Sick Pilgrim’s Regress
By Rod Dreher
November 18, 2017
Jonathan Ryan is a Catholic convert, writer, and co-founder of the Patheos blog titled Sick Pilgrim, which describes itself as “a space for the spiritually sick, and their fellow travelers, to rest a while.”
Ryan — whose full name is Jonathan Ryan Weyer — does not like The Benedict Option. He wrote a blog post earlier this year that wildly mischaracterized it — surprise! — and then climbed way up high on his soapbox:
We must incarnate in the world and be a part of its pain and redemption, even if it means we could lose our way from time to time. This all sounds dangerous. It most certainly is. But that’s the call of Christ–not a call to “protect Western Civilization” or “Christian culture,” but a call to risk it all for the sake of the redemption of the world. We must risk our children as we teach them to engage with sinners like themselves. We must risk our self respect, our reputations, and everything we hold dear.
This can’t be done via the Benedict Option. It’s not possible. Dreher’s ideas aren’t just bad, they’re dangerous to the soul–because they’ll keep us from our most important call as Christians, to Christ by loving others. When we avoid that call, we avoid the only possible way to transform ourselves and the culture around us: the radical love of Christ’s suffering.
Well. On another Patheos blog, Sick Pilgrim co-founder Jessica Mesman Griffith released a statement that begins like this:
This is my official statement. You should hear it from me. You’ve become like family to me. I can only say I’m sorry I didn’t speak out sooner as maybe it would have spared others some pain. #metoo indeed.
On Sunday, November 12, 2017, it came to my attention that there have been relationships between Jonathan Ryan, the co-founder of the Sick Pilgrim blog, and various women in the Sick Pilgrim online community–a community that had become, over the last year, a de facto support group for those recovering from spiritual abuse, in addition to a place for artists and writers to come together to discuss what inspires us and/or troubles us about the Catholic Church. (This Facebook community is a private group–one must request to join–but it’s not a secret. We have advertised it on the blog and on Facebook multiple times and invited anyone interested to send us a request to join.)
It quickly became apparent, upon investigation of these claims, that the relationships Jonathan had formed with several women he met through the blog and in the community had in fact been inappropriate, predatory and exploitative.
By Tuesday, November 14, the Sick Pilgrim administrative staff had collected enough testimony and evidence to send Jonathan a formal letter notifying him that he had been removed from the online community and should no longer publish any work or give interviews or public lectures under the name Sick Pilgrim.
He private messaged women in the group with romantic intent, making plans or suggesting to meet with more than one of them in person. At least one has reported that when he met her in person, they had sexual intercourse.
This woman was (1) a good deal younger than him; (2) struggling openly (as narrated in the group) with mental illness; (3) in extremely stressful life, financial, and relational transition, and thus (4) quite obviously vulnerable. The power and position dynamics were simply inexcusable and unconscionable. We have evidence that he indicated to this younger woman that she could expect marriage–going so far as to pick out the chapel where they were to be wed–and that intercourse was part of that trajectory. Even if, at the time, this intercourse was consensual, the woman in question gave her consent under false pretenses.
Again, the power and trust differential was severely abused.
Here is a detailed account by Donna Provencher of what she alleges is a manipulative sexual relationship she had with Jonathan Ryan Weyer. Read it; it’s emotionally and psychologically sick stuff.
Not three weeks ago, Loyola Press released Strange Journey, a book intended to explore the “mysteries of Catholicism.” Authors Weyer and Griffith gave an interview to the local paper about it. Excerpt:
But for those expecting “Strange Journey” to be a book about rebellion, they may be surprised to find it focuses more on renewal.
“The church can often get seduced by power, money and control instead of truth, beauty and love,” Weyer said. “And, as a faithful son of the church, I wanted to tell people my story with the hope they would see the mystery of faith is far more attractive than a half-baked program that will quickly become obsolete.”
“All of our spiritual journeys are strange and take many twisted turns. We’re both Catholic because it is strange, it is unsettling and it does take a lifetime to learn, to grow, to heal and become whole,” Weyer said. “Our journeys aren’t over. It’s a process of opening doors only to discover a room full of more doors. That can be frustrating. It can also be comforting. We aren’t expected to get it right all the time. God is mercy.”
Sick Pilgrim showed him the door this week. Weyer is on the staff at a Catholic church as a “pastoral associate for evangelization.” Bet he’s going to be shown the door there too.
Loyola Press has withdrawn the book, by the way.
Here is a fuller exploration of the controversy by blogger Simcha Fisher, who interviewed Ryan. This self-described “faithful son of the Church” thinks he has been done bad by.
I don’t post this as someone gloating over the fall of a critic. I don’t gloat at all. The things he has been accused of doing are disgusting, and thought I am glad it has been exposed, it shouldn’t have happened at all.
I post this, rather, to make a point about the Benedict Option and the sinful world. Now, as I said, Ryan’s cartoonish version of the Ben Op is not what I wrote in the book. There is no utopia. There is no place to escape completely the brokenness of the world. If you think there is, you are setting yourself up for a disaster. Sin is our common curse. What the Ben Op intends to do is to create thick communities of Christian education, formation, and practice that can anchor its members in orthodox Christianity in the post-Christian world. The goal is not to create a perfect community (which isn’t possible), but a faithfully Christian one. When serious sin — like what has happened in the Sick Pilgrim community — occurs, the community deals with it firmly and justly. This too is part of Christian formation.
Humans being humans, you will find people like Ryan in intentionally Ben Op communities. You will obviously find them outside them too. It is interesting to notice how Ryan, a divorced father, positioned himself as someone who called my ideas “dangerous for the soul” at the same time he was emotionally manipulating women within the loose confines of his non-Ben-Op online community. Again, do not believe that you can create a structure that will guarantee protection from guys like that. The best you can do is make your odds better, but also prepare yourself not to lose faith when overturning rocks exposes snakes.
UPDATE: You have to read this transcript of an interview Simcha Fisher did on Saturday with Donna Provencher, one of Ryan’s victims. The interview includes photographic evidence of Ryan admitting his affair with her. If Provencher’s account is accurate, that guy is a psycho.