As an adopted child I experienced a slow, unfolding consciousness of dissimilarity. It began with an awareness of distinctions in physiology and continued to differences in behavior. There was always an inner sense, an inchoate yet nagging suspicion that “maybe” such differences precluded me from making any claim on the family. 

For me, the presence of this suspicion was never very strong. This was in large part because I found myself loved in the “land of Nod,” as William of St. Thierry calls it, and, by virtue of that fact, drawn inexorably out of my exile into a new identity. In the face of dissimilitude, love formed a likeness that remains to this day. The credit for this herculean feat goes to my parents and brother whose concrete acts of love nourished and sustained me in times when I sensed most keenly just how far removed I was from the heritage their genes conveyed.

For Bernard of Clairvaux, God meets humans in their place of exile, the regio dissimilitudinis. It is a phrase Bernard gets from Augustine’s description of his own condition in his Confessions. This is not simply a psychological reality, but an objective exile that gives rise to an existential condition. Like an adopted child, the human experience of anxiety about future possibilities and a yearning to belong are but manifestations of an exile, and they attest to a love that knows no genuine stabilitas.

The intra-trinitarian dynamic of love rushes toward the lost child as the Father enters exile through his two hands, the Son and the Spirit. The movement through Holy Week reveals just how deep God’s plunge into the darkness and alienation of exile is. The human capacity to love, with all of its explosive reaching out, is met with a divine pedagogy of love. In the same way that parents of adoptive children do not wait for genetic likeness, but launch out into the places of exile to find those lost sons and daughters, so God meets humanity in the “land of Nod.” One finds a glimmer of this movement in the way Joseph embraces Mary’s son as his son who then becomes known as “the carpenter’s son.”

Acceptance into the divine family is just the beginning of stabilitas. Even though the capacity for love is present in all persons as a natural movement, this does not mean that it is ordered toward its proper end or integrated properly within the person. For Bernard, the first degree of love is a natural affection for the self. Such a natural affection can easily devolve into selfishness, however, if it is not fully integrated and finally directed. It is in the context of family that natural affection for the self finds its initial movement outward toward the other and thus becomes aware of a greater end than the self.

This movement is always an assimilating one since humans become what they love, which makes family life so important and so precarious. Societies who fail to protect family sow the seeds of their own destruction. The complementarity of the parents balance the interior loves of the child through the internalization of family life. The likeness is drawn forth as interior movements are stabilized in the give and take of learning to live and to love another. Although I did not possess genetic prompters conforming me to my parents’s behavior, I soon discovered their strengths and weaknesses had become my own. This is the tree of life. As the first school of charity, the family becomes the context in which children are formed and shaped.

For Augustine, however, this condition also relates to our use of language since language itself exists in a state of exile, a region of unlikeness. The primary way in which humans come to know God is through a process of becoming like God—a movement from image to likeness. Language unfolds as persons take on the perspective of the insider through assimilation.

Indeed, there is usually a moment of linguistic passage when words are left behind as the meanings of love in the life of family unfold in and through the likenesses that have been created. When parents “know” without words what their children are thinking and children anticipate parental behaviors. This is what the mystics mean by a union with God beyond words. It is not that communication fails, but that it takes on a new dimension as the vision emerges in and through the likeness generated.

I came to understand the internal dynamics of family life as I became like my mother, father, and brother. The languages of love they employed were foreign to me except insofar as I learned their meaning intuitively by way of imitation. The friendships generated by family usually hinge upon prior biological connections as the “glue” that prevents any member from denying the relationship. For adopted children, this “glue” is lacking from the outset, which is why the love my parents exhibited for me became so mysterious and so attractive. In its constancy—by which I mean the continuous decision to love, not the intensity of the passion of love—I was transformed, making me an insider who came to understand the meanings of family life without the need for words.

Knowing the truth, then, is about embodiment and participation in the truth. It is ultimately about being assimilated to one who is the Truth rather than an effort to play a better language game. As Augustine puts it, “the image of God will achieve its full likeness of him when it attains the full vision of him.” Vision of the truth cannot be severed from likeness to the truth, and thus our language will only leave the exile of unlikeness in the visio dei.

How profound and mysterious this love is, which prompts spouses to move out into the land of exile and bring back a child. It is the love of the Father whose two hands have entered into the exile of every human life to stabilize loves and give a new identity. God’s response to Augustine’s cry from the region of unlikeness was “I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.” I first heard the whispers of this voice in the simple ways my parents reminded me again and again, “you may not be ‘like’ us, but you belong to us.” 

Articles by Dale M. Coulter

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