Who doesn’t love Linus, the Charles Schultz character with the blue blanket and thumb in his mouth? He acts as the Charlie Brown comic strip’s philosopher and theologian. I kind of identify with Linus. I too thrive on emotional security; it just depends on how and from where I get it.
For most of my life emotional security has been linked to financial security. Subconsciously I think I settled on a vocation to the Catholic priesthood because of job security. I mean, short of breaking the law, you never get fired no matter how miserable your performance. I liked the idea of a life where I didn’t have to worry about basic needs and could carry out what I believed to be my mission in life. I was guaranteed a monthly stipend and room and board (both taxable), a yearly three-week vacation, a week for a spiritual retreat, flexible work hours, and the chance to hone a variety of skills: preaching, teaching, counseling, writing, singing, program managing, and liturgical leadership. And upon reaching the tender age of 75 I might even be able to retire with a monthly stipend and social security (after having contributed 100% to the latter; nothing’s for free!). It seemed my life was set.
I later realized that I had sacrificed much more than I had expected to in order to enjoy this job security. I often lived and worked in an environment that was isolating and unconscious. Despite living with other priests I was lonely most of the time, as we tended to use our individual rooms as retreats from each other’s personalities. I also came to realize that the Catholic priesthood was the last bastion of indentured servitude. Being “taken care of” literally meant being “institutionalized.”
I was in love with the idea of priesthood and the theology that accompanied it, kind of like the song, “Falling in love with love”. Parish priests are ordained to act in the person of Jesus. They promise to obey their bishop by serving as his extension into a particular ministry or location. Their promise of celibacy is a kind of “marriage” to the bishop and to the world-wide church community.
Much of this lovely theology can be compelling, almost seductive, to seminarians and young priests. After all we gain instant status as one of the foundations of faith for ordinary Catholics. We can be a visible, inspirational role model and have access to key moments in people’s lives. But as time wears on human reality intrudes.
My came to realize that life was subsumed into a system that tended to be very brittle and tolerated little deviation. Gone were the “golden days” (1930-1965) when a priest with a non-conforming personality could be neutralized by the sheer number of Catholic clergy in any one parish. That is how so many clergy who were seriously impaired by addiction or personality disorders were able to continue functioning under the radar. As the supply of new priests shrank by the 1970’s individuality was increasingly discouraged in this last bastion of indentured servitude.
I enjoyed a singular personality that didn’t fit into the quintessential “Father Flanagan” mode. I was often candid in my sermons and liked to shake up my listeners a bit. I revealed a lot about what I was thinking if one read between the lines. And early on, in my zeal to be “orthodox” and viewed as a “loyal son,” I emphasized the church’s objective teachings at the expense of my struggling listeners’ ability to receive my message. In retrospect I realize I was trying too hard to conform to the church’s logic and spoke too much from the head rather than the heart.
The clergy sex abuse scandal was a shocking turning point for me. Perhaps for the first time I experienced the depth of dysfunction in my chosen profession. I couldn’t imagine that so many bishops throughout the country seemed clueless as to the matter of child abuse. I was also appalled that there were so many well-known priests in Boston who had been held up to us as exemplary examples, and who now stood accused of hurting hundreds of young people.
My dismay was complete as I witnessed how quickly the American bishops were willing to focus the entire blame of sex abuse on the priest-perpetrators. They didn’t seem to hold themselves accountable for what had been taking place for decades. In a strange twist, even though he was forced to resign by pressures from without and within, Cardinal Bernard Law was the example that other bishops should have emulated (it was regrettable, however, that the Vatican appeared to honor him with a cushy posting in Rome).
Shortly after the initial revelations of abuse in 2002-3 I went on sabbatical for five months. I was wiped out and discouraged, but found within myself an opportunity to discover the real source of security for me. I no longer counted on the church’s unattainable ideals to be my model. From now on I was going to listen to my gut, to trust in my own power to be secure in myself, based on my character, wisdom, gifts, and spiritual awareness.
I could not regain hope that the Catholic Church could or would change in my lifetime. I had seen what the institution was doing to my fellow priests and wasn’t going to let it happen to me. So many of them were depressed. They hung onto their parish routines with the hope of someday retiring with their minds and spirits intact. Like many (most?) men of our culture they soldiered on, compartmentalized their lives, denied or numbed their feelings with food, drink, sex, or work, and maintained a stoic public image.
I worked at building my parish for the next six years. Eventually something clicked inside me and I realized I had I had stayed too long for the sake of security. I was not one to abandon a sinking ship, but eventually I realized I was not responsible for running the ship aground, nor was I the one to get it afloat again. I felt I still had a lot to accomplish in my life so I took advantage of a life boat. More resolved than scared, and knowing I would be forsaking material security and any hope for a pension, I left the active ministry in 2011.
My security blanket was gone. I set out to remake my life at 58 in the midst of a seriously depressed economy. I learned to write dozens of resumes, identified a rather broad skill set, and applied for over 150 jobs. I tried out a couple of administrative positions, but was not cut out for them. I trimmed my living expenses to the bone and lived off of my savings. As my life passion emerged I got training as a life coach so I could work with individuals, wanting especially to serve men, whose needs are not being addressed in our shifting culture.
I feel strangely liberated without the material grounding that kept me on track for so many decades. I now choose to find security, validation, strength, and comfort from within myself. What is the source of your security? How does your life’s passion, your life-purpose figure into your ultimate security? How are you with the choices you’ve made for yourself? Tell us.
Contact the Life & Spirit Coach at firstname.lastname@example.org