Saturday, April 25, 2009

Random Observations

I realized during a conversation with some colleagues yesterday that ecstatic and mystical experiences have a lot in common with traumatic ones: mystical events are usually unpredictable and uncontrollable, turn previous belief systems and ways of making meaning upside down, distort space and time, and overwhelm our ability to communicate them by language, even if people want to hear about them -- which people often don't.

This is true even, or especially, in church. I know plenty of clergy who've had intense, and intensely inexplicable, spiritual experiences, but they always talk about being afraid to share these incidents with other people, who may think that both the encounters and the individuals experiencing them are crazy.

This has always seemed very sad to me. If you can't talk about encountering the divine in church, where can you?

Anyway, I'm wondering if trauma and ecstasy are so similar simply because they're both so out of the ordinary, or if there's some deeper connection. Has anyone seen any work done on this anywhere?

Meanwhile, speaking of trauma and church, evidently there was a bit of a blow-up last week when I wasn't there; someone made a mistake and was publicly rebuked, and was hurt, and is now seeking an apology and a way to fix the systemic issues that caused the problem. Everyone's handling this very sensibly, and the person who was rebuked feels supported, I think, which is great. And of course such things happen in all human organizations; you can't live in any kind of community without errors, lapses in communication and hurt feelings.

But reading the flurry of e-mails about this particular issue did bring up painful memories of my own church fiasco, which was actually a series of fiascos that hurt all kinds of people. That extended nightmare was worse because there were so few people I could discuss it with when it was happening; one of the good things about losing a parent, I've discovered, is that so many other people have lost parents and completely understand, and everybody else is at least willing to extend sympathy. The griefs I suffered before were much harder to explain, much more disenfranchised. (And one of the players in that whole mess has now rewritten history to make my father's illness the reason I withdrew from ordination. Well, no. . . . although certainly, once Dad moved here and got sick -- months after I withdrew -- I was delighted that I didn't have to handle clerical duties on top of caregiving ones!)

I'm babbling: pardon me. Anyway, my not-such-a-huge epiphany today is that church folk in general (all church folk, both lay and ordained) seem to have a lot of trouble saying both "thank you" and "I'm sorry." We're great at thanking others, but when they thank us, we get all squirmy, because we're being thanked for God-given gifts and it's not right for us to take credit for them, or something, because that would be a form of pride. Meanwhile, of the people who've behaved badly towards me in the church, I can only think of one who said "I'm sorry" when I tried to talk about the problem (and that didn't seem very sincere, for reasons too complicated to explain here). The others, both lay and ordained, deftly sidestepped my efforts to address underlying issues and kept on as usual, evidently assuming that if they just avoided the problems long enough, I'd get over my hurt and anger. To the extent that this behavior has a theological component, rather than just being plain old-fashioned human avoidance, I suspect it goes something like, "Well, God's already forgiven me, so I don't need to go through the steps of making sure that other people have, too."

Have I mentioned that Episcopalians are masters of passive aggression? Maybe other denominations are, too, and maybe this is just a human trait that has nothing to do with faith background.

Nertz. It sounds like I'm church-bashing here, and I hate church-bashing, and I really don't want to do that -- or encourage it in other people. I don't think church dynamics are any better or worse than those that govern universities, corporations, or communes. I'm really proud of the person in my parish who's talking about a painful experience and trying to get support in dealing with it, and I'm really proud of the other people in my parish who are being supportive.

But I'm also wondering if the thank-you/I'm-sorry antipathies are linked. If Episcopalians, or at least the ones I know, were better at saying, "Thanks! I worked really hard on that, and I'm so glad you noticed!", would we also be better at saying, "I'm sorry; I really screwed up; please tell me how I can fix it"? If we were better at taking our share of credit, would we be better at owning our share of blame?


  1. Episcopalians are not alone in passive aggression. Alas.

  2. Oh--and the relationship between trauma and mysticism? May not be very talked-about in our culture but may be understood in other cultures that have the concept of the shamanic journey.


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