It took me a long time to admit, but he was right. He was right about a lot of things. It often takes sons a long time to admit that their fathers’ were right all along. On this issue, it’s been a gradual process of moving from, “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” through a time of saying, “Well, he has a point,” to finally admitting, “He was right all along.”
I’m not quite sure when he first said it, but I became aware of it some time when I was in college. From what I can tell, he and my mother discussed it sometime before that. You see, while I would describe myself as both a religious and spiritual person, I’ve always had a strong sense of dissatisfaction with organized religion. That dissatisfaction has been the energy that fueled my journey as a professional minister in three different denominations as well as my interest in the practices of several different faith traditions other than Christianity.
My grandfather, after whom I’m named, was also a spiritual seeker. He was also looking for a pure experience of God. He’d keep thirty day fasts with nothing to eat and travel to hear revivalists preach. He always wanted something more.
My quest has been different. I’ve found a great deal of contentment in spiritual practice. I experience a depth in meditation that’s often difficult to put into words. Over the last year, I’ve re-read Teresa of Avila’s autobiography and her classic Interior Castle and chuckle over her frustration of not being able to find words to capture the experience. At times, in my mind I ask her, “Oh, Teresa, why did you even try? It so much more than words can convey!” I am very thankful for the experience of union and communion with the Source. It’s truly a gift.
But then there’s institutional religion. That’s what my father got right. He concluded when I was still young that I had seen too much and knew too much and realized that institutional religion wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. My father knew it too, but he kept a certain sense of healthy boundaries about it all. He’d often say, “Respect them, but don’t take them too seriously.” Perhaps he learned that by playing poker with the parish priest. It’s sort of amusing because that priest in particular was known to be a pretty staunch German guy. But one night a week he’d go to the only bar in our little town and have a few beers and play cards with the guys.
My experiences with clergy were mixed. I had some very fine mentors who taught me a great deal. When I’ve served as the pastor of congregations, I’ve thought about how some of them would carry themselves and address difficult situations. I have sought to be like them. But there were also others.
While I didn’t know it at the time, there were two pedophile priests in the Catholic high school I attended. I knew something wasn’t right with these two men because they seemed to have odd relationships with some of the guys. These men seemed to be overly friendly with certain boys and took them on leisure trips. One time, one these priests took me out of class. I wasn’t sure why. As we walked through the school, another priest, the guidance counselor, saw us. He stopped me and asked in his bellowing voice, “Mr. Kavar, shouldn’t you be in class right now?” I tried to explain that the other priest took me out of class. His response was first to the priest, “Father, I’m going to have a word in private with Mr. Kavar.” The guidance counselor then took me to his office and told me that if this happened again, I was to see him immediately and tell him. He told me never to miss class, even the other priest told me I could. Today I wonder who knew what was happening back in 1972.
There were other incidents as well, like when I tried to report to the officials of a diocese that I thought a priest was acting suspiciously with a young man. I didn’t have much to go on. I was visiting a colleague of mine who was filling in for a weekend at a particular church. We were having coffee and a neighboring priest stopped into visit, accompanied by an older teenager. He stopped to make sure that we were finding everything we needed in the house and church – offering to be something of a host. As we all sat in the living room, the teenager moved and sat on the lap of priest who brought him and begun to snuggle. It was all very odd. There was not direct sexual activity, but clearly inappropriate behavior. While I was not from that diocese, I did contact the officials there to report what I had witnessed. I was told, “Oh, yes: the priest you met has a very special ministry to teenage boys. He’s helped several find their way to seminary. We’re very proud of him.” I’m sure they were very proud about 15 years later when this priest made national headlines over childhood sexual abuse. As far as I know, he’s still in prison.
While discovering signs of sexual abuse within the church (and not just the Catholic church) has been one problem I’ve encountered, more consistent has been the abuse of position and manipulation by many church leaders. Yes, there are some very good people in the church. Yes, there are some outstanding clergy leaders. But religious institutions have been co-opted by dynamics from power-seeking narcissistic individuals. It’s resulted in very unhealthy organizational systems. It’s much like what happens to a corporation when the CEO is an addict: entire system suffers.
The problems within religious institutions are essentially no different than in other institutions. However, because religious institutions measure their lives in hundreds of years and most other institutions have much shorter lives, the problems in religious institutions have been allowed to fester and have become very toxic. The result is that good people, both leaders and members, get hurt by these systems.
I understand why people give up on churches. After more than thirty years of professional ministry, most days I’m on the fence about my own connection to institutional religion. Many people come to church with an open heart to explore tender parts of life and end up experiencing spiritual abuse. Sometimes, the abuse is sexual or financial. This doesn’t just happen in Christianity. The dynamics of abuse can be found in all institutional religions.
While I recognize the dynamics of abuse, I also affirm that spiritual growth isn’t just an individual process. To integrate the spiritual dimension of life with other dimensions, community of support is essential. It’s far too easy for a person to become overly self-involved when attempting to engage in spiritual growth and development in isolation from others.
I don’t have a solution for the problems of institutional religion. But my father was right: I know and have seen too much to be very trusting of religious institutions, no matter what the religion may be.
Yet, while acknowledging my skepticism, I have to encourage people to find or create a community which supports spiritual growth and development. Sometimes working with a spiritual director is an appropriate step. Sometimes it helps to find a smaller group that focuses on a particular spiritual practice, like meditation.. But just as most of us select a new service provider like a hair stylist or electrician with care by checking with others to learn of their experience, so too with organized religion one should find out all the information that’s available before becoming too involved with any congregation. While many congregations are safe places, one doesn’t need to open self to spiritual abuse.
As for me and my father: he passed about a dozen years ago. As time goes by, I realize that he probably understood me more than I thought he had. I was much more fortunate to have the father I did than I sometimes realized. But it’s often that way for sons.
© 2013, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.