“Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled.” – Hebrews 12:14-15
I've often thought that church communities are just like secular ones when it comes to supporting and caring for their members – both fail in equally painful and dramatic ways. But at least in the Christian communities people know they ought to be trying for more compassion and inclusion.
While that is true, it is also true that Christian communities often have very huge, very dark shadows. Church members carry an unspoken set of assumptions about right behavior which have their roots in the unconscious, in the attitudes formed through participation in less than perfect families. Just like we unconsciously find intimate partners who are like our parents and then try to change them, we try to find churches that reflect the dysfunction with which we grew up and then we try to fix it. But since it's all subterranean longings and woundedness, this rarely works very well.
Clergy are the recipients of a lot of the projections of their parishioners – but clergy also do their own fair share of projecting. Like psychologists, they try to fix their families by fixing their church family surrogates. “Now they'll listen to me,” their inner little kids say. “I have the authority.”
When parishioners and priests collude in this unconscious attempt to fix things, a dark morass of co-dependency can form. Everybody takes care of everybody else, and this generally means supporting bad habits, failing to challenge one another, and insisting on keeping things comfortable. New people coming into the situation learn quickly where the hot buttons are, and they either fit right in with the unconscious ethos or they leave.
When one of the members of my church is bitterly angry, dissatisfied and resentful, I try to remember to attempt to learn what is going on in the unconscious. How can the deeper issues that person is suffering be brought up into the light and languaged? We tend to blame the complainer, our natural tendency being to locate the problem in some psychological material of theirs. But sometimes that is not the case. Sometimes it's the hidden pacts the whole community has made that are the problem. In that case, the whiner is actually a prophet come to name the brokenness, pull the morass into consciousness where it can be worked on, and lead us back to God.
Holy One who is with us in all our gatherings, give us the courage and stamina to listen to one another deeply, generously, and honestly so that we can be communities in which true holiness and grace can take root and grow. Amen.
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries.
The Wounded Angel - Hugo Simberg - public domain