Something changed inside of me during the week following this summer’s shattering Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on sex abuse in the Catholic Church. I began facing serious PTSD-like flashbacks about an experience I had with a priest who betrayed my trust and stomped on my dignity a few years ago. Though I had mourned and processed that experience as honestly as I could since it happened, it was only with breaking of the Grand Jury report that I began to understand my experience within the systemic structures that allow the kind of abuse and manipulation by clergy that has plagued the Roman Catholic Church for so long.
I’m compelled to write about my experience because though I respect the intent, I’ve been unable to share the conviction of the authors of the numerous “Why I stay Catholic” pieces which have emerged following the report. Rather, I feel the spirit calling me away from the institutional Church and into a place of yet-to-be imagined creativity. And with this new revelation, I feel both grief and peace.
I’ve been on the edge of the Church for some time, working within to reform it, and despite many years of hitting my head against the patriarchy, I always wanted to hold on. I didn’t want to give up. But I don’t feel this way anymore, and finally, I feel confident to step away.
I was raised Catholic in Lincoln, Nebraska, the most conservative diocese in the country, where girls are not allowed to be altar servers and the bishop refused to comply with the USCCB’s sex abuse audit after the wake of the Boston scandals. Yet thanks to public school and Jesuit undergraduate and graduate education, and a variety of jobs working social justice-centered organizations, I eventually worked my way into a comfortable spirituality, on the edge of the Church, much closer to the teachings of Richard Rohr and similar writers. His spirituality and writings focus on a personal relationship with God and following the spirit as guide, rather than the institution. He writes about listening with our bodies, and trusting in the wisdom we develop by contemplative practices.
Over the years I have struggled to work past the rage and disillusionment the hierarchy of the Church has caused me, and through it, I’ve also witnessed a lot of mirrored pain in myself and in others who work to reform the Church. I find this quote by Rohr to be accurate for many people involved in working against the Church and other oppressive systems:
“We all become a well-disguised mirror image of anything that we fight too long or too directly. That which we oppose determines the energy and frames the questions after a while. You lose all your inner freedom.”
Responding to crisis over and over – what does that do to a person? Is it worth the pain? Is it worth taking on the energy, the “mirror image” of a decayed, sexist patriarchy? Continuing to identify as a Catholic – to be hurt over and over by insane things the clergy do, by, as Sister Nicole Trahan wrote in Global Sisters Report “The Evils of Clericism.” is just not in my best interest anymore. Staying “in the Church” feels like staying in an abusive relationship.
You know what we’re supposed to do with abusive relationships? We’re supposed to leave them.
It hasn’t been easy for me to vocalize this emerging feeling. Since I began being re-tormented by memories, I have looked for ways to respond creatively to the traumatic energy as a way of processing. The growth has led to many unplanned late-night writing sessions and also several interpretative dance sessions to Phil Collins in my living room in the 4am hour. Rather than lying in bed, my head screaming, letting the bad clergy energy bring me down one second longer, I’ve put on my headphones – and felt the spirit support my flailing limbs and lift my heart.
I felt the spirit support my mind too, in finally writing down what has been circling around my unconscious. This essay is me “catching” the idea, to quote Elizabeth Gilbert in her fantastic book on creative energy, Big Magic.
This creative energy led me to confidently understand: It is a positive and life-giving choice for me to let go of the burden of the institutional Church. Another way of saying this would be: Not my circus, not my monkeys.
And maybe the spirit is leading me, and (likely) others, away for a reason. Who are any of us to say the institution ought to be reformed at all costs? What about the cost to our well-being, our souls, right now? I believe I am being called to drop the burden because I need more space in my life to work toward the good.
It’s simply in my best interest at this point to find God among the trees, in interactions with the wonderful sisters I work with and in my relationship with family, my dear partner and friends. I find God in creativity, in the act of cooking for others, in early-morning runs, in my writing, in dancing and music and dreams, and to more ecumenical spiritual settings, like Rohr’s “Center for Action and Contemplation”.
I can’t imagine what the survivors from the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report and countless others have gone through. As someone who has experienced recurring emotional trauma directly caused by the clergy, I just want to say that anyone feeling pressured for whatever reason, to stay in the Church or uncomfortably defend it – just listen to the spirit, in whatever way she’s talking to you. If she’s leading you someplace new, you’ll still be in good company. And who knows what kinds of creative responses to life can be found in the future, whether in or outside of the institution.
There is something freeing at claiming this independence from needing the Roman Catholic label. Because if I’m honest, one reason I’ve felt compelled to stay within the Church is the power of that label. Its power for good, to be an influence of peace and light for politics, governments and people worldwide. But with that power comes an exclusivity, and in group and and out group. It’s a little scary to step outside of these familiar structures.
I won’t pretend there isn’t grief in letting go. It’s deeply painful and feels like a death of sorts. But I trust that God wants me to be in a place that is good, nurturing, and healthy for me, and for us all. There is more than enough space and light and goodness for us in this universe. Maybe what the Church needs is for people to stop demanding institutional reform and instead create anew, outside of the power structures that have hurt so many.
What would this look like? I don’t know. But I trust the spirit of creativity to lead the way.
Sophie Vodvarka enjoys writing about creative living, particularly, spirituality, art, travel, and current affairs. She has an affinity for gypsy music and lives joyfully in Chicago with her partner. Follow her blog @ Straight into Oblivion and on Twitter @SophieVodvarka