By Jennifer Ohman-Rodriguez
A young woman hurries. Looks ahead, behind. Scans the surrounding hills. Startles as birds squawk overhead. Tightens her cloak. Covers herself with her arms.
Something in her body propels her forward. Away from the unknown. Away from the incomprehensible. Away from what feels like possible death.
In a town she finds the door. She knocks but cannot wait. She enters. Calls out to make sure. Latches the door behind her. Breathes. Someone within the house stirs. Calls out. Approaches. Greeting her with warm words like a loving mother. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” Elizabeth exclaims (Luke 1:42 NRSV).
The young woman’s whole being responds without thinking, trembles a bit. Not with cold but with fear leaving her body. As fear diminishes, joy emerges reflecting off her cousin’s greeting like a mirror. The mirror reveals what this young woman could not see or feel herself until now. And only now can Mary say,
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” (Luke 1: 46 NRSV).
Elizabeth’s greeting found in Luke, chapter one forms a life-healing moment for Mary, pivoting Mary from fear into joy. It is an interaction engaging both women’s mirror neurons, in a space of safety and within a relationship functioning as a secure base.
What are secure bases and mirror neurons?
Secure bases build the foundation of our emotional attachments to other people. Two people attune to one another in physical, emotional, and verbal responses in which both people feel seen, heard, and known. Forming secure bases begins at birth. Our caregivers hold, coo, smile, and with emotional warmth responsibly meet our necessary needs such as sleeping, eating, and being dry.
Mirror neurons make attunement possible. Our mirror neurons respond automatically to other people but not just to what these neurons sense on the outside of people. Mirror neurons respond to and reflect other people’s internal lives, mirroring another’s full truth. If a person’s full truth provides safety, then our mirror neurons send us the message that we can relax.
Elizabeth functions in this story as Mary’s secure base and mirror. As a secure base, Elizabeth’s home and presence create a space in which Mary can safely reveal the depth of her emotional experience. Her life-or-death fear causes her body to flee after Gabriel’s leaving (Luke 1: 38 ). This same fear dampens or even freezes her emotions.
As a mirror Elizabeth reflects Mary’s internal truth. Elizabeth mirrors Mary and the child she carries as a blessing when she says“fruit,” and recognizes Mary as the mother of the LORD. Elizabeth is not the only life mirroring Mary. The life growing within Elizabeth also responds. The unborn child “leaps,” the text tells us. Two mirrors reveal Mary and the one who grows within Mary’s womb (Luke 1: 42-44 NRSV).
Advent this year fills us with many forms of grief. These sorrows collide with our collective and ongoing pandemic trauma. We who serve others also grieve and experience the pandemic’s ability to scare us. In our quiet moments we are Mary—scared, alone, and with frozen or dissociated emotions. We are traveling along an unknown road, a long way from what once was.
If we are Mary, we cannot pretend to be Elizabeth for the people we serve. Our mirror neurons reveal our inner truths for all other people’s mirror neurons to see and feel. Yet like Mary, we can reconnect with the people who function as our Elizabeth. We can connect with a trusted friend, mental health therapist, spiritual director, or even one of the many trauma healers providing free videos online right now. We can look into our Elizabeth mirror to see, feel, heal, reveal, and transform. And in doing so we can reveal God’s hope and promise for others.
Here are a few suggestions.
- Return to your human secure base or bases—the people who willingly see and hear you. Spend time with them face-to-face. Look into their eyes as you talk. Know our mirror neurons engage even over online platforms.
- Play the mirroring game with your secure base people. Face each other if you live in the same home, or try this online or outside at a safe distance, wearing masks. Make one person the leader. If the leader moves, move the same way. If the leader speaks, repeat what they say. The object is to reflect the other person like a mirror. Take turns being both the mirror and the reflection.
- Return to your human secure base or bases in your imagination. Close your eyes. Talk to someone you cannot talk to, perhaps a friend or close family member who has died or who lives far away. Hear their voice. See their face shining on you with love. Notice how your face responds, how the rest of your body shifts, and how your body fills up with new breath. Soak up their love, support, and belief in you like sun on a winter’s day.
- Stand in front of a mirror. Notice your posture and your full face: eyes, lips, cheeks, forehead and jaw. Really look. Notice the lines on your face. Are they creased? Heavy? Are your lips and cheeks pointing downward? Are your eyes avoiding the mirror? Imagine you are Mary hearing Elizabeth. What happens? How does your posture change? What happens to your facial muscles? Your breath? Say aloud, “I am blessed!” Say it again, as many times it takes for you to absorb Elizabeth into your Mary.
- Read Luke 1:39-45 aloud in a mirror. Play the part of Elizabeth. Proclaim loudly. “Blessed are you! Blessed are you!” Notice if your face changes even into a small smile. Ask God what your body tells you.
- Levine, Peter A. (2020) Experiential Exercises 1.
- Levine, Peter A. (1997) Walking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
- Levine, Peter A., Nyuk, Euphrasia, & Sylvae, Joshua. (2020). “Growing in Spirituality.” Ergos Institute.
- Spolin, Viola. (1983) Improvisation for the Theater, 2nd Edition. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
- Van der Kolk, Bessel. (2014) The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Viking.
About the Author
Jennifer Ohman-Rodriguez serves as Vicar and sole pastoral presence at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She is currently finishing a Master of Divinity degree at Luther Seminary, St. Paul and is in the ELCA candidacy process toward ordination in Word and Sacrament. Jennifer’s written work is found in a variety of 1517 Media publications such as Spark, Frolic, Whirl, Sundays and Seasons, and Christ in our Home. She curates the Trauma Recovery page at Compassionate Christianity and blogs about the place where faith and trauma healing collide. Jennifer holds degrees in music performance from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and early child development from the Erikson Institute, Chicago.
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