Saturday, March 7, 2015

Lenten retreats: plus ça change

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Wacky retreats and workshops are still going on in church circles, and probably always will.

(h/t for the link: Peter Rosengren on Facebook).

“He would tell parishioners to close their eyes, relax their muscles and imagine a blue light going through their whole body and even into their organs. I sat in my pew and thought it was very odd,” said Paul Annee, an 18-year-old Catholic high-school student

 Like, this blue light? Well, okay then.

It reminds me of the column below, which I published over a decade ago in Alberta Report. It prompted Ms Shaidle (on her now defunct Relapsed Catholic blog) to call me "a brunette, Saskatoonian [sic] Ann Coulter." Heh.

The piece is archived online, but if you read it here, you don't have to pay, or even register. You're welcome.

Here, in a gentle yet powerful way, is what ails our clergy

For those who observe it, the pre-Easter season of Lent is well underway. It’s a time of reflection, repentance and (hopefully) spiritual renewal. To this end, a person might dedicate some time to introspection, take on a special service project, or perhaps go on retreat.

Retreats seem to be in vogue these days; they’re no longer just for the religiously inclined. Everyone attends them, from politicians to corporate executives. And there are programs out there to suit every conceivable taste—like some I saw advertised a while back in a (nominally) Catholic newspaper. They were sponsored by the Toronto-based “Centre for Psychotherapy and Emotional Body Work” (I kid you not), which apparently has been operating for the last dozen or so years. Anyone inquiring why there are so many examples of sexual abuse among clergymen might want to start right here.

One retreat was titled: “The Whale Experience: The Journey into Self-Discovery for Men in Ministry.” (I can only assume by this they mean priests—I guess the “p” word is now taboo in trendier Catholic circles.) The workshop/retreat promised to help priests discover how they “relate to others through relationships, ministry, spirituality, sexuality/masculinity, [and] addictive aspects and behaviour.” God was nowhere mentioned. Instead the ad encouraged priests to “experience the sensitive concern and direction of our team working with dream interpretation, myth, scripture stories, discernment, emotional bodywork & personal therapy sessions.”

I’d like to hear from any priest who attended this workshop and emerged a more effective “man in ministry.” Better yet, I’d like to hear from his parishioners.

My guess is that anyone who didn’t know who he was before entering “The Whale Experience” would have even less idea coming out. Some priests who attend such programs return home and broadcast their group therapy insights from the pulpit (where they do things like apologize for not being a tree). Or they try out their psychotherapy in the confessional. You go in expecting to have your sins absolved; you are alarmed when asked to dredge up long-dead emotional injuries—in other words, to confess past sins of your parents, teachers, co-workers, siblings and grade-school bullies.

A second ad for the same centre heralded the more dramatically titled “Journeying into the Belly of a Whale! Exploring the inner-life of our Humanity.” It was open to the general public and touted as “ideal for teachers, parents, chaplains, social workers, counsellors, women in ministry, administrators, professionals, and elders.” The retreat promised to engage the “conscious and unconscious forces which affect every aspect of our daily lives,” enabling participants to achieve “personal transformation through working with our relationship to the deep instinctual life force pulsing within us all.” (I’m sure I’ve experienced something similar to what they describe, but I’d always thought it was indigestion.)

The workshop ad also promised healing through “emotional bodywork [there’s that word again], dream interpretation, myth…symbol, [and] psychodrama… in a warm, confidential, communal environment.” I’m just guessing, but I think if they’d had space for more words, they might have added: “Pan flute music provided; clothing optional. Bring your own LSD.”

As flaky as it all sounds, however, it apparently works wonder. One former participant offered this personal (yet anonymous) testimony: “[It] allowed me to experience, in a gentle yet powerful way, the unconscious dynamic alive within me and helped me to discover how to work these dynamics to enliven and empower my daily life.” Roughly translated, I think that means, “I’m not really sure what I learned, but now I can express myself as incomprehensibly as the best of them… and I hate my mother.”

I can only speculate on the “whale” theme. In the biblical story, God sent one to swallow Jonah because he tried to shirk a calling to preach repentance to the wayward folk of Nineveh. After marinating for three days in the whale’s gastric juices, Jonah emerged a chastened man, who doubtless felt that preaching to a potentially unreceptive audience didn’t seem such a daunting undertaking after all.

It’s a good theme, not only for priests, but anyone in public or private life who finds himself vested with influence or authority over others. However, I remain sceptical about whether you can “find yourself,” be healed of your deficiencies, or become a more effective person through psychodrama, dream interpretation or “emotional bodywork.” (As enjoyable as the last sounds, I wouldn’t want to experience it anywhere but alone with my husband.)

Have we learned nothing since the ‘60s? Thirty-plus years of such wishy-washy pap has decimated church attendance, destroyed education and rendered ineffective our judicial, social, legislative, and healthcare institutions. Many individuals and families (and therefore society as a whole) no longer function effectively—but at least we all feel really good about ourselves… right?

Perhaps the lesson we might glean from the Book of Jonah is that we should avoid the unpleasantness of a whale-belly experience by facing reality and not shirking our duties in the first place. Nor need we seek salvation and self-acceptance in strange places. St. Augustine said of God: “Our hearts cannot rest until they rest in Thee.” Excessive navel-gazing will neither fill the void inside, nor make us more competent individuals. Instead, those looking for healing and personal transformation might try the advice of one modern-day prophet who has a longer (and, I daresay, more successful) track record than the Centre for Psychotherapy and Emotional Body Work: Dr. Billy Graham. Admit your sinfulness before God, repent thereof and go to church next weekend. It worked for the people of Nineveh.

Copyright © 2002 Alberta Report and Mariette Ulrich


1 comment:

  1. Ann Coulter's Saskatoonian twin indeed!
    And yes to the blue light emanating from the Skyy bottle.