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SPIRITUAL LIFE

In journeys of faith, some lose way

Anyone who sympathizes with doubting Thomas and his demands for proof of the Resurrection will understand spiritual or religious alienation. A loss of faith in God, or in organized religion, can lead to different destinations. Some spiritual exiles wander into agnosticism or atheism; others strike out in the opposite direction, settling in the unquestioning certainty of fundamentalist faiths. In his recent book, "Faith in Exile" (Paulist Press), Joseph T. Kelley offers suggestions for finding ways out of alienation. We must accept that doubt is part of faith for many people, and we must respect that different exiles require different answers, says Kelley, a Catholic, psychologist, and administrator at Merrimack College in North Andover.

 

Could you lay out the steps to return from exile?

The first step is to realize we're not God-forsaken. The Judeo-Christian tradition emphasizes that God is with that spiritual exile. The second step would be giving yourself time and space, to devote time and places where we can go within ourselves, make the interior journey. Sometimes I find I need that a couple of times a day.

Going to places that help you develop that interior sense is important. It may be your favorite quiet spot. Also, certain activities. I remember a Japanese friend talking about gift-wrapping and how that was a spiritual experience for them. It may be caring for a child -- whatever leads us to reflect.

If people stick with a religion but harbor doubts about it, are they being dishonest?

I don't think so. Within Catholicism, some bishops were saying you can't adopt a cafeteria style, where you choose to believe what you like. Fair enough. But I don't think we're supposed to check our brains at the vestibule. One strength that Catholic-Anglican Christianity brings is integration of faith and reason.

You mention people who follow religion out of habit or social benefit, not spirituality. What if they derive benefit from that affiliation?

There are people for whom the social relationships can be very enriching. They may not be given to interior reflection. It's not my place to dismiss those people. However, I do think that at a certain point, religion by its very nature calls people to self-reflection.

Have you counseled victims of clergy abuse? Not in a formal counseling relationship. Informally.

Will some victims be permanently exiled?

I think so. If you take the more extreme and awful examples, where children were abused within a sacred place -- the church, the priest's house -- psychologically, it's difficult if not impossible to overcome that. I don't think it should be the church's aim to reconcile all victims with the church. I just don't think that's psychologically possible.

Can anything fill that void?

If a victim wants no relationship with the church or organized religion, that may be their way. There are people -- hermits, certain mystics -- who choose a type of exile for themselves. [For] some victims, that may be the way they need to go.

You write about exiles leaving old images of a judgmental God for a more loving one. How do you explain the opposite, people whose exile leads them to fundamentalism?

I would say that [religious] practice that tends toward the fundamentalistic, that defines itself by exclusion of others, is an expression of need for certainty in an insecure and threatening world. Those threats can be coming from the outside or from within. Religion that promises certainty is a way of controlling, perhaps repressing, unresolved emotional issues. That type of religion is dangerous.

Can you give the most profound example you've had to deal with of spiritual exile?

The most powerful was meeting a victim of clergy sexual abuse. I do speaking at Catholic parishes. A person came up to me and shared his story. This person was not angry; this person was beyond anger. He had dealt with the issues a survivor of abuse would have. He was not a practicing Catholic. I don't know where he was going [spiritually], but you could tell he was on a journey.

Rich Barlow can be reached at rbarlow.81@alum. dartmouth.org.

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