Victims in the cloisters: from grace to blasphemy
Dom Dysmas de Lassus
Thanks to Philip Gröning’s 2005 film Into Great Silence, that most unlikely of box office successes, La Grande Chartreuse widely evokes associations not just of exquisite liqueurs but of radical monastic life. The head monastery of the Carthusian order, it lies high in the French Alps, near Grenoble. Gröning’s film is practically without speech until the end, when an old, blind monk posed in front of an empty bookcase (a stroke of editorial genius) speaks words of such luminous limpidity that, once one has heard them, any other statement about anything, really, seems like redundant commentary.
The monks’ discretion is legendary. When, once in a blue moon, a book emerges from the Charterhouse, its author is designated as “A Carthusian”. It was exceptional when, last year, the prior of La Grande Chartreuse, Dom Dysmas de Lassus, published a 450-page volume, cordially recommended by the Holy See, under his own name. He must have felt he had something essential to say. He did.
His book, Risques et dérives de la vie religieuse (“Risks and aberrations of the religious life”) – published by Editions du Cerf, and still awaiting an English-language translation – deals with spiritual abuse. What’s that? The baleful overstepping of boundaries in the direction of others’ conscience. There have been high-profile exposures of malpractice. The French Conference of Monastic Superiors laudably put the matter on its agenda in 2016, starting an enquiry into sectarian trends. The book is one outcome of this process. Several voices, male and female, are heard within it. The analysis by Dom Dysmas is a model of sound judgement and good sense.
When I entered monastic life, a friend wrote to me: “I’ll be among those prepared to pick up the pieces, should your alpine expedition result in a fall.” I was touched by this assurance, and helpfully alarmed. It made me see that radical self-giving is risky. It cannot be otherwise. Monks have always known this. Therefore they have insisted on the need for appropriate safeguards. The first such is a rule approved by the Church to which all, superiors especially, are bound. The second is thorough formation not just of the intellect but of the whole person, enabling growth in self-knowledge.
The third safeguard is a stress on freedom. Monastic initiation begins with the question: “What do you want?” It’s not such an easy question to answer. How many of us do know what we want? The education of desire – what the early Cistercians, steeped in the Song of Songs, called ordinatio caritatis – is fundamental to ascesis. To make progress on this path, I need direction. I need a guide to reflect myself back to me, to help me grasp what goes on inside me; someone who can, at the same time, reassure and challenge me. But I must make my commitment and take responsibility for it.
Dom Dysmas provides a forensic account of what can go wrong when such safeguards are sidelined, often in the name of renewal or reform. It is no coincidence that abuse occurs predominantly, though not exclusively, in “new”communities sprung from fresh, personal inspirations.
Certain aberrations are systemic. There is the paradigm of the charismatic superior who usurps the place of the rule, spurns canon law, and assumes control over others by way of affective alliances, playing on dynamics of seduction and exclusion, instrumentalising guilt: “After all I have done for you, you turn away from me?!” There is the paradigm of secrecy, by which a community’s members are given the rule to read only after they have promised to obey it, since the text, they are told, is too sublime for non-initiates.
There is the paradigm of intrusion, exacting the manifestation of conscience and disdaining distinctions between an internal and an external forum in the name of “trust”. There is the paradigm of twisted mysticism hailing novices’ breakdowns as triumphs of grace and branding the desire to leave as diabolical temptation. There is the paradigm of isolation by which Religious are denied contact with their families and confessors of choice; they may even be made to promise (in one case by a “vow of charity”!) never to denounce their superior’s excesses.
Such patterns are intrinsic to totalitarian systems. What makes them especially pernicious in religious life, is their application in the name of Christ. The result is blasphemy. The harm produced can be incalculable.
At the outset there may have been grace. The testimony of one former nun begins: “I was 16 when I met you. Without you I doubt I’d ever have risen from the state I was in, wrecked by pain, cast up on to childhood’s riverbed. The light you carried restored meaning to my life.” Yet within this context of light, unfreedom encroached. The teenager was flattered by her confessor’s claim to discern in her a born contemplative. “Will you let me guide you?” he asked. How could she not? It would require, she was told, full surrender.
The form surrender took over time is spelled out: “He held between his hands my brain, my heart, my soul, my spirit, and my body.” When she protested it could not be right for him to move her hands underneath his habit, she was told: “It is a gift of God. At this degree of love, the two have but one desire.” Then: “I owe the fruitfulness of my apostolate to our relationship.” She must cast aside scruples, he insisted. Did he not offer Mass right after their encounters? Did that not prove that what took place between them was blessed?
The wickedness – and sheer barminess –of such rhetoric is evident. Why did the woman yield to it? Because she told herself: “This can’t be happening!” The contrast between the outward beauty of the order’s apparent thriving and its inward corruption seemed inadmissible. Surely she must be at fault? Dom Dysmas describes how this mechanism of deception is intrinsic to abuse. Built up by stratagems, it projects all sense of abnormality and guilt on to the victim, led to think: “There must be something wrong with me.” Once that hunch is established, the tarantula can freely spin its suffocating web. “Beware of assuming”, we are told, ‘that what seems impossible cannot occur.”
On the face of it, this is a study of marginal behaviour in specialised environments. In fact, though, its scope is universal. It dissects the phenomenon of abuse as such. It lists symptoms of unhealth in the manner of the Desert Fathers, who chartered the vagaries of corrupted passions and showed where, unchecked, they lead. The result is a phenomenology of abuse: a sobering, terrifying, helpful account. Three elements of Dom Dysmas’ analysis are especially worthy of note. A prime factor facilitating abuse is the shared assumption of belonging to a superior fellowship. A victim speaks of the thrill she felt on admission into a society of the elect: “To save the Church! What an honour! What an exalted mission!” Once it is established that “we” are the stewards of what “they” have lost, the point of reference becomes introspective and closed. If “we” are the blessed exception to general corruption, why should life among us not operate exceptionally? As a remedy, Dom Dysmas points to the Church’s law and the ancient rules. For to oppose the “spirit” to the “rule”, he writes, is epistemological error. Real revitalisation comes from rediscovering the spirit in the rule, as humble, grateful heirs to a venerable tradition.
A second point regards “clericalism”. Dom Dysmas shares the current concerns about clericalism, yet contends that clericalism on its own does not adequately explain abuse. For one thing, abuse is not perpetrated solely by priests – or solely by men, for that matter. Perpetrators of sexual abuse do tend to be male. But the patterns of seduction, manipulation and submission that add up to spiritual abuse are found as much in women’s communities as in men’s. The enactment of abuse springs from a twofold source: an egocentric make-up and disproportionate spiritual power on the part of the abuser. The duly groomed victim perceives him or her as a saviour figure buoyed up by moral superiority. And this pattern is found in lay movements, too. In any setting, “an atmosphere of veneration and unconditional submission can lead to great blindness”.
A third concern is deranged theology. To take but one example: several known aberrations have appealed to “Johannine” mysticism read in a gnostic key, used to justify practices that lie beyond common norms: “We are on a higher plane!” We read of abusers who pose as chosen vehicles of Christ and go on to claim prerogatives of power. Others maintain that the love of God made flesh must express itself in carnal intimacy.
Such nonsense can be deeply embedded in a person’s psyche and spirituality. “If the abuser’s claim, ‘For us, this is permitted’, is persuasive, it is because he actually believes it. Had it been play-acting, the impact would be less strong. This eclipse of the awareness of evil done to others makes conversion nigh impossible.” One understands why abuse is often self-perpetuating, with the abused becoming abusers in their turn.
“One of the aims of this book”, Dom Dysmas writes, “is to combat the reflex which prevents victims from defending themselves.” The purpose is nobly fulfilled. Further, weighing causes and effects carefully, Dom Dysmas fosters an atmosphere of serene transparency. This is why the Church needs to put to rest those old postures of self-defence that cause denial. Confessors of old would exhort penitents: “Expose your wounds that they may be healed.” Dom Dysmas does this on the Church’s behalf. He does it benignly and matter-of-factly, without violence.
Will the Church let itself be healed? That depends on us – on whether we believe that the Church is, in fact, one Body. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). To hear, really hear, the cry of the wounded is to own, within Christ’s Heart, their wound as mine. It is to learn what it means to pray with tears, Kyrie eleison, conscious that, without God’s mercy, inseparable from his justice, we are lost. It is to enter, and stay within, a state of poverty. This involves standing back from what has long been the ecclesiastical mood.
For decades we have lived, as Catholics, expecting new prosperity, a bright new dawn. When instead dusk has fallen, we have cried: “Others have betrayed the cause!” Have we not, whether we lean to the right or to the left, colluded in creating an atmosphere in which we cast ourselves as small bands entrusted with the task (and honour) of “saving the Church”? Are we not to some extent complicit in engendering those desperate expectations, off-beam initiatives, and personality cults that prepare the ground for spiritual abuse? Note, in this respect, a finding Dom Dysmas records: when abuse of a sexual nature occurs in the Church, it is almost always preceded by spiritual abuse. Remedies cannot be confined, then, to psychology and structural reforms. They are needful, but not sufficient. Over and above them, we need contrition, the rekindling of faith, a new heart. We must re-learn what it means to live, and die, in Christ.
It was to enable this that the Word became flesh. The light shines “in darkness”. It will not be overcome. Neither will it dazzle. Will we let it spread on the terms Christ showed us, emptying himself? “The work of the Holy Spirit”, he writes, “is wrought in the mediocrity of human raw material, in weakness and contradiction (more painful when we carry it within), in love that sustains and forgives. Any foundation or reform that reaches maturity will know the crucifying humility of the Saviour, who did not want to shine in the eyes of the world.” He ends with a prayer: “Oh Lord, keep us humble. Abide with us on the path of poverty and hope. Come, Lord Jesus!” If we pray in this way, and live by what we pray, the angels’ Gloria will sound in our present night also.
Risques et dérives de la vie religieuse is a little prolix. The text could be whittled down by one-third. It should then be translated and made obligatory reading in every religious house, seminary, deanery, parish council, and bishops’ conference throughout the Church.
Erik Varden, the former Abbot of Mt St Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire, is Bishop-Prelate of the Catholic Territorial Prelature of Trondheim in Norway. He is the author of The Shattering of Loneliness (Bloomsbury, £12.99; Tablet price, £11.69); a new book, Entering the Twofold Mystery: On Christian Conversion, will be published by Bloomsbury this month. He blogs at www.coramfratribus.com.