Guest Blog: Thoughts on Spiritual Abuse, Rewilding, and the Discalced Laity.

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What follows is a guest blog post by Dr. Philippa Martyr, who has posted on here before. This is a follow-up in a way to my last blog post on the crisis in the priesthood, but also is a follow-up to several past posts on related topics. This is a very personal accounting by Dr. Martyr and I commend her for her willingness to discuss it publicly. We need more honest discussions like this one, and less superficial analyses rooted in a set of agenda driven pieties. I am quickly reaching the conclusion that most forms of so-called “piety” are actually forms of mental illness.

Oh… and I am still working on part two of my post on salvation outside of the Church. So for those who have inquired: Patience!

By Dr. Philippa Martyr

Larry Chapp and I seem to be thinking in tandem just now. His piece on the discalced laity landed in my line of sight on the same day that The Pillar published an exposé of Silverstream Priory’s founder Dom Mark Kirby and the ordeal of one priest in the community

Then I shared a piece on Facebook about the recent arrest of FSSP priest Fr James Jackson on child pornography possession charges. He was one of Larry’s old seminary companions, and the pain of that scandal has led Larry to write about how the Church of spectators is placing even more pressure on our priests, both good and bad.  

I’ve recently encountered the idea of ‘rewilding the Church’. I had to go and look up what that meant and found a book by Steve Aisthorpe called Rewilding the Church that explained the process. Rewilding is allowing nature to take its course; to step back from managed land and let the forces of nature themselves reshape landscapes and take them over – watercourses, wild animals, natural regrowth. Rewilding ‘the Church’, for Protestant writers like Aisthorpe, seems to mean de-fettering, allowing a freer and wilder and more spiritual Church to evolve naturally. It involves untethering from tradition, increasing deinstitutionalisation, moving completely away from clericalism, and ‘starting afresh’. 

It’s alluring. It sounds charming and balanced and healthy. But what it leaves out are all the problems of rewilding that happen in nature, and thus also in grace: the choking out of entire species, predators running rampant, and arable land turned into something that can no longer sustain human life as effectively as it used to. If anything, the Church has been ‘rewilding’ since the 1960s, and the results aren’t pretty. 

I’d been a supporter of Silverstream Priory, albeit a very modest one. I’d read Dom Mark Kirby’s book In Sinu Jesu and been very moved (although it was quite repetitive). The reason I was moved was that the charism described in it was identical to that of my own former religious order, which I left in 2007 at the end of temporary vows. 

If you think the child sexual abuse crisis has been hard to endure, I would like to alert you to two more layers of the same ghastly cake that need exposure, apologies, and remediation. The first is adult sexual relationships by clergy – the ‘adult boundary violations’ that in some dioceses seem to be so common that they’re taken for granted. The second is spiritual abuse in religious life and in specific religious communities. Spiritual abuse is hard to define, but it’s generally understood as a form of emotional and psychological abuse that uses spirituality or religious practice as a means of coercive control. 

What happened to me

I was profoundly ignorant of religious life when I entered an enclosed women’s community in 2002, at the ripe old age of 32. I had read precisely one book on the subject – A Right to be Merry, by Mother Mary Francis, the superior of a Poor Clare community. The title was accurate, but it couldn’t have been less accurate about the community I entered – who weren’t Poor Clares, so that probably accounts for some of it. 

I think most lay people and most diocesan priests have a very distorted idea of what religious life is like, especially for women. There’s a mental muddle of lives of the saints, The Nun’s StoryThe Sound of MusicBlack Narcissus, and perhaps The Singing Nun (or maybe The Flying Nun). Even lay people with a close relative in religious life will have very little idea of what it’s really like.

My ignorance was protective in many ways. I just accepted a lot of what I now see as downright strange, as normal. Unfortunately, I also accepted that superiors and other sisters could engage in quite openly abusive behaviours – not so much towards me (those who were with me have since suggested that the superior was partly enamoured and partly scared of me). But I certainly witnessed others being given a really hard time, unjustly, and often. 

I’d been warned about the congregation I felt called to join. It had a reputation for orthodoxy, so I thought that this was the problem. But I was totally unprepared for how human the sisters were: bad tempered, disobedient, lazy, spiteful, gossipy, and petulant. But some were consistently patient, forbearing, just, and kind. I went in there with a full set of glaring faults of my own, and religious life was very good for me in many ways – a lot of the dents in my personality got hammered out. I worked and prayed around the clock; I learned a lot about myself, and I learned a lot about God. 

But I struggled with the cognitive dissonance – sometimes daily – between what we preached and how we lived. We had an entrenched superior who was aggressive, competitive, and arrogant, and who would either bully and then dispatch sisters who crossed her, or break them and infantilise them. She’d stayed in office by shamelessly stacking the General Chapter, fighting off diocesan investigations and an Apostolic Visitation. We were formed in the novitiate to adore her and never to question anything she did. I was present for the Apostolic Visitation; I would never have dreamed of complaining about anything to the Visitors, or of saying anything that wasn’t absolutely the party line. 

The superior also rallied most of the congregation behind her with a complex myth of rampant Modernism in the diocese and then the Curia. The forces of darkness were engaged in nefarious scheming to suppress the congregation. Our congregation was special; chosen for a vital mission in the Church’s history, and it was our duty to fight any attempts at external moderation or correction – ‘interference’ – and to defend our spiritual patrimony. 

The financial patrimony, meanwhile, was being spent hand over fist engaging expensive legal representation at all levels. This was happening concurrently with us running fundraising campaigns to restore the fabric of our buildings and to create new foundations. We were constantly pleading poverty, and yet we had an enormous financial patrimony. I am ashamed now of all the letters I wrote in my capacity as secretary to the prioress, thanking people for their tiny donations – donations from people who I now realise had much less to live on than we did. 

I’m also ashamed to admit that, because I wasn’t overtly victimised by the superior, I did pretty well for the first four years. But the last 18 months were rough. The community was increasingly overstretched because the superior wanted to make many new foundations – Potemkin villages to convince her external critics that we had plenty of young vocations. This metric means that God is on your side, and that therefore your opponents are wrong about everything. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case, and the existing sisters became hopelessly over-committed and rapidly exhausted. 

We targeted developing countries because it was believed that vocations were easier to attract there. Because of our congregation’s structure, sisters who entered at one house could then be moved to another house. A sister could enter our congregation in a developing country, and then after a few years be shipped overseas to a sister house of mostly elderly nuns in a developed country. There, she would take on the lion’s share of the hard physical work that goes into maintaining a religious house. 

In theory, of course, all sisters are ‘free’ to leave when they’re novices, and they can leave with an indult from the superior if they’re in temporary vows. But a sister who’d been transferred like this would be in the new country on a religious visa. It would be immensely difficult for her to leave the community there – the shame of being sent home such a long distance at such expense would be a strong deterrent to leaving. There would also be language barriers and lack of funds if she tried leaving in any other way. 

As the foundations multiplied, the perpetually professed sisters began leaving. At first only a few left, badly burned by the intransigence of the superior. Then the trickle became a small flood. I can account for the departure of some fifteen perpetually professed sisters, some of whom had been professed for more than twenty years. From a worldwide community of less than a hundred nuns, that’s a haemorrhage. There’s been more since I left. 

After I left at the end of 2007, I spent a couple of years getting my head around what happened, and then started seeking out other former sisters on the internet. I found them. We’ve talked a lot over the last few years, via email and more recently via Zoom. They confirmed all my impressions and experiences, and shared their own (which were far worse). 

When we were in the convent, the superior had often talked at length about a sinister group of ex-sisters who were hell-bent on damaging the congregation at all costs – lying, exaggerating, causing trouble, stalking other ex-sisters. They were described as either mad or bad. Since I’ve met them, I’ve realised that they’re neither – and that no such group existed outside the superior’s fevered imagination. 

But what a wonderfully manipulative tool to help deter sisters from leaving – the guarantee that your reputation will be destroyed in the community you once loved, if you leave and ‘make trouble’. It also guarantees that any attempt to get the wrongs and abuses in the congregation examined from outside will brand you as a tool of the Modernists, or see you denigrated as someone who never had a religious vocation in the first place. And yet the fact that so many professed sisters have left either indicates that something is genuinely wrong, or that their selection process is deeply flawed. They’ve been choosing to profess a lot of women with ‘no religious vocations’, and to live with them for more than ten years in community without noticing that they didn’t have a vocation. 

I and my fellow ex-sisters have watched nature take its course. The superior largely responsible for the chaos was eventually stood down with a golden handshake; she is now the second-in-command instead. Her influence and control over the congregation’s future will probably only cease when she dies. All the ceaseless plotting and foundations meant that the congregation’s charism of perpetual Adoration was only daytime Adoration in most of the houses, and Adoration which had to be augmented by lay volunteers rather than sisters. The new foundations meant that enclosure had to be observed in the breach for much of the time, rather than consistently. And this is fundamentally why sisters left: you cannot live what you signed up for when you are deprived of the conditions in which to live it. 

The congregation publishes notoriously rubbery figures, but they are down to around sixty nuns worldwide. The vocations are very few and increasingly middle-aged. Most of the older sisters I knew and loved have now died. The congregation has closed one foundation already; I hope they’ll close most of the Potemkin villages, cease the attempts to recruit overseas, and eventually consolidate in a couple of larger houses somewhere. 

My former congregation is rewilding. If nature continues to take its course, the foundations will close, the sisters will grow older and less capable, and the congregation may well die out in the next few decades. I hope I’m wrong. I hope a St Teresa of Avila arises in their ranks, returns the congregation to their original beautiful charism, repairs the damage done by the superior, and makes it possible for them to rise from the ashes. 

I don’t believe that person was me. I know my own weaknesses, and the truth is that if I’d remained, I’d have been further groomed into succeeding the superior as a carefully shaped replica of her own aggressive self. I was already rather a pet, much to the chagrin of those who went through the novitiate with me. I was told often that I had a strong vocation, and was a good sister, and I know that I was very capable, competent, and energetic. 

God cut me a break: sleepless nights of nursing in the convent’s infirmary, physical overwork, and increasingly-deafening cognitive dissonance combined to make me physically sick and deeply depressed. I walked out in June 2007, and then came back the next day for five months of daily retaliation, culminating in me eventually telling the superior to her face that I disliked her personally and didn’t trust her. My goose was cooked: on the morning of 2 November, I asked for an indult to leave, and I was on the street after lunch. If I’d been shown the door any faster, I’d have gotten whiplash. 

What I think this all means

Why am I writing about this now, nearly fourteen years later? It’s partly catharsis. It’s partly also a warning that spiritual abuse is a reality in the Church, and in specific religious orders, and there are increasing signs that people have had enough. As with the #MeToo movement, you can only use the ‘nuts and sluts’ defence so often. Not everyone who leaves religious life – or wants to leave, or who complains about abuses in the community – is a crank, or a misfit, or a hardened sinner, or a troublemaker, or someone who had no vocation. Some are. But not all. 

It’s usually about now that people who have never walked so much as a yard in my shoes start telling me about the lives of the saints who stayed in rotten communities and became holy. St Therese had a very mediocre community, as did St Teresa of Avila. St John of the Cross had a lousy time and ended up being imprisoned by his own community. 

Apart from wanting to poke such armchair experts in the eye, I am wont to remind them of a few things:

  1. We can be sanctified by suffering, including that caused by others – but this is never an excuse for inflicting suffering. 
  2. People who abuse others are committing a sin, even if they’re wearing a veil and living in an enclosure while they do it. 
  3. It’s especially wrong if they’re a religious superior. 
  4. Obedience has lawful limits, even in religious life. 

It’s like when Catholics – often the same people – try to justify domestic violence and staying in abusive marriages on the grounds that St Monica and St Rita experienced this and look! they’re saints. St Monica and St Rita were in arranged marriages and had very few options for survival otherwise, so they made the best of what they were stuck with. People in past centuries didn’t have the option of leaving religious life easily, because there were no jobs and no other ways of living. I bet they would have left in droves otherwise. 

There’s a reason why the Church has made it easier for people to leave both the priesthood and religious life with dispensations now. It’s because in the old days, when it was hard to leave, it turns out that keeping people trapped doesn’t sanctify them. It just tortures them and robs them of their freedom. And human freedom is a precious thing in God’s sight, so much so that He gave us free will, and lets us use it all the time, and cooperates with those choices, and rewrites our lives accordingly. 

There’s also many ways to sanctity. St Therese became a saint by enduring her mediocre community; St Teresa became a saint by vigorously reforming hers. I always felt tremendously sorry for Sr Pia, Padre Pio’s sister. She was a Brigittine nun, and her community went to pot in the wake of Vatican II. Sr Pia left with another sister, and they shared an apartment and continued to live their religious lives as best they could. It’s not clear if she was ever given a dispensation, although it’s very likely. But Padre Pio was furious with her and considered her a deserter living in a state of disobedience. I think he was wrong, and I’m allowed to think that, because Padre Pio had heroic virtue, but he wasn’t infallible. I suspect that Sr Pia had heroic virtue as well, but it just looked a bit different from his. 

I suppose my main point is that childish lay (and clerical) perceptions of women’s religious life as a sort of sentimental fairyland of twinkles and wimples, and priests being pelted with spiritual cotton wool balls in Confession, create the conditions in which spiritual abuse can flourish in those communities. Many ex-religious will tell you that when they’ve described abuses in their community, their listeners are very quick to defend the organisation and blame the individual (especially if the religious community has an orthodox reputation). In much the same way as clergy sexual abuse victims were blamed for their assault, people who leave religious life are usually blamed for their departure. 

I suspect that one of the contributing factors to the weakening of the Church overall is the failure of religious life since Vatican II. Not just the dwindling of the teaching and nursing orders as these jobs became open to lay women. Not just those communities where a bit of sunlight and fresh air led to mass departures because most of those women were only in a convent because it was expected of them by other people. We also need to factor in the weaknesses and failures of religious communities who look very orthodox on the outside but have turned into hidden enclaves of dysfunction. 

What we could do next

On my darker days in the last fourteen years, I have had to think about why we even have religious life at all. I certainly think that there are positive signs that good religious communities are reviving, and that enclosed life is good for both men and women who feel called by God to a total commitment and to live on His providence. This has been a constant element in the Church’s history. 

But it doesn’t have to look like it did in the old days. With the increasing numbers of single people of good will in the Church, there is now much more room for the mobile, useful, dedicated, single, lay person. This person is not trying to be a monk or nun in the world. But like the new ‘active’ religious orders for women that arose after the Reformation, they are trying to find ways to live in response to a particular set of needs of the age. The Daughters of Charity, founded in 1633, had no cloister but the street. 

I am not calling for new communities to be founded. Many of these are tiny and eccentric, and I am suspicious of charismatic (in the conventional sense) founders who dress oddly, are adulated by their followers, and who tend to believe their own bullshit. The Church agrees with me, which is why she closely monitors these new communities, and shuts them down when she has to. 

A dedicated lay person wears no habit or outward sign of their dedication – which protects them from the gushing of silly people who think that habits bestow sanctity. The community he or she lives in is the local Church around them. They have no cloister but other people’s homes, their refectory is other people’s dining tables, and their chapel is any Catholic church in the world. They are living signs of the fundamental place of the baptised in the Church.

This to me is an exciting dimension of being better ‘discalced laity’, and one that may be growing in the Church in decades to come, as it shrinks in many places and goes underground in some. 

Someone has to do it; it might as well be us. 


  1. Excellent article, very raw and honest. I wonder whether we should tease out whether there is value in being a *visible* sign of contradiction to the world – i.e. religious orders and their habits.

    I agree that a discalced laity living in the world is valuable – shock troops behind enemy lines almost. But as in war, while those behind enemy lines lay the ground work, it’s still the overwhelming attack from the front that turns the tide, and I wonder if those still remain the religious in the traditional sense.

    Just some random thoughts.


  2. Thanks to Philippa Martyr for her interesting article, and also the link to the articles on the Silverstream Priory and on the single life.
    I hope Dr Chapp’s last introductory sentence: “ I am quickly reaching the conclusion that most forms of so-called “piety” are actually forms of mental illness” is simply an expression of exasperation. I take piety to mean things like saying the rosary, eucharistic adoration and fasting. If these are forms of mental illness then we have been getting a lot of bad advice.


    1. I’m not party to what goes on in Dr C’s head, but thank you anyway. The article on single life is great – it really helped me.


      1. Few are party to what goes on in my head. But pseudo piety in the service of some pinched-up ecclesial ideology is exactly what Jesus warned us against in his denunciations of the pharisees. And there is a particularly virulent form of it that is a satanic simulacrum of the real thing. I have seen it as, I am sure, you have too.


    2. I am a bit rushed but in a nutshell all I mean is that there is a hell of a lot of fake piety out there if you ask me and most of it is in the service of some psychological disturbance. It is the false piety that Jesus constantly warned against. I think a lot of piety has been weaponized and not really entered into properly. The devotions you mention are some of my favorites. But even they can be abused as mere talismans.


      1. Many years ago I read ‘The Quest for Baron Corvo’, by A J A Symons, and I’ve re-read it many times since then. A classic example of what you’re talking about – he did priestly cosplay before cosplay was even a thing! And if it had just been harmless playacting and dressing up, that would not have been an issue.

        But Frederick Rolfe was a deeply disturbed individual and homosexual predator who presented well initially – until people got close to him and the veneer wore off, and the disordered personality and sexuality manifested itself. He was a shameless user of other people, with a colossal sense of entitlement and his own victimhood.

        These man can and do still exist, and some of them are ordained, and some of them were selected for ordination by men like themselves. This is weeds and wheat again. You can’t tell good from bad by looking at the outside.


      2. Thanks for your reply. I think I have seen it, with the caveat that I can’t see into others’ minds.


  3. Very moving article. Thank you. But troubling, for me, in a way she and you, Larry, may not have intended. What she identifies from her experience in religious life I have encountered pervasively in the Catholic Church since I joined nearly 30 years ago, which has included close involvement with several dysfunctional religious communities. There is far too much of this same disfunction running rampant in our dioceses and parishes. Too often I feel like I’m living in a religious version of The Emperor’s New Clothes. But then, if someone ever writes my biography, they’ll probably entitle it, “You know, he never liked Brideshead Revisited either.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I too am not a fan of Brideshead. So we have that in common. And I also share your feelings about the dysfunction in the broader Catholic Church. If you read my last blog post on “spectator Catholicism” you would see that we are on the same page on that score. This is also what I meant in the introduction when I said I am fast reaching the conclusion that most forms of piety are a form of mental illness. That is a bit hyperbolic but it is meant to convey what it is you are alluding to here. Namely, that there is a lot going on in the Church which on the surface looks good and healthy, but which in reality is some kind of agenda-driven role playing that is utterly false, illusory, and ultimately, a form of self-idolatry rather than a true devotion to God.


      1. When I heard her describe how novices and sisters are moved into situations where it becomes close to impossible for them to escape from the Order, I was hearing the testimonies of people who have converted to the Church only to discover how dysfunctional it is, and yet find it close to impossible to leave, because they are inundated with questionable apologetics and fear tactics that imply damnation if they even consider leaving! I think of Rod Dreher’s experience. I think the evident work of God’s grace in the lives of faithful Christians outside the Church is parallel to this women’s experience of joy outside the cloister.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. William, I always lead with the dysfunction now, when I’m talking to inquirers. It’s honest, it saves time, and it builds trust. I’m not afraid of talking about the sexual abuse crisis with Protestants and other non-Catholics – not one iota.

        And so if and when they decide to become Catholics, it’s because they recognise the reality of the sacraments and the blessing of Apostolic authority. Not because we have nice art, or wimples, or the poshest vestments. (And I speak as an appreciator of posh vestments).


    2. I actually love the novel and the TV series – but I love Waugh and have read almost everything he wrote. And have visited Castle Howard and had a great time there! And even more dreadful: wrote my English literature honours dissertation on Waugh. Final insult: I have visited and prayed at Waugh’s grave.

      Having said all that, I DON’T like Brideshead cosplay by precious neophytes, nor Chesterton cosplay. But these, I think, might not be the Church’s biggest problem right now.

      Awareness of spiritual abuse of all kinds – in religious life and in parishes – is a coming thing in the Church, and I think it’s going to form part of the great reckoning and restructuring that must take place.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. What a surprising joy to hear back directly from you! Thank you, and thank you for your article—and, you, Larry for posting it. I feared there’s far too much behind my frustration with the Church to come across cogently in a short response. I have in front of me a photo of a Cardinal in a cassock who became a close friend when I joined the Church 30 years ago. I trusted him. In some ways he was a mentor. He once told a group of gathered bishops I was his hero! Then in the ensuing years, I discovered he was one of the primary culprits in the Church’s sexual scandal. I have known several other bishops and priests personally who I naively trusted only to discover later they were horribly untrustworthy. I once had Cardinal McKarick put his hands on my shoulder, look me in the eye, and declare, “Good work, my son!” I feel slimed. And I remember simple faithful non-Catholic parishioners, who love Jesus, who are safely outside of this mess, and who experience by grace the joy of salvation. Last night, I started rewatching Jeromy Irons’ Brideshead, but turned it off after a half hour. The melancholy he experiences as he reminisces is not the kind of Christianity I miss.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Wonderful article Phillipa, I left an abusive marriage with my children, found it hard to make the move initially as I read examples of great saints who converted their husbands. A decisive thing that helped me was a priest who picked up on my situation in confession and for my penance said that I should tackle my marriage problem in a kind way, it made me focus.
    I love Waugh too, what is the meaning of the word cosplay?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for replying everything worked out fine for us when we left, I can see the hand of God in all that happened after the split, everything fell into place.

        My children grow and now married


  5. “The road to life is difficult and there are few who find it.” said Our Lord. I believe this verse is not talking about salvation per se, but more about what we are talking about here-true human freedom and maturity. If you consider this “wisdom” then we know it is rare. One would think that the institution founded by Our Lord would be much healthier in this respect but it is not, and sometimes seems to be worse than the world. Yet our dysfunctional immaturity is a contributing cause to the deeply pathological culture of the West. How can we be leaven and light when our house is so disordered? Our current pontiff is a dysfunctional and immature man on so many levels but how many trumpet him as “holy” and a “reformer”! I appreciate these essays because we really need to learn how to name things, without undue pious handwringing, if we are going to become mature as Ephesians instructs us to be.


  6. Philippa, Thank you for this piece. With so much talk about dysfunction both in communities and the church I’m left with the question of what does ‘functional’ look like? To whom or what period in the church do we turn to and say this is how it should be? In the back of my mind is an answer that it varies with each generation and their needs, but I also think there have to be recognized traits.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely! I have a few thoughts, and I think there’s other writers with better ones – Fr Thomas Berg, who survived the Legionaries of Christ, has a book on the subject.

      There were other abuses in my community, including what looks awfully like the abuse of the confessional and the internal forum. Obviously the absence of this is a starting point for a functional community.

      Recognition of the limits of religious obedience. External accountability.

      What really went wrong, though, was that a woman with a strong personality was allowed to stay in high office for too long, in defiance of the congregation’s own rules. External attempts to rein her in were interpreted by her as lese majeste. She identified herself completely with the congregation to the point that any perceived crossing of her will was grave sin against the very fabric of the congregation and an imminent threat to its future.

      She banned all discussion of the election of the superior, so that no ‘unhealthy’ lobbying for other candidates could take place. She used the general chapter forums to excoriate any sister who raised even the slightest questions about the viability of, say, the new foundations. Everyone learned quickly not to say anything.

      The congregation enabled her, and there’s some blame to be accepted here: they fawned to placate her bouts of ill temper and arrogance. But most sisters had no other way of surviving, so there’s an element of Stockholm syndrome there as well.

      So sticking to the rules in this case would have been a lot healthier!


    2. Further to my last: There is a book by Dom Dysmas de Lassus on spiritual abuse in religious communities. It’s still only available in French, but I’ve chewed out a pirate English translation. It’s not as vigorous as I hoped – but it IS a really good primer in authentic monasticism and what it should look and feel like. It’s also the first place where I learned about the limits of religious obedience. I had no idea.

      The real English translation is apparently under way – not sure when it will appear.


  7. “A dedicated lay person wears no habit or outward sign of their dedication – which protects them from the gushing of silly people who think that habits bestow sanctity. The community he or she lives in is the local Church around them.”

    Sorry to see the “singular ‘they'” making its appearance. It is long past time for users of English to bite the bullet and return to the correct usage. When the sex of the person in question is not known, or when he is a member of a group known to include both sexes, the correct pronoun is “he.”


    1. It’s a quote often attributed to Fulton Sheen, but I suspect it wasn’t his originally. A priest said that hearing nuns’ confessions was like being stoned to death with cotton wool balls – or variations on this analogy. The idea is nuns are completely delightful and rather dainty and their sins are little twinkles in God’s eye. This may be true of many nuns, but not all!

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Thank you Philippa for sharing your experience with us.
    On one hand I’m not surprised with what you’re describing, having myself been in a novitiate.
    On the other, why we don’t hear such confessions more often?
    I’ve always thought that to be a good monk/nun, one needs to be a decent person first. The same way as we normally judge people’s behaviour by simple worldly standards: be respectful, understanding, polite and then be a saint.
    Recently I was making a holy confession and a capuchin priest was simply bad mannered. After a confession I thought ‘maybe that’s what I needed’ after all I’m a sinner. But I would never tolerate this kind of attitude from myself towards others or my secular co-workers.
    So why lowering standards for clergy?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good point. I think there’s a huge amount of shame for a Catholic who leaves religious life. They’re seen as not making the grade – they see themselves in this way, and can be on the receiving end of adverse remarks and rash judgement. So they tend not to talk about it.

      I think it’s because lay people and priests have an unspoken idea that religious life is for people who are already holy. You leave = you weren’t holy enough. Whereas the truth is that the life is supposed to make you holy over time, regardless of the raw material that goes in the front door.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Further to my last: your Capuchin might just have been having a bad day. Religious are human like everyone else, and there’s a universal need for patience, forbearance, and forgiveness.

      But repeated behaviour that’s using religion or spirituality as a means of coercion and control is spiritual abuse.


      1. Since it was a Capuchin, he might’ve tried to follow St. Padre Pio’s example in being harsh to some penitents.
        I think it was St. John of the Cross who urged to look up to Christ rather then saints as the latter might lead us unknowingly to imitate their vices not virtues.


  9. Outstanding topic! Great replies. Is there a need in our increasingly secular society for visible signs of Catholicism? I am greatly moved when I see priests and religious in public doing routine things we all do. I agree that vestments become costumes when the person wearing them is a fraud. There is much to reflect upon here and much to appreciate. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree with you – I love the visible signs, and I think they’re good for the world and the Church – but not if it’s cosplay. When a new religious order or association is begun, and they dress up very conspicuously, my alarm bells go off. Especially if they’re an ‘active’ order.

      Wearing a full habit and going outside the enclosure was an overwhelmingly positive and really touching experience for me, I think every time. I had to take elderly sisters to the local hospital a great deal, in a largely Muslim neighbourhood, but we were always treated with courtesy, and people would still ask for our prayers.

      But when lay people came into the enclosure to hear talks and so forth, I would see the other side: the cooing and sentimentality and silliness about who we were, and why we were there.

      I understand why young priests want to wear the cassock everywhere, because they’re so full of zeal and recognise that the world is in dire shape. But also, dressing up is quite cool …! I think there’s a happy medium: wear the cassock in church and in the church grounds, but wear clericals everywhere else. You will still look like a real priest!

      Liked by 3 people

  10. I was part of a Marian prayer group in college. I really appreciated my time with them for the most part, but there was one corner of the group that was overly apparition-focused, including Medjugorje and some explicitly suppressed apparitions. To hear our advisor, an otherwise glaringly orthodox(TM) priest, referring glowingly to these suppressed apparitions and their supposed seers caused me a bit of cognitive dissonance. But it also introduced me to the understanding that one can follow one’s own interests into heterodoxy even when those interests have Our Lady as their focus rather than WymynPriests or what have you. The book “Dear Marian Movement, Let God Be God” was a timely and very helpful find for me back then.

    I have found it helpful, as I try to wend my way faithfully through all the flotsam, to bear in mind two ideas. (1) A good can become an idol, when we place it in the center where it doesn’t belong. (2) Many things are, at root, gnosticism. For instance, the idea that a new tiny orthodoxly Catholic college is the One True Place for all orthodox (usually homeschooled or classically educated) students to be educated, and that once people have learned of this college, they will either be saved by this knowledge and go there or be cast into outer darkness of willful ignorance by choosing another school. Or many of the little conspiracy theories floating around, the True Knowledge of which is being spread by the small group of those in the know in an attempt to save people.

    I appreciate all the posts here for helping make sense of things. I have been sharing some of the posts with my teen and young adult children, to try to help them go out into life with their eyes wide open and a bit of armor.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This is so wise. You’re exactly right, and Larry very kindly shared an earlier blog post from me on apocalypto-porn and the damage it can do to very good Catholic people. I’ve seen it and lived it myself.

      Cult mentality has some really clear signs, and it’s good to educate yourself and your children about it. My congregation had deteriorated into a cult around the superior.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. “On my darker days in the last fourteen years, I have had to think about why we even have religious life at all” – I haven’t been a Catholic that long, but I have also had the same question. Especially when, in my experience, those that have taken religious vows often seem to be looking for an escape from the world. I once had a conversation where I said I think that diocesan priests have a harder, and therefore holier, vocation. I was met with a fair bit of criticism on that. And, fair enough, maybe I haven’t really thought it through enough.

    But anyways, thank you for the thought-provoking article. I do wonder what it would take to truly form a ‘discalced laity’ that on some level answers the universal call to holiness.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think St Aelred said that there were three types of people who sought the monastery: those running away, those looking for a solution to problems, and those seeking God. Don’t quote me on that: it’s something I read a very long time ago and I could be getting it wrong.

      But it does explain why of everyone who tries religious life, around two thirds leave at the postulant or novice stage. You usually work it out for yourself, or the community helps you.

      Discernment is a two-way street! But I always encourage people who feel they are being invited by God to try this life, to try it – give it a red-hot go. Don’t join the order of perpetual discerners who are largely doing it as a stunt. Actually contact a community, visit, and try living in, as soon as possible. If nothing else, you’ll get it out of your system.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. Let me preface this by saying I am not a regular reader of onepeterfive, but I did happen to go to their site today. The article I read there made for quite the interesting contrast to this one here. I am glad I read this one first, because the truth of your experience caused me to look more closely to the words of Prof. Kwasniewski.

    I don’t know if I’m allowed to link so I’ll just say I read the article titled, ‘When Nuns Are Persecuted’ by Kwasniewski.

    In it he wrote about how religious communities should mobilize to resist the Vatican. How they should operate in the shadows, even how they should find a “canceled” (and therefore presumably laicized) chaplain to lead them spiritually.

    But perhaps he’s wrong? Perhaps the Vatican is right to step in? Perhaps having nearly fully autonomous enclaves with nebulous hierarchical structures is not congruent with a holy way of life? Perhaps, contrary to what the good professor suggested, it is not good for this same congregation to go fully off-grid and unaccountable.

    From a rad trad’s point of view, these communities might look like paragons of virtue, but you so rightly put it, there are still “the weaknesses and failures of religious communities who look very orthodox on the outside but have turned into hidden enclaves of dysfunction.”

    Of course, your experience nor theirs is universal, but there have been enough troubling experiences to come out of these institutions that Pope Francis’ motions to get a closer handle on religious communities seems to have a real point.

    Thank you again for sharing your story. In a way, honest discussion around real pain are more edifying for the Church than platitudes on an imagined spiritual utopia. Vatican 2 got it right, the call for holiness IS universal, and some seem to still think it is reserved for the consecrated.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gosh, that’s an interesting coincidence. I know what he’s talking about – new directives that are a gentle move in the direction of increasing oversight of women’s orders, especially ones like my former one. Dr K is not always wise, nor especially well informed.

      The convent where I was has gone fairly doomsday-preppy anyway, so I am sure they’ll already be fans of Dr K and his ilk.


      Liked by 2 people

  13. “On my darker days in the last fourteen years, I have had to think about why we even have religious life at all.”

    First, I’ve truly enjoyed all of the insightful reflections. Second, I’m hesitant to throw in my two-bits again because I realize even more than ever that I’m truly one of the duller knives in the drawer.

    But my becoming “deep in history”, to follow Newman’s suggestion, has led me to believe that the exit of monks and hermits out to the wilderness and the formation of religious communities from the 4th century onward was not an escape from the decadence of the cities—but an escape from the growing decadence, laxity, compromise, complacency, even apostasy within the local churches. It was all about living out the entire Gospel, which included the very hard sayings of Jesus, such as “So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:33). Jesus didn’t intend this for only a few, but for every single Christian—for each of us. It wasn’t so much that devoted Christians couldn’t live this out in the decadent pagan cities—they had been doing this from the beginning (the goal of Christianity was not to change culture so that we could more easily live out our faith, but to live out our faith regardless of the culture). Rather, they could no longer do this in their local churches, where compromise and laxity had become the norm. In the earliest centuries, all Christians knew that the expected end result of living out fully the teachings of Christ was simplicity, detachment, poverty, holiness, love, suffering, and martyrdom. But once Christianity became the official religion of Rome, once it became politically and economically beneficial to be a Christian, once bishops modeled themselves after the secular leaders, seeing themselves as the new Senators, once possessions, power, position, and prestige became the expected signs of God’s blessing and approval, once the bishop of Rome had become the wealthiest landowner in the Roman Empire, then the vast majority of the hard demands and warnings of Jesus and Paul, James, Peter, and John were brushed aside and ignored. And this has become the norm throughout the history of the Church: the hard sayings are only for the few, the less demanding, comforting sayings are for the masses. We love the fact that Jesus’ “yoke is easy and his burden is light.” But we don’t like hearing “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26). Saint Francis was not about starting a religious order; he was about returning a very decadent, lax Church to the true gospel.

    So men and women escaped from the lukewarmness in the churches to try to live out the gospel. And now men and women have to escape from the religious orders themselves to have some freedom to live out the fullness of the gospel. I’ve had the privilege of knowing personally several Religious Superiors, and their actually living experiences were far more wealthy, comfortable, privileged, and free than mine has ever been as a father, husband, and the primary bread-winner and tax-payer.

    The great apostasy? I’m not a rad trad—I’m a fully comfortable Vatican II Norvus Ordo Catholic. I think the greatest thing the Holy Spirit was able to accomplish in the very resistant, stubborn, divided, combative gathering of Conciliar Fathers was returning the Mass to the language of the people—-For the sake of the reason the Church was started in the first place—the proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of souls!!!! St. Paul did not say, “Whoa to me if I don’t say the mass! Whoa to me if I can’t wear my cassock! Whoa to me if I have to give up a relaxed evening of scotch and an episode of “Bosch” to go out in the cold of the night to visit a lapsed Christian!” No, he said, “Whoa to me if I do not preach the gospel!”

    And I’m not a follower of the internet empowered rad trad lay and clerical pundits who seem blind to how the devil is using them to further divide God’s people. Vigano versus pope Francis is like Hippolytus versus pope Zephyrinus, and Vigano doesn’t have to declare himself an antipope—via the internet he already has more supporters than pope Francis.

    I personally have no doubt that we are living in the time predicted in Revelation 20:3–the devil has been released and is once again deceiving the nations, and this includes far too many in the Church. And given the statements of Leo XIII, Pius X, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, this has been going on for at least several centuries.

    And most of us, maybe even most of us reading this blog, are far too much like the five maidens who didn’t take seriously the need to watch and keep our lamps prepared.

    Friends, there is no triumphalist Marian “Springtime” at the end of this tunnel. It’s not about hunkering down until “this too shall pass.” All that our Lord and the NT writers warned has been gradually coming true over the past centuries, and there is no sign that things are going to get better—it is very unlikely that Christ will return in our lifetime (except when we ourselves die), so there is every reason to believe that what is ahead for the Church and this world is not going to be pretty.

    It’s time for us to start taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously. And just becoming more regular in the sacraments is not the answer! The sacraments are not an end in themselves but a means to the end, which is holiness (see another one of those hard sayings, Hebrews 12:14).

    Nuf said. Listen to Larry. He’s a very sharp knife.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. @William G: Your suggestion that the early monks were fleeing decadence and corruption in the Church, not in the world, is interesting. But Saint Anthony went out into the Egyptian desert about 270AD, at a time when the church was still suffering persecution, and he was not the first.
      “once the bishop of Rome had become the wealthiest landowner in the Roman Empire “. I don’t think this happened during the Empire’s existence, but I am happy to be given a source for the information. Constantine took over in 313AD, and historians usually consider the western empire defunct by 476AD, so the Popes’ rise to richest landowner in the Empire would have to have happened in that period. The late Empire was marked by tremendous concentrations of wealth in a few rich families.
      The Papal States began to exist a few centuries later, and peaked in size during the Renaissance. But in that period also there were many other landowners in the west who were much wealthier.
      Did late Roman Empire bishops as a class see themselves as the new Senators, and think that possessions, power, position, and prestige were the expected signs of God’s blessing and approval? St Augustine of Hippo, St Ambrose of Milan, St Basil of Caesarea, and many other saints were bishops during this period, and they did not choose to live in luxury. I think that being a Catholic bishop during the chaotic and much poorer centuries after the fall of Empire required good nerves and careful management of resources.
      My concern is that these statements reflect the idea (popular among protestants) that there was a true Christian church before Constantine, and something completely transformed (and corrupted) afterwards. I think this presentation is a caricature of a period of change as complex as our own.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. I like this immensely. I think the history of the early Church is too complex to just reduce it to the pre vs. post Constantinian era. That was indeed an important shift in the Church’s history, as I myself have noted. But it is a typology that can also be used simplistically. Therefore, I like what you have done here and where you have placed the focus.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I enthusiastically recommended “In Sinu Jesu” to friends although I felt uncomfortable with certain passages that focused on the locutionist’s past sins. That discomfit is heightened after reading “The Pillar” article. Perhaps Father Andersen is not a credible witness but after so many revelations of orthodox priests who have fallen, I cannot summarily dismiss his testimony.


    1. I found his testimony believable, not just because of my own experiences but because he was honest about the ambivalence and ambiguities of the whole situation. It wasn’t ‘I was right and they were wrong’, in a black and white way. It very often isn’t black and white at all.

      This is partly what makes spiritual abuse so harmful and confusing: it’s coercive control exercised by people to whom you are trying to be obedient because you love God. This is why so many survivors leave the Church – they can’t sift out God from the abuser. And this is why programs like Grief to Grace are so important (I did it in 2017 and am very grateful) – they help a person who wants to keep their faith to sift out the abuser and the abuse from God and His love, and also His justice and His anger at the harm done to His little ones.


  15. Let me just share details of the Grief to Grace program here again –
    Lots of the regular sites had to shut down during COVID19, but the program is just now getting started again.

    It’s a great program for anyone who’s experience sexual OR spiritual abuse from people associated with the Church. Catholics with troubled marriages where spiritual abuse is a component are also welcome; as are domestic abuse survivors, and people who’ve worked for the Church and been scandalised and/or dismissed unfairly from employment.

    Really, anyone is welcome who is at risk of losing their faith in God and their relationship with the Church because of abuse they’ve experienced at the hands of people in that same Church.


    1. Philppa, yes, a referral to Grief to Grace is very appropriate! During my week in 2018 I met a number of people who had been violated spiritually, which really opened my eyes. As a member of a “new community”, I am always keeping an eye out for my own community. Your testimony (and those of others) shocked me, nonetheless, and helped me realize how important it is to openly discuss these occurrences, sad as they are. Thanks for your witness.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Mother Natalia from my local Byzantine Catholic monastery – Christ the Bridegroom – has stated on her podcast “What God is Not” that when they grow to ~12 nuns in the community, then the Mother of monastery will send a couple away to start their own monastery, which will stand on its own and not be tied in any hierarchical or ecclesiastical way to the current one. While certainly anything can happen anywhere, the idea is that small community size keeps people and things – spiritual and temporal – manageable for both the monastery and the Bishop.

    Liked by 1 person

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