Thinking just now about the bullying post earlier, and how that traumatic experience of high school bullying shaped so much of my subsequent life. I recall six or seven years ago, when I left the Catholic Church after the abuse scandal broke me, not being able to explain quite fully to myself why I couldn’t control the rage, sometimes even the panic, contemplating what had been done by evil priests to Catholic children, and — more to the point — what the bishops in charge had allowed, over and over, to be done to those children.
When I left Catholicism, a number of people accused me of leaving for “emotional” reasons, and they weren’t wrong. But what they didn’t understand is that religion is not simply an intellectual thing. I really did lose my Catholic faith, in the sense that for whatever complicated reasons, I lost the ability to believe in it. Of course it was emotional, or driven by emotion — but it was no less real for that.
With some distance behind me, and having had to return, in the process of writing The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, to my youth, specifically my reasons for wanting to get out of my hometown, I have a better perspective on how and why the bullying (not only that one incident in the hotel room, but the two years of bullying that followed it) affected my faith life so profoundly nearly three decades later. Put simply, the bullying was the most traumatic event of my life. The Catholic abuse scandal awakened the empathy deep inside me for those abused kids, and my utter loathing of the authorities who could have stopped it, and who had a responsibility to stop it, but who were too cowardly to do the right thing. The urge to flee the trauma for the sake of self-preservation was overwhelming, and finally did overwhelm everything keeping me in place. I didn’t see any of that at the time.
The wisdom I am coming around to in all this — and I offer this to my fellow religious believers, whatever your church or religion — is that it will never, ever be enough to keep your religion in your head. It has to live in your heart. The way to make it live in your heart is through constant prayer and action. Not studying Scripture and thinking about theology, as important as those things are, but by engaging in an ongoing relationship with the Holy Spirit and with a community. If I had done that as a Catholic instead of occupying myself with reading books and arguing about theology and Church politics, I might have developed the roots to have held on.
Now that I’m Orthodox — and let there be no doubt that I’m so grateful to God for giving me another chance, this time in Orthodoxy — I am determined not to make the same mistakes. I can’t advise you strongly enough — Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or some other religion — to learn from my mistake. I thought it was enough that I had the apologetic arguments down pat in my head. True faith is not a mere set of propositions, though.