A Safe Distance: Surviving Religious Trauma
by Steve Hyndes
Book Review and personal commentary
by Dally Messenger (Christmas 2022)
(see below for reviews by Graeme Ryan, Kieran Tapsell and Carla van Raay)
No matter what your circumstances, it is a truism that happiness and equilibrium depend on what goes on in one’s own mind. While on a trip to Sydney some years ago, I took my then-wife over to Saint Patricks College, Manly. St Patrick’s is an impressive nineteenth century college on a beautiful hill above the suburb. It overlooks the ocean and it has the beaches on one side and the famous Sydney Harbour on the other. Both the author and myself spent four years of our lives in that place studying for the Catholic priesthood.
My wife asked the question – “How could anyone be unhappy here?”
The remark took me totally by surprise. Yes, it is an outstandingly beautiful location, but I only remember it as a source of inner conflict, angst, anxiety and agonising. Years later it remains a source of puzzled amusement to my daughters that I put myself in this position voluntarily, and a further kind of mystery why I didn’t walk out of the place when I was always free to do so.
In an attempt to sort himself out and explain his life to his own three sons and their successors, Steve Hyndes has written this revealing book on his own story. He is about the same age as I am and his book is a straight out chronological story.
In 1976 at 38 years of age he left the priesthood, troubled and in turmoil. He had decided to turn his life around and reject almost everything that he believed in, and had deeply committed himself to, for so many years. Difficult is such an understatement.
The beginnings of his life run their course in post World War II country Queensland. His father was the local GP in a number of country towns. Steve came from a large family of seven children, 3 girls and 4 boys.
He has an unbridled admiration for his mother. Their father had died before Steve had turned twelve. After his father’s death in 1950 she struggled against great odds to raise a family with very little money or resources. Fortunately, his father had a sister, Auntie Kit – a fervent Catholic – a single woman – a psychiatrist with a good income — who chose to help the family and was clearly a life saving support.
Young men sign up to study for the priesthood for various reasons. Steve Hyndes recalls his times. In Australia in the 1950s, religion was a powerful force in the lives of almost everyone. The vast majority of the population were believing Christians and most were members of the Catholic Church or the Church of England. The White Australia policy was not abolished until 1973 so there were few other faith groups.
Sectarianism was rife, or to put it another way, catholics felt hostile to non-catholics and vice versa. You belonged to a “tribe”. You were part of it, you believed in it, you absorbed the almost primal instinct to do your part in it. You were called on from above to make sure the tribe survived and was successful.
Human beings tend to believe what those around them believe.So you followed everyone else. You did not like the other tribe, and you were taught that they were on the wrong track. Becoming a dedicated worker, a priest, in the catholic tribe drew almost universal approval and respect. The god of the tribe only called special people to play this important role, a mysterious personal calling dubbed “a vocation”. Says Hyndes: “ I was a sponge in this environment, absorbing all that was taught and placing absolute trust in those who were the leaders.”
So in February 1956, at 17 years of age, Hyndes entered the seminary at St Columba’s College, Springwood, to study for the priesthood. To be fair it should be noted that part of the belief package contained some superbly good values. The historic leader and “founder” of the tribe was a man who believed in compassion, non judgmentalism, forgiveness of offences, non-violent change, respect and love for others, assisting the needy, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and supporting those in grief. It advocated that individuals live an upright, responsible, honest, principled life. Embedded in the very notion of the tribe were the admirable dynamics of friendship and community. The tribe drew on the the developed culture of the past with wonderful stories, songs and poetic polished words. The leader’s name was Jesus. His followers talked of the dignity of the human person, the concept of human rights, the duty to follow one’s conscience and an awareness of social justice. That was the understood plus side. But as Steve and I both learned later, it became a source of wonderment to us how little of these values figured in our “training”.
There was another powerfully subconscious influence ceaselessly present in the 50’s and 60s. It was the imminent threat of nuclear war. Russia and the West had acquired the capability of destroying the world. I remember a read out paper by a fellow student in the seminary, Mick Kelly, who began his lecturette with the sentence, “it has been calculated, by men in a position to so calculate, that both Russia and United States have the capacity to destroy the world and every living thing in it, eight times over. “
Don’t waste your life, become a priest, and do your bit to make the world a more loving, peaceful and safer place.
St Columba’s seminary, Steve found, was a cold, unnecessarily spartan place with an agenda of destroying individuality and initiative, and brainwashing the inmates to be functionaries who unquestionably do what is necessary to keep church authority supported and in power. Part of the package was a God who guided and supported seminary authorities, and demanded as much unthinking obedience as they required.
The notion of fear was driven home relentlessly. Fear of offending God, fear of committing sin, fear of trouble with the authorities, fear of not becoming the docile functionary God wanted, fear of “impure” thoughts, fear of purgatory, fear of hell, fear of the world, fear of predatory women, fear of disappointing proud parents, fear of not saying enough prayers, fear of disloyalty to the system, fear of failure to stay the course.
As he tried to sort out the serious issues, Steve Hyndes was particularly haunted by the Church’s preached “mantra” – There is nothing wrong with the system; what we are dealing with is the failure of individuals – . Somehow, his problems must come back to his failure as an individual. Not a bad formula for creating a giant inferiority complex and a loss of personal esteem. He spends Chapter 4 describing the seminary and its routines, its meal times, its prayer times, its study times and how he subconsciously accepted these strange but psychologically harmful routines. (don’t forget he was only seventeen.)
His acceptance of seminary life continued in the years he left St Columba’s and continued his studies at St Patrick’s Manly. One only has to read his description of college life to draw quite a few conclusions.
Omnibus periculis superatis, (all perils overcome) Hyndes became a priest in July 1962. Now aged 24 he was cast into that strange world of living in a succession of parishes. His first parish priest was Barney, a blustery but pleasant Irishman whose lifestyle was dominated by the Housie-Housie (Bingo), golf, pigeons in the belfry, and the greyhound races.
At the same time, in this vineyard of the Lord, the young priest kept on falling in love with the beautiful young girls in the CYO (Catholic Youth Organisation). He became shocked and aware that his fellow priests were not all celibate, and at big meetings of priests under Cardinal Gilroy, he experienced a disillusioning “meanness of spirit”, an atmosphere of judgmentalism, and a kind of anger at the world.
Hyndes next appointment was not so pleasant. His parish priest of Bankstown was Phil the angry. Phil was always seething and ranting about something. He was a denouncer of his many disapprovals from the pulpit. A “kiss-up kick-down bully”, he was a user of sleeping tablets, a drinker of alcohol, and a chain-smoker of cigarettes. “He was a fine example of how the destructive training regime and the clergy culture can isolate and destroy individuals.” Hyndes experience at this parish, he believed, destroyed any semblance of self-esteem or personal autonomy he had left.
Hyndes worked in several more Sydney diocesan parishes especially Caringbah and The Entrance. By this time he had gained a grasp of the larger Catholic Church scene and how abnormal and mentally sick it all was. His fellow priests were basically good men but there were so many whose personalities had become distorted. He felt frustrated by the conservatism of the older priests but much more by the celibate lifestyle and the idiosyncratic, eccentric and warped effects which resulted.
The system was flawed, and this compromised the individuals within it. He observed that, in this bent and buckled social milieu, his fellow members of clergy were not drawing the spiritual inspiration with could result in a happy and fulfilled life. Quite a few of his priest contemporaries were leaving the ministry.
In the midst of his personal deliberations, he had a brief conversation with the famous Bishop “Bull” Muldoon. Muldoon told Steve that at 36 he was too old to start a new life, so it was better for him to stay in the priesthood. Nothing like a bit of high end motivation!
At a retreat to sort himself out, Steve met Paula. She was a young, enchanting, personable and beautiful woman who had left the convent a couple of years previously. The writing started appearing on the wall. It was a shocked relief to both of them when they became pregnant. The die was cast. Decisions finalised by nature itself. Steve drove out of Sydney towards Melbourne. As he did so, his soul was flooded with relief – the same exhilarating feeling I had experienced some seven years before.
Here I intrude the personal. There are now a number of Australian books written about leaving the seminary and / or the priesthood. All the ones which I have read describe similar dehumanising experiences. I was appointed to a parish called Lochinvar. The parish priest, Father Flatley, opened my bedroom door at 2am one morning and as I awoke let out a frenzied verbal diatribe attack on me for desecrating the Mass as a sacrifice and trying to turn it into a cheap meal among friends.
Another memory was at the parish of Muswellbrook where the parish priest, a bedridden alcoholic, begged me to buy him a bottle of Dewars Scotch Whisky. For acceding to his wish (near dying wish as at turned out), the senior curate, one Roderick O’Neill, who lived in an abandoned convent down the road, vitriolically excoriated me for encouraging his alcoholism. I’ve been insulted a few times since but never as lucidly as I was on those two occasions.
If I wrote a book like Steve’s I would have mentioned the issues which caused almost unbearable inner conflict. Birth control dominated my scene in 1968. Priests were excommunicated and suspended for voicing their opposition. Divorce then was an absolute no-no. Who would have believed that years later annulments would become the catholic form of divorce? Celibacy, of course was a big issue, women clergy not too far behind. Add some angst about Bob Santamaria’s “The Movement”, the Vietnam war, and the notion and psychological grip of church authority. (This is not to ignore the questions of the existence of God, life after death, the purpose of existence if it has one, the rotation of useless barren planets, the beginning of time and the end of space and the whole unknowable kit and catastrophe.)
Sorry Steve, back to you. So Steve and Paula with number one son, Francis, set about putting food on the table. It is so painful to recall that we ex-priests had no recognised qualifications and certainly no money. Steve, at 36, was a at least 18 years behind his regular contemporaries financially. He had to start from scratch. What could he do? This part I found so so painful. Sending out job application after job application. Working your wits. Taking whatever was going. Low money, hard work. One saving feature. Steve had a loving wife. She also had tickets. She was a trained nurse and an operating theatre manager, as well as a qualified social worker. She kept the family surviving sometimes when he had no employment. He took challenging work managing difficult businesses, taking on jobs in outfits full of human problems — and travelling all over Australia to get the work. But he did it. His three sons grew up. Well done Steve and Paula. He retired.
When you are desperately paying the bills you do not have any time to dig into the deep recesses of your own psyche. A time came for Steve to examine his unconscious self, to get therapy, to gain enlightenment, to free his mind of the pervasive mental wounds which had been inflicted by his church past. He read a series of books by writers who shared his experiences and how they coped. This is a good section of the book and the note it ends on.
The book itself is an easy read. It simply tells the story. A record of social history of a certain era, of the unique past through which we lived. Steve has no pretensions of producing a masterpiece of literature. We learn through stories. I learned more of myself through this one. Thank you Steve Hyndes.
“A Safe Distance: Surviving Religious Trauma” by Steve Hyndes.
A short review from Professor Graeme B. Ryan AC of the University of Melbourne
This is a brave and engaging book, intensely personal and frank, recording first how Steve Hyndes was “groomed” into the Catholic Church, entering the seminary in 1956 at the age of 17, followed by his ordination as a priest in Sydney in 1962. He had “swallowed the whole toxic package” resulting sadly in his feeling of entrapment as a priest into a life of significant turmoil, disillusionment and unhappiness from which he was not able to escape until 1976 when he “left that strange world”.
Steve was fortunate then to be able to reinvent himself, against the odds, and get on with a life of “new adventures” filled with family and fulfilment in partnership with Paula, a former nun, over the next 40 years and beyond.
This is an inspirational story interlaced with interesting anecdote and self-deprecating humour, sometimes bleak in the earlier years, but always an entertaining, uplifting and worthwhile read throughout the book.
“A Safe Distance: Surviving Religious Trauma” by Steve Hyndes.
A short review from Kieran Tapsell, author, lawyer , academic
At the beginning of his book, A Safe Distance: Surviving Religious Trauma, Steve Hyndes describes how his maternal grandfather, Thomas Robertson Thompson, who died in 1922, left an account to inform his family of his life and times, which “was different to theirs”.
One of the realities of human existence is that all of us slip into the past and will be forgotten within a couple of generations, unless somewhere along the line, pen is put to paper in some form of biography. I have always thought it a shame that some of my more interesting ancestors did not put pen to paper.
Much of the book will be of interest to his family, but there is another group of people who would also find it interesting because they have travelled along the same path of a reverse St. Paul or St. Augustine. These two giants of the Christian religion were famously struck by such strong religious experiences that they devoted their whole lives to propagating their beliefs and in trying to convince others that it was the only right way to live. Their experiences have been so intriguing that their lives and writings have become an important part of Western literature.
There is another spiritual journey, just as intriguing, of those who were born into that same religion and who devoted a great part of their lives to its practice and propagation but then slowly and painfully saw the scales fall from their eyes to see that they had been operating under a delusion, with just as much conviction as St Paul and St Augustine had viewed their former lives. The only difference is that most of these survivors don’t feel the need to convince others of their non-belief and are happy to put it down to experience and move on.
It is not surprising that neuroscientists have discovered that the centres of the brain that deal with religious experience are the same as those dealing with the experience of falling in love. And indeed, much spiritual literature in religions of all persuasions describe the religious experience in similar terms. It leads to a kind of blindness where one can only see the good qualities of the beloved, and the bad qualities slip into the drawer of non-importance. George Pell once described how he started reading the Koran to try and understand Islam, which at that time was plagued by various forms of violent extremism. He said he couldn’t finish it because he was turned off by the violence in this holy book. George must have read his Old Testament with the rose-tinted spectacles of the besotted. It is also interesting that dignitaries of mainstream Christianity are quick to brand splinter groups as “cults” without seeing the beam in the eye of their own.
Steve Hyndes writes about his difficult journey from belief to unbelief: “There was no flash of lightning. It was like waking up one day after a bout of flu’ and realising that I was alive and well. I had reached a stage where I regarded the Catholic Church with the same interest as a plate of cold day-old fish and chips.” He does not see his experience as something special, saying it is a bit like ex-soldiers adjusting to civilian life, athletes at the end of their sporting life, adults and children involved in divorce or people facing up to the reality of their different sexual orientation. This transition may be relatively easy for some, but for others it can be traumatic. The subtitle and contents of the book suggest that for Steve, it was the latter.
Art became a source of therapy for him and the book contains copies of his interesting paintings. Some of them are mournfully surreal, particularly those dealing with his clerical past.
The book is a very easy read. Some outside his family may find his descriptions of different jobs and constant house moving as worth skimming over, but his journey of the mind in and out of the Catholic Church is interesting even if it is a familiar painful story.
A Safe Distance – by Steve Hyndes
A Review by Carla van Raay, author of God’s Call Girl
As an ex-nun who left her order at about the same time as the author of this fascinating account left his priestly life, I was enthralled to read and compare the details of the restrictive life of a male within the Catholic clerical structure with my own experiences.
I had expected something more human or humane than my own experiences of convent life, but I found that the religious indoctrinations accompanied by years of destructive criticisms and dehumanisations Steve Hyndes endured, were far more severe. Of course, it is easy for me now to look back and wonder how we could have allowed such manipulation for more than a week! That we both did for years, and in Steve’s case for 26 years, is testimony to the power of inducing guilt and in the systematically reducing of confidence in one’s own innocence and validity from early childhood.
The first part of the book, which deals with the author’s clerical life in full cinematic colour and a bland sense of humour, I found the most engrossing. I smiled a lot in spite of the grim content, and also laughed out loud. His ruminations about sex and the shocking revelation of how celibacy of his fellow priests was simply a ‘face’ or ‘farce’ and not always a fact, were particularly interesting to me, since sexual freedom can be equated (at least by me) with the freedom to think for oneself. In the case of vowed celibacy, however, this freedom is marred by a harmful duplicity. That Steve finally connected with Paula, who was to become his wife and mother of three sons, felt like a relief at last to me.
After leaving the priesthood, I looked for accounts of his spiritual development along truer lines, but had to wait for a long time for that as I read the accounts of many movements through many towns and places as they made their lives together, often looking for work. At twenty pages from the end, we get a first good idea of how the clerical mask, preserved internally in spite of so much disillusionment, is faced full on and beginning to get dismantled. Without a clear new belief system to replace the old, the process proved to be extremely difficult, accompanied with physical symptoms reflecting severe emotional stresses.
I laud Steve Hyndes for writing so openly about these very personal experiences, offered to the reader with the hope that understanding will dawn on those likewise brainwashed, whether as clerics or as church-goers. By reading this account, one cannot stay blind to the contradictions within a religion which preaches love and lives self-hatred. I wish him and his dear wife Paula the happiest of relaxed years to come.
Carla van Raay, author of God’s Callgirl and Carla’s News and Views
Perth, Western Australia.