“There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed, nothing concealed that will not be known... Therefore consider carefully how you listen." Luke 8:17-18
When I was in seminary, my Presbyterian classmates sometimes accused me of promoting a 5th century heresy called Pelagianism. I wouldn’t characterize my beliefs that way, but it’s true that like committed Pelagians, I try to believe that people are good. Really good. I tell myself that we are not born sinners. I tell myself that God infused our basic nature with such divinity that, just by virtue of being human beings, we are capable of wonderful things.
So I spent my years in graduate school clashing over and over again with the Calvinist doctrine of the “total depravity of humanity,” which teaches that we are unable to refrain from evil without God’s grace. It didn’t square with what I want to believe about people, or what I know of our Creator.
The more we learn about the clergy sexual abuse crisis––and we have learned so agonizingly much this week, with the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury’s report––the more I find myself thinking of those seminary words: total depravity. Total depravity. Yes, that’s exactly what we’re seeing in the actions of the predators and those who cover for them.
Like most of us, the grand jury report consumed most of my week. I spent Tuesday night poring over the report’s description of the Erie diocese with one of the Sisters, nauseating ourselves on details. On Wednesday, I tried to explain to Miriam, a friend from college, why I haven’t parted ways with Catholicism, and then I went to Mass for the feast of the Assumption. In the pews of a parish where four known predators have served as pastor, flanked on all sides by my wiggly, perfect godchildren, I asked myself the same questions Miriam had asked me, and I found my answers pretty weak. Thursday, I listened to my coworkers share how horrifying this experience is for them, and I revisted the full report. That time, I found one of my former pastors listed as an offender.
I sat down to write this blog post, but quickly realized that I was just listing out every priest I’ve known who harmed me or people I love, or trampled over the laity as though they were second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. The list was very long, and frankly, not especially well-written. So I thought I’d better let my thoughts keep coalescing.
But what can a person say? I am both outraged and unsurprised. I am hurt and I am so sorry to those who suffered more directly than I did.
And I think that, as hard as it is, we all need to stay outraged and unsurprised and pained and remorseful. Because I doubt that this institution can become worthy of its children, of its people, unless it’s forced to.
But I am finding some comfort in these hard days, and I hope you are, too. I’m reminding myself of those words from Luke, trying to be grateful that the decades of cover-up, of suffering without being heard, are over. I’m challenging myself to “carefully consider how I listen,” asking myself what untold evils I continue to not pay attention to. And I’m wondering how I can model myself after the Sisters in this community who speak out against abuse, and after the Sister who told me on Thursday, with a serious little smile, “This is so difficult. So, we have to uphold one another right now.”
And I am, most of all, trying not to stop erring on the side of Pelagianism. To say that human beings are totally depraved by nature, that we cannot choose to do good without special grace, undermines the real horror of the situation, which is that gifted children of God—men who, at times, did great things for their communities—failed to do what was right when it was most needed. And because of that, unknown numbers of innocent people suffered horribly.
It seems significant to me that this report came out just before the Assumption, that we had to find a way to reconcile that holy day with very unholy news. After all, the Assumption is the final chapter in Mary’s life, the final repetition of her message: God loves us wildly, uses us for good, dwells inside us, topples injustice through us, and calls us, body and soul, to union with the Divine.
I keep telling myself there’s good in us, at least as much good as there is bad. I know I can see examples of this every day, if I just open my eyes. God is still loving us, still using us, still dwelling within us, still toppling injustice through us, and still calling us to be our fullest, holiest selves. And hopefully, this painful time can become a step toward that union.
We can’t give up the hope that we can be better than this.
So I’ll leave you with this poem by Maggie Smith, called “Good Bones.”
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through, … chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
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A blog by Jacqueline Small
What happens when a woman in her mid-twenties begins to work, pray, and share life with a community of Benedictine sisters? What questions arise and what wisdom emerges? This blog will offer peeks into one young seeker’s experiences. Jacqueline is a staff member of Monasteries of the Heart and an oblate of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. She holds a Bachelors degree in Sociology from Swarthmore College, a Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University.
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