I’m coming up on an anniversary that is traumatic for me because, through the actions of a lot of people who claimed they loved me, I lost almost everything I had spent the previous 20 years building. High on the list of disappointments when I came back from rehab and some medical challenges in 2016 was, and is, the behavior of the parish board and the parishioners. I would like to be able to say that I’ve forgiven them all and moved on, but the truth is there is still some very real anger. Yes, I’ve worked through a lot of feelings and have forgiven as best I can, but the hurt is deep. I had spent a decade with these people; I knew their struggles and fears, their joys and their losses. Each of them felt rejected by the larger Catholic Church because they were divorced and remarried, gay or lesbian, or in some cases, they were simply better theologically educated or more inclusive when it came to welcoming everyone to the table of the Lord. Together we built the fastest growing Catholic parish in the city, where all were welcome–no questions asked, no demands or strings attached. The parish grew and together we challenged ourselves to reach beyond our individual limitations to better reach out to those who needed us most. Despite this focus on unconditional acceptance and love, when it came time to accept that their beloved pastor had a drug addiction, they abruptly abandoned me as a priest and as a man who more than anything needed some loving support in order to stay clean. Ironically, they treated me exactly as they had been treated by the institutional Church: they judged me an outcast not worth saving and disappeared. I waited for them to return, and when they didn’t, I wrote a long apology letter to each of them. Only two even bothered to respond, but both made it clear that they wanted nothing further to do with me. That hurt is still fresh and the wounds are deep–and so is the anger.
All of this has given me an opportunity to rethink the anger issue, especially when anger makes us think of ways we might strike back. It’s a normal human emotion to want some revenge. It’s normal to get so angry that we find ourselves imagining ways we might actually follow through on the imagined revenge. But the reality is, revenge hurts everyone, especially the one who initiates it. And the revenge plan never goes the way we imagine it will because when we act to strike back, we unleash an energy force that cannot be contained. Wherever there is energy there is power. Even holding thoughts of taking revenge on someone for having hurt us only amplifies the violence that has already been created. We tend to think that our actions alone matter, but the reality is the thinking precedes the action, so the way we think is key. Violence begets more violence. Throwing a stone in the water where someone has already thrown a stone only makes additional disturbance on the surface of the lake. That leaves only one workable solution: forgiveness.
Damn! That’s a tall order, I know, but I’m giving it chance to calm my soul in the aftermath of the events of two years ago. Here’s what I’m learning so far. First, I have accepted the truth that I need to release the people with whom I am angry and hurt and when thoughts of them come up, I need to surrender all of it to God’s care. Things tend to have a purpose in this life where everything is interconnected, so I accept that the negative energy of the past can be a teaching moment for me as I continue to heal. Second, it is within the realm of possibility that the actions of those who harmed me may have had nothing to do with me personally. If I can bracket off my pain and anger for a minute and acknowledge that their choices may have had nothing to do with me, I don’t take the hurt so personally. I can release my anger and hurt–at least for now. Third, I have learned that every human interaction is an opportunity for me to respond with better choices. Sometimes I need to take a deep breath and remind myself that feelings pass, and that allows me just enough time to remember the Presence of God within me, thereby making it a little easier to respond with compassion and integrity.
Logically I know that I can never know all the circumstances that led someone to do something, but by trying to suspend my tendency to judge and praying instead for God’s healing for all concerned, I feel more sure that I am cooperating with God to create something positive out of a difficult situation. The events of the past will always be a painful memory, and I just need to accept that the past cannot ever be anything but what it was–and ask God to help me accept life as it is, not how I want it to be.
I really do think that at every moment each of us has chance to change the darkness of our world through a simple decision to bring light instead. Instead of allowing circumstances to undermine our best selves, we can instead return curses with a blessing. Whenever we choose to bless, we gift others with the energy of our thoughts, and I do believe the whole world feels that kind of impact. And if it’s not totally obvious by now, let me humbly say that being a priest doesn’t make any of this forgiveness and blessing stuff any easier. It’s just harder to stand up front and talk about God and amazing grace while we’re wallowing in our own poo.