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Integrity and Religious Institutions: Wesley Carr (Part 3 of 3: Becoming a Member)

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Edward R. Shapiro, MD, Distinguished Faculty in the Austen Riggs Center’s Erikson Institute, explores Wesley Carr and an institution’s primary task. Edward R. Shapiro, MD, Distinguished Faculty in the Erikson Institute for Education and Research, continues an exploration of Wesley Carr and the integrity of religious institutions. 

Wesley remarks: 

Institutional loss is both of the person and the roles that she holds on behalf of others. When I lose her, I don’t just lose the part of myself that I invested in her. I also lose a bit of the picture of the social institution that I carry in my mind. When this institutional image is affected by bereavement, something within us remains damaged, without a public ritual of some sort that allows the shared reintegration of a new institutional view. This phenomenon underlines the way that public roles are used on behalf of other more private motives – the two sides may need to be recognized and integrated for institutional and social completion of the bereavement process. It may be that public grieving makes possible a more complex space – related to others – for private grief. It may even be that grief is always both a private and public affair. In order for people to live through and transcend the experience of personal bereavement, they need institutions-in-the-mind that endorse or even authenticate such grief. The mourning of death in an institution or society may be the foundation of personal mourning.

Wesley felt that religious institutions keep alive what he called ‘the ultimate illusion’–the notion of God–that can be used to contain destructive aggression. Churches themselves do not contain illusions; instead it is the act of professing God that has that function. He outlined the increasingly visible conflict between the individual’s need for a dependable object and the contemporary assumption that belief in God is a delusion. He once told me that one difference between a delusion and a genuine religious experience is that the latter brings you closer to people. In their focus on the other world–God, life after death, a spiritual dimension to existence–religious institutions represent for the larger society a major area of human life that many consider irrational. Commitment to such notions can support risk taking and surrender to an ideal. 

Wesley’s focus was on the centrally religious function of the abbey, its preservation as a functioning edifice, and its historical significance. He understood that its religious function was central and was being eroded by its exposure to tourism. Managing this more effectively irritated a number of people. Wesley’s leadership and his efforts to maintain institutional integrity put him in the midst of a public firestorm. He, however, with extraordinary strength of character, held to the primary task like in a storm-tossed ship–and it cost him dearly.

For Wesley Carr, integrity meant to commit all of himself to an institution’s primary task that is negotiated with and on behalf of others and that connects to a transcendent set of ideals and beliefs. All of our institutions are currently under stress from rapid social change. Wesley’s contribution challenges us to further clarify our institutional missions and their connections to society’s needs, values and beliefs so that we may better grasp the strains on institutional leaders as they attempt to hold our precious institutions together on behalf of all of us and our increasingly threatened social cohesion.

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