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

November 10, 2021
Crisis in the Church

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 Story, The Sound of Music, Black 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.

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