When I entered the Catholic church last year, I waited until the last possible minute to go to Confession. The whole idea of it stressed me out more than anything else, including having an extremely unflattering picture of myself prominently displayed in the foyer with all the other Candidates and Catechumens.
At the last scheduled Confession time before Easter, I showed up a good ten minutes early. I still found a huge crowd waiting for the priest to arrive. I sat down quietly beside a large pillar and waited as everyone who had arrived before me slowly thinned out as they made their confessions. After at least an hour, I heard a loud couple enter and sit somewhere behind me. I sat there for another hour while they complained about how long they were waiting and the man made inappropriate jokes about priests. (It takes a lot for me to call something inappropriate. Seriously.)
I saw the woman who walked in immediately before me go into the confessional, so I shifted away from the pillar and closer to the door so I could quickly move into the confessional when she came out.
I sat there having a mild panic attack while I waited. I was mostly worried about whether or not the priest would be a total jerk to me, and how I might handle that if he was. Would I just run for it and never come back? That had kind of been my thing in the past. I had frequently been scared out of churches over the years. To be fair, my fears were rooted in reality, not what-ifs. I’d already been badly damaged. Running had always been self-preservation.
I was still giving myself a pep talk when the woman walked out of the confessional and I stood up to enter. That’s when the loud man with the bad jokes cut me off and shut the door in my face.
I sat back down in the pew and swiveled my body around to face the woman he’d come in with. She was giving me a satisfied look, as if he had just put me in my place. I gave her a polite smile. “Sorry. What time did you guys get here?” I whispered back to her.
“Before you did,” she snapped.
“I was actually here ten minutes early. I’ve been here the whole time. I was just sitting over there.” I pointed to the pillar that might have hidden me from her view earlier.
She didn’t answer. Sometimes a person is just having a bad day, and I usually give people the benefit of the doubt, but it’s not that hard to tell when a person is just hostile and entitled in general.
I looked around at everyone else who was still waiting to go in. Did everyone seriously think I was trying to line cut Confession or did they just not want to deal with this woman because it wasn’t their problem? There were at least ten people sitting behind me, scattered around in the pews and some chairs along the back wall. Dozens of people had walked in, sat and prayed for a while, and then given up on waiting and left while I’d sat there the entire time. I didn’t believe nobody had seen me already sitting there when they entered.
Several people looked back at her, then at me, and down at their folded hands. Nobody said a word.
I swallowed hard. “There’s been a lot of people in and out. Since it doesn’t look like anyone saw me sitting here, I guess I’ll go last.”
I didn’t think it was wise to get into an argument with an unreasonable and hostile person right before my first Confession. It was one of those situations where defending yourself would make you look like the jerk.
It was a strong reminder to me that the most dangerous people I’d met in churches weren’t members of the clergy. The people who’d done the most damage to me had sat in the pews on Sunday mornings. These weren’t the first bullies I’d dealt with in churches. These weren’t the first silent enablers I’d dealt with.
It brought up the memory of every other injury. I turned back around and tried not to cry. There was a lot of jaw clenching involved. A mean little part of my brain figured these people obviously had more to confess than I did, so maybe it was good they got to go first.
I thought about leaving. I thought about how hard it was for me to be there at all.
It shouldn’t be this hard.
A predatory man and a bullying woman had run me out of a church a long time ago.
An older man who’d walked up and whispered something inappropriate into my ear had run me out of a church a few years earlier.
Whether I walked into a physical church or I tried to connect with other communities of Christians, I always had someone coming at me. There was always some Christian bully on the attack, and if that sounds trivial, then you don’t understand trauma.
I stared up at the crucifix. If I’m really supposed to be here, shouldn’t it be a little easier?
Of course it wasn’t going to be easy. It’s so much more efficient for satan to work from within the church. I already knew that. What did I expect?
My jaw tightened even more. I wouldn’t leave. I wouldn’t let some selfish couple run me out. I had just as much right to be there as anyone. I would sit here in front of all these other people and make them uncomfortable, because they should be uncomfortable when they see someone in the church acting like that and they don’t speak up.
The man walked out, bragging about how he’d told the priest off because they’d had to wait for so long, and the woman went into the confessional.
When she came out, a woman behind me whispered, “You can go.”
I turned around. She and I were the only people left. Everyone else had stood up and walked out while that couple had been in the confessional.
“Are you sure?” I asked. I’d been waiting for three hours at that point.
She gave me an apologetic smile and nodded.
The priest wound up being nice, especially when I absolutely lost it, started sobbing, and completely embarrassed myself. I couldn’t get actual words out for a while, and it drove me crazy because I rarely lose control of my emotions like that. (Yes, I did regain the ability to speak.)
I’ve always seen crying as a sign of weakness, and I never want people to think I’m weak. When you’re weak, you’re vulnerable. I absolutely did not want to be vulnerable in the church.
At our last RCIA meeting, we’d gone around the room expressing how we were feeling about joining the church at Easter. Everyone said they were excited and happy. I said, “I’m terrified.”
I felt like I was doing what I was meant to be doing, but I also knew joining the church would make me vulnerable.
It all caught up to me in the confessional. I’d been white-knuckling it for almost three hours while waiting to enter the small room, trying to choke down panic attacks. I’d been white-knuckling it for years.
I didn’t trust people in the church. I didn’t trust God. I trusted myself and my strength. I’d kept myself alive. I’d kept myself safe, mostly by running away from danger.
Walking into the church meant trusting God, and that really was terrifying. God won’t always keep me safe. God won’t protect me from all the cruel people sitting in the pews. I had to trust I was where I was supposed to be, knowing the danger.
Putting myself into that situation sounds a little like self-loathing. It’s not. I wouldn’t have steered clear of Christians for so long if I didn’t love myself. I’m not interested in being a martyr, in any form, and especially not a martyr to predators and bullies.
I think there’s space for me in the church, somewhere between being a martyr and being completely closed off. It’s hard to be vulnerable, but that’s really the only way we can approach Jesus. We come to him sobbing and weak because we’ve tried so hard to be strong enough, but we just aren’t.
I’m just not.
I don’t have a pretty conversion story. I can’t talk about feeling a sense of peace or being content. I don’t feel satisfied with myself for being smart enough to find The Truth, so now I can kick my feet up and relax into my rightness.
I feel like I’m in very real danger here. I have a hard road, so I’m trudging down it slowly and carefully. I also know I’m not alone on that road. I don’t have to be strong enough on my own. God is with me, and he’s not thrilled with those predators, bullies, and enablers either. Sometimes God-with-me appears in the body of an ordinary person expressing kindness in the face of cruelty.
I’d love to tell everyone the church is safe, but it’s not. There are some people here who rejoice in evil. There are wolves here, and an awful lot of sheep who just keep their heads down and let the wolves eat the most vulnerable members of the flock because at least they aren’t being eaten.
I’m here for Christ. And maybe I’m here to be Christ for people who aren’t sure they’re strong enough to survive the church because they can’t always find him in the pews.