During my first year of college, I kept a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe in my dorm room window, facing outwards, so that when I walked across campus I’d see her watching over me from the third floor. That image had always hung in a corner of the kitchen in my parent’s house. For me, it was a little piece of safety.

So I was taken aback when my friend P. asked me to take it down. He was asking on behalf of his girlfriend M., who said that seeing it up there made her feel sick.

A little background on M.: she grew in the kind of family whose Catholicism was composed mainly of sexual immaturity, self-righteousness, and the desire for control. The result for M. was that the image held a special kind of horror for her, since it was linked in her mind with everything that had made her childhood naerly unendurable.

But I was 19 and still in the Kantian school of morality (if it’s unpleasant, it’s probably good for you). So I snorted and said a flat “No.” After all, if she felt oppressed by an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the problem was clearly with her, not with Our Lady.

I even thought I was striking a blow for The Church. The World despises holy things, and is offended by them, right? Well, I wasn’t going to knuckle under just for the sake of somebody’s feelings. In fact, seeing the picture up there would probably be good for M.1

This is the same kind of reasoning that makes people believe that the best way to bring the Gospel2 to gay people is to throw around the word “abomination”.3

P. would have been within his rights to punch me in the head. Instead, he gave me a look of disbelief (mixed with pity) and walked away without a word.

Whoever runs away something truly horrible is really running towards Jesus — even if they think that He’s the one they’re running away from. When M. looked at Our Lady of Guadalupe, she couldn’t see a loving, comforting mother. All she could see was the emblem of her father’s rage and her mother’s neglect. Those things haunted her every day; she didn’t need any extra reminders.

The Sabbath is made for man, says Jesus, not man for the Sabbath. The same, I think, goes for nearly everything that we call religion.

It’s worth bearing in mind whenever we’re sure we know what we’re talking about.

1 You know, the way Celiac sufferers should be sure to eat plenty of bread. If wheat’s good for me, it must be good for them too!
2 Which, remember, is supposed to be Good News.
3 It’s the Westboro Baptist school of evangelization.

15 Comments on “Religion”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. It’s something I needed to hear.

  2. KD says:

    Of course, I guess the line can be drawn between things such as that and absolute moral laws that people try to go around because they feel they’re being oppressed by them. If the Holy Mass was made for us, not vice versa, that still doesn’t give us the right to use it at our disposable, or not use it. The Church tells us to go to mass every Sunday whether we want to or not because it is essential for our spiritual salvation.

    So if M. said she doesn’t go to mass because it conjures up memories of her abused childhood, the proper response is not to lay down and let her go on for the sake of her feelings. It needs to be shown through love that the Mass is there for her benefit, for her healing, for her salvation.

    So is that the difference between the Our Lady image and Mass? One is essential for salvation, the other is not?

    Great post, by the way.

    1. I like your distinction, KD. I’m still thinking this stuff through. I know a woman who has horrible associations with Confession, too, but I’ve always encouraged her to go. But I wonder if there’s a point at which even the Sacraments can be too horrible for somebody, or whether this is something that just plain needs to be gotten over. (I say “I wonder” in all sincerity, because I really don’t know.)

  3. KD says:

    And this can of course be applied to things other than mass: sexual morality, social teaching, etc.

  4. ARM says:

    Regarding KD’s point, I too wonder (with Steve) whether sometimes even the sacraments might be too horrible for someone. I’m thinking of a specific person I know, whose horrifying abuse was so connected to liturgical things and actions that being around them is unbearable. I’d have a hard time saying “Just go anyway and suck it up.” I wonder whether one’s pastor could give a dispensation for a reason such as that. But then again, “dispensing” with the sacraments over the long term seems problematic, so I just don’t know.

  5. kw says:

    Sometimes a person’s aversion to the sacraments may be, for their soul, a matter of life and death. I think this is the case for people who tragically associate acute psychological/sexual/emotional abuse with the practices of the Church. For that person to go to Mass might be as painful as trying to keep up a close relationship with an abusive parent. The parent-child relationship is still a real good that should be worked at. But that doesn’t mean throwing yourself in harm’s way so recklessly that you are permanently wounded. Adult children of abusive parents have to work to have the wherewithal to attempt a different, healthy relationship with their parents — it doesn’t just come by living in the house with them and “sucking it up” because “honor thy father and mother.”

    I was recently confronted with the experience of a young woman who loved the Church and was willing to give her life to it as a religious — then a series of abuses happened that have torn down so much of her resilience in the face of sin and corruption that she has panic attacks when she tries to attend Mass. I mean, come on. People are in all stages of relationship with the institutional, ritual, practical, embodied, holy, human aspects of the Church, because the Church is all of those things, as she should be. Obviously avoiding the sacraments is not a kind of permanent goal, but it might be the best solution for some situations for the moment, and maybe even for a long time. It might be better to rediscover one’s relationship with God aside from our relationship with the Church, which sounds awful to an orthodox Catholic (which I try to be) because “we’re bound to God through the Church.” But some of our obligations to the Church are dispensed of under conditions of life and death — and where the soul is concerned, maybe we absolutely must, for the sake of our soul and our relationship with God, not bear the burden of Christian maturity for a while, until we’ve healed enough to carry it. Does that make sense?

  6. Rbaron says:

    Long time reader..first time commenter.

    Thanks for this post Steve. It’s something that I feel like many many people need to heed. Honestly, I have heard such anger and spiteful language used against gay people in person and through media, I often assume that the religious are more interested in picking a verbal fight rather than communicating a message.

    1. Nice to hear from you, Rbaron.

      To be fair, I’ve seen this kind of unpleasantness happen not simply because religious people are looking to pick a fight, but because they/we have been told frequently that we need to stand up for what we believe in — which is true — but aren’t sure how to do that. People can be so concerned to stick up for the truth that they forget to be prudent or charitable, and forget what they must sound like to people who aren’t used to their ideas.

      And then of course there really do exist people who are just jerks.

  7. George says:

    Regarding the issue of the sacraments … I came across this in the Catechism:

    “1128 This is the meaning of the Church’s affirmation49 that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: “by the very fact of the action’s being performed”), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that “the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.”50 From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.”

    With emphasis on the last line. We should always deal with souls as individuals, unique and loved by God. Does this mean we are to treat them with sugary niceness? As usual CS Lewis has a nice thought on the matter:

    “‘Niceness’—wholesome, integrated personality—is an excellent thing. We must try by every medical, educational, economic, and political means in our power to produce a world where as many people as possible grow up ‘nice’; just as we must try to produce a world where all have plenty to eat. But we must not suppose that even if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world—and might even be more difficult to save.” (Mere Christianity)

    Or does that mean we need to swing the opposite span of the spectrum and be stoic puritans? No what we need is true Charity, which has a certain vigor and substance to it such that it replenishes as much as it may also possibly sting. Any medicine so carefully applied does as much.

    In these cases of abused or deformed souls (I use the term in an objective and non-judgemental sense, such as when a doctor admits a patient has a deformed limb), we need to pray and mortify ourselves, winning many graces from God for the sake of our friends. And we should see and treat them as friends! That means treating them with affection, shouldering their burdens, smoothing out the way before them, even placing our hearts on the ground so they can “tread softly”. But it also means calling a spade a spade when it must be called, having faith in the gift of tongues to ensure it is well received.

    So should we ever dissuade someone from receiving the sacraments? Well if they have been away from receiving them, are living in public sin, or admit to you of having done something with sufficient matter for a mortal sin, we should encourage them not to receive Communion until having gone to Confession. And whenever possible and with great tact and charity we should encourage them to go. But in many cases we mus foster that personal friendship and confidence with them first, so that they see the real impact the sacraments (or whatever we are trying to help them with) have on our lives and the joy and peace that comes with living close to Christ.

    In all such cases I think it takes a lot of prudence, charity, and prayer to discern what is the best approach to take. Seeking advice in spiritual direction, always being sure to safeguard the confidence of our friends, is highly recommended.

  8. George says:

    Heh … I just noticed the tag you snuck in regarding our Lady. Made me chuckle. There is a certain charm to it … a bit more humbling for the devil to be “crunched” than “crushed” I would say. Great image. Love your sense of humor.

  9. Sarah says:

    I wonder, for those with struggles attending Mass or with the rituals and liturgy, if attending an Eastern Rite Divine Liturgy would be helpful? Perhaps there would be less triggers? I’ve attended one authentic Divine Liturgy (in union with Rome) and what struck me about it was how I felt like a foreigner. It was very, very beautiful but just so different from the Latin Rite. Just a thought. I went through a period in my life where I was really struggling to get through Mass and even pray yet wanted to be faithful in some way. A change like that might have helped.

  10. Rivka says:

    There is a distinction between
    1) the obligation we have to ourselves go to mass/the sacraments
    2) the way we should relate to people who don’t themselves use the sacraments (who are individuals with very different stories and very different reasons one from the other)

  11. Gabriel says:

    Beautifully put, kw and George. Thank you for posting this, Steve — eloquent and insightful as always.

  12. WSquared says:

    I think that KD raises a good point, in that some distinctions have to be made. But I have to ask: where does this sort of thing end?

    To at least some extent, it’s similar to the logic that some people use to tell Christians that they can’t say “Merry Christmas”– it hurts their feelings, it conjures up bad memories of an abusive or stifling childhood due to someone else’s poor religious example, it offends their own religious or non-religious sensibilities. There’s a difference, however, between throwing “Merry Christmas” in someone’s face (and therefore making it about one’s activism, one’s big and bold bad-ass statements, and one’s own ego) and gently, but firmly, practicing one’s freedom to share the Good News, and to root one’s identity in it. I like Steve’s mention of being so concerned for sticking up for the truth that one neglects to be charitable. I’ve definitely been there, and I’m still a work in progress. So that’s a good reminder as well as a gentle challenge. Furthermore, one learns how to stand up for what one believes in better through practice. And prayer. Especially if you’re concerned that you’re getting this balance wrong.

    Are someone else’s hurt feelings the metric here (and certainly the metric for love), or are the goal posts liable to keep shifting? That’s a legitimate question. I cast no aspersions on M. at all, rather, that whatever she is feeling and suffering needs to be addressed head on– to be acknowledged, yes, but to also find ways of helping her move beyond it, else it won’t leave her alone. At the very, very worst, hurt feelings can become an excuse for emotional blackmail. They can also be controlling for her and everyone else, if not dealt with effectively: someone else’s sins, after all, are never any excuse for our own. M. may legitimately feel that horror inside, which is what should be respected, but respect is also a two-way street: is she, or someone who feels the way she does, after all, going to ask everyone who has a Catholic religious item on display to hide it or take it down, because it reminds her of her family’s abuse of the Catholic faith?

    And a good part of the responsibility of being able to make distinctions between bad and good religious practice also lies with her. She’s not excused from it, because she is not excused from using her reason. So perhaps a gentle inquiry of “but where will it end?” and a genuine offer to help is a better response than, well, “Pfft, no!” That’s love in practice that acknowledges where M. is coming from that still “stands up for the Church,” so to speak.

    Helping is not a matter of “get over it,” mind, but to let her know that there’s a way out of a vicious circle: what she’s struggling with can be overcome with grace. What will help her more effectively in the long run is to do whatever you can to help her enable herself to make those distinctions, and to show her that the Sacramental Life of the Church can enable her, too, because it’s ultimately about Christ, Who is just bigger than her family’s bad example. Furthermore, that it can and will take time is more than okay. In a sense, I’m working through these sorts of issues, myself, coming at it from two directions, often simultaneously: namely, poor examples of religious practice (though not nearly as bad as you describe M.’s), and also poor understanding or appreciation for cultural differences and diversity that themselves degenerate into forms of emotional manipulation and controlling behavior.

    To use a further hypothetical example that I think complicates KD’s point a little, am I to stop wearing a chapel veil at Mass, if somebody out of the blue tells me that the sight of me wearing one reminds them of their horrid time in Catholic School pre-Vatican II, or how rigid and controlling their family was?

    For one, it presumes that I necessarily wear one in order to be self-righteous and rigid, and that I’m indirectly condemning or judging them. In actuality, I wear one for devotional purposes: I’m a grad student. A chapel veil works wonders in reminding me Who’s truly in charge, Who gave me my gifts and talents, and Whom I should love above all else. True, I’m not required to wear one at Mass. But as per Canon Law, I’m not banned from doing so, either. True, a chapel veil is not necessary for my salvation, but wearing one helps orient me to that which IS necessary for my salvation. Furthermore, one can start out wearing one for the wrong reasons, but if one sincerely prays about it, then one can and will learn to do it for the right reasons.

    So my answer to someone who would insist that I remove my veil because it makes them feel sick would be a gentle, but nonetheless firm, “no.” I’m truly sorry that they feel that way, and that anything as horrid as they describe happened to them. But no. Ultimately, their feeling welcome or like they belong in the Church or healing from past hurts comes down to wanting to become closer to Christ and finding out who they are in Him, not insisting that other people do what they want, when they want. And furthermore, there is some irony in using feeling controlled as a justification for controlling others: would this person really want that accusation redirected back at them– that from our exchange, I may well have good reason to think the same thing about their behavior as they do about that of “traddies”? Namely that their own behavior is itself controlling and self-righteous? Nobody has approached me with this, for the record; they either ignore me or I get the occasional compliment. That’s all I could ever want, anyway.

    As for there coming a point where the Sacraments themselves are too painful for someone to bear due to abusive relationships, I don’t want to presume. But I will dare to posit that it’ll probably take both grace and therapy together. Therapy to disassociate the Sacrament itself from the psychological link to abuse, and so the person who is hurting can begin to see Christ in them first and foremost, not the abuse and the abuser. Having bad experiences with Confession is no reason to stay away from it (maybe the person might find a priest with whom they’re more comfortable talking?), so I think that Steve is right to encourage someone who feels wary or hurt to go, nonetheless. Or perhaps even that encouragement to go requires further affirmation: maybe before one talks about Confession, one should first emphasize the Eucharist and then Confession in relation to it, and how the two together will give one strength to help address and overcome that hurt?

  13. VFJ says:

    I believe that it is outright uncharitable to treat someone who is gay, as already condemned and not deserving of God’s manifold grace, just because he/she is gay. In like manner, being insensitive to the needs of someone who has been a victim of a dysfunctional family setting is equally uncharitable. However, the latter deserved some further nuancing while the former is a plain and simple case of discrimination and hatred.

    The case of M, being reminded by our Lady’s image of a broken and hurtful family setting, requesting that the image be taken down, is something that I would be cautious at first.

    If I was a person who had a terrible Christmas experience when I was growing up, should I tell my next door neighbor that they need to take away their Christmas decorations out in their yard because it reminds me of a terrible childhood experience? Likewise, if I was an atheist and decided to be one because I had a terrible life experience when I was growing up which made me realize that God is merely an illusion, should I go tell my next door neighbor that the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus out in their garden reminds me of a terrible life experience when I was growing up? Or let’s say I was abused by my dad when I was a child, after my mom had known about it, she immediately divorced him and now, my mom wants to re-marry. Should I tell my mom that she can never re-marry because a father-figure reminds me of that terrible experience I had when I was a child?

    True, we have to be sensitive to the needs of our hurting brothers and sisters. True, we have to be aware of their needs and respond to them with charity and compassion. True, we need to help them find peace and happiness.

    On the other hand, it is equally true that at times, we need to look deeper into the actual root cause of the problem as to why their hurting. It is equally true that aside from responding to them with charity and compassion, we neglect to face the issue head on by merely putting a band-aid on the wound, without cleaning and disinfecting it first. And, it is equally true, that the path to peace and happiness is not always warm and fuzzy.

    On M’s case, would I have removed the image of our Lady when I was asked? I would have responded – “Why?” Then, I would talk to M directly and introduce her to a better, sweeter, most loving and caring, most blessed Mother Mary.

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