Walking with the wounded

An American friend was in town recently. Like any good Malaysian, I crisscrossed the valley, taking him to different food spots around the city.

Apr 08, 2022


By Karen Michaela Tan
An American friend was in town recently. Like any good Malaysian, I crisscrossed the valley, taking him to different food spots around the city. A few days in, he asked why I made the sign of the cross when I passed a church. Teasingly I asked him why he, an American of Italian descent, brought up by devoutly Catholic, Italian grandparents; who attended parochial school, did not know the reason. He gruffly told me that his association with the Catholic Church ended the day of his father’s funeral.

In a heart-wrenching revelation, my friend told me that his father had hung himself after years of depression and poor mental health. Although the family was nominally Catholic, they did not belong to a parish, and so did not know the priest assigned to the funeral Mass. It had been arranged by the funeral home. During the Mass, my friend said the priest referred to his father as ‘useless’ and ‘pathetic’, a man who squandered the God-given gift of life, who sinned by not living well and walking with God, and then making the final mistake of taking his own life, a move heinous to the Giver of Life.

My friend’s face was stony as he said he had to leave the church multiple times that day, because he was disgusted by condemnation in a time when gentleness and care should have been the order of the day. He was never to step foot in a Catholic church or attend Mass since then. He was 19.

Now 44, he styles himself an atheist, though he has been baptised and confirmed. His wounds are deep, and they have resulted in years of alcohol and recreational drug abuse. Through the Alcoholics Anonymous programme, he has achieved, and held on to, sobriety, and been open to a higher power, but his hurt and grief means that he has yet to know the solace of the Divine Comforter and the embrace of the Forgiving Lord.

Many people I have encountered in my journey as a journalist and social documenter have similar stories of hurt. It brings into stark relief the miss-fit between the preaching of an open, welcoming Church, and those ministers who fail to administer the forgiveness and mercy the religion is supposed to espouse.

Throughout my friend’s visit, he noted my saying of more than a hurried grace before meals, and the further crossing of myself passing graveyards, and the little wave I made to the statue of the Welcoming Christ which watches over the LDP from my home parish of St Ignatius. He asked me about my faith journey, as I too had attended mission-run primary school, and I surprised him by telling him that my father and I were baptised and confirmed on the same day, having been RCIA candidates when we were 24 and 55-years-old respectively.

I openly acknowledged that it was far easier to believe in, and practise, a faith which had brought only comfort, affection and friendship, both through the blessed pastoral ministering of exemplary men of God, as well as thoroughly amazing men and women who lived and professed their faith in the many ways of service the church offers.

I have long come to realise that, when dealing with such religious trauma, nothing works worse than zealously standing by the Letter of the Law. As James 2: 15-16 says, “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?” The passage goes on to say, “faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.”

When a person has suffered such emotional trauma delivered in a context of religiosity, that person is not in a place where logic and learning can reach them. You cannot preach a God of mercy and compassion to someone who has been hurt by a representative of this God. And the quickest way to alienate them is by quoting them Scripture and sharing what one would think as cheerful morning greetings based on a faith that they no longer call their own.

And yet, if we are to follow in the footsteps of the Master, we must remember our commissioning to be sent out as salt and light to the world. We too must go out into the highways and byways proclaiming God’s unremitting love while also being willing instruments in the hands of God.

As a catechist and faith dialoguer, I have found that the best way to begin a conversation with a former Catholic is not to talk about faith in the abstract. The way we live our faith is the way we preach it. Do the Catholic-y things we always do. Make the sign of the cross, abstain from meat on Fridays, reserve Sundays for the Lord. And be prepared to testify with tenderness the reason you do these things. Reach into yourself to explain how it is not only habit that makes you cross yourself passing a church, but the bubbling up of a child-like delight knowing that my God is present in this world. He is available to me in the tabernacle, and His love, protection and mercy exudes from out of the church, and when I cross myself, I remind myself that however imperfect I am, God died for me.

The grace I say before I eat connects me to The Lord’s Prayer, where I ask and am promised ‘my daily bread,’ as well as deliverance, making each meal a eucharist, a thanksgiving. When I murmur a prayer for safety as I embark on a long car journey, I name the passengers in my car, showing them that I truly believe that the God I know is interested in all the occupants, and not just the church-going ones.

In trying to find and bring back to the fold the lost sheep, we, as clumsy, bumbling, auxiliary shepherds, must reacquaint each sheep with the goodness it once knew from the Master Shepherd. It means picking out thorns and brambles from once white fleeces, applying the salve of understanding, and the balm of healing, while gently leading those who show an inclination to be led, back to the place where brokenness is tended, and spiritual wounds can slowly begin to heal.

l Karen-Michaela Tan is a poet, writer and editor who seeks out God’s presence in the human condition and looks for ways to put the Word of God into real action. You can connect with her at: karenmichaelatan@gmail.com

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