Spiritual Abuse and the Catholic Church by Lynn Tolson
Lynn Tolson First Holy Communion
This week I am pleased to have Lynn Tolson, Author of “Beyond the Tears: A true Survivor’s Story” guest blogging on Emerging from Broken. The following blog post illustrates how religious institutions demand blind obedience from parishioners trained from childhood to defer to the established patriarchal principles of society. Conforming to the religious standards without being able to think for oneself and form individual opinions is a set up for oppression and submission for the sake of a feeling of belongingness. As always, please share your thoughts in the comments section ~ Darlene
Spiritual Abuse and the Catholic Church ~ Adapted from Beyond the Tears: A True Survivor’s Story by Lynn C. Tolson
Like many Americans of Italian descent, my family was of the Roman Catholic religion. My grandmother had statues of saints on her dresser and a picture of the Pope over her bed. My mother prayed with me, on our knees, before bed: If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Our family activities and meals, such as eating fish on Fridays, were based on the religious calendar.
In parochial school, Mass was mandatory on Holy Days of Obligation. Each class marched single file to the church; nuns in habits led children in plaid uniforms. I learned the language of the Catholic congregation: catechism, confession, contrition, communion, confirmation, excommunication, and the rituals of the Catholic church: The stations of the Cross, the Cross on the Rosary, and the Sign of the Cross: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. That included all the important people, but what category did little girls fall into? I was also taught prejudice by the clergy: “Don’t talk to Protestants or Jews; if you do, your duty is to convert them to the One True Religion, which is Catholicism.” This is spiritual abuse. What a load of responsibility on children, to be prejudicial toward others based on religion. Whenever I was in church, I never felt right or good. I always felt guilty, because I’d been taught, we were born with Original Sin. That teaching is also spiritually abusive.
Confession was a real dilemma for me. Each Saturday, I’d ask myself, “What sins could an eight-year-old commit?” Often I did not sin at all, but since Confession was mandatory, I invented sins, such as fibbing. To perform the rites of a good Catholic, I lied to the priest about how I had fibbed to my mother. As a kid, kneeling in the confessional to admit fake sins to a priest who was shrouded in shadows behind the partition served only as an exercise of fear and punishment, rather than a proclamation of faith and salvation. Confessing to temptations that were fabricated made me feel as guilty as sin, but at least guilt was a feeling I could relate to.
My religious beliefs were not mine at all; they were developed by the adults around me who sought moral righteousness by blessing themselves with holy water at Sunday Mass. The self-righteousness was depleted by Sunday evening, when Chianti and cursing and name-calling became the family dinner rituals. Along with the vocabulary of the religion and the discrimination by the clergy, I also learned the hypocrisy of my spiritually abusive relatives. Yet I yielded to their attitudes because that is what I knew was a measure of my belonging to this family and a member of the One True Religion.
In sixth and seventh grades, I was in search of a sure path to heaven. When Mother Superior asked girls to clean the convent, I volunteered to dust the home of the devout sisters of a holy order. Sister Mary Agnes led me past the rectory to the convent. As I stepped into the habitat of this secret society, I smelled a sweet mixture of incense, candle fragrance, and furniture polish. “Don’t break anything,” Sister said. The statue of Saint Francis was larger than life, and as I dusted his feet, it seemed like the eyes of Jesus were watching. My heart flopped like a fish out of water. I prayed that I was not doing anything wrong.
On Vocation Day, Sister Mary Therese told us, “Search your soul for your calling. If you have the calling, your heart will speak to you.” The convent activity caused me to consider a vocation as a nun. Could I devote an entire lifetime to God? Well, how long would I live? Could I live with all the other sisters? What, and never talk during dinner? Could I wear that habit? Not in this heat and humidity. This particular path to heaven was a little too difficult. Obviously, I did not have the calling.
Perhaps I could be virtuous, like the Virgin Mary. I contemplated faith, hope, and charity: Have faith in whom? Have hope for what? Who needs my charity? I waited for rapture, but after growing up Catholic and with so much spiritual abuse, all I got was guilt.
As I teenager, I witnessed my family’s discontented versions of God: My father was an atheist, my step-mother was a pagan, my step-father was agnostic, my brother wanted scientific proof, my younger brother went with the flow, my grandmother went to Italy to visit the Pope, and my mother gave up on God altogether. After battling with God over why he allowed incest (a word I learned by looking in the dictionary at ten years old to see if it applied to me) into my young life, I wrote a few cynical words that expressed my belief: God hates me therefore God punishes me.
I thought about God as I was punishing myself with a suicide attempt at twenty-three years old. I worried about the fate of my soul, if indeed I had a soul. Parochial school taught me that it was a sin to commit suicide, so I would burn in hell. Surely, my soul was unworthy of any place other than hellfire and damnation. I deserved to die. Presuming there was a God, and in case God could hear, I began to recite the Lord’s Prayer as I swallowed three hundred pills: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. What a complicated mix of confusing thoughts that had been festering under the control of a religion I did not choose or want!
In therapy after that suicide attempt, I realized that religious rituals were not for me. I learned that some people feel stifled by institutions and some use church just to gain status. Religion may be a source of strength to others. The principles of religion, such as The Golden Rule or The Ten Commandments, were supposed to instill love. But if traditional religion had no significance to me would I live without love? How could I live without the Catholic religion that had once defined me, my family, and my place in the world. Wait, the religion may have been a factor for my family, but did I really have to inherit it when all I got was guilt?
My counselor taught me that guilt is productive as a measure of moral conscience to keep us from veering too far from our values. But nonproductive guilt, that pervasive guilt for no good reason, is counterproductive. I had been living within the limits of false guilt. What I longed for was unbridled, unbounded authentic love.
In an attempt to relieve myself of the guilt, I started on a spiritual quest. I learned that there is a difference between religion and spirituality. The main premise of spirituality is the belief in a Higher Power. With spirituality, humans attain an awareness that acknowledges the soul because we are intrinsically spiritual beings in human form. I once thought the soul hovered above or around the body, but not quite in it. I learned that the body is a vessel for the soul to inhabit; the soul is the essence of love as it manifests in the world.
Spirituality took on a new meaning, not as a means to get to Heaven, but as a way to get through each day on earth. It was a relief to learn that I’m not a heretic without hope of redemption. The love of God is not reserved for special people who perform certain acts; a spiritually abusive teaching designed to force compliance and gain control. Love is not a matter of deserving. No list of accomplishments is needed to earn love. There is a purpose to life, which is as simple as experiencing love and extending that love to others. In this mix of giving and receiving love, there is no room for guilt, which makes way for peace.
I have developed my own individual and true beliefs. God’s love (your personal vision) is alive and present in your soul. Our spiritual connection is our unity with God, and the love of God in the universe. Every soul finds redemption as a child in God’s family because love is unconditional and pure within all of us. Although my beliefs may be imperfectly formed and impartially developed, at least they are created by me using my own thoughts, opinions, and emotions.
Along with exploring my core spiritual values in therapy, I read many books on the topic of spirituality. Here is a link to an Amazon Listmania, to share some of the books that were meaningful in my personal spiritual journey
Lynn C. Tolson
Bio: After her first eighteen years in the Northeast, Lynn Tolson moved to the Southwest where she engaged in careers in real estate and property management. During those years, she survived post-traumatic stress disorder, which manifested in addictions and suicide attempts. Through the therapeutic process, she determined the causes of her dysfunction, which included childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence. Ultimately, she was able to achieve a life that reflects health and happiness. Her memoir, “Beyond the Tears: A true Survivor’s Story” illustrates physical, emotional, and spiritual transformation; her story offers a message of hope. Tolson moved to the Midwest where she returned to college to obtain a degree in social work. She has also overcome breast cancer. She resides in the Rocky Mountains where she works as an artist, author, and advocate.