Losing the religion you grew up with can be a heart-wrenching experience, and it’s one that draws many people into spiritual direction. The deep listening, unconditional acceptance and contemplative pace of the practice is a lifeline for many in spiritual transition.
My own experience is an example. Leaving conservative Christianity as a young adult was fraught with anxiety, guilt and confusion. I had trouble finding people to help me work through my questions without pushing me into their own path. In the late 80’s, I was fortunate to meet a patient and loving Presbyterian minister and spiritual director who helped me find my own way. With by my side, I began to develop a mature, adult faith based on what I believed—not what one branch of Christianity said was the only way.
Taking a Break
There are times in a person’s spiritual journey when the only thing they can do is walk away from religion. Some do it as a sabbath, a break, breathing room. Others stay away much longer. If a person has experienced religious abuse (verbal, emotional or physical bullying “in the name of God”) they need a lot of space to heal.
Some spiritual directors have specialized training in working with victims of all sorts of trauma—including religious abuse. Formation and training programs for directors usually address the patience, tenderness and nonjudgmental attitude needed when working with someone badly hurt by religious teachings, religious leaders or religious communities.
How to Help
Here are three tips for assisting seekers who are “losing their religion:”
Accept their need to shed past beliefs.
One of the hallmarks of religious abuse is authoritarianism. The last thing an abuse victim needs is a spiritual guide becoming an authority trying to convince them not to leave. Never say “but not all (churches, denominations, spiritual communities) are like that!” Using the “but not all” argument negates the pain they are feeling. And it’s usually a way for the spiritual guide to avoid sitting in that pain with the person.
Don’t try to convince them of the theological “wrongness” of their past beliefs.
In my past experience with Christian spiritual directors raised in a liberal or progressive branch of Christianity, it was hard for them to understand how I could have interpreted scripture in the way I had been taught. They would say “but that’s a misrepresentation” or “that’s not what the Bible says!” Casting the former religion as idiotic or gravely mistaken may offer relief in the short run, but actually it discounts what the seeker just told you. Mistaken or not, it was ingrained in them as a child and it feels The seeker has to reconcile their past and decide for themselves how they want to characterize their past experience.
Be patient and compassionate.
This journey from one worldview to another is not a neat, straight line. It will take time. The seeker may, for a time, start shopping around and trying a number of different paths to the Divine. Never rush them or insist that they simply choose one and “go deep.” You will need to, as Jesuit poet Teilhard de Chardin says, “Above all, trust in the slow work of God.”
Want to try spiritual direction? I have openings in my schedule for new directees—regardless of where you live. I can work by phone, Skype or if you live in the Phoenix metro area we can meet in person. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.teresablythe.net. Also visit my website for the Phoenix Center for Spiritual Direction.