exile – a holy retreat

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.


Several years ago, I attended a Conversation Group on “Faith and Culture”.  A priest, well respected for his social justice work, pondered whether exile should be seen as a viable option for those who continue struggling with issues within the institutional Church. He described exile not as a defeat, but as an acknowledgement of our powerlessness to change present situations. Is it worth expending our energies fighting a futile battle? Can wisdom, perhaps, be found in distancing ourselves from our homeland? Can exile be used as a time to ponder and pray? A time to reflect on past and present hurts? A time to seek a more life-giving spiritual path? His words were given as a short statement within a larger discussion. But, the seed of his exile imagery remained with me.

There is a spiritual and emotional richness to the reality of exile. It’s an integral part of the grand narrative of our Judeo-Christian heritage, from the Exodus story and the Babylonian exile in the Hebrew Scriptures to the Gospel account of Mary and Joseph fleeing into Egypt for the safety of their son. The powers in authority – threatened, insecure powers that responded to their own fears by oppressing others – forced the people to leave the rootedness and security of home to become strangers in a land not their own.  There the people prayed, kept the memory of their homeland alive, and waited in hope for the day of return. By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept at the memory of Zion. (Psalm 137)

History is replete with stories of exile. The present is over-flowing with them. Heart-wrenching images and news reports of peoples in exile fill our media each day. Women, men and children are brutally expelled from their homelands in the name of ethnic cleansing. Families flee war-torn countries seeking peaceful refuge. Entire regions are displaced by drought-stricken famine, floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters. The Balkans, Darfur, Afghanistan, Tibet, and Haiti all show us exile at its harshest, starkest reality.

There is a difference between exile and wanting to quit a place, leaving it for good. Quitting connotes freely breaking ties, and leaving to try something new. The decision can be an emotional one, but it is done by choice with usually no desire to “turn back”. The belief that one is pursuing the better choice gives strength in moments of doubt and uncertainty. For example, some women and men quit the Church because it no longer has meaning for them (or perhaps never had), out of anger or disillusionment with institutional religion, or merely out of apathy. The choice is freely made, with no undue hardship in the discernment. In fact, sometimes it is just a slow, drifting away with no definitive discernment made. There might be the occasional pang of guilt, but over-all nothing is missed.

Exile, on the other hand, is forced upon you by others or by circumstance. There can still be an element of choice, but even then it usually comes when we can no longer bear the burden of the circumstances and reluctantly leave the situation or community. Exile, as opposed to voluntarily “quitting”, connotes a sense of displacement and a loss of grounding. Exile is being forced out of one’s home and shut out of the life of the community.  In exile, the leaving is cloaked in sadness and a sense of deep loss for what might have been. There is a desire to see change and renewal. While there might be nostalgia for the “good old days”, there is also a vision for better, new days – a time for welcoming back.

(Next: exile – a holy retreat?)