By Melissa Poulin
I was raised in a warm, loving family and brought up in a delightfully diverse congregation that was part of the United Church of Christ. This church was service-oriented and politically engaged, and it was emphatically welcoming of everyone. It was not a perfect church, but it was fiercely loving, and passionate about serving God through the care and loving of all people. I glued popsicle-stick arks in Sunday School and learned about God’s mercy. In Vacation Bible School, I created a parchment scroll from a Safeway bag and two sticks, and copied the Lord’s Prayer onto it in black Crayola– a prayer that stayed pinned to my bedroom wall for many years. And I went to a lovingly awkward sex-ed class with my youth group, organized and led by church parents and elders, where we asked our embarrassing questions without being shamed, and learned to put condoms on bananas. There was not a hint of purity culture in my church. Instead, there was a whole lot of trust and responsibility given to us as teenagers, which inspired me to live up to that trust.
But as my body-awareness grew, I also grew more aware of how unique my church, and perhaps my denomination, was within the larger Church. I learned about the long and bloody history of Christianity, the violence and harm it had caused and continued to cause in the name of the Perfect One. I’m not talking about persecution, but about the many ways the people of God seem to find to judge and hurt each other. I didn’t know what to do with the feelings of betrayal, horror, and shame I felt as I learned that the same faith that had brought me a deep sense of belonging and acceptance had brought the exact opposite to the lives of so many people. So midway through high school, I left the church and didn’t return until I was 26.
I felt separated from something that had been a part of my life since birth, and it was painful. But I mostly buried that pain deep inside and went looking elsewhere for connection to God. I went to yoga and read Buddhist and Hindu texts. I tried various meditation techniques. For many years, I turned my back on Jesus, and while deep down I missed the Lord terribly, I numbed myself to those feelings, convinced that they were ignorant and backward. To truly live like Jesus, I reasoned, I had to leave His church. I wish I’d been honest about those feelings with myself and with others, and that I’d opened myself to guidance from elders in my church who had almost certainly wrestled with the same feelings. Instead I kept them to myself, and I spent years in a self-enforced exile.
In part two of The Wreath, Kristin is staying at Skog with her uncle to attend the requiem mass for her grandparents, and has made arrangements with Erlend to meet at the mass.
“Erlend did not attend the mass as he had promised Kristin he would, and she thought more about this than about the word of God,” Undset writes. “But she felt no remorse over it. She merely had the odd feeling of being a stranger to everything to which she had previously felt herself bound.”
That little word “merely” is so casually out of place here. How could something like breaking the bonds of her old life be mere? The disconnect in language mirrors the one between Kristin’s preoccupation with Erlend and the slow wreckage of her life around it. Kristin’s thoughts are driven toward Erlend only. Meanwhile, her sense of isolation from her family and faith deepens, as the gravity of her sin sinks in and she realizes the full extent of the consequences of the trajectory ahead of her.
Even as she longs for him, Kristin begins to grow anxious about how much she is giving up for Erlend: “She was separated from everything she had been bound to in the past, and the bond between [her and Erlend] was such a fragile one.” It pains her that she’s breaking her promise to her betrothed, even if she never loved him, and the promises she’s made to her own family. But it’s her exile from the “community with God” that begins to consume Kristin most: “It had always been part of her life, and now she stood outside with her unconfessed sin.” The equation begins to grow heavy on one side. Will it all be worth it, in the end, just to be with Erlend? Cracks begin to form in her certainty, but she also feels she can’t turn back. The arrow has been released from the bow, and the only way for it to go is forward.
There’s so much I relate to in Kristin’s state here, and so much that is worlds away from anything I’ve ever experienced. The odd feeling of being a stranger to everything to which she had previously felt herself bound. That’s how I felt as a teenager, leaving the church of my childhood. Like Kristin, I had deliberately abandoned my faith. Like Kristin, I felt no remorse in the moment, and perhaps that’s both the peril and the privilege of youth, this lack of prior experience that can cushion you from realizing the gravity of your situation.
But Kristin’s strangerhood— her estrangement, perhaps, from her faith– has more to do with her sexuality. Sexuality was a huge part of why I left the church: the many ways the Church has failed its members who don’t conform to a narrow married, cisgender, heterosexual worldview. The many ways the Church turns our neighbors into strangers.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, the Lutheran pastor, describes this with the perfect metaphor in her beautiful book Shameless: A Sexual Reformation. She writes about seeing agricultural fields from an airplane, noticing a grid of perfect green circles within larger squares, where the corners are dry and brown. She realizes that this is the result of an irrigation problem, a central spigot that distributes water in a circle. Any plants and seeds at the margins– at the edges and corners– are left out. This is the narrowness of the Church. If you don’t fit in, especially if your innate sexuality and gender identity doesn’t fall within the limits of the green circle, you are essentially left to wither and die. But this isn’t a problem with the person. It’s an irrigation problem. It’s a problem with the Church.
“[My] argument in this book is this,” she writes. “We should not be more loyal to an idea, a doctrine, or an interpretation of a Bible verse than we are to people. If the teachings of the church are harming the bodies and spirits of people, we should rethink those teachings.”
I’m ruminating on all of this as I walk through the slow, painful winter of Kristin’s exile within the walls of Nonnesetter. I know what it is to be imprisoned by sin, by dishonesty. Most recently, I’ve felt myself imprisoned by unforgiveness, a terribly lonely jail that I’ve learned Christ alone can unlock for us. I know what it is to feel half-alive because of anger and resentment, and it’s a feeling I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Being alone in sin, “unconfessed,” as Kristin puts it, is an excruciating pain unlike any other, and it’s what Jesus came to liberate us from. We are not meant to hide our pain and our shame deep inside, letting it grow in the dark.
But neither are we meant to be the source of shame for others, and I think this is the definition of purity culture.
“Purity most often leads to pride or to despair, not to holiness,” Nadia Bolz-Weber writes in Shameless. “Because holiness is about union with, and purity is about separation from.” With a modern lens and the vantage point of 2022, it’s easy to view the culture of medieval Norway as purity culture in the extreme, with the resulting extremes of pride and despair she describes. It’s possible to look at the circumstances that led to Kristin’s feelings of shame as needlessly restrictive and punitive. Arranged marriage, a lack of sexual education, no resources for practicing safe sex, no way for a woman to live independently outside of marriage, stigma around premarital sex, and condemnation of children born out of wedlock. What an excellent recipe for the soul torture Kristin is experiencing.
I don’t know how we expect anyone to know the right partner from the wrong partner, holy sex from harmful sex, without allowing people to make their own mistakes. My heart hurts for Kristin on so many levels as she ponders these things in her soul. And I also trust that God is present in her life as God is present in all of our lives, ready to use the hard things for our good, if we return to God.
I no longer believe the Church needs to be perfect in order to lead people to the Perfect One. But I wholeheartedly believe that as believers we need to follow Christ and His message of love and redemption, not a hateful, narrow definition of who is worthy of that love.
“If the Gospel is where we find healing from the harm done to us by the messages of the church, then it must also be where we find freedom,” Bolz-Weber writes. “Meaning that even if it is the last thing I want to do, I absolutely have to believe the Gospel is powerful enough, transgressive enough, beautiful enough to heal not only the ones who have been hurt but also those who have done the hurting.”
Melissa Reeser Poulin is the author of a chapbook of poems, Rupture, Light (2019), and co-editor of the anthology Winged: New Writing on Bees (2014). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in basalt, Catamaran Literary Reader, Entropy, Poetry Northwest, Relief, Ruminate Magazine, The Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art, and Water~Stone Review, among others. She’s working toward her license as a community acupuncturist, and lives near Portland, Oregon with her husband Lyle and their three children, Sky, Robin, and Iris. Follow her on Instagram at @melissa_r_poulin or online at melissareeserpoulin.com.