“I guess the reason why I wanted to meet is because… I saw your Ash Wednesday piece on being mad at the Church, and I guess… I can really relate to that. I just, I guess I want to know how you’ve worked through that anger. You’re clearly not in that place anymore, and I was just curious how you worked through that.”
I don’t think anyone else knew. I had known her for several years. She studied theology, was involved in a host of Catholic organizations in college, valued Catholic teaching, and continued to be involved in the Catholic community. But she harbored a secret, a secret very few knew about and I had never guessed. It ate at her.
She didn’t share that part of herself because in her current Catholic community, people had little to say about gay persons, except…
- “Gay marriage is bad.”
- “Why do people feel the need to parade around their sexualities?”
- “Catholics can’t use the word ‘gay,’ they have to say ‘same-sex-attracted.’”
And the people saying these things just assumed she agreed with the way they were said, that she didn’t harbor attractions to other women. They saw her background and her desire to serve the Church and covered her over with assumptions.
I looked at her across the table. She had a pleading look, touching on a pain that comes out of the mysterious parts of us.
“I mean,” I said with a smile, “sometimes I still do feel mad… But not mostly. I think that might be a place to start, just being mad. It’s ok to be mad. I needed to give myself space to be angry, to let those feelings find some expression, and to accept them, in a way. It’s not good to wallow in them. But I do think it’s often good to just let yourself feel them, to just be angry sometimes.”
“Oh… no one’s put it that way before.”
In the end, I don’t think my advice was that great. I did stress that counseling can be very helpful. Counselors are often experts in the recognition and organization of emotions. My counselor has done a tremendous job in helping me understand my emotional life. She’s helped me organize my feelings into provisional maps, so that I can examine and consider how to respond to them.
But what do I think? I was so angry back then. Even thinking about it stirs something in me, presses upon a bruise that, even though it’s grown smaller and smaller over time, still hurts a bit when touched. I remember what it was like to walk into a Catholic church and feel overwhelmed by fear. I still feel some of that vulnerability. But I love the Church. And, as a general matter, I’d say I’m a pretty happy dude. How did I get from there to here?
I don’t think I can give a final or complete answer, but here are three of my suspicions:
1) Have I mentioned counseling?
2) I needed to just let myself be mad for a time. During that darker period, I became so overwhelmed by pain and hurt that they felt like the winds of a hurricane beating down on me, immense waves crashing down again and again. I didn’t have the strength to stand up and take them, so I needed to just let them hit me for a time. I needed to let myself receive those feelings.
I think that sometimes God wants us to simply receive those feelings and to bear them. He wants us to allow ourselves to be angry, because He wants us to be honest with ourselves, as a precursor to being honest with Him. Whatever we have or whatever we are, He wants that. God wants to change us. But first He wants us as we are. If you’re angry, just give that to God. And not just in some cliche “offer it up” sort of way. I mean, be angry, be furious. If you’re angry at God, be angry at God. He can take it.
You can pretend that everything’s fine, that your relationship with the Church is jim-dandy. But if that isn’t real, people will catch on. You can’t just pretend that you’re not scarred or bruised, or that the scar isn’t ugly and that the bruise doesn’t hurt. Sometimes it is ugly and it does hurt. Recognize that, and then work love with it, rather than apart from it.
3) I needed space from the Church, and the Church’s teachings. I don’t recommend this for everyone, but I think my time as an atheist provided me the space to step away from all of the things I thought it meant to be a good Catholic. Then, when I returned to the Church, I was able to consider Church teaching with fresh eyes.
I was also able to set aside any questions of what it might be like if I just turned away from Catholicism. I had already done it, so I don’t wonder about it. I no longer choose Catholicism because I was raised in it, or it’s the only life I’ve lived, or I feel pressure from friends and family. Now I choose Catholicism because I choose it. And I have more freedom from external pressure, because my Catholicism isn’t so much conditioned by others’ expectations.
In the end, my return to Catholicism, and turn to a happier and richer Catholicism, remains in many ways a mystery to me. Surely much of it is bound up in friendship, community, prayer, and a handful of lifestyle changes. If you’re suffering from immense hurt by and anger towards the Church, I can’t tell you exactly what will get you out of it. I can only say that people do get out of it. I have. And I hope you do, too.