Last month, I posted a guest post by a dear friend of mine, about her spiritual abuse at an Orthodox monastery associated with a group known as the Ephraimites. The post got moderate attention at first, but then a month later it was discovered by a supporter of the Ephraimites, and the combox exploded. He verbally abused my friend in several different comments and made a fool of himself. Thankfully, this person was shouted down and refuted by several Orthodox people, one of whom even had a long passage from the decrees of the Russian Orthodox Church explaining why he was wrong. I learned quite a bit about Orthodoxy and came to respect it even more.
Then someone else joined the discussion. This commentator said that he was the father of the young novice who was (allegedly) spiritually abused into severe mental illness by the Ephraimites, and who eventually committed suicide. He posted an impassioned denunciation of their monastery and of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in general, whom he believes are all cultists. And I don’t blame him for thinking that after what he’s suffered. I can’t even begin to imagine that kind of agony or what I’d do if a supposed spiritual authority hurt my child to that extent. I’ve met wonderful Greek Orthodox people and I’ve even prayed at some of their liturgies, but I can see how a trauma like that would make you despise the whole tradition, just as Catholic spiritual abuse victims often despise Catholicism.
When I was a teenager, I witnessed the victims of Regnum Christi come back from the so-called pre-candidacy school in Rhode Island, after they’d been told that “Jesus doesn’t want you” and sent home in the middle of a term. They were severely traumatized; one of them turned to drugs and developed an eating disorder.
What struck me was that people expected they could just get over it. That they’d remain Catholic, go to a Catholic high school in town, and go on with their lives with their faith unshaken. There wouldn’t be any lasting effect to that much suffering at the hands of a spiritual leader.
A lot of people think you can just “get over” spiritual abuse.
I’ve been abused by supposed spiritual authorities a couple of times myself– not anywhere near as severely as my commentator’s son, thank God, but I’ve been in similar places, and it definitely changed me in ways I can’t just shake off. I’ve been told I should, by a lot of people. There’s a persistent commentator whose sock puppet accounts I’ve had to block three times, who’s adamant that I ought to get over it.
“You act as if everyone goes to church specifically to hurt you,” he’s said, and “You know, Mary, a lot of us have bad experiences in our childhoods and get over them.” He’s informed me that I’m a “textbook narcissist,” “mendacious” and “bitching on the internet” as well, for speaking openly about abuse by authorities in Catholic circles at places which are famous for their piety. And I know that I ought to be able to overlook him and move on. Then again, this particular troll goes to my church and I have to see him in person, so it’s difficult.
It makes me scared to go to church at all, frankly.
As Christians, we’re taught to view our souls as the deepest and most valuable parts of ourselves. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, yet lose his soul?” Christ asks, and I believe Him. I believe that the soul is the most important part of me. It would be better to surrender everything I had including my bodily life, than to sever my soul’s union with her creator. That kind of talk is romanticized sometimes, and I don’t think it should be. It isn’t pretty. It’s terrible. God doesn’t want people to lose everything including their bodily lives; He wants His sons and daughters to be fully alive, happy and whole. His commands were meant to make us whole. It is a tragedy and a horror when someone is tortured into choosing between their soul and the rest of themselves. But if it comes down to the wire, my soul is my priority.
And that’s why spiritual abuse is so horrendous and so difficult to overcome. Spiritual abusers prey on your soul. They threaten to cut your soul off from God. They claim that if their victims violate their commands– if they don’t shut up, accept the abuse and “Get over it”– then their victims will lose their souls, the most valuable parts of themselves.
God is love. God is mercy. God desires that all of His children be gathered together in peace, joy and wholeness, in zealous, scandalous love. But I don’t see God in His fullness every day. I see Father so-and-so, Brother such-and-such, Sister Whomever, Mrs. X the catechism teacher and Mr. Y the cantor. I see the visiting bishop and the priest from out of town. I see the lady who remembers to bring gluten-free snacks to the doughnut social and the lady who glares at me from the other pew. I see the traditionalist Latin priest in his pom-pom hat, the more modern cheery priests in their Roman collars. I see scholars and fools, saints and sinners. I see people who have been charitable to me in a hundred ways, people who didn’t mean any harm, and also people who relish doing harm and call it righteousness. I see people. These are the people who bear the image and likeness of God, and some of them have abused, and claimed they did it in the name of God.
It can get to the point where a person associates all of these people with the abusers, because of their trauma and suffering. That soul cringes away from Christians the way a shell-shocked soldier cringes from a backfiring car. It’s natural. God sees our struggle and only He can truly judge.
And no, we can’t just get over it.
We need mercy, gentleness and understanding, not attacks.
(image via Pixabay)