A Season of Judgment, and Purifying Fire

A Season of Judgment, and Purifying Fire December 2, 2018

Going to mass, this past year, has not been easy. First, there is always the danger, no matter which local parish I attend, of running into one of the people who harassed and libeled me at my former academic post. When not in church I can amuse myself by giving them sly, knowing looks – as though they have a booger hanging out of their nostril, or toilet paper on their shoe, and I’m not going to say – but this seems not quite a fitting attitude for worship.

Then there was my family’s mounting frustration with our former parish priest, an authoritarian individual who seemed utterly unaware of the basics of theology, but instead pulled deranged scripture exegesis out of thin air, while also treating his congregation as though we were village idiots desperately in need of his enlightenment. We finally had enough, left the parish, and have been the proverbial “roaming catholics” ever since.

Then, of course, the sex abuse scandal broke, and it wasn’t just the horror of the details: it was that they clearly hadn’t learned from the last go-around. And, to judge from the behavior of many bishops, are still refusing to learn. In the months since we first heard of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, so many of my friends have left the church, and I can’t blame them. And many of us who remain, meanwhile, are asking ourselves: how can we stay, without being complicit?

Now it is Advent, and I am tempted to put these worries behind me, and simply focus on my favorite season of the liturgical year, the season of darkness in which we light the lights, the season that is all in a minor key, but a minor key of expectancy.

Last Sunday, though, the pastor at the church we were visiting inadvertently highlighted the impossibility of this attitude. In all sincerity and kindness, he reminded us that “if we have loved ones who have drifted away from the church, what a wonderful time this would be to invite them back.”

Drifted? No, more like set sail and caught the biggest wind – pulled out the oars and rowed for their lives. This is especially true for victims of abuse themselves. Why would they want to come back into churches, places where the worst memories of their lives might be triggered? Especially since church leaders seem to be regarding the abuses within their own institution with either bureaucratic lethargy, or maniacal scapegoating. We’re not seeing a lot of responsibility. We’re not seeing much that looks like genuine penance – though we, the people who didn’t do the bad thing, keep being told we should pray more, repent more, or be more sexually virtuous, because somehow we’re the ones who made the bad thing happen? We may have done other bad things, but this one can’t be mixed into a great messy cauldron of  “well, we’re all sinners” stew.

Under these circumstances, no, this would not be a wonderful time to invite people back into the church. Of course, it doesn’t help that so many American parishes are so soporifically bland, when it comes to the high theatre of liturgy. But even if every mass were celebrated with all the smells and bells and angelic chant one could long for, what would all that beauty seem, to the victims of abuse? It would seem like mere ornament over infamy, reminiscent of the beautiful romantic language an abuser uses to his “beloved” abused. It would seem like subterfuge, propaganda.

Last year, I celebrated advent in a spirit of silence, even the silence of radical emptiness that nears despair. This year I feel that our readings about judgment are most apt. I’ve been blasting Handel’s Messiah in the kitchen, while getting ready to stir up the Christmas puddings.

“He shall purify the sons of Levi.” “Every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill laid low.”

But who may abide the day of His coming,

and who shall stand when He appeareth?

For He is like a refiner’s fire.

It might be tempting for Catholics to imagine that verses about judgment, about the righteousness of God, apply to “other” people: atheists, maybe. Outsiders. Secular humanists. Muslims. Gay activists.

But this year, I’m thinking: it’s about us. It has to be. And not just because of the scandal: that’s the hugest, and most distressing way in which the institutional church has failed, globally. But there are so many other ways, as well: our failures in areas of racial justice, our backwards attitudes about women, our promotion of bad government leaders, our silence in the face of human rights abuses.

If there’s a refiner’s fire coming, we need it. Then maybe there will be a time when I can start inviting the “drifters” to come home again.

image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:God%27s_Judgment_upon_Gog_(Asher_Brown_Durand).jpg

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