Growing up in a Reform Jewish home in the Midwest, I loved Shabbat with my mother, lighting the candles and attending services. Usually we were only among five people in the front rows of the pews in an enormous Reform Congregation of 500 empty seats, or shall we say non-attending members. But it felt very full, bright and numinous, to me, because I was by my mother’s side. She would lean forward, look right into my eyes, and sing the prayer songs in Hebrew so that I would learn the words.
Mom explained to me that there was “an extra something special about family on Shabbat,” because “God was little bit closer, although God is always there.”
This made sense, but aggravated me at the same time because I could not imagine less then 100 percent of God everywhere I went. But I did with certainty feel something wonderful and especially exciting, in the numinous sense of family around Shabbat. What confused me, a bit at the time, and ever more as I got on in years, was that nobody else seemed to talk about it. The excitement of entering the synagogue where my mother would immediately brighten and smile at me, and the honor of then greeting the Rabbi. As we sang the Shabbat prayers I felt the joyful presence of God while holding hands with my mother. In these moments I felt that I was becoming like my mother as together we felt close to God.
Life moved forward through many Shabbats. Still nobody talked about the ultimate peak experience of my mother’s spiritually infused love; not in my college years at Yale, nor my years of training at several Ivy League institutions in clinical science towards a doctorate. I eventually became a clinical psychologist, focused on thriving and suffering, depression and loss and abandonment. I heard about attachment and bonding, and about functionality, but nothing about my warm glowing mother’s love, the Shabbat kind. And I finally resolved that the field made no sense without taking this into account, and that perhaps we were missing something essential for other mothers and children. So I asked the question not of my inner life, but of the mass numbers in large data sets representing aggregate human experience — in essence an empirical chorus of voices.
Could my mother’s Shabbat love be operationalized and investigated as a foundational human paradigm across religious denominations? Science is as a good as the questions we ask, and this seemed most worthy. So I looked extensively in large epidemiological data sets of mothers and their offspring. If a mother is both loving and spiritually engaged with her child, does the child thrive?
The answer indeed was yes, not to my surprise, but the magnitude of the was jaw-dropping. I mean the child of a loving mother who shares religion really thrives: kids show a 80% percent decreased likelihood of depression and far greater character strengths of grit, optimism and virtues of forgiveness and commitment.
There are biological effects of maternal spiritually infused love, that grow stronger with time, and even have neural correlates into the child’s adulthood that protect by 75-90% against severe depression.
On a daily basis, the child with spiritual core sees themselves as a sacred self, meaning, formed by God with ultimate value, and endowed with choice, in daily relationship and service to God. This a far bigger and better self, with more substance and responsibility, then the merely a performance self, based on accomplishment and outward standing. The sacred self also is far more ready for the inevitable bumps ahead in life, showing protection in the face of unwanted life events against depression and substance abuse. The child with a sacred self builds lasting bonds of love, as she or he turns to family and friends with this same regard, building relationships of greater encouragement, steadfast commitment and forgiveness.
Science in sum says that when looking at two kids on the same block, who attend the same school, the child aware of her or his sacred self has greater inner peace, meaning and purpose, and a brighter future; both an inner joy and outward conventional success.
As I continued the hunt, the findings grew and grew, whether looking at MRI studies, twin studies or research on life-time clinical course. The spiritual core is simply more powerful than any protective factor in medical science and any source of flourishing in the social sciences.
The hard data of science has come to reflect the felt enormity of my mother on Shabbat. Once lost to the medical field but now recovered from a “chorus” of mothers and children across religious denominations, is the spiritual core to human development, present in every mother’s spiritually infused love. Research now goes so far as to show that the greatest developmental gift is a spiritual mother, a mother whose loving, personal religious life is shared in a vital field of love between her and her children.
Grounded in science, I now know that my mother, singing prayers in my face, was her rising to the call that is innately offered to every mother on earth, to be received perhaps without words or mention by every child on earth. My mother was a spiritual ambassador.
Lisa Miller, Ph.D., is Director of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University, Teachers College and the author of the new book, “The Spiritual Child; The New Science of Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving.”
A Mother's 'Shabbat Love' and the Benefits of a Spiritual Education