Friday, April 13, 2012

Furor Pietatis

William Kalosieh.  A Caricature of Piety: My Descent into Scrupulosity and Compulsions. Xlibris, 2010. ISBN: 9781450020923.

My wife gave me this book a while back, and I read it through with great interest.  John Dehlin's recent podcast on LDS scrupulosity sent me back to it, and I decided to do this little post collating things from Mr. Kalosieh's experience that match my own life and thinking. 

On Sex and Pathological Guilt.  In the following anecdote (pp. 86-88), Mr. Kalosieh describes very well the kind of religious experience that was the bane of my young adulthood:
[As a teenager in high school,] I was watching an old movie on TV, and the heroine was Lucille Ball in a dramatic role. I was accustomed to seeing her in the comedy series I Love Lucy and had never thought of her in a sensual way. As I was watching the movie, she appeared fully dressed, but her breasts caught my attention--and in a flash the thought passed through my mind, "I never realized she was so big." I was immediately struck with fear, terror, and guilt.  I found myself accusing myself of having indulged in impure thoughts. The more I defended myself to myself, the worse it became. I was having an argument within myself, and I was losing. I could not minimize nor allay my anxiety. I certainly could not forgive a momentary indiscretion because my accuser (my "conscience") did not see it as minor. Sex is serious. I had deliberately taken pleasure in a sexual thought. I knew it was wrong and I fully consented to it; therefore, I had committed a mortal sin. Those who commit mortal sins, according to the Baltimore Catechism, are not worthy of God's friendship nor of heaven. If you die in a state of mortal sin, you die as God's enemy and go right to hell. There and then, and for many months to come, I thought how horrible my plight was. Other people who have all kinds of problems and enemies can run and hide under God's protective wing, be consoled by his love for them despite their hardships. But when God is your enemy, where can you go and hide? From where can you seek extraordinary help? When God hates you, so does all of heaven.

Over and over and over again in my mind, I questioned whether I had indeed taken any pleasure in the thought--fully or partially. I had already conceded to my accusing conscience, which was berating and vilifying me, that the deliberate entertaining of impure thoughts was mortal, not venial, but I protested that I did not take pleasure in the thought and that the thought was not deliberate but spontaneous. To no avail. Like a victim in the jaws of a crocodile, my conscience had had its teeth in my mind and heart and was twisting and thrashing me about mentally and emotionally. After several hours of this internal struggle and with tears streaming down my face, I thought to myself, "I wish I had never been born." My reaction to this thought was as intense as the reaction to the internal passing idea regarding Lucille Ball. Had I not just then committed the dreaded and unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit alluded to in scripture? And so for several more hours, my conscience accused me of sinning against the Holy Spirit. It was the last thing on my mind before going to sleep at night, and the very first thing when I awoke. If I awoke in the process of turning in my bed, the thought of sin assailed me.

I did not discover sex [when this happened] ... I had had ample exposure to the differences between the sexes, and I'd picked up misinformation from my peers in the streets and from glimpses here and there. I played spin the bottle at graduation parties from grammar school and played who could kiss the longest with willing girls in the neighborhood.  The occasional nighttime emission and deliberate manual manipulation were not unknown to me. But never had my reaction to the mere hint of sexuality provoked such a dreadful and villainous response.

I could not wait to go to confession and rid myself of this dreadful guilt. I recall stumbling over my words as I attempted to both defend and accuse myself before a priest of St. George's Church. My sense of shame prevented me from going to Fr. Paul [the family priest] for confession. I was so distraught that I could not conceal my tears, but I was also angry because something inside me knew that I was innocent of the charge. Had I wished never to have been born? Was this a type of desire for suicide, and isn't suicide a slap in God's face for the gift of life? How does one explain all this to a priest in two or three minutes, when there are about a dozen people outside the confessional box waiting to be cleansed? The priest assured me that I had not committed the sin against the Holy Ghost and that I should avoid any near occasions of sexual sins in the future. I was absolved and given a penance to say. In my attempt to avoid all near occasions of sexual sins, I eventually realized that everyone and anything could, by association, eventually be considered sexual. For a while, I would not look at a girl or woman beyond an acknowledging glance.
Mr. Kalosieh's experience is like mine, only I was not even as normal as he was.  In my case, I was never able to do any of the "normal" things that didn't bother him as a kid.  (Night-time emissions in particular would send me into tailspins almost every time, following the path of guilty self-flagellation that he outlines.)  After I hit puberty, I was unable to interact normally with age-mates of the opposite sex until I was more than twenty years old.  I was too ashamed, too frightened.  Until I met my wife, I never had a girlfriend: more than that, I never had a friend who happened to be a girl close to my own age.  A few girls tried to be nice to me; I am ashamed to say I pushed them away.  I was caught in a very uncomfortable mental place, in which I alternately longed for female company (but could not have it because I was too impure) and eschewed it (because girls were agents of Satan, tempting me with walking pornography).  I was caught head over heels in the false mind-trap that reduces all sexually attractive women to impossibly pure virgins and/or impossibly evil whores.  Thank goodness I got out.

On Pathological Confession.  Kalosieh hits this one out of the park.  We could have been the same guy, though he happened to be Catholic instead of Mormon (pp. 88-89):
I cannot recall presently what all the subsequent "sins" were that I felt a horrible dread for, but I know that anything having to do with sex, getting angry, or hesitation to declare Christ publicly were the theme for many subsequent confessions. I could not distinguish temptation from sin, to the satisfaction of my accusing conscience.  Suppressed anger was still anger and required absolution. Likewise, any reluctance to proselytize, proclaim, and pray in public meant I was denying Christ. Once on the public transportation bus to school, I heard a girl whom I hardly knew say to a girlfriend in the course of their conversation that she intended not to attend mass the next day, which was a holy day of obligation. The thought was in my mind that as a good Catholic and out of fraternal concern for the welfare of her soul, I should call her at home and admonish her for her contemplated sin. I didn't know her phone number, but after hours of tormenting myself with "should I, shouldn't I," I gave in and found her number in the book, but stopped short of completing the call to her. By my private logic, I had denounced my affiliation with Christ and I was indifferent to her spiritual welfare! In a similar fashion, if someone took the Lord's name in vain, I felt compelled to assert, "Blessed be the name of Jesus!" If someone had a task to accomplish, I felt obligated to encourage them to say a prayer first. I felt very guilty if I said anything negative about anyone, especially if I made public "the unknown fault of another." And I thought I was rejecting God's grace whenever it was suggested to me to do an act of charity or of penance, because I was made aware of the chance to do good and I opted not to ...
All the while, I recognized in some small, rational manner that what was being "suggested," "demanded," "recommended" to me by the "Lord" or the voice of God--my conscience--could not be right. Failing to follow the internal directives generated guilt, shame, and terror. How does one pray at all if he believes God is furious with him? Going to confession was a nightmare for several reasons. First, the embarrassment of trying to convey to the priest why I thought I had both sinned and didn't sin. Second, his absolution was, in my mind, only going to be valid if I were truly sorry and fully resolved not to commit that "sin" again. I would always question myself, not only about the three things that made an action/thought sinful (knowledge, intent, full consent), but also on the sincerity of my contrition and resolve not to repeat the "sin." Third, if the priest did not execute his function correctly (fully aware and attentive, properly understanding the case being presented to him, accurately reciting the prayer of absolution), the forgiveness of sin would not have taken place. Fourth, more often than not, one of the above conditions was thought to be wanting, thereby invalidating the confession or the absolution, as a result of which I was still in "sin." Fifth, no sooner would a valid and acceptable confession be executed than another sin would get committed, requiring another confession. Were it not for the agonizing fear, the endless tendency to analyze and defend myself, the guilt felt and the tears shed, my confessions would have been comical. 
I remember doing everything Kalosieh talks about here.  Something would set me off (having a wet dream, seeing an attractive woman or girl, saying something that in retrospect did not strike me as wholly true or candid, etc.).  I would spend some time in solitary prayer, crying and begging God to have mercy on me.  I would look around desperately for signs that he had.  Sometimes I found them.  Other times, I didn't.  Either way, I would end up going to the bishop (the Mormon version of the priest who takes confession).  If I was really unlucky, our encounter would occur as part of some routine interview determining my worthiness to participate in a group youth activity (like a temple trip).  I would enter the bishop's office with my bitter self-accusation and self-defense, the paradox that Kalosieh describes so well above, and hijinks would ensue.  It didn't matter what the bishop did. If he agreed with my self-accusation, then I was despondent (sometimes suicidal, though I never got as far as acting out on any of my fantasies).  If he agreed with my self-defense, then I would depart in a state of temporary elation, which would always wear off quickly as I doubted the integrity of his decision (did he really hear what I was accusing myself of? was he paying close enough attention? was he ignoring the prompting of the Spirit that I should be dealt with more harshly?) and fell once more into "sin" (having a wet dream, seeing an attractive female, saying something even remotely dishonest).  In many ways, this latter option was worse: I got a little taste of forgiveness before God reached down and snatched it away again, smashing all my aspirations of escaping "sin" once and for all.  A little moment in heaven for all my hours in hell.  It was so frustrating.  No one understood what was wrong with me: I didn't, my parents didn't, and my bishop sure as hell didn't.

On Blame and Healing.  I resonate with much of what Kalosieh says here (pp. 237-239):
On a couple of occasions I have been asked if I blame the church for my inadequate (twisted?) spiritual upbringing and all the harm that came with it. Here too I am inclined to answer both yes and no. No, because I received virtually the same education and instruction as many of my peers, and they did not react to it as I did ... If one student is terrified by the instructor's teaching that to miss mass on Sunday is a mortal sin and the rest of the class is "indifferent" -- not sold on the teaching or merely curious about the idea -- why blame the teacher? This is not to say that the actual doctrine one is reared in makes no difference ... While religious doctrine that cultivates the notion of evil in human nature (or a primordial rupture between the person and the Divine) is not exclusively responsible for the tendency some people have to develop overwhelming guilt and obsessions regarding the ultimate questions of life, it is difficult to envision the cessation of such a disorder as long as this belief is instilled into young, impressionable minds ... Dealing with questions about the meaning and purpose of life (if any), the nature of being human, life before conception as well as life after death, the foundations of morality, etc., etc., does not necessarily unhinge a person, regardless of whether he believes or not. But the descent into the meaning of life and the significance of the individual is fraught with profound consequences, which only denial or suppression of human needs can take with an attitude of detached indifference. It is not the "fault" of religion (or any other human inquiry) that it deals with this type of soul-searching, and it is eventually up to the adult individual to decide what he accepts as true or what to reject as false, what he believes and what he doubts.
Paradoxes abound in the human dimension, and attempts to explain them are limited by language. Language itself is often inadequate to communicate meaning. The great religious thinkers and teachers rarely used a univocal paradigm by which to address their audiences. Variety and plurality of parables and metaphors characterized their teaching and constituted their pedagogy. Western minds are especially prone to become unsettled by this because it threatens the illusion that all knowledge should be black or white and lead to predictability and control ... If the [religious] student is a person of integrity and honesty, the ideas researched [as part of a religious education] may bring about a conversion of essential, foundational beliefs, which in turn regulate frameworks of thought and behaviors. Such inquiries may be debilitating precisely because the student must wrestle with his self, his meaning and his significance, that of others, as well as of life in general. The neophyte descends into the depths of selfhood searching for ultimate truths. His tools are of the very essence of his dignity and courage: freedom, intelligence, language, spirit, character, etc., but their value and suitability will be challenged. All who descend with the intent to excavate and explore are vulnerable to a primordial dimension of chaotic proportions, and the encounter can leave one indelibly marked. Singular explanations do not suffice there because the experiences defy portrayal with a photographic precision or a mathematical preciseness.
If I say, on the other hand, that I can fault, to a degree, those who educated me in the area of religion (and, specifically, in the areas of spirituality and morality) I can do so only because men and women recognized by history as giants in the field of spirituality and morality have themselves done so. For example, the mystic St. Teresa of Avila frequently advocated for spiritual direction from someone learned and educated, and complained that for many years, she was harmed by the wrong advice given to her by various spiritual directors. Good, pious intentions are not enough to be someone's spiritual director, and spiritual direction is a specialty. An individual with a number of cognitive dysfunctions may not be an ideal candidate for spiritual direction because the expertise to address the malfunctioning judgments, affects, and comprehension lie outside the typical spiritual director's scope, unless he is also trained in the art of pastoral counseling [as lay Mormon clergy are even less likely to be than their Catholic counterparts].
For me, healing required growing up and learning to deal with my own problems.  I had to put aside the counsel of scriptures, prophets, and local LDS leaders, and confront myself on my own terms, with no distractions.  Like Kalosieh, I discovered that I was uniquely fragile, broken, and dysfunctional.  I realized that there is no single, simple way to repair a broken psyche -- that my shattered soul required unique attention, a unique (and personally applicable) solution.  In the midst of all my weakness, however, I also discovered strength.  I found the ethical values I really do aspire to.  I learned what I really think about the nature of God, righteousness, and the universe.  I acquired an adult perspective on the world -- a perspective that is unique to me, a perspective that I use for myself but do not impose unnecessarily on other people.  I learned that others are different from me, sometimes vastly so, that their needs are not always my needs, and that they occasionally need things that I emphatically do not.  And I realized that I am OK with that, even thought it means that my conception of useful religious faith is nothing like the official doctrine of any organization, particularly not authoritarian organizations like the LDS or Catholic churches (which place the individual member under covenant to submit wholly and utterly to priesthood leaders).

I don't hold the LDS church wholly responsible for the fact that I was what I was.  I don't blame my parents, either.  And I don't blame myself.  We all did the best we could: I did, my parents did, and the church did, too.  Unfortunately, we were wrong about what was best for me.  Fortunately, I was able to figure out what was up before it got really out of hand (i.e. before I castrated or killed myself or became utterly committed to a program of treatment that would merely aggravate my symptoms ad nauseam).  If I have blame for the church, particularly the leadership, it comes not from their human ignorance (which afflicts us all) but from their refusal to admit to it -- and for the unnecessary pain that this arrogance causes people like me, people who should not be spending hours obsessing and confessing under the illusion that such degrading behavior is guaranteed to make things better (whether here and now or hereafter in another world).  These people need something other than your garden variety forgiveness and absolution, if they are to live happy lives.  The repentance process does not redeem them: it merely crucifies them, over and over until they give it up.  As long as church leaders, particularly those in the governing quorums, fail to acknowledge the inadequacy of their priesthood discipline as a panacea for every kind of soul sickness, they will continue to hurt people like me, and I will continue to recommend that people avoid undergoing their treatment -- just as I would warn the bodily sick against a surgeon who tried to cure all illness with bleeding (or some other ancient treatment whose anecdotal effectiveness in one instance is no guarantee that it won't cause massive harm in another).  Honesty is something I value, and honesty requires I that admit the fact that church discipline has not helped my life: on the contrary, it came pretty close to ruining it.  If it helps you, that is great, but your experience does not cancel out mine.  The drug that helps you may kill me (and vice versa).  People who are like me (rather than you) need to know that I exist, and that church discipline was not good for me.

On Faith.  Kalosieh's concluding statement of faith comes close to mine (pp. 241-242):
My commitment to Catholicism, such as it is, does not endure because of scripture and what theologians refer to as public revelation, i.e., that period of time from the life of Christ up to the death of the last apostle ... I doubt that a genuinely religious person is merely someone who adheres to a system of beliefs (creeds) and a way of life (morals and spirituality) because of recorded events (accurately recorded or not) from millennia past. The very notion that a person's ultimate values should hinge exclusively upon historical events, I find repugnant. I believe that religion continues to live within the human community for reasons over and above that of traditions and cultural education. Religion is inherent in our nature, just as are music, art, dance, wondering, politics, science, etc. Faith is anchored not so much in the accuracy or inaccuracy of historical events, but in the experience of the human community then and now. Neither the solitary individual's experiences nor the historical events recorded in manuscripts enjoy a monopoly on the truths of the religious dimensions in mankind. Just as anyone would be foolish to ignore the history of any issue, idea, problem, or undertaking, so too would a person be foolish not to consult the experiences of the human community with regards to religion and religious experiences.
History, however, does not have a monopoly on the mystical, the experiences of awe and wonder, the drive for meaning and significance. As in the past, so too today the exact nature of those experiences can be questioned, debated, doubted, or believed. I believe that God can and does intervene in our time and space. Whether directly or indirectly, through nature or beyond nature, I am still open to further considerations as to how this is achieved. When I look at history in search of signs and wonders, I discern that the Catholic Church seems to enjoy an abundance of people and places where and to whom those interventions occur. It would be preposterous, however, to imply anything along the lines of God hearing and answering only Catholics, just as it would be unthinkable that only Catholics enjoy the miraculous in their midst ... Ironically, although the Catholic Church is quick to assert the miraculous in the life and times of Jesus and the apostles, she is skeptical of the miraculous in the present era! Mystics who report apparitions, locutions, etc., are said to enjoy "private revelations." The church does not obligate the faithful  to embrace any of these (although after an exhaustive investigation along empirical scientific lines, she may encourage the faithful to assent to them). Wherever it appears that an altered state of consciousness is involved, the church turns skeptical and scientific. She does well to do so because "private revelations" are no guarantee of the whole truth in what is "revealed." For example, predictions made in these altered states of consciousness have proven wrong, erroneous, and sometimes harmful, both to the person who has had the experience and those who believed and took action based upon it. On the other hand, there were also genuine, authentic, wholesome, and helpful revelations that proved their genuineness over time in the life of the recipient and those who believed, e.g., Guadalupe, Lourdes, Fatima ...
Critics could reduce my commitment to Catholicism solely to my upbringing. But the only way to demonstrate that such is not the case would be for me to renounce it. I would be like the character who lamented that the only way he could prove his freedom was to commit suicide. Ironically, whereas some see me as a staunch Catholic, others see me as outside the fold.  I see myself as neither. I can pray with any religious person.
Today, I am in a position much like that of Kalosieh.  The correlated LDS experience produced by the Corporation of the President has little for me, since I cannot actively participate in meetings where vocal submission to priesthood authority is required (and I find much of the doctrine simply wrong as it is taught, reflecting a poor understanding of history and the human condition, past and present).  But I am still a Mormon.  I use Mormon language.  I have Mormon tastes (even if they don't match what is most popular currently at the Church Office Building).  I have a Mormon history, and the ethical values that I continue to find meaningful have a long history in Mormonism.  (I value personal revelation, integrity, family, hard work, charity, sacrifice, community, etc.  I do not have to believe in the pristine moral purity of Joseph Smith to hold these values.  I do not have to approve modern church leaders' decision to build a great and spacious building in Salt Lake City.  I do not have to think that all priesthood counsel must be followed regardless of circumstances, or consequences.  I do not have to deny my birthright as a rational being.  I do not have to hold beliefs I find untenable or practices I find repugnant.)

I don't necessarily deny the numinous, the mysterious, what some call the divine.  Life contains many things I do not understand.  If we put them all together, assuming they are bound up together somehow, the result might be called God (or the gods).  I have no problem with that, until some of us invoke this semantic patch as an excuse to control others.  My inability to comprehend ultimate reality (God) does not give me authority to dictate to you unilaterally.  In my experience, Mormon priesthood leaders -- all of them -- are men just like me.  (The lack of women in leadership roles is another issue, but we don't have to go there now.)  They have no more right to dictate unilaterally to me in the name of God than I have to dictate to them.  If their counsel works, then I believe it should be followed (just as counsel from a doctor should be followed if the observed result is that patients get better).  If it does not work, then it should not be followed (just a series of deaths in the hospital would curtail the privileges of a rogue physician with a bad idea, or a string of bad luck making him a danger to his patients).  Philosophically speaking, I think I am ultimately more of a materialist and an atheist than Kalosieh: for me, God is more like an emergent principle of order in the universe, an unexplained tendency of matter to form itself into ordered patterns.  Practically and ethically, we are on the same page.  What matters is what you do, how you live your life here and now--not how some great hero of the mythical past lived (or didn't), and submission to authority is no substitute for personal engagement.  You may feel called of God to tell me how to live my life, but that does not mean I feel called to submit to your direction, particularly when it makes me miserable.

Unlike many in my position, I don't mind praying or singing hymns.  I do both, on occasion, and I enjoy it (especially the singing).  In this I am like Kalosieh.  From my perspective, it does not matter what the service is -- whether it is offered to this god or that one, to Jesus or Allah or Ganesh (etc.) -- but what it does in the heart of those who take part.  I can pray with any believer, in any religion: if his worship conduces to the values I share (things like integrity, family, hard work, charity, sacrifice, community, etc.), then I have no reservations about participating.  And I include thoughtful conversations with atheists among some of my most uplifting "spiritual" experiences, in all seriousness.

Reading Kalosieh's book was a special experience for me.  I laughed.  I cried.  I looked over some passages again and again.  In many cases, it was like meeting my Doppelganger, and yet, at the end of the day, we are very different men.  There is beautiful poetry in our likeness proving unlike.  When it is done right, religion gives this poetry a voice: it gives us words to talk about how we are at once alike and different -- unique and particular manifestations of profound generalities that we cannot always see clearly.  Mormonism and Catholicism both offer material for creating particular windows onto an unknown (and wild) reality -- the generic, objective truth that some call God.  Science and humanism can also create windows into this same reality, and they do not make it any less miraculous.  I wish more people understood this.


  1. Wow....... just wow....... thanks for your honesty in sharing your story. Very interesting, depressing, yet in a strange way hopeful.

    1. I like to think that it is hopeful, at any rate.

      Any hope I feel now is not associated with a particular regimen that I must follow no matter what the consequences are. I hope that I can cobble something together in time to live and live well, but I no longer believe that there is a universal panacea out there somewhere: if one of the remedies I discover becomes more harmful than helpful, then I let it go. This is at once worse than my old situation (because I used to believe I could be wholly "cured" of everything that caused me pain of any kind) and better (since I have learned to let go of things when they cease to help me instead of clinging on stubbornly out of a misplaced sense of duty or loyalty).