A Confession
Natalie Carnes


Contents and Abstracts
1 Idolatry
chapter abstract

The mother observes the ways pregnancy and breastfeeding render her an image of the Creator. Likewise, her child becomes in her infant vulnerability and strangeness an image of Christ to her. While meditating on the hopeful possibilities for such imaging, the mother finds her milk has run dry, and her subsequent anxiety reveals that her own imaging of the Creator has become an idol for her. Having traced the hopeful possibilities for how the world can give the divine to a creature, the mother thus ends by repeating the Augustinian error of seeking in created things what should be sought in the Creator.

2 Imitation
chapter abstract

In contrast to Augustine's meditation on sin as perverse imitation of God, the mother observes how her daughter's attempts to imitate the humans around her is central to her humanity and her possibility for saintliness. The mother reflects on the importance of this imitation on the day of her daughter's baptism, drawing into this reflection the research of evolutionary anthropologists, the lives of saints, and a meditation on the baptism itself—and the way her daughter's baptism is made more complicated by their religiously-divided home. The mother's reflections are scattered throughout her attempts to work through the logistics of baptism and working motherhood, and as she finds herself attempting to outpace her own humanity in these efforts, she turns her attention to her needy child, finding temporary peace in imitating her child's singleness of desire.

3 Mercy
chapter abstract

Does motherhood make one more merciful, opening the mother up to the suffering of those around her, or less, by calling the mother to a singular focus on the suffering of her own child? The mother wrestles with both impulses of motherhood as she attempts to resist a theatrical mercy and instead follow the call of parenthood into a love acquainted with suffering. Throughout the chapter, the mother traces stories of people who respond to children with various forms of true and false mercy, but she also wonders about the status of stories themselves. How is it that stories, both those that are fiction and those from current events, can both enable and inhibit our own mercy?

4 Suffering
chapter abstract

The chapter begins with the daughter's own first experience of suffering that is also bound to joy. The moment leads the mother to realize the necessity and difficulty of beginning to give up her role of shielding her daughter from the world's tragedies. As she begins to allow her daughter to encounter tragedy, the mother attempts to navigate two temptations of suffering: denying it and embracing it. These temptations become especially poignant as the mother searches for faithful ways of raising a white child in a world of racial injustice and a daughter in a world of patriarchy.

5 Desire
chapter abstract

To be a mother is to be a divided self, called constantly both to the life of the child and to the mother's own life that exceeds the world of the child. The mother struggles to find balance between these two worlds and between her academic career and desire to be with her child, discovering in herself two wills that refuse the type of climactic resolution Augustine finds in Confessions. Over the course of the chapter, she recounts multiple ways that her own desires elude her, or that she forsakes them, failing to discern or pursue them. In the midst of her disorientation and dismay, her child comes to her, wheedling her to dance and play. In the encounter, she discovers her child as a source not only of competing desires, but also of a new immediacy of her own desires.

6 Temptation
chapter abstract

As the child grows, the mother learns the temptation to impose her own will on the child's own growing will. With help from a children's book illustrating the Lord's prayer, the Pixar film Brave, and the story of Jesus's temptation in the desert, she attempts to work out when and how and what it means to say to the child "not my will but thine." The difficulty of this submission is woven through reflection on Christ's submission in the garden and the mother's own submission to God. She arrives at the metaphor of a garden as a way of helping her learn to cultivate her daughter's growth toward freedom and love.

7 Domination
chapter abstract

In an incident in which she forces her child to say the words, "I'm sorry," the mother encounters the depths to which her desire for her daughter's flourishing is bound up with a lust to dominate and control. How can she impart goodness to her child, when abandonment appears the only alternative to coercion? What does it mean to both desire a child's flourishing and to surrender to the child's autonomy and difference? With help from a therapist, the New Parenting paradigm, and Maria Montessori, she seeks a better path to being present to her child.

8 Conversion
chapter abstract

A cascade of stories of converted parents, in Scripture and life, culminate in the voice of her own child, to whom she learns to be present—to say "Here I am"—without imposing herself on her child. Tracing the history of the phrase "here I am" in Scripture, the mother sees her own shortcomings and failure of presence all the more clearly. In her Protestant church, her pastor's foster-parenting becomes for her an icon of the difficult life of surrender which all parenting is and should be. This icon is deepened through her learning to follow the practice in her husband's Catholic Church of invoking saints for aid. The chapter culminates in conversion into a new way of life with her child.

9 Communion
chapter abstract

As the now eight-year-old daughter prepares for First Communion, she must face her own deep fears by making a confession to a priest and receiving the bread in front of a full church. The mother works to resist the lure of old habits of domination and instead practice loving presence—though she worries only a miracle will help her daughter to this sacrament.

10 Memory
chapter abstract

Remembering her daughter as a baby, the mother ruminates on how memory makes her daughter present to her and also reveals the way God is present in such memory. She wonders about how God is present in the stories of the church—particularly those stories that are historically dubious and those that mask more sinister historical events. Remembering how God has come to her in the most painful events of her life, she reflects on how God can come to the church as it painfully remembers its own past.

11 Eternity
chapter abstract

Looking at two pictures of children—a photograph of her infant daughter and an icon of the infant Jesus—the mother ponders how these pictures open in different ways to temporality and eternity. She comes to an understanding of time and eternity in which they are not opposed, but time becomes a window into eternity. Photographs, in a way different from icons, can also yield God's eternity.

12 Materiality
chapter abstract

Reading lines from Byzantine theologian Maximus the Confessor, who describes God as seeking to realize the mystery of God's embodiment, as playing with forms, and as following desire, the mother imagines God as a playful child. God, she reflects, is present in the material world as in a cosmic game of hide and seek. She mulls over how she might respond to such childlikeness by entering into a spirit of divine playfulness.

13 Creation
chapter abstract

This final chapter contemplates not only the way creation is an image for the church (as Augustine claims in his final chapter) but also the way the mother's body is an image of both church and creation. The chapter ends in multiple layered images of Mary, the Church, childbirth, and creation. Reading, like Augustine, the world as saturated with divine significance, the final chapter returns to the memory of giving birth seeing and remembering in the image and experience the centrality of the feminine and motherhood in manifesting our life with God. Chapter keywords: creation, Creator, birth, feminine, maternal, Mary, Church