Leaving church is more than walking away from something. It’s walking away from someone. That’s why we feel it so deeply, good or bad.
I couldn’t see his face across the wooden barrier that separated us in the tiny confessional booth. But I didn’t need to. I could viscerally sense the air of superiority and condescension in every word he spoke loud and clear through his thick accent. This was the second time I had sat hidden across from him, the second time this pompous German man wearing clericals who called himself a Roman Catholic priest had emotionally leveled me with his arrogant response to what I had divulged, the second time he had made a mockery out my admittance of failure.
I walked out of that confessional booth, shame and anger rising with every step I took to get to the door of the church. I never walked back into those doors again.
It would be so much easier if the church, the thing that has caused us such scathing pain, were just an institution, simply a place we could walk away from. But it’s not. It’s people. Wounds inflicted by the church are always relational in nature— always someone within the institution more than something. Being hurt by the church always involves a relational rupture of some sort. Basic psychology tells us that when this interpersonal bridge is broken, we tend to feel some powerful emotions like shame, anger, fear, and anxiety. This roller coaster of emotions is felt within the body itself. As we walk away from church limping, escaping whatever and whoever it is that needed to be left behind in order to honor ourselves and our souls, there is a great deal happening in our bodies at a biochemical level. A cascade of neurotransmitters in the brain occurs since every feeling we have carries with it a parallel biochemical response. Emotions are actually physical in nature.
Anyone who has left the church knows that this is a tumultuous time to say the least. The sense of shame and despair can be downright paralyzing. If we don’t have a support network of good friends, family and possibly a therapist, navigating the transition can feel unbearable. Navigating through this stage is never easy. We are likely to be either feeling a lot or to be completely numb. It’s important to remember that whatever we are experiencing is present for a good reason and that it is okay to feel what we feel. The best thing we can do during this time is to offer kindness to the brokenness, tend to our wounds, and compassionately take care of our bodies and minds.
Eventually, the biology of leaving morphs and shifts. Our bodies and brains begin to settle. With time, we may find new rhythms, start new friendships, find solace in new communities. At some point we begin to taste hope. Hope—far from being just a clichéd panacea for what ails us— is a response that creates poignant biochemical changes in the body. This future-oriented posture rooted in belief releases a torrent of neurotransmitters in the body as we anticipate what our life can look like, who we can be, what desires can be fulfilled. Hope is an embodied reality that can help move us beyond the pain of leaving.
As a favorite counseling psychology professor, Dr. Dan Allender, once told me, the rise and the fall of emotions is felt most deeply in our body and it takes time for the soul to comprehend all that is happening. The biology of hope can lend us its support and offer the confirmation we may have forgotten for a season because the biology of leaving created such a cacophony in our bodies. Hope can help reintegrate body and soul, to put them back together as the seamless fabric of a person fighting to honor their truest selves.
That shame and anger I felt as I walked away were not the end of my journey, nor were the harmful words of that clergy member. Though I never returned to that confessional booth or that church, I slowly learned how to bless my biology, my brain, and my body. As I did, hope slowly emerged from the shadows of the pain. I eventually found my way to other faith communities that could hold my stories well, to people who could accept me in my failures.
Without hope, I never could have taken the steps away from what wasn’t working and toward healthier communities that honored and embraced who I was. Hope allowed me to see an invisible future that was not a reality the day I sat that confessional booth. Often times for myself and for many, hope is subtle. It isn’t often accompanied by a striking revelation or even an “aha moment.” Sometimes it sneaks up on us when we don’t expect it, a welcome relief when we need it most. Other times, hope must be made a regular intentional practice, its daily dose offering the slightest glimpse of a future that holds goodness, where our core desires are realized, where authentic community is found.
Hope is worth it. We are worth it.
Photo: Garry Knight/Flickr