Not A Very Merry Christmas Post: Fundamentalists and Mercy as Theological Error


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We all know them.

They sit bristling in the pews on Sundays, casting sidelong sneers keen as guillotines when the homilist mentions Pope Francis or homosexuality or the idea of the divorced receiving communion. To fundamentalists, mercy is theological error. Heresy.

My Catholic journey began with my baptism in a basement in a Soviet hospital in 1990, a yellow banner of the risen Jesus hiding a huge portrait of Lenin. It was a place where nuns in gospel poverty served the poorest of the poor, living a life of prayer, regularity, self denial and charity. I was all in this Catholicism thing.

Years later, after a big Catholic wedding and two little bundles of joy, undiagnosed mental illness was smashing me to smithereens. I made bad choices. The godparents of our children chose to sever ties—not just from me, but from the children.  They are good people who adopted a slew of kids, people you would like if you met them. 

But like the persistent gusts of wind that blow up the Duchess of Cambridge’s skirts, mental illness is an intrusion on decorum that reveals our skimpy panties.  It’s vulgar and embarrassing. It robs the sufferer of their carefully constructed facades and it makes the Queen uncomfortable. I get it. I became a dead man forgotten, a thing thrown away. (Psalm 31)

In 2008, when my husband’s and my single-issue voting was on shaky ground, we shared our conflicted feelings with neighbors, trying to sort it out. Our intellectual and spiritual struggle was not a point of discussion but rather a match to kindling. Gossip burned through our Catholic community, hot and swift.

That January, a few other defectors, other Catholics, came over to watch the inauguration of the new President. We shut the shutters tight like any good communists in the McCarthy era.

I soldiered on. I found the secular Carmelites, the branch of the religious order for those of us living in the world.  I found in this secular order structure and community and a spiritual home.

For six years, I attended monthly meetings, spent two hours in prayer, meditation and Mass, volunteered for the community and attended formation meetings where we studied the Carmelite saints so that we might love more.

In April it was time for me to be interviewed by the council prior to my final promises, my lifelong commitment to the order.  Suddenly, my inability to conjure Marian devotion—about which I had been transparent in other years to other presidents of other councils— became apostasy, unforgivable, irreconcilable.  The president of the council tore me to shreds.

One man on the council whom I’ll call Nick, fought the battle with me. Like bailing water out of a sinking boat, Nick tried to keep me afloat. He tried to soften the interaction, inserting  compassion between accusations, cartilage between sharp bones.

Every attempt I made to explain my feeble Marian devotion was thwarted by the president’s, “That’s not enough!” I explained my final project was a meditation on Mary’s hospitality. “That’s not enough!” I would pray the rosary out of obedience to the community. “That’s not enough!”

The more I cried the  deeper she plunged her disapproval. Finally, choked with tears and confusion, I left. I left everything.

The 30 minute drive home, blinded by tears, required fierce concentration on thoughts of my children.  If I lost concentration, thoughts of driving into the freeway embankment slid in, children/embankment, children/embankment, children/embankment, like the hard, thin blades of scissors passing back and forth.

The following week involved five days crying myself to sleep, nightmares of drowning, and weeping as I woke in the morning—the falling away of faith. After a week, Bluebirds and Talking Cats was all I could write.

Fundamentalists will say, “This was the Holy Spirit working His will,”  or “She had it coming,” a sort of religious Darwinism by which God culls the weak from the herd. But the fruits of the Spirit are these:  love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.  (Galations 5:22)

And this is the definition of spiritual abuse:

“A kind of abuse which damages the central core of who we are. It leaves us spiritually discouraged and emotionally cut off from the healing love of God. . . [it is] the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining, or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment.” – Jeff VanVonderen

But there is a plot twist: I told the holy priest who was the spiritual director of the community what happened. And he believed me. It was for him a last straw. He wrote to the president of the council, citing “a fundamental disconnect between [his] teaching in the Community Masses, and the direction the Council is taking these past few months” and the group’s new “juridical direction”.  He resigned his position as director of the community.

Despite this validation that something ungodly had happened in that room, I have not been able to enter a Catholic church since. My four volume Liturgy of the Hours, the universal prayer of the Church that for decades gave structure to my days and cradled me in the Word of God, now smolders on the bookshelf like four hot bricks, dangerous and untouchable.

baby-jesus-400x274Below is an excerpt from that final project, my last meditation on Christmas as a practicing Catholic. The president’s harshest accusation was, “Misty said Mary was a good hostess, and that’s it.” Well, guilty as charged.

The Nativity and Holy Hospitality

The story of Christ’s birth starts with an urgent search for lodging. The vulnerability of childbirth requires shelter and safety, even for the Mother of God. The pronouncement, “No room at the Inn,” is a cautionary tale against failing in hospitality. Would that those who uttered those words knew Whom they turned away.

Mary is the first lodging of Jesus, and this stable, his second. I grew up around stables, full of the earthy, reassuring sounds and smells of animals. The outdoors, horses, their smell and warmth and movement, hay, manure, and calm are of the archetype of home for me. Mary was not uncomfortable.

In the movie, “Nativity Story”, there is a scene that stunned me speechless. A shepherd, haggard and trembling, filthy as the sheep he tends, tentatively approaches the manger.  Mary looks at the shepherd and holds baby Jesus out to him.  Mary says, “He came for all mankind.”

Even in the stable, where Mary and Joseph had only what they carried on a donkey, Mary practiced hospitality. Here in the rudest of circumstances, Mary offers all that she has—the Creator of the Universe cooing in the hay— to whomever arrives, whatever his social status, whatever his hygiene.

This is hospitality crystalized—to welcome strangers into one’s home, to meet the needs of others. To introduce them to God.

He came for all mankind. For pumpkin-faced fascists with cotton-candy comb overs and for Democrats. He came for juridical women carved of granite reciting pharisaical mantras. And He came for me. I just don’t know where to find Him anymore.

The great Carmelite saint, John of the Cross, wrote, “In the end we shall be judged by love alone.” I entrust my salvation to love. 

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14 thoughts on “Not A Very Merry Christmas Post: Fundamentalists and Mercy as Theological Error

  1. Kathryn C. McDonald

    I am near tears. What a beautiful tribute to Mary’s love. And I am a Catholic who did NOT vote for Obama. You my friend are a Catholic theologian. The “Church lady” needed a nap!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kate

    Ah well, I offered the 2nd Joyful mystery of my rosary for you today. Hospitality, indeed! But, I think you know where to find Jesus. The people in His Church are all sick in their own way, if it weren’t for Him, I’d be out the door too!

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    1. Thanks for reading, and thanks for prayer. The problem for me is the vein of fundamentalism in the Church that the Church itself seems to nurture. For every holy, self-sacrificing person, there is a fundamentalist who contradicts the word of Christ, among priests and bishops as well as lay people. A good tree bears good fruit. Where does all this bad fruit come from? “The Church is a hospital for sinners not a temple for saints,” yes, but something within the church nurtures this fundamentalist sickness.

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  4. andrew s charity

    Hi Misty. I am sorry to read about your being treated badly. I know God is not responsible for what people say about Him/Her. I think She is so much more important than people’s narrow interpretations of her or of love.

    Andy Charity

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