[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Praying Angry,“ a piece by Robert Orsi...]
Robert Orsi, in his sensitive and insightful piece, brings out how “praying angry” is a necessary spiritual exercise for many who have been touched by God and abused by life. I say “many,” because abuse convinces some to give up on God. They trusted God to “be there” for them, to protect them from the worst that we can suffer, be, or do. They cried to the Lord in their trouble. But no rescue was forthcoming. For some, abuse makes belief in God psychologically impossible. Others conclude that even if God exists, God is not the kind of person they want to have anything to do with. Abuse is evidence that God is a deadbeat deity, that God is aloof and doesn’t care, that God is callous or cruel, even that God hates us. Still, for whatever psycho-spiritual reason, many who have been touched by God and abused by life, find themselves unable to let go. They are hurt. They feel abandoned and betrayed by God. But they aren’t finished with God. They can’t heal without confronting the authorities that allowed the abuse to happen. In imitation of the bible’s Job, praying angry calls God to account.
Sexual abuse of children by adults on whom they depend for love and nurture always digs deep into the human person. Physical violation is an outward and visible sign of role confusion and shattered expectations. Orsi’s wider work helps us to appreciate how this struggle amplifies when children are abused by priests. Especially pre-Vatican II, the Roman Catholic church set itself up as the sole institution chosen by God to open heaven’s doors. It proclaimed the sacred office of priesthood as necessary for salvation. Because God is above reproach, holy church is likewise above reproach, and her sacred ministers participate in this presumption. Moreover, not only does the Roman Catholic church enforce beliefs by catechetical instruction; it also uses an elaborate material cult presided over by priests to habituate the worshipper to postures and gestures, rote prayers and responses—all of which root religious feeling and conviction in the body and unconscious as well the conscious self.
If the priest is an alter Christus, then predator priests send the message that God is a predator, that Christ is a pederast. The consecrated host stuck up the girl’s vagina turns the really present Christ into a sexual molester. John Paul II’s encyclical insists that priests are not only sacrificers but shepherds. Predator priests advertise God as handing over the flock to hirelings who care nothing for the sheep, who sacrifice the lambs to meet their own needs.
The opposite of sacred is defiled. But defilement is “catching” by material contact. According to Levitical law, a person becomes unclean by walking on a grave, even if he didn’t mean to, and even if he didn’t know that any grave was there. Girls violated by the priest’s “holy hands,” altar boys “feeling up” the priest while he was saying mass, felt themselves contaminated regardless of their unwillingness, reluctance, and confusion. Since priests are presumed to be above reproach, the children believed that whatever went wrong must be their own fault.
The first rule for praying angry is candor. The survivor begins by throwing caution to the winds. After the worst has already happened, what more can God do? “Why did you let this happen? Forget my childish prayers for a new bike or an ‘A’ in math. Where were you when I really needed you?” “Do you have any idea how bewildering it was? how dirty and guilty it made me feel? how terrifying it was to have no one to turn to?” “Can you imagine how scary it is to suspect that you of all people hated me enough to let this happen, and hated me afterwards for getting involved?” “I know you believe in forgiveness, but the Church is coddling predator priests and putting them in positions where they do it again. Do you care more about the clergy than children?” “Why did you make the sanctity of priesthood indelible and baptismal cleansing so fragile and temporary?” “The bible says you sent your only Son to be crucified. The bible says that Jesus was a pioneer. Are you like that Canaanite god Molech who demands the sacrifice of daughters and sons?”
The second rule of praying angry is persistence. For those who have been abused by life and yet cannot give up on God, praying angry is apt to be the work of decades. Praying angry helps to heal, because—by calling God to account—it asserts worth: “It was morally outrageous for predator priests and their supervisors to treat us that way!” Praying angry is an act of integrity: it foregoes politeness to tell stark truths about how the situtation looked and felt to the survivor. Praying angry also helps to heal because it is a way of restoring integrity. For those touched by God, abuse tends to fragment the self: experiences of the best good and the worst evil are locked up in separate psychic closets, lest the ghastly swallow up the holy. Praying angry with persistence brings them out in the open, sets them up against one another, and questions and disputes towards a resolution.
Orsi calls attention to another benefit of praying angry. Roman Catholic religious practice tended to blur boundaries between God and God’s vicars on the one hand and believers on the other. God knows the secrets of the heart, and pre-Vatican II requirements of weekly confession made sure that priests did, too. This mixture of intimacy and power is part of what made the abuse so devastating. Praying angry is good medicine because it differentiates the survivor from God, from the Church, and from predator priests by daring to contradict official points of view. Praying angry pits the interests of the survivor against the interests of the predator, the institutional church, and permissive Divine providence. “So, what kind of monster are you, if it suits your purpose to let priests ruin lives with impunity?” “Maybe sub specie aeternitatis this kind of world resolves into a higher harmony. But you ought to have the decency to consider what your projects cost us, how things look and feel on the ground!”
Differentiation is a healthy thing. Psychologist Robert Kegan, in his book The Evolving Self, sees human development as a process of repeated imbedding and disimbedding from a social matrix. The infant self begins merged with the mother and differentiates when it learns to crawl and to say ‘no’ during the terrible two’s. The adolescent merges with its peers owning group life-style and values, and breaks out when it enters the work-place or goes to college. Kegan’s thesis is that imbedding substitutes fusion for personal intimacy, while maturity requires differentiation, which allows the adult with a clearly defined sense of self to reach out to connect with clearly defined adult others.
Maps of Christian spiritual development also chart growth from the infantile awakening to tested maturity. But even where they borrow psychologists’ characterizations of the stages on life’s way, they tend to disagree about the goal. Yes, differentiation from authority figures, peer groups, and God is necessary for a person to stand up to full stature. Yes, developing a healthy ego is a stage towards becoming a mature human being. But Christian mystics speak of the goal as “union with God,” which leads some theologians to see spiritual progress as the reversing and undoing the achievements of normal human development, as blurring and then erasing differentiation in relation to God. The Gospels and epistles talk instead of Divine indwelling or perichoresis. The idea is that the differentiated adult prays her/his way into such trust, such harmony with God in outlook and purpose, that there is a restructuring of personality, in which the differentiated ego is displaced as manager and the functional core of the human person becomes friendship with God. Thus, John’s Jesus says, “I do only what the Father wills me to do, say only what the Father wills me to say.” And St. Paul can exclaim, “I, not I, but Christ” says and does this.
Praying angry aids the work of differentiation. But if—for those touched by God but abused by life—praying angry is the work of decades, does that mean abuse permanently arrests spiritual development? For many, the answer may be “yes” this side of heaven. For others, however, praying angry may become the modality of mature vocation. At first, survivors dare to pray sassy because they feel they have nothing to lose. Over time, persistent survivors recognise that God can be trusted not to “zap” them. Gradually, it occurs to them that God takes angry prayer as a friendly gesture, an intimate act of sharing the survivors’ take on the world that God has made. Eventually, they recognize telling God how it looks and feels on the ground, as their role in the partnership through which they work with God towards the world’s redemption. However much trust may grow in the persistent survivor, even if the individual survivor makes peace with God, the residual instinct to pray angry in the face of abuse may not go away. God leaves it there, because it is the survivor’s vocation to pray on behalf of others who are abused by life but—for whatever psycho-spiritual reason—turn their backs, and for those who are abused by life but—for whatever psycho-spiritual reason—never felt the touch of God in the first place.