Given the recent heightened interest in charismatic communities, especially in Catholic groups involved in the charismatic renewal, I wanted to share my own experience as a member of one such group, years ago. The community was called the Intercessors of the Lamb, a religious community based in Omaha, Nebraska, whose charism was influenced by the renewal, and which was eventually suppressed by the Church.
Before I go deeper into my experiences with this specific group, I want to make clear that my overall experience of the charismatic movement has been positive. My family and I first became introduced to the renewal while we lived in Southwest Louisiana. My father, especially, gravitated toward the movement’s emphasis on Scripture, spontaneous prayer, and praise and worship songs.
In the mid-1990s, after moving to Southern California, a charismatic retreat team from the state of Kerala, in southern India, offered a religious conference in both English and Malayalam (the official language of Kerala, where my parents are from). The team specialized in the charismatic gift of healing, and there was prayer for healing throughout the conference. They had the gift of tongues, a prayer language of the Spirit that was also experienced at Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:1-11), and the members used this gift to pray for people individually as well as the congregation collectively.
This charismatic team returned to Southern California annually. Over time I became a practitioner of charismatic spirituality, praying in the Spirit and seeking knowledge from the Lord in Scripture.
My experience of charismatic prayer led me to the practices of contemplative prayer as well as Ignatian spirituality. My spirituality today is inclusive of all these forms. Even though it was the first of these forms I practiced, I do not consider charismatic spirituality to be a “beginner” form of prayer relative to contemplative or apophatic prayer. Rather, the Spirit cannot be contained in any single form of prayer and can operate fluidly over multiple ways to communicate with God.
Along the way, I encountered many Jesuits involved in the charismatic movement, including Fathers Robert Faricy, George Maloney, and Matthew Linn. There is much complementarity between Ignatian discernment of spirits and the emphasis on the experience of the Holy Spirit in the charismatic renewal.
Senior Church leaders such as Cardinal Léon Joseph Suenens were active in the charismatic renewal. Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the Preacher to the Papal Household since the pontificate St. John Paul II, is also active in the renewal.
Additionally, St. John Paul II viewed the movement positively. In his message in 2000 to the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, the Pontiff stated, “The Church looks with gratitude at the flourishing of lively communities in which the faith is passed on and lived. In this flourishing she recognizes the work of the Holy Spirit, who has always provided the Church with the necessary graces to face new and sometimes difficult situations…I am particularly pleased to know that representatives of other Churches and Ecclesial Communities are also taking part in your assembly, and I would like to greet them cordially” (3-4).
Pope Francis commissioned CHARIS, a new unified service under the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, that the Church instituted on Pentecost in 2019. Father Alexandre Awi Mello, secretary of the Dicastery, told Vatican News,
“The Pope wanted CHARIS to be established by the Holy See so that those in the Charismatic Renewal and the whole Church would know that the Charismatic Renewal belongs fully to the universal Church.
One of the essential points emphasized by the Holy Father is the importance of communion, that is, of unity in diversity. … Pope Francis also calls for the Charismatic Renewal to return to its ecumenical roots, that is, to work proactively towards Christian unity. This is something that was very much present at the birth of the Charismatic Renewal and which, in many places, was gradually set aside.”
While there is much endorsement of the charismatic renewal within the Catholic Church, any movement or organization has the potential for error or abuse when human nature is involved.
Regarding the charismatic renewal, I best heard it stated this way from a fellow participant: “The renewal will attract all types of people, including broken persons. However, it is important to ensure the unhealthy people do not drive away the healthy people.”
Sadly, what I encountered in the Intercessors of the Lamb was a disproportionate number of unhealthy people living together in community.
Mother Nadine Brown, formerly a contemplative religious with the Sisters of the Cross, founded the Intercessors of the Lamb in 1980 because she believed she had received a call from God to bring contemplative spirituality to the mainstream. Embedded in her spirituality was a focus on intercessory prayer, using contemplative and charismatic spirituality to discern what to pray for and how to pray for it, and then to use the answers to these prayers to offer intercessory prayer for that intention. Additionally, Mother Nadine placed a great deal of emphasis on spiritual warfare and deliverance prayer, rooted in her charismatic spirituality.
The Intercessors of the Lamb was a community of hermits (religious brothers, sisters, and later priests) and laypersons (similar to a third order). Praying for priests was central to the community’s mission. Over time, many diocesan priests became affiliates of the community, receiving spiritual care from the Intercessors of the Lamb through retreats and days of prayer on the community’s grounds.
I initially participated in the community’s prayer group as a layperson while I was a student at Creighton University. However, after attending an eight-day silent retreat at the community, I discerned a call to enter the Intercessors. I went on to spend fifteen months as a religious brother with the community.
The Intercessors of the Lamb received prayer requests from all over the world. Teams of intercessors would lift up the specific request in prayer, pray in tongues, and receive images and/or words of inspiration in prayer. The prayer team leader would piece the information together and discern how the Lord was leading the team to pray for the request, and the community would send a letter to that person with the information they received in prayer and how they prayed for the intention.
The community had stressed the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus, daily prayer, and devotion to the Eucharist and Mary. The Intercessors of the Lamb, as the name implies, had a special devotion to Jesus as the Lamb who was slain.
So far, this may sound intriguing and perhaps very appealing overall to many Catholics. However, entrenched in the community were numerous unhealthy aspects that reflected elements of a cult.
Mother Nadine Brown, a very gifted and talented person, exuded a cult of personality. Members within the community—inclusive of religious hermits and laypersons—regarded her as if she possessed divine essence and was infallible. Doing what Mother Nadine wanted was the equivalent of doing what God wanted, and vice versa. There was tremendous pressure among the religious sisters and brothers to appease her, along with equivalent pressure not to get on her bad side. Moreover, Mother Nadine did not have a spiritual director. She touted that she had the Holy Spirit as her director. In retrospect, this was a clear sign of the community’s lack of both prudent direction and checks and balances.
Mother Nadine exuded significant control over the members. For example, she mandated that spiritual directors in the community divulge their directees’ inner lives to her. According to Canon Law, spiritual direction requires confidentiality (Canon 246, 4) to protect the freedom of a person’s discernment and spiritual life. This violation of Canon Law was one of the reasons why the religious community was eventually suppressed.
The community members wore teal and white religious habits. However, it was not only the habits that were this color. The literature (including the font), audio media, and even the motherhouse from the carpet to the furniture, bore teal. Between the colors and the repeated image of the Lamb logo, the community utilized significant subliminal branding that also exuded control over its members.
Similar to many cults, the Intercessors of the Lamb discouraged interaction with family and friends. The degree to which it was discouraged went far beyond the practice of mainline religious orders who encourage detachment from family obligations, while still encouraging maintaining family relationships. The attitude exhibited within the Intercessors emphasized that one’s family and friends had been part of one’s former life and the community is the new family and fulfills this need. This belief was reinforced by community members who stated the people that they knew “in the world,” i.e. friends and former acquaintances, were no longer of significance to them. My own family members noticed this in me by my reluctance to speak with them over the phone and by how distant I seemed to them when they visited me during my first Christmas with the community.
Additionally, the Intercessors of the Lamb’s religious hermits were not given freedom in their vocational discernment. Rather, the Intercessors held the notion that if God called someone to the community, then one is called for life. According to Mother Nadine, to leave the community would be going against the will of God, with the implication that only ill would befall a person who left. The community often treated anyone who decided to leave harshly. Hence, the Intercessors employed severe fear and control tactics over its members.
I too was duped by the Intercessors of the Lamb’s belief that if God called someone to join the Intercessors, then God was calling them to remain with the community for life. When I experienced the call to join them during that silent retreat, I informed my retreat director that I thought it would be best if I completed my undergraduate studies at Creighton before entering the community. My director, a very holy man, but who was deeply influenced by the negative elements in the community, informed me that God would not call me unless God wanted me to join right away. This led to significant cognitive dissonance, but I wanted to do what God wanted. I accepted the director’s words as if he was speaking on God’s behalf.
In retrospect, I would have benefitted enormously from the understanding of Ignatian discernment that I since developed. It would have enabled me to realize that my experience of cognitive dissonance was clearly a disturbance of the soul (SpEx 315), which Ignatius defined as spiritual desolation (SpEx 317). Ignatius counseled that the confirmation of God’s Will could come through an experience of spiritual consolation, or joy that was lasting in nature (SpEx 316).
With sound retreat direction, I would have been free to share my experience of cognitive dissonance, and my retreat director might have noticed my desolation and recognized that it was not the right time to pursue this vocation. The Intercessors of the Lamb placed no emphasis on an individual’s freedom of will. Nor did they acknowledge the importance of making a major vocational decision free from outside pressure. In practice, this meant that the Intercessors used their retreats to take advantage of the participants’ vulnerabilities. They exploited this to garner more members.
Mother Nadine positioned the charism of the Intercessors of the Lamb—which was loosely defined and never concretely developed—not only as relevant to the heart of the Church but necessary for the Church. She reinforced a message that placed the charism of the community on a pedestal so that it became a god unto itself. Whenever questioned about or asked to define the charism, Mother Nadine and the community would emphasize the charismatic and contemplative roots as well as the call to intercessory prayer, particularly praying for priests and for the Church. Much of the explanation, in retrospect, was boilerplate language and only surface-deep. When anyone probed further about the charism, both she and the community members would respond defensively. The general attitude was that one could not understand the charism with “head knowledge” (i.e. reason and theology—including Church teaching) but only with “heart knowledge” (loosely referred to as the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but with little emphasis on discernment and no checks or balances). Their derision of the importance of head knowledge ultimately had the effect of gaslighting.
Additionally, regarding the charism, the Intercessors of the Lamb held the belief that for God to answer certain prayers, there was a call to suffer. This was more than simply “offering up” a headache, joint pain, or an illness. This belief inherently justified religious superiors within the community to mistreat its members, with the understanding that the suffering experienced was redemptive. This might have been one of the most twisted and sickest parts of life with the Intercessors of the Lamb. During my time with the group, I witnessed most of the community members degenerate into a state of depression as these fear and control tactics destroyed their well-being.
Many of the members, both religious sisters and brothers, became filled with anxiety and appeared soulless; no longer having any semblance of personality or individuality. These community members exhibited similar effects to those of cult members who have suffered abuse. In fact, the superior of the house I lived in, a religious brother, one day experienced so much stress in trying to please Mother Nadine that he had a panic attack and was bedridden for weeks. Since this incident occurred shortly after 9/11, Mother Nadine informed the community that this brother was interceding for the United States.
The other twisted element in the Intercessors’ charism was their unhealthy views on spiritual warfare and deliverance ministry. Mother Nadine and the community leaders propagated a belief that evil spirits were all around and even caused inconveniences, from a computer crashing or a car refusing to start. She would advise people to offer prayers of deliverance from evil spirits over anything from these nonfunctioning computers and cars, to pets and electrical outlets, to any number of things. This belief fostered fears within the community of evil spirits lurking around every corner, underneath every rock and behind every tree. This unhealthy fear gave “evil spirits” a great deal of power over us. Additionally, Mother Nadine often blamed evil spirits for miscommunication within the community, and as an excuse for superiors who mistreated community members, thereby absolving them of responsibility.
I witnessed several occasions when the community prayed over a person to deliver him or her from evil spirits. While these were not exorcisms per se, these rituals resembled exorcisms, which—in the Catholic Church—is reserved for priests appointed by the local bishop. On one occasion, the community prayed over a young man who would laugh in a sinister fashion throughout the prayer. I can still hear that laugh, and it gives me chills to this day. Mother Nadine declared at the end of the prayer that the Lord had delivered this young man from evil spirits, even though there had been no formal investigation to determine if this was truly the work of evil spirits or an undiagnosed psychological condition.
Affirming such a victory following deliverance prayer allowed Mother Nadine to substantiate her claim about the importance of the group’s charisms to the Church, and to further convince the community of her unique giftedness. This bolstered her cult of personality. It also allowed Mother Nadine to conveniently discredit anyone inside or outside the community who challenged her by simply stating that the person was influenced by evil spirits.
The final problem that demonstrated the cult-like tendencies of the Intercessors of the Lamb was its financial mismanagement, particularly in maintaining separate books and records. I was a finance major, so when I overheard the community’s bookkeeper mention this, it certainly raised a red flag within me. To my knowledge, most of their separate bookkeeping accounted for the exorbitant costs of feeding and taking care of the numerous dogs and cats in the community houses, as well as sheep on the community’s property. Their financial opaqueness enabled the community to utilize donations from people who wholeheartedly believed in the community’s charism, much of which would then be spent on pet food and litter. Pet care was in no way written into the community’s charism. There could have been other reasons for the community having a second set of books and records, however I was not privy to this.
After being a religious brother in the Intercessors for over a year, I began to think more critically about the community’s charism while studying the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the history of religious orders, and Ignatian spirituality. Around the same time, Jesuit Father John Futrell, who specialized in working with new religious communities and aiding their communal discernment, had given several workshops to the Intercessors. One of his presentations that resonated with me was his discussion of how a religious community needs to evolve beyond being a community of hurt people who need one another to becoming wounded healers seeking to evangelize. The Intercessors of the Lamb had been trapped in the first model and had no propensity to evolve into the second. (Interestingly, years later, when I made First Vows as a Jesuit, I received Fr. Futrell’s Vow Crucifix. I still have it on my nightstand.)
After accumulating all this information, I requested from Mother Nadine that I choose a spiritual director outside of the community. To my surprise she granted this request, especially given her need to know our inner lives by requiring our spiritual directors to divulge what we had told them. After several months of discernment with this new director, I received tremendous confirmation regarding the unhealthy elements I had witnessed with the Intercessors of the Lamb. I informed Mother Nadine that I discerned I was not called to remain with the community, and she accommodated my decision. In December 2002, I had a relatively peaceful and seamless departure.
While there were clearly many negative elements operating within the Intercessors of the Lamb, I do want to state that Mother Nadine treated me well. I’m not fully sure why. However, even though I did experience some favor, simply being in an unhealthy community had an unhealthy effect on me. Following my exit, I had great trouble transitioning. Even with very supportive family members and friends, it was very difficult to discuss my experience because my ability to trust others was compromised. I had difficulty believing that others would be able to understand and sympathize with this experience.
I did experience a certain vindication when in 2010, Omaha Archbishop George Lucas suppressed the Intercessors of the Lamb after the community’s inability to cooperate with the archbishop’s request for reforms around spiritual leadership, administration, finance and the charism. The genesis of this investigation came from a request from Mother Nadine for the community to be fully elevated to an apostolic community within the Church. The community received a visitation from Jesuit Father James Conn, a canon law expert, who found irregularities in the Intercessors’ financial practices, Mother Nadine’s lack of accountability, and the appearance of her control over the recently ordained priests within the community, and questionable practices in the charism (such as the unhealthy emphasis on evil spirits), and other improprieties. I later shared my experience with Fr. Conn, which seemed to validate many of his findings.
After the suppression, most of the community members cooperated with the archdiocese and left, while a remnant, including Nadine, remained and continue to live communally without the endorsement of the Catholic Church. Archbishop Lucas’ decision validated my perspective of the negative undertones within the Intercessors. However, I do find it unfortunate that the good elements of the community and the spirituality could not be fostered, even at the Church’s invitation.
While the Intercessors of the Lamb possessed several positive elements, the unhealthy factors far outweighed the healthy ones and eventually led to the religious community’s demise. However, I do not believe its charismatic spirituality was the cause of its unhealthy direction. Any movement, religious or secular, is vulnerable to the effects of concupiscence.
But a community with a charismatic spirituality is susceptible to excess under the guise of religious fervor and its emotional impact, and has a particular risk for harmful actions if it is not guarded by sound discernment coupled with the checks and balances of Church teaching and leadership. Without these checks and balances, a well-intentioned charismatic group can devolve into an inward-focusing community with cult-like tendencies.