G is for Gravity

I feel I must apologize for going so long without writing. Even if it is because of my health failing, I feel it is my fault, and that I should apologize. I am a perfectionist—I began to write “I am a perfectionist by nature”, and then I had to pause, because if I am completely honest with myself and with you, it may not be natural at all.

I am, to some extent, the classic example of an adult survivor of childhood abuse and neglect. I’ve mentioned this only briefly on Tumblr, as an explanation for why I do not practice fasting, and not at all on WordPress, mainly because I do not want it to be the primary element of my identity. I do not want to be remembered as “that abuse victim who is also pagan”. I want to be known for my thoughts, for my ideas, and to be agreed or disagreed with on the basis of what I do and say.

Still, I’ve been seeking this treatment through silence about the facts, and yet, the facts are not that hard to find for those with skill in divination. The reading that James Bulls described in his comment to my husband’s post left both of us stunned by its accuracy. I have not talked about having had iron deficiency severe enough to cause anemia, described the deep grooves and fissures in my fingernails all throughout childhood, having so little body weight that it hurt to sit on a wooden bench. I am a shorter man than I probably should be. I do not have all of my organs, and it is not coincidence that I am much more conservative with my use of mugwort than should be necessary for a person of average health—I’m not a person of average health, and I can’t be sure how much my kidneys could safely handle on a regular basis.

Of course this affects my religious practice. It did even when before I identified the true nature of my calling. The desire to help people in a service vocation, for instance—I had to ask myself, is this desire born of true empathy for others, or is it yet another manifestation of that destructive impulse to push and push and push past my personal limits, to achieve an impossible perfection AND THEN, finally, be a worthy human being? It is literally written on me, in poorly healed scars that cause nurses to gasp, that nothing I do is ever good enough. I have had to learn “good enough” in many contexts, and in others, that empathy and perfection live in separate worlds.

There is a pagan blogger who is working with the Lwa for Lent, and so she is writing her opinion of Catholic practices, and in particular the sacrament of baptism, though she herself has never been a practicing Catholic and does not seem to have known very many outside of the internet. I tried to leave a comment addressing the origin of some of the elements that bothered her the most—an infant cannot consent to be entered into a religion, because they do not yet comprehend what religion even is. I mentioned that the practice of baptism of infants is essentially only half of the actual sacrament, practiced by tradition on small children due to the belief that unbaptized children would go to hell upon death, and the other half is the sacrament of confirmation, which is intended to be the conscious choice of an adult (well, teenager) to be a member of the Catholic Church.

The only evidence that the comment went through is that the number count for comments on her post is one higher than the number of comments displayed. As it’s been some time, and other comments and posts have come and gone, I have to conclude she had no desire to engage in a dialogue about baptism. Her blog, her right—after all, she isn’t even writing about Catholicism as the experience of a Catholic or ex-Catholic, but from an outside perspective.

It does mean, however, that an anecdote I had in reserve for the conversation would go nowhere. But as I am writing about the long-term effects of abuse, it is suddenly appropriate here again.

I find the practice of baptizing infants is somewhat forgivable because the ultimate reason for it is to assuage the fears of new parents. They can rest assured their children will be happy should they die; they will not have the guilt upon their heads that, in “failing” to ritually purify their children in a certain way, they have condemned them to eternal suffering through no fault of their own. Never mind that the official doctrine no longer teaches that this will happen—it’s entrenched enough in the culture that the practice is unlikely to be abandoned, though many other Christian sects have managed to do so.

Forced confirmation, on the other hand, is horrifying. The age of confirmation can vary depending on the diocese, because “individual American bishops can decree for their dioceses that the age for confirmation within their diocese be within that range of seven to sixteen years“. The reason for the starting age of seven is that it is the traditional Age of Reason—the age at which a child can be assumed to know the difference between right and wrong.

In the parish I practiced in, the age was thankfully 16. It’s also been common practice to send confirmation candidates on retreat for a weekend, to have a safe space for contemplation and assessment of their desires. Still, everyone knows that even at 16, most candidates aren’t getting confirmed because they have a desire to: they’re doing so because that’s what’s expected of them. It’s what their family wants them to do. Even then, however, there’s usually very little conflict. It removes the meaning of the sacrament, turning it into a ritual of family obedience, but if the candidate is all right with that AND old enough to rationally make that decision, no harm is being done.

Meanwhile, I have had the experience of sitting up all night with a young woman crying her eyes out at one of these retreats. Not merely tears dripping down her face—uncontrollable wailing, face crushed into itself with grief, tears from her eyes and nose, and her mouth unable to close. She did not want to be Catholic. She was threatened into attending the retreat, despite already knowing her own desires, and she was being threatened into undergoing confirmation, no matter what she wanted to do herself. You must do this, or else.

Baptism of an infant, who is not even old enough to care, is harmless. Forced confirmation is spiritual abuse. Her consent was completely ignored, and those who were just going through the motions to please their family could not comprehend why she would cry, why she would be upset, why she couldn’t just go through the motions and get it over with.

If the abuse I survived has given me nothing else, it has given me empathy. No one cries like that over “nothing”. No one shudders from violation over “no big deal”. The pain may not be “the same”—in the absence of telepathy, how would I even know?—but I knew it was serious and I knew it was real.

The most I could offer her was respect. She had the right to cry, for as long as she needed, as much as she needed, whatever way she needed. I was not going to give her excuses, quick fixes, workarounds, platitudes—she was crying because she knew what was wrong, and what her heart really wanted, and she would know better than anyone else what the consequences of “obey this command or else” would be. I would fetch tissues for her nose, and I would affirm that what was being done to her was wrong.

I have no idea what happened to that woman after that night. I can only know that, whether or not she was forced into confirmation or found a way to escape it, she was already abused and violated by her family’s threats, and I pray that she managed to make her way to a future where her consent is respected, her rights are protected, and no one will ever threaten her again.

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One thought on “G is for Gravity”

  1. I feel privileged that I was able to provide a relevant message for you – I just hope the message did more than provide confirmation. For reasons that I won’t bother relating right now, I can appreciate how frustrating it is to know the explanation for a problem but not be able to resolve it. I know I’ve had moments of depression dealing with the same sort of issues.

    Regarding the issue of baptism and confirmation, you might be curious to hear about the LDS Church. Men who hold the Melchizedek priesthood will give special blessings to a child after it’s born, but baptism doesn’t happen until age 8 which is considered the age of accountability. If a child dies before age 8, it’s not like the Catholics who believe that they go to purgatory, but instead the child goes straight to heaven.

    Baptism is at age 8 and the child has to agree to the ritual; of course, you can imagine how many children at that age will actually have the willpower to defy their bishop, parents, extended family, peers, and congregation. The social pressure is enormous. I converted to the LDS Church when I was 17, but formally renounced my faith and membership when I was 24.

    According to the Mormons – because I had attained both the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods and then denied my faith, renounced the church, and told them to remove my name from church membership – I’m definitely going to hell unless I literally fall to my knees and beg to be taken back. I’m not losing any sleep over it, but I think such a conflict would be tremendous for somebody raised in the LDS Church from birth.

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