Reflections On The Scandal
Fr. Michael Butler, Olmsted Falls, OH
I have been reading the posts on this website for months now and have been following the controversy since it became public. I need to say at the outset that I prefer to live quietly, but I feel more and more that I cannot continue to live quietly if I continue to live silently . I hope that adding my voice to the discussion on this forum will be helpful to others; I think it will be helpful to me.
What I feel drawn to comment on are not the facts of the controversy itself, but on how the controversy is being framed and how that affects the hearts of everyone involved.
I am not at peace with polarizing the Church into Us and Them: the faithful vs. the Central Church Administration, vs. the Metropolitan Council, vs. the Holy Synod, vs. this bishop or that bishop, vs. anybody else. Arguing from an Us vs. Them attitude is inherently damaging both to Us and to Them, for in the final analysis, They are Us.
To act otherwise is to rend the Body of Christ, to do damage to ourselves. We cannot say to the head or to the arm, "I don't need you." Admittedly, the impulse to divide up the world into us and them, right and wrong, pro and con, is a strong one. That doesn't make it right. It simply allows us to feel better about ourselves by transferring our pain and anger onto somebody else. A ten-dollar word for this practice is pseudospeciation ; the common one is scapegoating .
Scapegoating is an almost reflexive response for most people. I would submit that part of the reason we so easily scapegoat one another in the present crisis is simply that there is no one to hold our pain. Who in this whole mess has not been wounded? And yet, who is there to hold that wound, that pain, all that grief, anger, disappointment, and shame? Who is there to acknowledge it and give it a place freely to be expressed so that it can be honored and, ultimately, healed?
More's the pity that His Beatitude has silenced his Priests on the controversy. Their hierarch and father has demonstrated that he doesn't want to deal with the wounds his Priests bear. Where will they take them, then, and how can they be healed? Also sad that Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas did not use his recent Clergy Convocation or Diocesan Assembly as forums where the members of his diocese would have the opportunity to do what he encouraged them to do in his letter of 1 September: to deal with the things that separate one from his brother and to consign them to oblivion. Again, how consign to oblivion what cannot even be discussed?
My experience at the recent Midwest Diocesan Assembly only sharpens my concern. First, because the formal business of assemblies, with their parliamentary procedures, rules, resolutions and such, are not an adequate means for dealing with people's hearts. Speaking to Resolutions and Amendments Thereto is not a substitute for speaking heart to heart about the very reason people got all stirred up to offer resolutions in the first place.
Second, the services which were conducted for the assembly at the local parish, both Vespers and Liturgy, made no mention whatsoever to the scandal that had wounded the Church. To be sure, the services were conducted with dignity, beauty, and fine singing, but it struck me as ironic that we could sing sweetly in four-part harmony about the sufferings of the ancient martyrs commemorated that day, but not a single word was uttered about the suffering the Church is enduring today, here and now; not a single petition at a single litany, not a single prayer for peace, reconciliation, forgiveness, unity, or anything else. What do we do? Go to the church for Vespers and Liturgy so we can forget about life for a while? Has the Church become an escape from life rather than it's transformation? As some wiseacre put it, "denial ain't just a river in Egypt." Ignoring wounds doesn't make them go away; at best, they scar over, and at worst, they fester.
We face public scandal in the Church, and public scandal demands a public hearing, but in the Church . Yet where has there been a forum in the Church adequate to the scandal we face? (Is it any wonder people hurl their pain and their rage, often anonymously, into cyberspace?) There is a desperate need for all those in positions of responsibility and power to hear -- really to hear -- the grief and anger of the faithful; to acknowledge it without excuse, explanation, interruption, clarification, justification, or even apology; but simply to hear it, and hear it well. Likewise, there is a desperate need for all those in positions of responsibility and power to be heard themselves, so that their pain and grief and anger can be heard by all the faithful, again without excuse, explanation or anything else beyond a respectful and sincere hearing. Such a forum, such a hearing, raises the possibility for something rare and beautiful: a dialogue in which heart can speak to heart, where forgiveness and reconciliation can begin, and where love can blossom.
If we dare to take St Paul at his word, that Christ's strength is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12.9), then not only does the scandal represent one of our Church's darkest hours, but it can be, for that very reason, one of our finest. And frankly, I'm afraid we're squandering it.
Those who are elders in the Church -- by which I do not mean some impossible ideal or romantic illusion of Holy Elder, but simply good enough spiritual fathers and mothers , of which we have many -- need to make themselves available to tend the wounds of the people, to provide a safe and secure place for others to unburden their hearts, and where people's pain can be honored and held. Priests need to do this for their flocks, ... and for each other. Bishops need to do this for their Priests, ... and for each other. And would that we had the opportunity for the whole OCA to come together and do the same for the good of us all!
This is spiritual work, and spiritual work does not admit of Us and Them. Ours is the Spirit of unity, and in Christ there is only Us. It is only in this Spirit that controversy can be handled in a way that does not injure its participants. For example, if it comes out that persons in authority have indeed mishandled power and betrayed trust, they need to be removed from authority for their own good and for the welfare of the Church. But it is done out of love and concern for the well-being of one of our own, not as Us punishing one of Them. You see the difference.
That is how I would rather see this controversy framed.
How to begin to reframe the controversy? The end of a poem by Rilke suggests a way. He is talking about the angel who wrestled with Jacob, and he says,
Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined to fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater things.
Blessed ones, we need to be defeated by God, for whoever is defeated by God no longer needs to defeat his brother.
Fr. Michael Butler