an elective.
I had no idea what anybody was talking about.
Then we got to Attachment Theory and dots began to connect. Finally, something made sense of myself and my experience in the world with my family and friends, why I felt like some things that looked easy for other people felt hard or impossible for me.
The gist of Attachment Theory is this: each of us absorbs a template about love from our parents when we’re babies. Before we have words, we know whether or not we are safe, loved, valuable, and worthy of having needs (and having them met by someone who can do so) based on our parents’ responsiveness to our emotions. Our parents will either be predictably available and responsive to us, unpredictably available, or predictably unavailable. Unspoken boundaries begin to take shape around what we are or are not “allowed” to feel, say, or do. We build on these templates over time, engraving in our emotional cores the terms of the relationship. What makes me feel loved? Happy? Safe? Do those things more. What makes my parents feel happy, safe, sad, or otherwise? What costs me love? What will evoke a response from my parents? What will result in them drawing away from me? Do those things less.
These first relationships shape our capacity to love later in life. Whatever characterizes our parents’ responsiveness to our emotional experiences becomes the template for what love is like, how we will expect love to act, what we will look for in a person claiming to love us. And not just in romantic attachments but in any close relationship—what happens when you are angry? Sad? Lonely? What do you do when someone you love is angry, sad, or lonely? What about when someone is vulnerable? When someone is needy? Already, the literal dozens of you who are reading this are probably envisioning different nuances to those words: “needy/sad/vulnerable/happy” can carry very different connotations depending on your family of origin.
Back to this class from my first term: one night, the professor mentioned that some folks had written about God as an attachment figure. Our parents weren’t our only opportunity for experiencing a “secure base” and finding a “safe haven.” The ways we came to understand love from our parents had a similar dynamic with the Almighty. People could form different attachments to God: secure, anxious-ambivalent, anxious-avoidant, or disorganized attachment. My head exploded. This new language with its new categories meant my perception of spirituality and theology was going to shift, therefore so would my ideas about ministry.
Third bread crumb: The Seattle School President Keith Anderson’s class, The Art of Spiritual Direction. It sounded so mystical and delicious! As he taught, I recognized the works of writers he quoted (Wendell Berry! Annie Dillard! Macrina Wiederkehr!), knew the songs he borrowed lyrics from, loved the scene he showed from The West Wing, and heard echoes of conversations I’d had with my college students (often in the cafeteria). My soul reverberated like a struck gong: “I DO THIS!” My way of being in college residential administration was pastoral and relational; I was an undercover spiritual director already.
So last summer as I allowed my bread crumbs to feed me once again, the project took shape. I care about Attachment Theory, specifically as it informs our relationality with God. I care about Spiritual Direction, about the work of attending to the movement of the Spirit of God in individuals as well as in the midst of our interaction. My work with college students over the course of 9 years showed me that not only is each person unique, but his or her growth process is unique as well. If I’m willing to say that God knows and loves each of us individually, would I not also say that God meets each of us where we are, knowing what we need? Isaiah 40, verse 26 reads, “Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.” In the same chapter, verse 11 reads, “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”
My desire is to offer spiritual directors a different handle or a different lens, a layer of language and categories that might bring a person’s spiritual landscape into sharper focus. A way of connecting dots. A way of understanding him- or herself in relationship with both God and the directee. And ultimately I hope for more poignant, pointed, particular growth in the hearts and souls of all involved—whether directee or director. I hope for the Triune God to be invoked and glorified, danced about and delighted in. And may we find that the God of lambs and of stars still tends us and calls us forth today.
If you’re intrigued by what you hear, we invite you to join us for the second round of this year’s presentations, 1-5 p.m. today in the Large Classroom.