This Christmas, in a snowbound New England, my mother was describing to the family something of the forces that her work in psychiatry is up against. She is a care provider at a residential facility and school for girls younger than 18. A few are murderers, and some are accessories to murder. Many are gang members, or former gang members, or survivors of gang violence. Many have family members already incarcerated; some have no family to return to, some have only abusive family, and some have been cast off by their family. Many are perpetual children of the system, wards of the state.

They are, predominantly if not by any means exclusively, a cross-section of the American underclass: African-American, Native American, Hispanic Native American, Hispanic, a few Chinese and Vietnamese. About half of these girls were trafficked as children. Occasionally they recognize a new girl from their former life, from some prostitution ring moved around the country. On top of whatever other psychological problems or issues with addiction that they face, nearly all are living with the aftereffects of trauma.

My mother was describing recent studies in neuroscience and psychiatry that posit that a child’s capacity for empathy is firmly established effectively by the age of 2, nearly entirely via the mother-child relationship. A child learns to watch and to mirror the facial and emotional expressions of a mother and to respond to her cues. There are, apparently, heart-rending studies on record in which, faced with a non-responsive mother for an extended period of time, an infant will visibly sag, give up even attempting to communicate, and become impassive.

Statistically, sociopaths are frequently victims of neglect and abuse at this early stage of human development; it does not excuse the damage that they do, but it does help to explain it, at least a little. Extreme self-centeredness, in this context, is the brain and the heart’s protective response to a blank-faced and inexplicable universe.


It was Christmas, and I was in the bosom of my family happily drinking mulled cider and watching the snow fall, and compared to my mother’s patients I felt very fortunate indeed. Nevertheless, I found myself deeply unsettled at first by these theories: as a historian I believe in studying the past not least for the profession’s capacity to cultivate and foster empathy. Is that, then, a fruitless pursuit, or at most an endless preaching to the choir in which the already gifted hone their special skills?

Even more than that, however, I think I was resisting the notion that a quality that I value so highly in people should have been formed, shaped, and kiln-fired, as it were, at an age before most of us can remember much of anything. How can our ability to relate to other people, to intuit their inner workings, to relate to them on their own terms, seemingly have so few people involved? How can we be so unselfconsciousness of the entire process? What (asked the historian) did that mean for the emotional development of so many generations of aristocratic infants, sent out to wet-nurses during this entire early period? What implications and effects do the ever-present screens of the modern household, and the modern distracted parent, have for children’s capacity to relate to their parents and each other as they grow up? What does that say for the prospects of my mother’s patients ever to re-enter society if and when, at their most innocent and most vulnerable, they were abused, neglected, and discarded?

Of course, if there were no hope for these girls my mother would not do what she does. She can attest to the near-miraculous quality of real personal transformation when it does occur, and as well to the tremendous courage shown by these girls in re-engaging with a society they have every reason to want to flee forever. There is always — there must be, for the Christian — God’s grace, even if it is invisible and its effects go unseen and unnoticed in the moment and it does not act as we expect. And there will be, there must be, healing for them and for those like them in the hands of a just God, in the next life if not in this one.

But it struck me, too, that modern psychological theories of the effects of the mother-child relationship on early human development follow a structure not so very different from Luther’s theology of infant baptism. In Luther’s view, we are justified through faith, to be sure, but divine grace is imparted to us in baptism in a moment out of our control and even beyond our immediate recollection. Our baptismal identity is thus paradoxical: we must always rely on the testimony of the Christian community rather than the evidence of our senses.

In the days that followed Christmas with my family, I found myself staring often at the Madonna: she looks back at us, from so many Christmas cards, from Renaissance paintings on Christmas stamps, from icons and in olive wood crèches and in our friends’ children in blue bedsheets. The infant Christ is cradled in her lap, sometimes a pudgy putto, sometimes an improbable miniature adult with blessing fingers raised. In a famous image of the Virgin at Chartres Cathedral, Mary’s body is the mandorla, the almond-shaped frame often used in medieval art to signify the divinity of Christ. Theologically, we are to understand by these images, she is the genetrix Dei, theotokos, the bearer of God; Christ’s flesh derives from her.

In these images, Mary is so often depicted as serene, a still deep well, storing up all in her heart, the paradigmatic image of mystic contemplation. Mary and Christ stare out at us; she presents him to us for our adoration. The link between them is there, assumed and indissoluble. The medieval exegetical and devotional tradition, desperate for a scriptural window into their relationship, turned to the dialogue in the Song of Songs, creating the basis for the high medieval romances between Christ and Mary, preserved today in medieval carols like “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.” After the Reformation, of course, this tradition was stripped back to its scriptural bones, with Marian devotion becoming suspect. This left us, in the Protestant world, with our fixation, medieval and modern, on Mary’s body, and in particular on how it informs our Christology. But we do not know the home life of our own dear Queen of Heaven, and it is safest not to speculate too far. And yet, if there is any truth to these modern theories on the origins of empathy, then we cannot forget them when we think of how Christ comes into the world, and how the love of God is conveyed to us. When we think of the humanity of Christ, there can be no forgetting the arms of his mother.

About The Author

Hannah W. Matis is an associate professor of church history at Virginia Theological Seminary. She is a graduate of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame, and the author of The Song of Songs in the Early Middle Ages. She is an avid amateur singer, particularly of early music, and can be relied upon to promote the causes of good Latin, good literature, good food, and good company.

Related Posts

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments