by Charles LaFond
“We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. “
Jack Gilbert – A Brief For The Defense
Being a priest in this gorgeous, anxious church as it molts into something new, requires great courage and a determination to face the fire, stay in the fire even. But then… then… there is always the delight of such kind parishioners for they abound no matter what others assault – and they will. But hold fast for there are so many more kind people in our church than wackos.
Recently I was with a family that was going through a kind of hell, as so many do. We all go through them and many of us go through them unawares. A terrible loss, a horrible abuse of relationship, a diagnosis, a mother drinking too much, a father disconnected to himself or overly connected, a donor playing church terrorist with money or power or whatever. And worst of all are the effects of the trauma suffered as children – effects which are playing out in adulthood in so many kinds of narcissistic pathologies in so many churches, drop by drop, every day.
So many people walk around on the planet carrying the wounds of their childhood and their entirely un-diagnosed, un-medicated and un-confined pathol0gies. Mothers who were un-boundaried, fathers who were absent, or vice versa. Clergy or Bishops whose hagiography is little more than an unconvincing and thin veneer. All these set in motion a kind of pain-cocktail which can and will affect children, colleagues, dioceses and churches throughout their life. There is no application system for parenthood. We must earn a license to drive a car but having a child is unregulated and the results can be seen at dinner tables, nightly news and the hallways and vestries of any church. And then there are the others – those lovely, kind, honest clergy, bishops and laity whose goodness is the milk and honey of God’s body, the church.
People walk around in fine clothes, bright smiles and holding agendas with white knuckles; all the while, just beneath the surface, they struggle with terrible wounds suffered in their first seven years and never diagnosed nor healed and which spread social diseases of anger, resentment, and manipulation through families and communities. And all the while they are absolutely convinced that they are just fine – it’s the rest of humanity that is messed up.
In seminary we are taught to see and to try to avoid transference. It’s priest-craft 101. We are taught that the pain and sorrow, regret and repression, old wounds and new ones which people carry around inside them will be projected onto the clergy. We are also taught that the people doing this will have no idea they are doing it at all. Clergy are easy targets. We stand there, trying to help. And so we are the first to get sucker-punched because, well, who will know?
As any church moves through times of transition in its life, we will all need to be kind to each other. Churches which have faced abuse, or which include active, un-boundaried bullies, the border-line personality disordered, the mildly-undiagnosed insane or sociopaths, will take decades to heal and will require much of their energy to name and confine so that the least number of congregants or churches get hurt. We will need to assume good intention even while boldly, courageously naming relational misconduct. We will need to forgive each other a lot. And those who have survived lay or clergy misconduct will need to have the courage to tell their story – to shout it from steeples.
Recently at the dinner table with this family about which I wrote earlier, we did not talk about the dad who was so ill with cancer. That was easy to see – to know. Instead we talked about what it means to be a family, what it means to forgive over and over and over, what it means to help without being asked, what it means when the non-victim self-victimizes for attention, and what it means to assume good intention even when disappointed. We talked about what it means to express grief appropriately and what it means to repress it so that the steam builds up and burns others by sneaking out the side of our pressure-cooker-selves. As we ate dessert, we went around the table and each chose one single word that expressed how we were feeling. It was obvious that talking about feelings in that family was rare, hard and new.
There are not enough therapists to heal the wounds people carry, even if people were courageous enough to try to get the help. But what we can do in families, in dioceses and in churches is to decide to exchange fear for curiosity. That one little step of great humility is the beginning of wholeness. Many are too attached to their fear and their opinions to be able or willing to be curious. The relational or financial terrorists in our churches just bully others until they get the agreement that supports their flagging self-esteem. But there is another way. It only takes a few to begin to change the PH balance in a community or family by naming the crazies and starting to confine their explosions.
I love A Brief For The Defense – the poem by Jack Gilbert above. You can see hints of it all throughout this meditation. It takes so much courage in our churches to stand up to bullies or to name the elegantly but emotionally unwell – especially when they are rich or powerful or eloquent. But name them and confine them we must. For if we do not, then we will not find the delight which is God’s gift to us even in the ruthless furnace of this world.
I do not know what the Holy Spirit is or how she works. I see her work though. What I do know, to my core, is that she laughs, she is mischievous and she is utterly fearless; asking a lot of questions. And might have a wand. I mean, maybe.
We have intellectual intelligence that we call IQ. We even have emotional intelligence which we call EQ. But we, in the church – Christ’s only remaining body –we need to look harder at SQ, the spiritual intelligence which confines bullying egos, which deters sneaky parking-lot conversations, which loves mercy, forgives easily, names and confines ecclesial terrorists and hostage-takers and hears the laughter every day even in the most terrible of streets … and does something about it …which requires a flesh-gouging sacrifice. Church is of course prayer and praise, yes. But church only passes the corridor between ceremony to ritual when it names evil with great courage and then prays about it. We need prayers but also diagnosis, the protection of the innocent, the naming of relational misconduct and the willingness to hear the laughter between the suffering of the women at our wells.
“Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine.”