A Gathering Voices post by Lynne M. Baab
Last week I learned a new term: “holding environment.” It comes from the work of Donald Winnicott (1896-1971), an English psychoanalyst who began his career as a pediatrician. He believed that mothers create a holding environment for their children as they care for them, and that counselors and therapists should try to create something similar as they care for their patients.
I learned about the concept of “holding environment” at a conference on theology and mental health. Last week I wrote about my seminar at the conference. One of the other seminars was led by two Angican women. Jo Fielding is a deacon and Julilee Rajiah a psychiatrist, and they explored the ways in which congregations function as holding environments for parishioners, including people with mental illness or mental disability.
Physical holding is the basis of a maternal holding environment. Some additional components of a maternal holding environment, according to Jo and Juliblee, are:
- a voluntary state of attentiveness, quiet alertness
- being alive to the needs of the infant
- being consistent and safe
- being empathetic
Jo and Jubilee discussed aspects of congregational life that create a holding environment:
- a safe and reliable physical space
- psychological holding, the ability to foster emotional growth
- thoughtful organization
- secure but adaptive
- care, honesty and trust
- calming emotional support
They spent a great deal of time discussing the role of the sacraments in creating a congregational holding environment. Because they are Anglicans, this shouldn’t have surprised me. But it did. And I like being surprised, because it gets me thinking.
They talked about two components to creating a holding environment in a congregation, the horizontal and the vertical. Congregations that are safe and secure and that enable spiritual growth will nurture a sense of horizontal relationships, that everyone belongs to each other and is responsible to care for each other. Such congregations will also nurture the vertical relationship between the congregation members and God, enabling people to experience God as one who holds. The Eucharist, they said, creates a holding environment because it invites people to a shared meal (nurturing the horizontal relationship), and the bread and wine are signs of the presence of God for the people of God (nurturing the vertical relationship).
They stressed the significance of corporate prayers of confession. When the prayer of confession is read aloud together, people can hear themselves and others confessing. They hear the assurance of pardon communally as well. Jo and Jubilee believe that such a prayer of confession, with its language of sin and separation, acknowledges the truth of the human condition, while the assurance of pardon gives comfort. Truth and comfort, they implied, contribute to creating an environment of holding.
As does pastoral care, when it is safe and secure, with consistent boundaries and good communication. A pastoral caregiver who creates a holding environment will understand sin and evil, they said. Here again I saw their commitment to both honesty and comfort as significant components.
I resonated deeply with the concept of a holding environment. I’ve always loved the idea of God enfolding me in caring arms. Several years ago I came across a sculpture outside a cafe in Governor’s Bay, near Christchurch, New Zealand, which visually represented the inner images I had often pondered. The woman with enfolding arms is circling a sign that says, “That which is loved is always beautiful.”
Now I’m pondering the ways congregations can create those enfolding arms. Sacraments, confession, honesty, safety, security and comfort appear to be components.
(Photo by Lynne M. Baab)