Monday, 17 August 2009

Why I walked out of yesterday's sermon

Yesterday, not 5 minutes into a sermon, I got up, exited my pew, and walked out the back door of the church. In my 12 years at this church, despite the many sermons that have made me want to backhand a cleric or ask them "WTF? If you hold the laity in such contempt, why the f*** did you decide to become a priest and not a lawyer or politician," yesterday was only the second time I have stood up and walked out.

Most people who go to the 11am mass that have interacted with me, clerical and lay, would have thought I found that easy; that for me, it was a throwaway gesture.

I did not and it never is. To walk out when someone is speaking is a way of saying, "I can no longer listen to you: there is now no room for communication, no room for discussion; I will no longer engage." It closes the door in a relationship, something that I am loathe to do, especially as an INFJ. It can, of course, be worked through and healed, but there are no two ways about it: to walk out on someone as they speak, to shut them out, is to perform a deliberate injury to a relationship. Even if you are going to attempt to heal it, even if you're betting on the relationship coming out stronger, that is NEVER an act undertaken lightly.

The priest who gave yesterday's sermon is one I hold in the greatest respect - one of the truly rare high liturgy priests who feels his religion, really believes in liturgy as a vehicle to God (rather than an end in itself & a disguise for avarice/need to dress up and feel important, which is what drives too many high liturgists) - whose mass you can feel. He is a man whose integrity I would never question, someone I like and trust immensely, despite the fact that our similar underlying values have driven us in opposite directions: him to almost extreme orthodoxy and rigidity; me to flexibility and what my friend John would refer to as 'liberality' - a generosity in application of principles rather than rules.

His sermons lean towards the overwhelmingly catechetical; they are always a densely packed lesson in what the Church teaches. Though I often disagree and find them a bit heavy, I have great sympathy and understanding for what he's trying to do: offer a firm foundation for the faith, one he feels isn't given the laity in this day and age. Here, his rigidity becomes an asset: for a foundation needs to be rigid, whilst the structure built on it must be flexible.

But. Yes, but. Sometimes, I wonder if he remembers that he is building that foundation with people, not bricks - and that people are vulnerable, their lives infinitely complex, and you can't handle them in the same way, that they need to be handled with care.

So. Yesterday's sermon. He began by noting that Pope Pius XII linked the infallible declaration of the Assumption to the horror of the Nazi concentration camps not a decade earlier, and that it was a deliberate link.

"Offensive," I thought. "But not YOUR fault, Padre. Where ARE you going with this?"

He moved on to how in the Garden of Eden, all was light, no shadows, no death, etc. etc.

I'm an unshakeable believer in the Life/Death/Rebirth cycle; Shiva and Kali together as Creator and Destroyer, that light and dark are inseparable. I'm always deeply uncomfortable with those who need to believe in a fall from a perfect beginning, a deathless world of all light and no change. I always wonder why they need to deny darkness and death, seeing light and eternal life as the ideal. I'm not sure changelessness is ideal; God created a dynamic, evolving universe - surely that says something about the nature of the Creator?

Then, on to how Adam and Eve had been given the gift of integrity in body and soul, that body and soul would come to God as a single unit.

"Ah, the origin of the Assumption. Ok."

Then he went on to speak about how, since death was not natural and was a consequence of the fall...

"There is no such thing as dignity in death. Or [and this was spat out with no little contempt and considerable venom] *dignitas*."

I inhaled sharply. For those of you who don't know the reference, Dignitas is a Swiss assisted-dying group. []

"[Since death isn't natural/wasn't part of God's plan] Therefore, taking one's own life or assisting someone in taking their own life is always wrong."

I couldn't listen to another word.

I stood up, stepped out of my pew, and walked out. Fortunately, my friend's daughter was out there, playing with her pencil in the big pot of dirt outside the front door, helping me to calm down before I re-entered church after the sermon and faced the celebrant over the gifts.

Many of you will wonder why. After all, it is orthodox Catholic teaching; the orthodox teaching of most religions, in fact. Isn't one of the commandments, "Thou shalt not kill?"

Indeed. But that teaching can be offered with compassion. To state it so baldly, so forcefully, indicates an utter lack of compassion and awareness of the complexities of the issues surrounding euthanasia and suicide - a lack that doesn't exist in this pastor, but may well now be perceived to.

I once quoted what a friend suggested a truly traditional priest would say about suicide and mortal sin: "Grave matter? Yes. Full knowledge? I doubt it. Full consent? In that state of mind, no. Not a mortal sin."
THAT is teaching with compassion.

Had he so much as prefaced it with, "I understand how painful, complex and difficult these situations are - however..." I would have stayed. All it needed was an acknowledgment of the pain people face in these situations and that euthanasia has become a problem because we, as a society, are so desperate to live that we have forgotten how to let go when it is time and die. I have been both suicidal and the friend of someone who has committed suicide; it was of Lou I was thinking as I walked down that side aisle to the back.

Did he KNOW what the people in the congregation were going through? What he was saying to them - to the relatives and friends of those who in despair or in desiring not to be a burden through terminal illness, took their own lives? To those who might be struggling with someone who WANTS to die because they are so ill and in so much pain? How, after a statement so judgmental, can they even come and talk to him about what they're going through? What wounds did he unwittingly tear open? What fears did he implant: "OMG, my friend/child/parent/relati
ve committed suicide - from what he's saying, they're in hell."

Who, of those sitting there, will now believe his 'I'm so sorry,' when they tell him that a loved one has committed suicide? Won't they think, "Oh, he's judging them and/or us?" What about the classic clerical statement that someone has 'made a good death' (Lady, I HATE that phrase)? If there is no dignity in death, how can you make a good one? Who will trust him enough come to him over issues surrounding a terminally ill relative begging to be allowed to die?

The sad thing is, they could have done, because he is a good pastor. But now, because of yesterday's sermon, they may never know that.

As a good friend and astute cleric noted, "When you speak from the pulpit, it HAS to be absolute. You DON'T know what the people in the congregation have been through. Sensitive things like this are best dealt with in confession, one-to-one..."

Often, preachers would do best to remember that what is said cannot be unsaid, and that you don't know what pain, what grief, what darkness are hidden amongst those sitting in front of you. That doesn't mean you have to give a bland sermon or one that soft-pedals, but it does mean that you need to be aware of how what you're about to say is going to affect those you're preaching to - and that the authority you carry can make what's a throwaway comment to you feel like a freight train to an earnest, struggling Catholic in the pews. And it may mean that uncertain Catholic who might have approached one of you asking for help instead walks out of the forecourt, speaking to no one, suffering even more than they were when they first walked in.

And that would count as a sheep lost.

Am I sorry I walked? No. I couldn't have listened to any more, and I hoped that my act, if noticed, would make him think about what he was saying and what it sounded like. I also wanted to stand up for anyone who wanted to make the statement I was making but couldn't speak for themselves - for every friend and loved one of a suicide victim; for those struggling with the issue of 'just a little more morphine and...'; for those being begged by their dying loved ones to let them go...for those wondering if it's the right thing.

In walking, I stood by my integrity. In speaking, he kept his.

One day, I hope we'll be able to talk about it.


Ariel said...

Thank you for this. I would have been sitting there thinking of John, had I been there; I don't know if I'd have walked out, but I bet I'd have cried.

I like the point you make about our society being obsessed with living. We're able to prolong lives now in ways that would never have been possible not long ago, but I don't think I believe that it is always the right thing to do so. It's too complicated to make hard and fast rules; it's case-by-case, as you say.

Also thank you for the point about texture. I see the Eden story more as a metaphor for maturity than a metaphor for sin. A different loss of innocence.


Anonymous said...

Priests need to be far more careful about what they say in general - and not just in sermons. As someone who has seriously contemplated suicide, the throw away comments people make grate. Yes, there is the guilt and lack of consideration for one's loved ones - but there is also the huge abyss of suffering that one experiences. Would I have walked out? I do not know. Would I have wanted to have words with that priest when I had calmed down? Maybe. Would I hope he had noticed and realised what it meant when you walked out? Definitely. But will he come to his sense? You know him, I do not.