There are many roads to deliverance from guilt. For some, a trip to the confessional is standard this Lenten season; but for others, absolution is a long-term process that involves a conscious decision to transform one’s mindset. Sister Petunia Encarnata, a self-professed recovering Roman Catholic, prefers the second method. She is part of the worldwide ‘congregation’ of queer ‘nuns,’ The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, whose mission is to promote universal joy, forgive stigmatic guilt and serve the community.
Sister Petunia is the Lady of Counsel and Mistress of Novices at the Vancouver Chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Her job is to offer wisdom and counsel in conducting their mission and work in the community. Most of the sisters, like Sister Petunia, prefer to be called by their chosen ordained names. “I’m a committed gay nun,” she declares.
The sisterhood is not religiously affiliated, but the religious archetype of their group was borne out of respect for women’s work in the Church and the community. Around 1976 in Iowa, a few retired Catholic nuns participated in a production of The Sound of Music. Four years later, the sisterhood was born.
Although the Sisters’ work includes community service and spreading joy, they also tend to the guilt many people feel, which stems from religious or societal norms and expectations.
“Most oppressive guilt is damaging guilt,” says Sister Petunia. “It comes from [dogma], and they’re based in punishment and judgment.”
Sister Petunia suggests that the concept of original sin is a way for the church in general, not just the Catholic Church, to control people. Part of the reason she left the Catholic Church is because they view different sexual orientations as sinful. She has since become Anglican, which she says is more accepting of diversity.
However Sister Merry Q. Contrary, the Reverend Mother of the Sisters, believes that guilt is a human emotion that everyone experiences differently. Sister Merry was almost ordained by the United Church of Canada, but currently focuses on spirituality instead of religion.
“I don’t think there’s one experience of guilt,” Sister Merry says. She suggests that for some people, religion is the primary driver of guilt, while others find that it comes from a combination of family, religion or employment.
“I think there’s definitely an important cultural component to the things that we feel guilt about,” says Sonja Luehrmann, assistant professor of Anthropology at Simon Fraser University.
With regards to the guilt experienced by the LGBT community, Sister Merry recounts that in the 1970s, the common public discourse was that being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered was shameful.
“Many of us internalized that external judgment which resulted in feelings of guilt and shame,” she says.
Sister Petunia describes the relationship the LGBT community has with the Church as a vicious circle. She hesitates to tell people in her community of her faith because of the judgment she might face.
“Because that’s what they got from Christianity, is punishment and judgment, so they go around and that’s what they do to Christians,” she says.
But everybody carries guilt, says Sister Merry. And part of the Sisters’ mission is to let everybody know, not just the LGBT community, that everyone is beautiful. Sister Merry suggests that if you find yourself feeling guilty, the first thing to do is to recognize it and choose a different action.
Luehrmann suggests that the things people feel guilty about may change depending on the place and time. She explains that there was less stigma and guilt attached to issues such as abortion in Soviet Russia, but attitudes are changing.
Guilt comes from feeling bad about yourself, says Sister Petunia. So instead of feeling bad about yourself, she suggests reconciliation and acceptance of yourself. Her personal mantra is, “Although I feel guilty about this, I completely and totally accept myself.”
To those who carry guilt, Sister Mary says, “Lay down your guilt and shame, and pick up joy.”