My own exile from our local parish community came with an obsessive pain. I struggle, still, to let it go. The bishop is now dead and gone, but not easily forgotten. Mere mention of the pastor`s name or a photo in the diocesan paper makes the hair on my neck stand up. Forgiveness is a central virtue of our life as Catholics, but I hold grudges. I always have. Homilies on reconciliation leave me with guilt. Reliving the time fills me with anger. Yet, with the grace of years and hindsight, I now see the time as a proverbial dying of self to produce new growth.
Exile forces you to step outside of a hurtful, unhealthy, and often dysfunctional situation. It forces you to change your focus. I had to take off the lenses of the core faithful and refocus my view from the back pews. I had to struggle to maintain a sense of normalcy in our family`s faith life in the midst of the anger and the questioning. Why should I remain a Catholic? What did the church mean to me? What did my faith mean to me? Was my faith dependent on the communal affirmation and support of parish involvement? Was my faith so weak that anger at a pastor would keep me from the sacraments? The dark night of the soul is a rough road to travel, but it forces you to face the tough questions. And, slowly the answers began to come.
What did I learn from my own exile? I learned of the true catholicity of the people of God. Self-righteousness is an easy temptation when you`re an inner circle Catholic. I learned that a love for orthodoxy can easily translate into a black and white view of our faith, the world, and God. It is a comfortable place to be, for all the answers are there. Today there is more grey in my life, and not just beneath the regular hair coloring! I learned of the importance of seeking an adult faith through ongoing study, prayer and pondering. I learned of the necessity of seeking kindred spirits and friends for mutual support on our faith journeys – the gift of community. And, I learned how parochial we can be as Catholics. Being Christ to others goes far beyond the walls of a church, the boundaries of a diocese, or the halls of the Vatican.
When we first left our parish community, I struggled with guilt. Were we just running away? Was this a sign of weakness? The time away proved to be a time of growth. Was it painful? You bet it was. But it was growth, indeed. I wonder where I would be if I wasn`t graced with this time in my life. Maybe it`s time to let go of the anger. After all, my exile became a holy retreat.