Of Divine Bondage: When the Ties of Religion Unravel

 

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above . . .

Two stories I was too dumbfounded by to blog about last night, and the tie that (pun intended) binds them.

Story 1: Sr Joan Chittister, OSB, is interviewed by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. The piece, as Diane at Te Deum notes, epitomizes everything that is wrong with the media coverage of the CDF-LCWR interaction, and with the GPS system of the bus the LCWR sisters are riding away on. Over at The Anchoress, Elizabeth Scalia does a beautifully reasoned, compassionate, and well-documented job of not only refuting Sr Joan’s errors, but mourning the very real loss to the Church of this once eloquent teacher of the monastic tradition.

It’s the tragedy of that loss that haunts me this morning. Watching the piece—of which I first became aware when I saw it described in National Catholic Reporter comboxes as the definitive TKO of the guys in the pointy hats—my anger at the cluelessness demonstrated by both women was only exceeded by my sadness at seeing how far Sr Joan has gone toward believing her own vigorous self-promotion as America’s Female Pope, how much she has become the vicious caricature of the American woman religious her name evokes among traditionalists. Sad, because hers were prodigious gifts, nurtured by the very Church whose dust she now shakes from her feet. Sad, because she’s not just talking crazy talk, she looks crazy, talking—wild-eyed, tight-jawed, spitting non sequiturs. O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!

Story 2: Sally Quinn, in a post to the WaPo’s On Religion blog yesterday, accounts for the unaccountable popularity of the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy among women by saying it satisfies their need for . . . religion. (Yes. That’s how I reacted, too. Wait a minute for your head to stop spinning, because you shouldn’t read on until your eyes come back around to the front.) 50 Shades, which has picked up the nauseating nickname “mommy porn,” is a sexually graphic trio of novels about the sadomasochistic relationship between a wealthy, domineering older man and an independent younger woman who learns to love submission. In other words, it’s the porn story (there is only one) retold for our time, in prose-if-you-can-call-it-that so painfully bad that the real sadomasochistic relationship here is that between writer and reader. (Full disclosure: I honestly attempted to read 50 Shades, because my women friends of all ages told me I needed to, but each time I flipped through one of the books I was repelled. Not by the sex. By the writing.)

Quinn says that women turned off by religion but still hungering for the sacred are finding in 50 Shades of Grey‘s interestingly named male protagonist “the God of many people’s imagination.”

Christian is at times punishing, sadistic, angry, demanding, intolerant, fickle, bewildering, withholding, omnipotent, omniscient, awesome, abusive, kind, generous, wise and — above all — loving and cherishing.

It’s a provocative thesis, and an explanation for the books’ popularity that I find more compelling than any other. Quinn raises a real question about why the same women who would be decrying a real-life Christian as an abusive partner—or an abusive hierarchy, if the women were nuns—are waxing, well, orgasmic about living vicariously in the shoes of the humiliated-yet-worshiped Anastasia.

What is it about being a submissive woman, as is the expectation for so many women in so many religions, that has such appeal?

There’s a clue, I think, in the word religion, something Story 1 and Story 2 have in common. A despised and devalued term in our I’m-spiritual-but-not-religious culture, religion comes from the Latin re + ligare, “to bind oneself again.” At heart, religion—like love in its essence—is voluntary submission to the Beloved. In the case of religious (as in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious) that binding is made more explicit and literal by the profession of solemn vows. Religion is quite simply the blest tie that binds.

But when the covenant relationship that is religion is ignored or purposely fractured, it goes bad in very bad ways. Story 1 and Story 2 illustrate two different bad-religion scenarios. When the element of submission is lacking, as it is (on both sides, I hasten to stress) in the LCWR’s relationship with the hierarchy, pride and hatred replace love. When the element of volition is lacking, as it is in the relationship celebrated in 50 Shades, oppression and self-gratification replace love. Remove the voluntary submission to the Beloved that is religion from life, as we have done in so much of our world, and all that’s left is sex and violence.

Sally Quinn is right. We crave bondage and discipline with the divine. If we go against that inbuilt impulse—if we let our stubborn need to be “right” and “free” force us to sever ties with with one another, as the LCWR and the CDF threaten to do, or to sever ties with God as so many Anastasias and Christians do in the real world—we will find ourselves cut loose, adrift, alone, easily exploited. Damned.

Any parent (especially one old enough to remember back before Velcro and flip flops) knows how often children need to be reminded and helped to re-tie their shoes, so they don’t trip. Story 1 and Story 2? They’re just one more reminder from the Beloved: Re-tie, re-tie, before you fall.

When we asunder part
It gives us inner pain
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.
~ “Blessed be the tie that binds,” hymn text by John Lawson

 

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