RonRolheiser,OMI

Leaving Church

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Why are so many people leaving their churches? There is no one answer to that question. People are complex. Faith is complex. The issues are complex.

Looking at the question, it can be helpful to distinguish among a number of groups. The Nones, the Dones, the Spiritual-but-not-Religious, the Indifferent, the Angry, and the Marginalized. While there is some overlap among these groups, each has its own set of issues with the church.

The Nones are those who refuse to identify with any religion or faith. Asked on a census form, what is your faith or religion? they answer “none”. Theirs is an agnostic stance. They are not necessarily atheistic or hostile to faith, religion, and the churches. Rather, it’s that at this time in their lives they refuse to identify themselves with any explicit faith or church. Some are humble about it, others arrogant; in the end, the stance is the same, an agnosticism about religion and faith.

The Dones are those who, in their own words, are done with religion and often with explicit faith as well. Done with it! They can consider themselves done for any number of reasons, from having had a bad experience with religion growing up, to anger at the church, to the intoxicating power of a culture that can seemingly offer itself as a sufficient substitute for religion. They have been there, considered religion, and moved on.

The Spiritual-but-not-Religious are those who believe in the value of spirituality but not of any church. They have chosen to pursue a spiritual path outside of any ecclesial community, believing that (at least for them) the spiritual journey is best done outside of organized religion. There can be many reasons for this kind of attitude, not least the overpowering ethos of individuality and personal freedom pervading our culture. In one’s faith journey today, people prefer to trust only their own search and experience.

The Indifferent are just that, indifferent to religion (while perhaps still nursing some faith). There can be a myriad of reasons why these folks feel indifferent to religion and perhaps also to faith. Our culture, for all its goodness, is also a powerful narcotic that can, for most of the years of our lives, swallow us whole in terms of anesthetizing our religious instincts and having us believe in what Charles Taylor calls a self-sufficient humanism. For long periods of our lives, our world can seem enough for us and while this is the case, indifference to religion can be a real option.

The Angry are those who for reasons they can name, no longer go church. Any number of causes can be at play here – clerical sexual abuse, the church’s treatment of women, racism, the church’s failure to live out the gospels credibly, their own church’s involvement or non-involvement in politics, a bad history with their church, a bad pastor, or personal mistreatment in a pastoral situation. Persons inside this group sometimes end up seeking a new ecclesial home inside another denomination, but many just stay at home on a Sunday morning.

The Marginalized are those who feel themselves outside the understanding, empathy, and spiritual scope of the churches. This includes everyone from many inside the LGBTQ community, to the homeless on our streets, to countless thousands who feel (consciously or unconsciously) that the messiness of their lives somehow excludes them from ecclesial community. They feel like outcasts to religion and our churches.

People are leaving their churches for a multitude of reasons and this begs some further questions. When people are leaving their churches, what actually are they leaving? And, where are they going, if anywhere?

In a recent book, After Evangelicalism, The Path to a New Christianity, David Gushee asks this question about those leaving their churches. Are they clear on what they are actually leaving? Do they know whether they are leaving church, leaving their denominations, leaving the faith, leaving Jesus, or just leaving?  

More importantly, he asks, what will to be their endgame? Will they end up in another denomination, or as Spiritual-but-not-Religious, or as agnostic, or just as disillusioned?

Perhaps that question is not so important for the Nones, the Dones, the Spiritual-but-not-Religious, the Indifferent, and for many of the Marginalized – butit is for the Angry, for those who feel alienated from their churches. Where do you go when anger keeps you away from your family table? Do you search for a more like-minded family? Do you give up on finding a family table? Do you just stay home on a Sunday morning?  Are you okay to go to your deathbed still angry? Are you content to remain disillusioned?

Leaving church: two questions stare us in the face. Why are more and more people leaving their churches or simply not going to them? And, what’s the religious future of those who no longer go to church? The former is a question for the churches themselves, the latter a question to ponder for those no longer going to church.

Dealing with Emotional Paralysis

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Our greatest strength is often our greatest weakness. Sensitivity is a gift, but as any sensitive person will tell you, that gift can be a mixed blessing. Sometimes a thick, calloused skin can save you from a lot of suffering, particularly from heartache.

The popular spiritual writer Henri Nouwen was a highly sensitive person. That was both his gift and his curse. He suffered a lot because of his sensitivity. For instance, several times he fell hopelessly in love with someone, but because he was a vowed celibate and because those deep feelings were not mutual, he was left alone in that obsession, frustrated, emotionally paralyzed. These obsessive feelings so overpowered him that (to his honesty and to his credit) he sought clinical help. By his own admission, those were the darkest and most painful periods in his life.

There are many like him in this world and there is someone like him inside everyone who is highly sensitive. Indeed, one of Nouwen’s heroes was the famed Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh, who suffered from acute over-sensitivity for much of his life and at one point, suffering from an emotional obsession in love, cut off one of his ears and sent it to the person with whom he was obsessed. Another person who Nouwen idolized was the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, whose personal loneliness deeply colored his religious and philosophical writings. It’s no accident that so many highly creative persons (artists, writers, performers) are often caught in the grip of emotional obsession. I suspect that this is true for all of us to some degree.

What’s to be done when some emotional obsession literally paralyzes us?

I have twice posed this question to psychologists. In the first instance, it was to the renowned Dutch psychologist Antone Vergote. I twice had the privilege of being in his classroom and in one of those classes, I asked him this question. How do you help a person who is so paralyzed by some heartache or other pain that it leaves him or her suicidal? His response was humble. He began by saying this is singularly the most difficult situation we will ever deal with, inside ourselves, inside our families and friendships, and inside pastoral and counseling situations. He admitted that psychology was still grappling with what a helpful response might be and suggested that we might find some enlightening perspectives by reading the great novelists.

Then he offered this: emotional obsession is a form of over-concentration, a fixation that holds us in its grip until we somehow break its spell. What can be helpful (if anything can be helpful) is distraction, anything that can take that person’s mind off its fixation. This may sound crass, especially when our perennial religious counsel has been “take your troubles to the chapel”.  Shouldn’t prayer be the answer? Yes, it should, but that too has its dangers. If you are in the paralyzing grip of an obsession, alone in a chapel might be the last place you need to be. Alone and emotionally paralyzed, the darkness might well overpower you. In our darkest moments, it’s the incarnate God, the human touch of God through the care of someone, which constitutes the real chapel to which we need to go.

The second psychologist to whom I posed this question added this piece of advice. Never stay in this kind of darkness alone. Indeed, never enter it alone. Be with somebody – a friend, a mentor, a doctor, a guide, a fellow-sufferer, anyone. I remember an occasion some years ago when a young man came to me in the grips of this kind of obsession and suggested that he wanted to do was to drive off by himself into the mountains, rent a cabin, and “think this through”. I strongly advised him that it was the last thing he should do, in that being alone and isolated with his obsession would be dangerous. What he needed, I suggested, were things that could distract him – his work, his friends, his routines, his normal escapes.

Not everyone is Jesus who went into the darkness of his crucifixion alone. Except, except, he wasn’t alone. He was with his Father. If we trust our faith strongly enough to know that, respective of anything, we will know that God is there for us, then we can risk entering the darkness alone. Then we can take our emotional paralysis to the chapel and to remote cabins in the mountains. However, if we fear how our wounded selves might render us helpless and suicidal, we will want to hold fast to the hand of a trusted friend and look for any kind of distraction that can break the obsession paralyzing us.

On one of those occasions when Henri Nouwen had checked himself into a clinic for depression, he wrote a book, The Inner Voice of Love, to share how eventually he did cope. What he ultimately learned is that our hearts are greater than our wounds; but we don’t always know that in the darkness.

The Notion of a Vocation

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I was raised in a generation that taught that God gave each of us a vocation to live out. In the religious ethos of that time, particularly in Roman Catholic spirituality, we believed that we were put on this earth with a divine plan for us, that God gave us each a special vocation to live out. Moreover, this was not something we were free to choose for ourselves; it was God-given. Our task was to discern that vocation and give ourselves over to it, even at the price of having to renounce our own dreams. We remained free to accept or not, but at a peril. To be unfaithful to your vocation meant a misguided life.

There’s an important truth in that notion, though it needs some critical nuances. First, in that spirituality, they thought of vocations in a very restrictive sense, essentially envisaging only four basic vocations: priesthood, religious life, marriage, and single life. Further, they tended to put too much gravity on the choice, namely, if you chose wrong or if you resisted your God-given vocation, it might endanger your eternal salvation. There were some unhealthy fears connected to the choice.

I saw that first-hand when I served as the provincial superior for our religious order for six years. One of my tasks was to apply to Rome for the laicization of priests leaving the priesthood. I saw how many of those leaving the priesthood had chosen that vocation under undue pressure and false fear. Their choice had not been a free one.

That being said, the old notion of vocation is essentially still true and is too easily lost in a world and culture that generally puts personal freedom above all else. We need to learn again the importance of finding one’s vocation and giving oneself over to it. Admittedly, vocation needs to be defined more widely than choosing between priesthood, religious life, marriage, and single life. Instead, it needs to be defined as an obedience to the inner dictates of our soul, our gifts, our talents, and the non-negotiable mandate inside us to put ourselves in service to others and the world.

James Hollis, a Jungian therapist writing from a purely secular viewpoint, highlights precisely this point. “Our real desires and our destiny are not chosen for us by our ego, but by our nature and ‘the divinities’.  … Something within us knows what is right for us and its insistence on expression is what keeps us awake at night, nudges us from within during our busiest hours, or causes us to envy others.  Vocation is a summons of the soul. … It’s as if we were sent to this land with a royal assignment, and if we have only dithered about and forgotten the task, then we have violated our reason for being here.” How true.

Columnist David Brooks, also speaking from a secular place, strongly agrees. A vocation, he writes, is an irrational factor wherein you hear an inner voice that is so strong that it becomes unthinkable to turn away and where you intuitively know that you don’t have a choice, but can only ask yourself, what is my responsibility here? As well, the summons to a vocation is a holy thing, something mystical, a call from the deep.  Thus, discerning your vocation is not a matter of asking what you expect from life but rather what life expects from you.

What would Jesus say? As we know, Jesus was fond of teaching in parables and his parable of talents (Matthew 25 and Luke 19) is ultimately about living out one’s God-given vocation. In that parable, those who use their talents thrive and are given even more talents. Conversely, those who hide their talents are punished. In essence, the message is this: If we use our God-given talents, we will find meaning and blessing in our lives; on the other hand, if we don’t use our talents, those very gifts will snakebite us, poison our happiness, and generally embitter our spirits. Show me a man who is bitter and envious, and most times you will see a gifted man who, consciously or unconsciously, is frustrated because he has not used his talents or has used them in a manner that doesn’t serve others. Bitterness and envy are often the unhappy residue from being snake-bitten by our own unused or misused intelligence and gifts.

There’s a voice inside us issuing forth from the depths of our souls that speaks for our talents, our temperament, our unique circumstance in life, our moral and religious sensitivities, and even for our wounds.  This voice is gentle, but firm and unrelenting, as it tells us that we are not free to do anything we want with our lives. We need to surrender them to something higher than ourselves.

And, indeed there’s a peril in not listening, though what’s at stake in not our eternal salvation, but our happiness and generativity on this side of eternity.