Welcome to the eighth installment of our Tuesdays with Orsi series! We’re taking a look at the seventh chapter of Robert Orsi’s History and Presence, and as Hannah introduced last week, today’s discussion will be on the meaning of abundant evil. Previous installments can be found here: Intro, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, and Chapter 6.
Where chapter six took on the idea of heaven, this chapter deals more with hell. What happens, Orsi asks, when the abundant event believers encounter is an evil one? He uses the stories of men and women who were sexually abused as children to tease out the question of presence and abundance in light of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. These stories have different particulars, but similar threads running through them, including how hard it was and is for abuse survivors to return to church: “[F]or many years Monica stayed away from Mass because she could not bring herself to enter a church. All of heaven and earth, living and dead, persons mundane and super mundane, may come together at the Eucharist, but not Monica, and not other survivors of clerical sexual abuse, not always, or not consistently, often not openly, and not without tremendous effort” (215).
This is not an easy chapter to read. Orsi takes survivors’ stories seriously, weaving them into his larger argument of religious presence in American life. Evil is not an aberration, he argues, but a real presence to be contended with in survivors’ lives and the Catholic church as a whole. Clearly, a book about the abundant presence in Catholic life would not be complete without a frank deliberation about this particular abundant evil, too, and Orsi does not shy away from this discussion.
While clerical sexual abuse is an event of evil in any tradition, it becomes especially problematic in the Catholic Church and in the context of the Eucharist and God’s real presence, as the priest becomes the alter Christus, the other Christ, to those waiting to receive. Orsi writes, “No survivor with whom I spoke ever accused God of abusing him or her. But being abused by a priest was to be abused at one degree of separation from God” (216). The priests’ religious power allowed abuse to flourish within the parish environment, and Orsi concisely but compassionately describes the many ways in which priests took advantage of the boys and girls under their charge—and the many places, too, including at the altar itself, and sometimes even invoking the language of the Eucharist as they did so. It is a necessary chapter, but like I said, not an easy one to read.
Orsi then moves to a discussion of sacred space and the way that these experiences often “lock[ed] the environment that the abundant event unlock[ed]. Sacred space–the space between themselves and God, the space that is at once inside, outside, and at the border–becomes for survivors not a place of creation but a place of truncation” (226). For many, Mass remained an incredibly unsafe space, yet many Orsi spoke with recounted feeling continually drawn by the Eucharist itself. And while this could be seen as an almost pathological need to poke at an open wound, so to speak, Orsi categorizes this as a response to the real presence in the sacrament, further highlighting its importance in this discussions.
With Vatican II and the changes in Catholic liturgy, ritual, and theological self-understanding, the Eucharist lost some of its hidden character–though none of its importance–and perhaps more importantly, the priest lost some of his godlike stature. This opened up new ways of being Catholic as well as a greater openness for the stories of survivors. This convergence, Orsi writes, allowed some survivors renewed access to the real presence. Some came to this through AA programs, having recalibrated their ideas about the divine through twelve-step rhetoric about Higher Power(s)—often defining their Higher Power as anything other than the Catholic God they met as children: “The Higher Power as these survivors of clerical sexual abuse described it is an absence that opened in the place of a presence that was too threatening and dangerous, too much to bear” (240).
Eventually, for many, wrestling with a Higher Power they had made themselves would allow them to wrestle with and reclaim the real presence of the Catholic God. However, Orsi warns his readers not to think of this in terms of ‘returning to’ the real presence, as many had retained a relationship with the real presence all along, however tormented, angry, or bitter it may have been. Furthermore, the divine-human relationship has agency and intentionality on both sides, and Orsi reports how many survivors told him stories about experiences they had interpreted as “signs of divine recognition, acknowledgment, and welcome” (246)—signs that God was working to restore the relationship, too, even as some wounds remain too deep to ever fully heal.
This chapter doesn’t have a tidy conclusion, which I think is to Orsi’s credit, as these stories don’t either. As I was reading it, I kept thinking about abundance and evil in non-Catholic traditions, including Mormonism. Much of what Orsi has chronicled here will (unfortunately, and sadly) read true for abuse survivors in other traditions, despite the overt Catholic elements of these survivors’ stories. Yet different traditions do experience the abundant–and the abundant evil–in different ways. I invite your impressions of this chapter in the comments below.