When I was a kid, I participated in the Girl Scouts. Our troop leader was amazing. She was a Catholic nun, but not stereotypical. In exchange for taking care of the Girl Scouts, she was allowed to have a van, camping equipment, and lots of other privileges. She was wild and crazy, and we all loved her.
Because she was such a favorite of mine, I think that’s why I was so shocked when she yelled at me one day. She wasn’t yelling “for real,” but I didn’t know that. She was quizzing me for one of my Girl Scout badges. The lesson had to do with emotions, and that was something I was really uncertain about. We didn’t talk about emotions in my home. I couldn’t come up with the words she was looking for.
That’s when she yelled: “Janet Gillis, get out of here!”
I started trembling. I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t move. I just stood there, shaking from shock.
As if nothing were wrong, she said, “How did that make you feel?”
“Bad.” That was all I could come up with.
“Okay. That’s the emotion I was trying to get you in touch with.”
Looking back now, I want to say to her, “Really?” But of course I said nothing. I was a smart kid, and I quickly realized she had yelled simply to prompt an answer from me. Wrong way to do it, for sure. I think nowadays she wouldn’t have gotten away with it. But back in the early 70s, things were different. More was tolerated, or ignored, overlooked.
I told my mom about it, and she said, “So did you understand what she was trying to teach you?”
I never looked at this nun quite the same after that. I still participated in the Girl Scouts and had fun with my friends. But I gave our troop leader a little bit of a wide berth. I wasn’t mean to her. I just tried not to get into any kind of confrontation with her. Stay silent. Stay back. Stay out of trouble.
From that moment on, I became afraid of clergy. Anyone in a position of spiritual leadership. I gave them all a wide berth. With some of them, I was downright fearful. Because time had elapsed, I didn’t make the connection. I had forgotten the nun’s comments. I had simply put up an invisible wall in my heart, and everyone who was clergy bumped up against it.
As a middle-aged adult, I took an inner healing class. Our teacher, also clergy, had a wonderful, out-of-the-box personality similar to that lively nun I had encountered in childhood. However, I didn’t recognize that connection. I had long forgotten what happened. But I kept giving this inner healing teacher a wide berth.
Fortunately for my healing, she wasn’t having that. She kept trying to interact with me, to draw me out of my shell. She wouldn’t let me hide. She called me out as who I really am – the person God created me to be.
Eventually, after months of discomfort, I went into an inner healing session and asked God, “Why am I so afraid of clergy?” Immediately, He brought the encounter with the nun back to my mind – just like it was yesterday. I could feel myself shaking. Probably making all kinds of vows never to let that happen again. And I saw where that wall had gone up in my heart. My mom worked at the church office all through my growing-up years, so I encountered a lot of clergy. They bumped up against that wall every time.
I repented for my judgments against the nun, against church leadership, against God. The wall began to crumble. I still had to walk it out. As a volunteer at the church, I went through lots of interactions with clergy, still shaking, but finally able to get through it. Soon, I became part of the church staff, and went into seminary. I was still intimidated, and that was just something that had to be walked out through experience. I felt less and less intimidation as time went on, and especially as I interacted with clergy who acted in more affirming ways than our nun had acted.
But that outright terror, that wall, that thing that had paralyzed me around clergy for years – that was gone. Thanks to Jesus and the healing He brings.
Who would have thought one loud remark from a nun – a remark that wasn’t even intended against me, not really – could have shut me down in the face of clergy for so many decades? Often it’s the big traumatic experiences that get to us. But the little ones can shut us down as well. That’s why we need Jesus to help us see where our dysfunctions come from. They may come from a place we least expect.