Giles Fraser: No clinging to the old ragged cloth

24 May 2007

ASCENSIONTIDE is the period of the Church’s year when we, like the disciples, are called to grow up. Jesus returns to the Father and we are left without him.

Clearly, the disciples felt the post-ascension world to be a scarier and less certain place. Where would they find direction and comfort from now on? The comforter is, of course, another name for the Holy Spirit, whose presence has not yet been felt by the disciples. It is also another name for my son’s transitional object, or, in his words, his “noo-noo”.

The whole idea of transitional objects comes from the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. Winnicott’s work is focused on the process by which a child disengages from its mother. At birth, a child is unable to distinguish itself as being a separate thing from the mother. After all, it’s only just come from the womb, where it was one with the mother.

The painful process of separation begins when the child starts to recognise that mother sometimes goes away and that its needs are not always met on demand. It’s the beginnings of coming to know a reality that is separate from you. It’s the beginnings of growing up.

Many children have, as comforters blankets, cuddly toys, or noo-noos that stand in for the mother in her absence. As confidence grows in the permanence of the mother’s love — a love that continues even when she is absent — the child learns to trust that love without the need for transitional objects.

The resurrected Jesus, in the period before his ascension, says to Mary: “Do not cling to me.” Yet the Church still continues to cling to its transitional objects. They take many forms. Some, for example, carry around big floppy Bibles wherever they go. It’s not at all unlike my son and his noo-noo. Others obsess about the exactitude of sacramental performance in ways that make the sacraments look very much like transitional objects.

There is real similarity here to the way in which no other square of material will do for my son, it just has to be this exact one. The immediate and panicky reaction you get from many Christians if you threaten their comforters is generated deep in the psyche. It’s like my son Felix when he cannot find his muslin sheet.

But he will grow up. He will trust that he is loved, and the need for the noo-noo will drop away. As Christians, we ought to do the same. Much of the in-fighting in the Church is between spiritual infants who find that their transitional objects are being threatened.

  Jesus calls on us not to cling on; only then can our relationship with him become fully mature. What is required is to know that we are all truly and fully loved. And that, at Pentecost, God sends the only comforter we ever need.

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