In a thread below, I mentioned that the Catholic sex abuse scandal was, for me, a “severe mercy,” in that it broke my spiritual and intellectual pride as a Christian. I wouldn’t go through that again — it was the worst experience of my life. Having my faith ripped out of me like that felt like the spiritual equivalent of having my molars extracted by pliers, without benefit of anesthesia. Still, I have to count what came out of it as good for me. Here’s what I mean.
I was a deeply convinced Catholic convert, but a fairly triumphalist one, and certainly prideful. Mind you, this had nothing to do with Catholicism per se, but rather with the kind of person I was. If I had been a convert to Orthodoxy, Lutheranism, or what have you, I would have been the same way. Though I would have denied it at the time, because I didn’t really know my own heart and mind, I was the sort of Catholic who believed that salvation was primarily a matter of holding the right beliefs in one’s mind, and maintaining one’s allegiance to the Catholic Church, as the guarantor of orthodoxy. Besides, I believed that Catholicism was the most intellectually credible form of Christianity, and was pretty proud of that fact.
Again, this was not really about Catholicism. It was about me.
The Scandal shattered that confidence and arrogance within me. There’s no need to tell that all-too-familiar story again (but if you want to read about it, go here). Looking back on what happened to me, I find myself thinking of one of the books that has meant the most to me in my life, a birthday gift in 1995 from my friend Tom Sullivan: The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. One letter in particular changed the way I thought of women, and courtship — and, I think, helped me see through a kind of self-deception that prolonged my own immaturity and unhappiness. It was a missive Tolkien sent to his son Michael, in 1941, warning him that as he pursues women, not to be deceived by the false ideals of medieval chivalry. Excerpt:
It is not wholly true, and it is not perfectly ‘theocentric’. It takes, or at any rate has in the past taken, the young man’s eye off women as they are, as companions in shipwreck not guiding stars. (One result is for observation of the actual to make the young man turn cynical.) To forget their desires, needs and temptations. It inculcates exaggerated notions of ‘true love’, as a fire from without, a permanent exaltation, unrelated to age, childbearing, and plain life, and unrelated to will and purpose. (One result of that is to make young folk look for a ‘love’ that will keep them always nice and warm in a cold world, without any effort of theirs; and the incurably romantic go on looking even in the squalor of the divorce courts).
This is true about the Church, as I now see (and by “the Church,” I don’t mean the Roman Catholic Church only, but the church universal). I had what you might call a chivalrous view (in the sense Tolkien means) of the Church, and built an entire faith around this ideal. Had I been wiser, I would have seen the Church as a companion in shipwreck. As it was, I reacted as if I had learned that my Fair Lady was a whore. It was an honest reaction, but not a mature one.
I hope I am a more mature Christian now. I am no longer a Catholic, of course, but I can never see the Orthodox Church, or any church, with the same eyes that I once viewed the Roman Catholic Church. This is good, because it is truthful, and more realistic. I passed through — at least I hope I passed through — a period of cynicism that Tolkien mentions above, with reference to the disillusioned romantic. I no longer look for the ecclesiastical ‘love that will always keep me warm in a cold world.’ I used to, but I think to do so is to set oneself up for disillusionment that will end in bitterness.
There’s a lot to that “companion in shipwreck” metaphor, regarding religious life. I find that I’m far more tolerant of people who fall short in terms of orthodoxy — this, because I can see now that I was once real big on orthodoxy (= right belief), but faith as an intellectual construct is not the kind of faith that saves. Don’t misunderstand: orthodoxy is really important, and I don’t think we should compromise on it. I believe what the Orthodox Church teaches is true, and I wish all Christians were Orthodox. But I also think it’s possible to affirm that everything the Orthodox teaches is true, and still go to hell. I also think it’s possible to fail to do that, but to go to heaven. Which is only to say that I understand I Corinthians 13 a lot better than I used to.
Here’s an example just this week of how the chastisement of the Scandal changed my view of Christianity and church life.
When I went to Baton Rouge to record the audiobook of “Little Way,” I had to drive through a poor and hardscrabble part of town. The studio was in a warehouse district of north Baton Rouge (off South Choctaw, for you BatonRouge readers); to get there required motoring through urban poverty the likes of which I haven’t seen in some time.
I ran across signs for black churches in the area. The wording and presentation on these signs and billboards indicated that these places are probably Prosperity Gospel outposts, or if not that, at least the kinds of places that, in terms of theological sophistication, would not have been a threat to the Scholastics. I can give you chapter and verse of why I think these kinds of churches are theologically wrong, even dangerous. But you know what? Those pastors are down there in the worst part of Baton Rouge, ministering to the poorest and most desperate communities in the city. I thought about how something I’d once read — I think it was the Orthodox seminary professor Fr. Alexander Schmemann — advised a young Christian who said he wanted to be a monk not to go to the monastery at first, but to try his vocation by renting an apartment in the poor part of town, and living there as if he were a monk — praying, fasting, being a good neighbor to the poor, sharing their suffering. If he could do that for a year and found himself fed by it, then maybe he really did have a vocation to the monastery.
When I was a young Catholic, single and full of Thomas Merton, I thought that maybe I had a vocation as a monk. I did not, of course, but years later, reading that Schmemann (if indeed it was Schmemann), I wondered if I would have had the courage to test my vocation that way. I didn’t wonder it for long. Of course I wouldn’t have had that courage. I could live decently enough without nice things, I thought, but I couldn’t live in a place that scared me, among people who scared me.
I grew up around poverty in the country. It didn’t scare me. Urban poverty, for whatever reason, scares me. A lot. So do the urban poor.
In the past, if I had been driving around that neighborhood, and had seen those black church signs, I would have smirked at them. I would have run through in my mind all the theological errors in Prosperity Gospel-ism, street-corner Pentecostalism, and — it pains me to say this — I probably would have snickered at the vulgarity of that kind of Christianity. The gaudy emotionalism, I mean.
I have no more sympathy for the Prosperity Gospel today than I ever did, nor am I more sympathetic to the aesthetic and emotional forms of that brand of Christianity. The difference is this. This week when I drove through that neighborhood, and saw those little storefront churches, and their billboards promising “victory” and suchlike, I prayed for those pastors and those church leaders. There they are, in the most depressed, chaotic, and suffering part of the city, preaching the Gospel. The people of that district are the most shipwrecked of us all, and there those pastors are, doing what they can, with what they’ve been given, to help, and to show hope to the hopeless, and light to those dwelling in darkness.
And where am I? I am inside my locked car, motoring through, eager to get to the Interstate and hoping I don’t break down.
I prefer the evangelism and works of mercy those Christian brothers and sisters do to the evangelism and works of mercy that I do not do. And I know that I need to do something about that. Like, repent.
That’s a difference the Scandal made in me. Again, it’s not that orthodoxy, as many liberal Christians would say, can and should be tossed aside. It’s only that it must be understood from a broader perspective. Life is a shipwreck, and we’re all staggering around on the beach, trying to help each other make sense of it all, and get through this catastrophe and find our way back home.