Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Sacrament, Fear, and Healing

In LDS culture, someone who has committed a sin of some significance and who confesses to the bishop is usually forbidden from taking the sacrament for a period of time. As the sacrament is administered publically, those around you who notice you pass up the sacrament tray will automatically know that you are on the bishops 'watch list'. Everyone knows that someone not taking the sacrament is being disciplined by the bishop. They don't know what you did, but just the plain fact that you are prohibited from the holy sacrament is an indication to everyone that you have committed some offense.

This one thing is the reason that I was so afraid to confess my sins for so long. Although my 'sins' were fairly insignificant, I was horrified by the thought that everyone in the ward would know that I sinned. Of course, that made me feel even more guilty for being too 'prideful' to confess.

This is the life of a Mormon. At least it is the life I experienced. This fear of what other people think is one of the tools used by the church to keep its members under control. I have heard (unconfirmed) that some bishops required the person seeking forgiveness to confess to the entire ward during testimony meeting. Talk about humiliation.

But it's a tool for the church. When the members see a person being so publically humiliated, it scares them into conformity. A deep part of Mormon culture is the fear of what other people think.

For me, overcoming this fear has been my biggest challenge. But step by step it is making progress.

For example: At some early point during my apostasy, my TBM father approached me privately (to his credit) and asked if I would like to assist him in giving a priesthood blessing to a sibling. In Mormonism, you never say no.

I was temporarily stunned. I didn't know what to say. I didn't want to but on the other hand, I didn't know how to say no. I grew up being taught that you never say no. But then something inside me made me do it... I couldn't be dishonest with myself. I told him that I would rather not. He accepted it and left it at that (again, to his credit). He has never pushed the issue since.

Since my apostasy, I have had the uncomfortable pleasure of attending a few sacrament meetings for baby blessings or missionary home-comings. At these moments, I am forced to face my childhood fear: do I take the sacrament while everyone is watching or do I pass it up?

Each time I find myself in this situation, I have to make a decision. Is my personal integrity greater than the fear of what other people think? Yes it is. I pass the tray. I have passed another crucial step in my recovery: the fear of knowing that everyone sees me pass up the sacrament tray.

As I progress, I realize that I do not need to be ashamed or apologetic because of my new beliefs (or lack of them). If they choose to gossip about me because they saw me pass the tray, then it is their problem. I have had to slowly learn that whatever people think of me, it doesn't matter. The only person whose opinion about me matters, is me! And I think I'm a great person!

I was again forced to face this fear when I was offered a blessing. I politely refused. In this specific situation, I was offered a blessing three times. I politely refused each time. Amazingly, I made it through this specific situation just fine without the aid of the priesthood. Imagine that.

A few months ago, the JW's knocked on my door. I was expecting company so I answered it. Two nicely dressed women were standing there. They introduced themselves and asked me if I was religious. By this point, I'm getting over my fear. I told them that I am not. Well, they began their little schpiel about the end of the world and how only Jesus can make it all okay. I told them that I don't believe in the end of the world.* They were polite about it and left me with some literature (which went directly into the trash).

*Why are religious people so obsessed with the end of the world? They believe it could happen any day. I wonder what they will be saying in 1000 years from now when it still hasn't happened. Sure, the world will eventually end. In a couple of billion years from now when the sun runs out of fuel the earth will become a giant ice ball. But that's a scientific end of the world, not a religious one. And unfortunately, Jesus won't be there to save the believers.

Not too long ago, my father asked me what my position was with the church. He caught me off guard and I didn't know what to say. I'm not ready yet to come completely out of the closet. He knows I'm inactive and he knows I don't take the sacrament, but I don't think he knows that I'm an outright atheist who anonymously blogs against the church. I simply told him that I'm happy where I am and he accepted that.

Recovery is not easy. Someone might ask, why is it necessary to 'recover' from Mormonism? The term 'recover' is different for every ex-Mormon, I am quite sure. For me, it means learning to get over my fear of what other people think and learning to say "no". I still have a really hard time with the latter.

However, I am becoming more comfortable with my status in Utah as a non-member. While I am still technically a member because I have not resigned, I no longer consider myself Mormon. At the beginning of my apostasy, people would ask me if I was a member and I couldn't say no, even to strangers. Now, I am very comfortable telling someone I am not a member when they ask. In Utah, it is a given that if someone asks, "Are you a member?", they are referring to the church. In any other state, if someone asks, "Are you a member?", the person being asked would reply, "A member of what?"

I have established myself at work as a non-member. Most of my co-workers are members. A few are not. One co-worker is a female who is a member but lives with her boyfriend and parties on a regular basis. I once had a conversation with her, in front of several TBM co-workers, about her friend who just turned 21 and their plans to party it up. I felt completely comfortable having this conversation right in front of TBM's. They know I'm not a member, but they don't know that I used to be.

To the credit of the LDS members who don't know that I used to be a member, they have all been kind and accepting of a non-member. They have not tried to shove church on me and have not been judgemental. In fact, I think that all my LDS co-workers are amazing people. It's not the people that I have an issue with, it's the organization itself.

I am healing. It's slow and I am still a big chicken in a lot of ways, but I am progressing and I will take on each challenge, keeping in mind that my personal integrity is my first priority.


ncultra said...

In my experience it is rare for a Bishop to tell a member to decline the sacrament without some type of formal church discipline involved. And I have never seen nor heard of a Bishop forcing someone to confess to the ward as a condition of taking the sacrament. In fact, the church handbook prohibits the information from church disciplinary councils to be revealed to anyone outside of the council.

I disagree with your characterization of the public taking of the sacrament as a method the church uses to control people. However, I understand the anxiety you and others may feel when declining the sacrament.

I think sometimes we as members do not give people enough personal space nor privacy but this tendency is against all the formal teachings of the church on this issue.

Your attitude of maintaining personal integrity and not worrying unduly about what others think is to be commended. I don't think that this attitude is inconsistent with full fellowship in the Church. Good luck.

(I'm thinking of a good nickname-JW) said...

I just wanted to thank you for your thoughtful post. I am a "recovering" Mormon as well, and your description of the entire process is all too accurate unfortunately.

ncultra, from the first part of your comment, I think you may have misread the post--I'd recommend re-reading it :)

This entire situation hits a little too close to home for me, since my confrontation with the Sacrament meeting has only been within the last month or so. The important part to remember is that it is more important to have integrity and respect for other's beliefs (even though I know it is only bread and water and not some mystical substitute for the body and blood of some god) than to worry about what others may think of me.

Keep on doing what you have reasoned (logically) to be right, and whatever you do, please don't start to get bitter about your former beliefs. Healing can only happen when the bitterness leaves, and emotions like anger and bitterness only serve the purpose of "members" claiming that an "apostate" really does experience a withdrawal of the "spirit".

Good luck!