The convent chapel was ugly, the ugliest I’ve ever seen. The walls were some kind of lumpy sandstone that hurt when you bumped into them, and the windows were small and dark. All the lighting was yellow and unpleasant. There was a monstrance on the altar in the front of the ugly wall. It was covered in what looked like a plastic grocery bag, but when somebody touched it I could see it was actually white cloth.
The nun I have referred to as Sister Angeline pulled the cloth off the monstrance, which was turned sideways, and turned the monstrance so we could all see Jesus suspended helplessly inside a brassy circle of abstract lines.
We Charismatics took out our booklets and began to pray.
It was hard to see the writing in the booklets, which were badly mimeographed and hand-stapled by somebody– perhaps by Sister Angeline. It was annoying to read in the yellow light. But after awhile I got used to it.
The prayer was for “healing the family tree.” Catholics in Sister Angeline’s particular faction of the Charismatic Renewal in Columbus were obsessed with healing the family tree. It was believed that hereditary mental and physical illnesses were passed along the family line by evil spirits, and if you could “bind and command” the evil spirits, you could rid your children of the diseases. It was also believed that certain vices and just plain old bad luck were passed along in the same way. Everything could be set right, generations of suffering reversed, if you said the prayers of healing the family tree.
Demons, it was believed, were probably why I was so anxious, emotional, shy, prone to irritable bowels and always got bullied. They were probably why my brother had a “rebellious spirit.” They were why the phone rang when we tried to have evening devotions. I used to believe my mother thought these things up herself, but I’ve come to understand they were what Sister Angeline and the Charismatic Renewal groomed her to believe when she was vulnerable and came to them for spiritual direction. It wasn’t my family’s fault; they were conned.
The prayer to heal the family tree was what I must not call a “binding ritual” because that sounds like magic, but I don’t know what else to call it. It began with, “In the name of Jesus place the cross over the heads of each of my family and loved ones” and then a series of prayers designed to “bind and command” any evil spirits lurking in our bloodlines and render them helpless to take vengeance on us for the amateur exorcism we were about to perform. I could only imagine what would happen if we didn’t say that prayer binding them good and tight. I pictured the demons leaving our blood line but not returning to hell where they belonged; they’d just flutter around the chapel for awhile and sit on the rafters like sparrows trapped in an airport. Then they would return sevenfold to poke and annoy and molest us. This kind of thought tormented me when I couldn’t sleep at night.
Then we started “binding and commanding” the evil spirits by name, and their names were legion. It was important not to miss one. We bound the spirit of heart disease, cancer, scoliosis and flat feet. We bound the spirit of depression, alcoholism and gambling. We bound the spirit of this and that, every conceivable misfortune. It went on for a solid hour: sixty minutes of naming and binding misfortunes.
That was all the holy hour was. The Blessed Sacrament was there in front of us, but I don’t remember adoring Him or paying much attention; we were paying attention to evil spirits. I don’t even think there was Benediction by a priest afterwards. I can’t say for sure, because I usually walked out less than halfway through for a long drink of water and bathroom break. Then I’d sit outside the chapel on a bench in the quiet, thinking, thinking how much I’d like to be a nun who taught in schools and lived in an ugly but quiet convent like this but didn’t go to “healing of the family tree” once a month, trying not to think about the devil who terrified me.
On the one hand, I could already see that this must all be nonsense. But on the other… I’d been taught that the Lord would speak to me through planting images in my mind, but I hadn’t been taught any kind of discernment to figure out which images might be from God and which might be my imagination. Because of this, I was always afraid that a passing mental image of the devil was a warning from God that I’d better do something to bind and command him before it was too late. I’d break out the Holy Water and start sloshing it around. I’d kiss my miraculous medal and make several hasty Signs of the Cross. This nervousness intersected with Sister Angeline’s fixation on apparitions and mysticism in particularly toxic ways; I was always wondering which of my sufferings were caused by demons, which were smiting from God as punishment, and which were sadistic gifts sent from God so I could offer it up. Which could be made to go away by binding demons, which could be made to go away by repenting of sins, and which God would be angry with me if I tried to get rid of because they were from Him.I admit that I’m still not cured of my upbringing. My friends who have had to sit with me through a flashback can attest to that. Having been spiritual abused like this is not something that just goes away when you realize that what you were told isn’t real.
I used to hate myself for being so gullible. But looking back now, my trauma seems like a totally understandable response for a girl in the third and fourth grade to have at such a toxic, anti-Christ religious experience. And I do use that phrase deliberately: anti-Christ. We were in the Presence of Christ turned away from Christ, binding demons and watching for signs and wonders when we ought to have been paying attention to Christ.
This is why I’ve often saltily remarked that Charismatics aren’t Christians. It’s not fair or correct of me, I admit. They are baptized, and that makes them Christians. But In my experience, these are people who kneel for an hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament– and instead of fixing their gaze on Christ Who dwells there, they choose to swat at demons. It’s superstition and magic, not Christianity, that is being practiced.
Here I am now, a recovering Charismatic but still practicing Catholicism because in spite of everything, I believe Christ is real and I want to seek Him. I am also a person living with a chronic illness despite all of my parents’ binding and commanding. I am not an excellent person, but I have found a more excellent way than the one that was taught to me.
I believe in miracles, and I have experienced some things I can only describe as miracles. But I also believe that most of our lives on this fallen earth take place in the space between miracles, and in the space between miracles, weakness and misfortune are always present. They are present for a reason that is really ineffable– no explanation does it justice. God didn’t send it and doesn’t will it, but through some tragedy it is. Nothing on earth goes exactly as planned. Nothing good on earth lasts intact very long. Disasters happen. Bodies break and hurt. Minds don’t work the way they’re supposed to. People do foolish things to mitigate the pain and make matters worse. In my experience, life is at least a little bit painful, most of the time, and this isn’t good. This is a bad thing, a result of the Fall. I suppose, in abstract, that pain makes the devil happy, if any sensations in a spirit who has devoted his whole self to hating his own existence can be said to be happy.
But God is infinitely more powerful and more interesting than the devil. God looked upon the fallen world and decided to come and dwell among us– not only standing present with us but among us, in us, in our bodies, in our pain, in our mental and physical illness, in our trauma, in our being victims in all the ways we can’t avoid. Christ became the Divine Victim and descended into hell to suffer with us, so that there will never be a state we can be in, where He is not– and so that suffering itself, terrible as it is, can become a thing of God.
If this is the reality that we live in and profess as Christians, nothing else matters in the same way. Here, where I am in my suffering, one with Christ, Christ suffering in me, Christ comforting and teaching me as well, Christ granting the odd miracle to get me through– it doesn’t even matter if there are demons in my family tree. I suspect there are not. But if they are; if they fly up into the rafters and flutter down to peck at me when I go to a Holy Hour– they don’t matter. They are nothing. Christ is everything.
If you’re going to go to a Holy Hour, spend it talking with Christ. If you’re invited by Charismatics to a “Healing the Family Tree” holy hour, politely decline and go do your own holy hour somewhere else. Pray for the people involved in that nonsense. Pray for Christ Who is already there to make Himself known.
The reality of suffering is so much more terrible, yet at the same time so much better than all of that.
(image via Wikimedia commons)
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