How the Church retained me through my 20s and how I grew disaffected by my 30s (Part 2)


In my first post, I illustrated the ways in which I had been invested in the Church as I was growing up and through my 20s. I also intimated some of the experiences which led to a growing disaffection with the Church. In this post, I will elaborate on those more negative aspects; hopefully I do not come across as whining or self-pitying.  That is certainly not my intent.  Rather, my intent is to place my personal experience in written form so that I can reflect on it more fully and derive something of worth to other people from it.  The post is not all negative, and it does end with hope.

The third and final post in this series will examine the elements of my own experience and attempt to tease out generalities which can be fruitfully applied to help retain and attract members.

I’ve already mentioned a few initial experiences which started to push me away from Church. Luckily, these experiences were few and far enough apart that I was able to have my trust in staying with a community restored by other members, clergy or laity.

The first was confession to the Irish American priest. The antidote was going to confession to other priests, of whom we were fortunate to have two or three more. yet what struck me more was the rather severe paternalistic attitude the priest adopted “if your friend is ill, you don’t give them a remedy, you send them to a doctor.” Well, we know where that metaphor fell flat in my life. I became an acupuncturist specifically to further my studies in herbal medicine, because I did, in fact, recommend (European) herbal remedies to ill friends all the time.

The next was not being able to teach CCD (Roman Catholic catechism or Sunday School). This seemed to deny my vocation.

I should mention something else between these two events, however. I went away to college. I came out. After I broke up with that first boyfriend, I felt the absence of my former vocation to the priesthood. Why it had been lost, I am not sure; but I prayed intensely that it be given to someone who would greatly appreciate it, as I had not. I felt the vocation return. I was more grateful than words could express (though not, it seems, enough to have entered a Seminary at that time, nor in the years subsequent). Still uncertain about the waters of priestly ministry, I would proceed slowly: if I could teach, do some sort of lay ministry, perhaps I could get a taste of what it would be like.

Not being able to teach seemed a blow to this attempt. Especially as it came from a priest who knew I was capable of it. He also knew I favoured Byzantine theology, so perhaps he was afraid I’d instill doubts about Latin theology in the children’s minds. That was hardly my intent, and frankly, I do somewhat fault the idea that we must shelter our teenage children from all doubts and assaults on their faith. It seems too much like keeping children away from those communicable diseases which strengthen the immune system. It is a bad idea, and the result in adulthood is much more devastating than anything a child would go through as they try to make sense of the world around them, and form their own structures for acting and creating meaning for themselves.

There were also two other moments which were somewhat confusing. One was the priest who tried to dissuade me from deepening my practice, as I mentioned. The other was a little more intriguing, since the priest actually confessed his own intellectual conundrum with St John of the Cross’s advice to deny one’s own will. Doesn’t following that advice and opting for the longer path over the shorter, the difficult of the easy, etc — doesn’t that actually mean we are still following our own will? Today, I would offer two answers. The first is the observation that it is for this very reason that those who wished to deny their own wills would enter a monastery and pledge monastic obedience to the abbot or abbess. The other is that St John is recommending we deny the egoistic or animal will in order to cultivate the spiritual will; in the terms of Chinese medicine, self-denial would serve to strengthen the “will-within-the-will”. In terms of Byzantine theology, one is allowing the uncreated energies of the Trinity to manifest through a synergy of your will with the Divine life, so that your previously crooked will can become divinised and strengthened in this outpouring of grace. The Syriac Book of Steps offers further insight, but I am digressing. This incident was not terribly alienating, certainly not as much as the former question “Are you Francis, are you John?”

One more aspect of my time in Albany deserves to be mentioned, and that is the attitude of my classmates to Catholicism (in particular).  Two incidents stand out.  One is the first boyfriend who went to a Catholic high school trying to tell me how much “they” hate “us”.  He related an incident in one of his health or religion classes in which the teacher came in and the first thing that teacher said was, “All those bitches at Planned Parenthood are going straight to Hell.”  This sort of discourse was never heard around me when I was growing up, regardless of one’s political stance on abortion.  Neither were homosexuals grouped together and condemned.  I’m not sure if homosexuality was ever discussed at all, but it was grouped in the somewhat anomalous category of “sexual sins.”  I encountered the Church’s position on it more through books than anything else.

The other attitude I encountered was a scoffing at the mere idea that Catholicism or Christianity had any “mystical” elements in it at all.  This in particular pained me to hear, since it was exactly that sort of Catholicism that I knew and loved, not that other sort filled with polemic and vituperation.  Although I could be allowed my eccentricity by some people, I did end up slowly feeling like I must be somehow wrong.  How did I end up with such a different view of Catholicism than my classmates?  Ironically, I seemed to have a worldview more akin to the folks in the Pagan Student Association (whose treasurer, as I recall, was Catholic, not Pagan).  We all held a medieval or late-antique perspective on the workings of the world and spiritual life.  (This was pointed out to me by the treasurer.)

It isn’t always the clergy who turn people away from the Church.  Often, it is the laity, or the already disaffected.

In any event, being Orthodox gave me some respite.  Orthodoxy is often viewed by outsiders as more ancient, mystical, or even exotic — at least by those who know of its existence.  For those who don’t, well, you can’t well criticize the public stances of something which doesn’t end up often in the media.

After moving to SF,  it took a little time to integrate myself at a new parish.  I arrived during Holy Week and met a few people at that time, but of course they melted away after Easter.  The regular Sunday crowd took a little time to get to know, but I was introduced and was able to socialise somewhat after services.  Being introduced to a young deacon who had immersed himself in Patristic writings was definitely one of the highlights.  I think he was sent over to me after I asked some obscure theological question of the priest.

The trouble came when I had two brief run-ins with the parish priest.  I had recently started visiting some monks living north of the Bay Area.  The abbot encouraged me to look into going to seminary in Greece, Thessaloniki in particular, rather than in Boston.  I would be in proximity to Athos, I would have truly Orthodox teachers whose spiritual fathers were often Athonite monks, and I would in general be better off.  To do this, I should ask my priest to write a letter of recommendation to me, to see if the bishop might sponsor me.  So I wrote to the parish priest, and his response was that he would make such a recommendation as he did not sense the vocation to the priesthood in me, and the bishop certainly would not sponsor someone he did not know.

This was incredibly shocking to me.  Not only had I grown up with people expecting me to become a priest, I had also recently been accepted to the Orthodox Seminary in Brookline.  Obviously the people who wrote recommendations for me, the Chancellor of the NY diocese — they must have seen something.  Why was it now absent?  I wrote off a quick response to the priest (I was 22, after all, and not prone to reflection when stung by literature).  I seem to recall writing something along the lines that I would become a priest eventually whether he liked it or not.  The net result was a definite curtailment of interaction on our part.

On the other hand, some weeks later, Presvitera, the priest’s wife, kindly came over and started talking to me.  So a certain amount of reconciliation or peace prevailed.  And I asked the bishop’s deacon for a letter to go to Athos, which it turns out was not required.

I went to Athos, thrilled to be back home in Europe.

St Gregory of Sinai writes if one begins to come to harm from a spiritual father, you must leave him immediately.  Indeed.

Athos, a friend pointed out to me, is an experience I usually refer to in more negative than positive terms.  Let me state at the outset that it was not entirely negative, nor do I regret going.  I am certainly wiser for it.

My first experience was being told the monks I had been visiting in CA were now part of a break-away sect from the Orthodox church.  This was told to me by a friend of the abbot of that monastery I had been visiting.

Then I was encouraged to be rebaptised.  To do this I should go to a particular monastery, they wouldn’t ask questions but would lead me to the sea and that would be it.  I was not convinced that I should be rebaptised.  All my life I had confessed a belief in “one baptism for the remission of sins.”  I had learned that it was not the universal tradition of the ancient church to perform rebaptisms, and in the sixteenth century that was exactly the question at issue with the Anabaptists.

If there is any way to imply without actually stating that someone is not a part of the Church it is to tell them they must get baptised.  Again.  And that the sacraments they have already received — chrismation, for example — is not valid.

I was also told my problem was that I had not committed to Orthodoxy and was still too Catholic.  Apparently I would correct misconceptions the Orthodox monks had about Catholicism, and this was viewed as traitorous.  The monk would look for a tract against St Francis for me to read; that would convince me of the errors of Catholicism.  I read it.  I found it anything but scholarly.  First it did not address the question initially posed of the writer.  Second, it made use of a late work on the life of St Francis written for a popular audience (in Italian, no less).  To have a better article, the author should have gone back to Thomas of Celano or Bonaventure’s Life of Francis.  Third, it seemed to just degenerate into Catholic bashing.  When the monk later came back to ask what I thought, I said I found the piece unconvincing and not scholarly.  The monk scowled and walked away.  Another monk seemed interested in why I felt that way, and patiently listened, before I was on my way.

I had also mentioned my reasons for coming to Athos — I had a choice to make:  become a doctor of Oriental Medicine or enter the monastery.  Little did I know this touched off a buzz word bandied about on Athos.  “Widsom of the East.”  So I was sent to a monk who had apparently once been part of some Buddhist cult in Montreal.  He advised me not to go into acupuncture, since it would inculcate in me ‘the mind of the Fathers’.  Neither was I going to be allowed to be a monk until I lived celibately in the world for months or years, since in a moanstery I would be surrounded by men.  (Not that I was attracted to men with beards).  Nor could I do my other fallback option, dance.  I could nto study any sort of medicine except modern western medicine — even Unani Tibb was forbidden to me, although I’m fairly certain the monk didn’t know that this was Greco-Arab medicine.  It was all steeped in paganism and delusion.  Even their gods appear to them in those many armed shapes, and all was filled with sensuality and materiality.

Even the yin-yang symbol, another monk explained to me, was problematic, namely, the belief that everything is good and evil and that in every good thing is a little bit of evil and a little bit of good in everything evil.  I tried to explain to the monk that this was a Western misinterpretation, that the yin-yang came from the Naturalist school of thought in China and that it was a representation of nature at work, not human morality.  The lion kills the lamb — this is neither good nor bad.  Yin-Yang was originally a representation of a hill, with one side in the shade and another in the light.  Besides, the most ancient representations of Yin Yang had no little dot inside the “fish”.  It was simply a circle split in half.   (I don’t recall if I mentioned to him my position that “That which is good when defined against evil is not true good.”)

I must confess the comment about thangkas tipped me off to the monk having been in a cult rather than a more mainstream tradition of Buddhism.  I was always taught the iconography was symbolic.  I was also taught that one holds the icon in mind, knowing its symbolism, and just that had its effect.  If the image started talking to you or moving around, that was problematic.  Not unlike Orthodox icons, it would seem.  But I did not venture to explain this.

(Ironically, I saw an icon smile at me at another monastery, which shocked me.  I ran to ask the American novice what he could tell me about that particular icon.  He looked at me funny and said, “Well, it has told some people to become monks here.  It has actually talked to them before they become novices.  Why?”  Needless to say, I was greatly comforted that I had gotten off so lightly.  I think I would have fainted dead away if it had spoken to me.)

At another monastery the next day, I spoke to an Australian monk who shrugged and said, “Why not acupuncture?”  The Chinese pilgrims I met on the Holy Mountain uniformly suggested I go to China to study — it would be cheaper and more thorough.

Then came the confession and excommunication incident.  Interestingly, this monk gave me a pamphlet on Chinese martyrs.  He seems to have heard I was interested in Chinese medicine, so thought I would appreciate the material.  He had no interest in dissuading me from studying Chinese medicine.  He was more interested in getting me baptised again.  He also gave me a postcard of a monastery in Lebanon, Deir Hamatoura, since he had noticed I spent more time with the Arabs than any other group at that monastery.  Deir Hamatoura later turned out to be one of the reasons I haven’t actually left the Church.

Around the same time, I met up with a lay pilgrim who had come to Greece from the States in order to live a more Orthodox life and learn Greek (his girlfriend was Cypriot).  He was a convert from the Episcopal church.  He was well esteemed by the monks of the first monastery I had visited.  He also recommended a second baptism, especially since it would have a good exorcism, which in his assessment, I apparently needed.  We got along cordially enough, but the interaction ultimately left a bad taste in my mouth.  One of the Arab guys who became a mutual friend of ours observed that sometimes when Protestants convert to Orthodoxy they go a little overboard — everything they had been taught beforehand was so different from Orthodoxy.  My view was similar — when Protestants convert to Orthodoxy, they are able to keep all the prejudices against Catholicism they held previously.  Two of the monks at that first monastery were converts from Protestantism, actually.

This is not to deny the very real differences between the spirituality of the Orthodox and those of the Latins, a difference I hope to explore elsewhere.  It certainly does exist.  What I am trying to point out, however, is the continuing polemic between East and West which affects the lay people as well as monastics and clergy.

Then there was the interview with Geronda at another monastery.  “I met him, and he told me my entire life,” a fellow pilgrim claimed.  This was a monastery at which I stayed for a longer period of time — a month, perhaps.

After Bright Week, I left Athos and ended up living in Beirut for several months.  My experience of the Church there was quite positive, as I mentioned earlier.  However, one statement which stayed with me made me think twice about how my entering a monastery could be perceived — other people’s perceptions about my motivations being something I had never given any thought to.  It was an odd comment, but seemed to imply that this particular person understood I was going to become a monk because I was decidedly not heterosexual, and not being able to marry a woman, the only other option open to a pious Christian was the monastery, a choice he respected.  This was entirely not in any of the reasons for becoming a monk I had ever fathomed in myself.  I realised something was amiss in his view, and it troubled me.  Why I should care what other people thought of my reasons for choosing a vocation is something I have not yet grappled with fully.  In any event, this particular pilgrim was Romanian, and aside from that one spare comment (which was made in Lebanon, incidentally), my experience of people in the Church in Romania was quite positive.  (Although one monk nearly choked on his soup when he learned if I were to choose a monastery, it would be in Constantinople.)

I came back to CA, but being excommunicated, my attendance at Divine Liturgy dropped off.  Then I went off to Spain, where likewise, my attendance at liturgy was slim (not the least because I saw no Orthodox or liturgically Mozarabic churches in Granada.)

The next post with this title will pick up from when I came back to California after living in Spain, and my attempts to give Church attendance another try.  This next period in my life was characterised by a partnership with a Jewish man three years my senior, and with whom I formed a life and family for the next eight years.

(Originally written on the Feast according to the Latin Rite of St Benedict of Nursia, July 11, 2010)

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